The University and the Ethics of Knowledge

Presented at Le Collège de France, April 6th 2006, translated into English by Barbara Nelson.

The University and the Ethics of Knowledge[1]



Most people seem to agree that the work of the universities has become ever more important for industry and national progress and that it is therefore of vital importance to strengthen and support them as much as possible. At the same time, there is constant discussion in Europe of the crisis of the universities and the difficulty of accommodating the many students seeking university education and of serving all of the projects which the universities are expected to carry out. Further, new universities have been established that are run on different principles than the traditional universities, and schools that were not earlier considered to be at the university level have been turned into universities. The result of all  this has been that people are no longer sure just what a university is, what its functions are and what the minimum requirements are for an institution to be considered a university.

The goal of the present paper is twofold. First, to make clear the crisis that has been responsible for so many people losing sight of the university's centralroleand second, to attempt to give an account of the chief characteristics of the university's role since the middle-ages, to describe its purpose and certain important ethical concerns that lie behind it.

I will begin by mentioning several points in connection with the growth of universities which may help illuminate some of the problems we are facing and the various demands they engender. Next, though I touch only briefly on Clark Kerr's thesis of the "multiversity", his book The Uses of the University, first published in 1963, was extremely influential in shaping subsequent discussions of the university. Following that, I will discuss the identity crisis that, in the view of many, troubles the university today, after which I try to describe the idea of the university as I believe it has developed through the centuries. To explain this idea, and thus the job of the university, I make a distinction between the internal goals of the university and the external role it plays, arguing additionally that it is necessary to view the university as a particular sort of community where those who deal with knowledge organize their cooperative efforts. This cooperation centers on acquiring, disseminating, and preserving knowledge, and for this reason the university has a particular need for an ethics which clarifies the values, rules, and virtues which must be cultivated within the university community. The special position of the university community can be seen clearly in the ethics of knowledge, which provides the foundation for the university's activities, as evidenced, for example, by the way in which the university handles its responsibilities and meets the demands made on it. Here, I argue for a certain theory of virtue which examines the pursuit of knowledge, and demonstrates how it is necessary to make a certain distinction between the academic and the everyday way of thinking. For the university to serve its purpose, it is necessary that everyone, and not just the university community, understands the nature of the scholarly work taking place in our universities and its continuing importance in the future development of humankind. I will here be defending the theory that the nature of academic work entails certain virtues which all who practice scientific thinking must make a habit of.


Development of the University and Changes in Society

There are three points to keep in mind when considering recent development of the university: In the first place, there is the spread of international culture which many associate with globalization, and the building up of universities worldwide that has accompanied it.In the second place, there is the“multiversification” of these same schools, which can also be seen as a result of globalisation, since for more than a century now, the annual increase in student numbers has averaged 10%. And in the third place, there are the developments in manufacturing and communication technology which are closely linked to the rapid growth of all kinds of companies interested solely in financial profit.

These three things are closely linked: Technological developments make possible new educational techniques, or at least challenge the existing ones, resulting in constant pressure on the university system. Numerous fields of study in technology and occupational training are already part of the ordinary university curriculum, in many places in the world. The influence of these studies spreads, little by little, becoming a tool of global culture. As a result, the traditional idea of the university gradually loses its theoretical and practical hold on our thinking.

I would like to add to this brief explication two observations concerning the connection between the university and the state, on the one hand, and the university and the individual on the other. Since the 19th century, the majority of European universities have been established by and/or under the governance of their respective national states, and these universities have played an important role in so-called "nation-building". But this situation has changed. Many  national states are in a financial bind and universities are, more and more, serving the interests of the businesses which support the economic life of the state, the intention of the state being, in this regard, that industrial and professional interests should take a larger part in the costs of education.

At the same time, the relationship between the university and the individual has also changed. Individuals no longer seek university degrees for the purpose of becoming public officialsor scholars,rather, they do it for a wide variety of other reasons. The idea that university education is a financial investmentfor students has also led to the belief on the part of many that they should pay for it. Suddenly, like other institutions providing higher education, universities have increasingly become centers for disseminating global culture in the service of individual and/or societal interests.


Can Just Anything Count as the Work of the University?

The academic who more than any other has been responsible for dispelling the traditional idea of the university is Clark Kerr, the former chancellor of UC Berkeley. Some forty years ago, he gave the name "multiversity" to those institutions that serve a number of different interests. According to Kerr's theory, “the university is so many things to so many different people that it must, of necessity, be partially at war with itself”[2] He explains the matter in the following way:


The multiversity is an inconsistent institution. It is not one community but several—the community of the undergraduate and the community of the graduate, the community of the humanist, the community of the social scientist, and the community of the scientist; the communities of the professional schools; the community of all the nonacademic personnel; the community of the administrators. Its edges are fuzzy—it reaches out to alumni, legislators, farmers, businessmen, who are all related to one or more of these internal communities. As an institution, it looks far into the past and far into the future, and is often at odds with the present.  It serves society almost slavishly—a society it also criticizes, sometimes unmercifully. Devoted to equality of opportunity, it is itself a class society. A community, like the medieval communities of masters and students, should have common interests; in the multiversity, they are quite varied, even conflicting. A community should have a soul, a single animating principle; the multiversity has several—some of them quite good, although there is much debate on which souls really deserve salvation.[3]


This description by Kerr can be can be compared to that of the mental state of an individual troubled with doubts about her own self-image. She believes that everything depends on her freedom to choose, even where what is at stake is her very nature or her own destiny. Kerr sees this person as riddled with contradictions but condemned to decide what she wants to become. She thus engages in a search for herself, possessed by the necessity of arriving at a clear picture.

On this same model, the university must constantly examine itself. And in Kerr's view it is the job of those who run the university, first and foremost the president, chancellor, or rector, to guide the university in such a way that it maintains its awareness of what is necessary for it to grow and thrive.

The way Kerr understands the university can be compared to the way Sartre understands human beings. The existence of a human individual consists, for Sartre, in deciding what she makes of herself. There exists no “human nature” that tells us ahead of time who we are. Such is the nature of the human condition, in contrast with the condition of all other things. We act with respect to ourselves in ways that no other beings that we know of are capable. We employ our free consciousness to decide what to make of ourselves and to form our own self-image. The same applies to the university. It is that which those who work there make of it. It thus appears that the university can support whatever sort of project its personnel happens to decide upon.

Most people would, however, mention three activities that belong properly to the work of the university: teaching, research and such service to society as may derive from teaching and research. But this three-part-role model leaves various questions unanswered.


The University’s Identity Crisis

In a work on the philosophy of education, Olivier Reboul, a former professor in Strasbourg, discussed the principal matters of disagreement concerning the role of the university that arise when this role is seen as limited to teaching, research and service:


Like the lower schools, the university is continuously growing in the modern world. But while people know more or less what they expect from the schools, they are confused when considering the functions of the university. And these “people” include the academics themselves. If the university is in crisis, it is above all a crisis of identity. Should it emphasize cultural or professional education? Research or teaching?  Fundamental or applied research?  Selection of students with the risk of elitism or welcoming a greater number of students with the risk of reducing the standards? General knowledge or specialized knowledge?[4]


When we think about higher education, such questions must be asked, but the answers that are given may be radically divergent. Moreover, conditions may differ from country to country. In France, for example, higher education is divided between two parallel school systems: the special schools (“les grandes écoles”) and the universities. The special schools, which were originally meant to educate French state functionaries, have become specialized universities that select their students through competitive examinations for which students have to train through an entire year of preparatory studies (“classes préparatoires”). The special schools enjoy various privileges, but they are in general not expected to support research.

In a pamphlet entitled Que faire des universités?[5], Alain Renaut, professor in Paris, has pointed out that this division of higher education in France has created a crisis for the universities, which must compete with the special schools whose working conditions are much better. “Seeing as the special schools perform the necessary and important role of training the nation’s elites, why should we concern ourselves with the universities?” Renaut asks. And he continues:


[I]t could be politically accepted, especially in France, to abandon the universities and leave them alone in their misery: the necessary production of managers could be secured elsewhere, in smaller institutions, away from the ever-increasing battalions of students, while the best students in the secondary schools are directed away from the university with a system of preparatory classes and get selected in an efficient way for professional studies. It is thus not socially absurd that today 30% of the budget for higher education is devoted to a sector that only concerns 4% of the student population.[6]


Leaving this brief consideration of the French situation, which is in many ways out of the ordinary, let us consider the wider world. It is clear that there are various kinds of schools that are called universities. There are respected and venerable institutions like the University of Bologna, founded in 1088, and the Sorbonne in Paris, founded in 1150 (though today divided into 12 separate universities). Then there are young institutions, like the University of Iceland, established in 1911, and new-born universities, such as the University of Luxembourg, founded in 2003. And in other parts of the world, not least in China and India, many new universities have appeared in recent years.

The situations of the various universities are very different from one another, and their identity crises, if they suffer from such,  can vary greatly from one institution to another. Still, they must all form some sort of self-image and establish some sort of reputation; and to meet these objectives requires not only time but also constant reflection upon the idea of the university, that is to say, the general self-image that determines the values, ideals and dreams that guide those who participate in the university adventure.


The Idea of the University

There is surely a definite idea of the university that has formed over many centuries and appears as a general and ideal-bound self-image shared by the university community in every part of the world. In what follows, I will describe this idea and will attempt to discover its ethical core.

This idea is of the same sort as Aristotle’s idea of man as a rational being and Jean-Paul Sartre’s idea of the human being as free. The task is thus to create the conditions and tools necessary to realize the dream of human life as rational and free. I am convinced that the university is one of the most important tools that we have for realizing this dream and that the appearance of the university in the Middle Ages was vital for the creation of enlightened society. And this important function must continue.

I would like to share this conviction with my readers by referring to the recent thoughts of Clark Kerr. As we saw, he thinks that the idea of the university has been dissolved and distributed among various different tasks, interests, commitments and roles that institutions of higher education and research are asked to serve in contemporary society. Kerr thinks that economic interests weigh ever more heavily and have had a heavy influence upon the break-up of the university. But as he advances the idea of the “multiversity”, and thus appears to reject the traditional idea of the university, he does not lose sight of that which gives the university its deep-seated self-identity, where freedom and reason matter:


The ends are already given—the preservation of eternal truths, the creation of new knowledge, the improvement of service wherever truth and knowledge of a higher order may serve the needs of man. The ends are there, but the means must be ever improved in a competitive, dynamic environment.[7]


Here we have a salient description of those aims that are proper to the university. To better understand these internal aims, they must be distinguished from the external roles that the university must serve in the light of social and historical developments. The services that the university provides to such institutions as the military, the church and to various business corporations falls under its external roles. Powerful institutions such as these need educational facilities that provide people with the knowledge that is necessary for these institutions to function. The university, which has as its internal aim the acquisition, preservation, and transmission of knowledge as such, is precisely the kind of institution that can serve these various needs.


The Internal Aims of the University

How can we give a more detailed description of the internal aims of the university? Let us consider first the original meaning of the term universitas. Uni-versus means that which turns around one thing. The Latin word universitas meant a unity or whole, that is to say, an autonomous group forming what was called a “guild”, within which all members had specific common interests. For example, there was the “universitas mercatorum”, or merchants’ guild, whose main common interest concerned (and still concerns) economic gain. There were guilds of various kinds, among them a guild of individuals who sought to consider the world in a scholarly fashion and transmit its wisdom to the young. Their main common interest concerned knowledge of reality. And this is the only guild that to this day retains the label “universitas” for their community.

The inspiration for the establishment of this community was the need and desire to further human knowledge of the world and of humanity itself. To live means for us – as thinking beings – to relate to the world through ideas, thoughts and views, which constitute that which goes under the general name of “knowledge”. The university takes for granted that our life is the life of knowledge – that we are so intertwined with our knowledge that we are unable to distinguish it from our life itself.

The heart of the matter is this: We are thinking beings, and ideas, beliefs, reasons and views are the raw materials out of which our existence as thinking beings is made. The university is the only institution that, through the centuries, has focused upon this basic fact of human existence. But how has it done this? And how should we understand and evaluate this enterprise?


The University from Various Perspectives

To understand and explain the university enterprise, it is both useful and necessary, in my opinion, to view the university, first, as a business corporation, second, as an institution, and, finally, as a community. Looked at from these three perspectives, the university will be seen to exhibit three sorts of logic that it is necessary to apply, and to integrate, in order to understand, operate and govern a university. 

Consider first the university as a business corporation. Every university is a diverse whole that is brought into existence through the cooperation of various different parties who need to coordinate their decisions and to insure that their common enterprise moves ahead. Here the university appears as a large corporation whose principal products are, on the one hand, the granting of degrees and, on the other hand, the works that are produced in the course of acquiring, preserving and transmitting knowledge. The success of the university is here measured by technical criteria: efficiency, economy and competitiveness.

Consider next the university as an institution. The university is normally looked at in this way. It is viewed as a public institution which exists for the common good, and it is expected to perform the tasks that this requires. This responsibility of the university demands first and foremost the carrying out of teaching and research serving the good of society. The question that arises in this connection concerns the unity of the institution. Its activities are evaluated on the criterion of the public good, which is to say the needs of a professional and political elite.

Consider, finally, the university as a community. Here, the university is viewed as an association, more or less formal, of teachers and students, who need to interact personally and socially in order to achieve their aims. One may picture such a society at a number of different levels. For instance, one may look at small, localized academic departments or, alternatively, one may consider the global university community. The university may be seen as a space within which the individual discovers himself as a free, creative agent or, on the contrary, as a frustrating context in which the individual is isolated, even from himself. The analytical elements that are necessary for evaluating a university community are thus totally unlike those that apply to the university considered as a corporation or as an institution. The criteria here are of an ethical nature, and what is asked about are justice, equality, friendship, respect, and, in short, all the things that form a basis for cooperation and trust.

In my view, this third perspective assumes primary importance when we attempt to define the proper work of the university. The difficulties that universities face today arise from the fact that their fundamentally social nature gets ignored in favor of viewing the university as a business corporation. The university thus conforms itself to a business model and adopts the logic of a corporation – the logic of production and sale – and considers that its duty consists in showing a profit. The view of the university as an institution, which has been dominant since the 19th century, is likewise being undermined in favor of the business-corporate model. This development threatens the real work of the university, because its proper logic is different than that which applies to the production and distribution of worldly goods, with profit as the main objective. It is one thing to think about knowledge and another to think about money. From the point of view of profit, the most important criteria of success are technical in nature, because it is known in advance what results are to be achieved, and the problem is simply to find the most efficient and effective means to achieve the objective. From the point of view of knowledge, technical criteria of success are less applicable, because knowledge cannot be measured like money or property. Knowledge and understanding are by their nature unquantifiable values, like love, truth and justice.

When the university is made to conform to the logic that properly applies to a corporation concerned with the production and sale of certain goods, where one knows exactly how to measure performance, other criteria are pushed aside, and with them, those values upon which the university is based. Perhaps the main danger is that of overlooking the university’s essential nature as a social community, where what principally matters is that individuals are able to engage in a common search for knowledge and understanding in the way that they choose.

My thesis is thus that to render the university capable of serving its true function, i.e. serving people as knowing beings, what matters most is understanding and nurturing its social nature.


The University as a Social Community

Many scholars have written about the university community. Here, I would like to consider four specific authors. I take these authors as representatives of traditions that have developed in different ways in four different countries, although they have much in common.

  The first of these authors is Wilhelm von Humboldt, who focuses mainly upon the university as a community of students and teachers. In 1809, Humboldt was given the job of establishing the University in Berlin, a university that served afterward as the model for other German universities and later for Nordic universities and for some of the leading universities in the United States. The main features of Humboldt’s idea of the university may be seen in the following quotation and in his famous essay on the university:


One unique feature of higher intellectual institutions is that they conceive of science and scholarship as dealing with ultimately inexhaustible tasks: this means that they are engaged in an unceasing process of inquiry. The lower levels of education present closed and settled bodies of knowledge. The relation between teacher and pupil at the higher level is a different one from what it was at the lower levels. At the higher level, the teacher does not exist for the sake of the student; both the teacher and student have their justification in the common pursuit of knowledge. The teacher’s performance depends on the students’ presence and interest – without this science and scholarship would not grow. If the students who are to form his audience did not come before him of their own free will, he, in his quest for knowledge, would have to seek them out. The goals of science and scholarship are worked towards most effectively through the synthesis of the teacher’s and the students’ dispositions. The teacher’s mind is more mature but it is also somewhat one-sided in its development and more dispassionate; the student’s mind is less able and less committed but it is nonetheless open and responsive to every possibility. The two together are a fruitful combination.[8]


Humboldt’s main idea is simple and clear: Society needs institutions that are dedicated to the search for truth and understanding, centers of scholarship where teachers and students work together in the pursuit of knowledge, so that the light of wisdom may illuminate the world.

My second author is Michael Oakeshott, the English historian and philosopher, who, in his essay, “The Idea of a University”, drew attention to the fact that, in the Middle Ages, the university enterprise was called studium. In this connection, he writes:


This activity is one of the properties, indeed one of the virtues, of a civilized way of living; the scholar has his place beside the poet, the priest, the soldier, the politician and the man of business in any civilized society. The universities do not, however, have a monopoly of this activity. The hermit scholar in his study, an academy famous for a particular branch of learning, a school for young children, are each participants in this activity and each of them is admirable, but they are not universities. What distinguishes a university is a special manner of engaging in the pursuit of learning. It is a corporate body of scholars, each devoted to a particular branch of learning: what is characteristic is the pursuit of learning as a co-operative enterprise. The members of this corporation are not spread about the world, meeting occasionally or not at all; they live in permanent proximity to one another.[9]


The third author that I will quote is the French philosopher, Georges Gusdorf, whose ideas are not unlike those of Humboldt and Oakeshott:


The essential aspects of the University as they emerge from its earlier history are community and interdisciplinary. The corporation unifies masters and students in the enterprise of teaching; in the service of the intellectual values. To be conscious of participating in a common task of public interest gathers together those who are not only leaders and subordinates, suppliers and clients, but colleagues in the quest for common truths. The truth is not possessed by one of them and transmitted from him to others. It does not exist like already-constituted capital, but rather like a common striving of wills towards an identical aim. The efforts of succeeding generations mark the never-ending task of culture-building. In the university context, the student is a master-to-be, and the master himself remains a potential student, rescued from arrogance and pride by the true humility of the person who recognizes himself to be the servant of truth among the many other servants of truth.[10]


Finally, I refer to the American philosopher, Robert Paul Wolff, whose book The Ideal of the University, published in 1969, is highly pertinent to our present situation:


A community of learning differs from all other kinds of community, such as a political community, a religious community, a community of work, or an artistic community, in the character of its collective goals and the forms of activity and organization which flow therefrom. The university is a community devoted to the preservation and advancement of knowledge, to the pursuit of truth, and to the development and enjoyment of man’s intellectual powers. Furthermore, it is devoted to the pursuit of these goals collectively, not merely individually. The public discourse of the university community is not a mere means to the private activity of research, as John Stuart Mill seems to have thought. Rather, that discourse is itself one of the chief goods to be found in a flourishing university.  It is precisely this devotion to an essentially collective activity that makes the university a community rather than an aggregation of individuals.[11]



What do these four authors, who represent very different traditions, have in common? The theme that I think is the most important is this: The university is a community of teachers and students whose steady purpose is the acquisition, preservation and transmission of knowledge in the service of mankind. This common, fundamental view of the university community is an ethical one, not only in requiring the active cooperation of everyone in the community but also because the scholarly enterprise must cultivate those virtues connected with the beliefs, theories and arguments that people must learn to employ in scholarly work. Let us now examine the general ethical aspects of academic cooperation and go on to concentrate upon those epistemic virtues that matter most for the university community.


Academic Cooperation

In the eyes of many, scholarly studies demand that each individual works by himself, and even in isolation from others. No one can learn for another person, even if there is much that a person can do for, and receive from, others. Such individual effort is, however, at the same time collective: we learn from the example of others, we learn from what others have prepared, we have a constant need for help from other people, and others turn to us for help and inspiration. This mutual dependence generates constant cooperation and is based in the trust which people have in one another.

This reliance on trust is made much of by David B. Resnik in his book, The Ethics of Science,[12] published in 1998, where he endeavors to explain that which he calls “the standards of ethical conduct in science”. These standards, Resnik says, are honesty, carefulness, openness, freedom, credit, education, social responsibility, legality, opportunity, mutual respect, efficiency, and respect for the subjects of experiments, whether human or not. Resnik explains why these twelve standards are necessary if scientific cooperation is to bear fruit. He insists that only these standards can insure cooperation and trust in the scientific community. But what attracts my attention is that these standards can apply also to other kinds of endeavor. They are not specific to science or to academic activities. This tells us that academic work has the same ethical basis as other human endeavors and that the same ethical standards apply.

Among these standards one may discern various moral rules, virtues and values. Honesty and caution are virtues, legality and respect are moral rules, and freedom and education are values.

This distinction between moral rules, moral virtues and moral values is important in giving an account of the different ways of conceiving ethics. The ethics of Aristotle and of St. Thomas are, above all, examples of virtue ethics while Kant’s ethics are meant to help us understand moral principles. In the ethics of John Stuart Mill, the concept of utility plays a key role in assessing the goods that matter in life. All of these approaches are useful in attempting to discern the core of the university enterprise, but I wish to concentrate here upon a particular form of virtue ethics that pertains directly to the pursuit of knowledge.


The Ethics of Knowledge and Belief

Roger Pouivet, professor of philosophy at the University of Nancy 2, puts his finger on an essential feature of the ethics of knowledge, or what he calls the “ethics of belief”,[13] in referring to what he calls “epistemological virtues”. His idea is, in brief, that in each type of endeavor connected with knowledge, those virtues are most important that are respected by those who dedicate themselves to the pursuit, preservation and transmission of knowledge. His main reasons are well expressed in the following statement:


The ethics of knowledge and our epistemological responsibilities do not involve controlling the epistemological standards for knowledge but rather the cultivation of the intellectual habits in virtue of which we increase our chances of arriving at the truth.[14]


Pouivet’s view directly opposes a basic thesis of Descartes -and later of Kant, Sartre, and many others -according to which our beliefs depend upon our will or more precisely, upon our deliberate decision to accept as true a given idea. The Cartesian thesis is that we can decide for ourselves what we believe, and that we ought not to believe anything unless we have good reasons for thinking it to be true. Descartes therefore formulated a rule to the effect that “I must not take anything to be true that is not completely evident, or in other words I must avoid all hastiness and include nothing among my judgments except that which presents itself so clearly and distinctly to my mind that it gives no occasion for doubt.”[15]This rule requires one to have constant oversight of oneself and to discipline oneself to count nothing as true except what is clearly and distinctly perceived.

Is this a realistic rule that we should all adopt? Pouivet doubts that it is. He points out that it is correct to distinguish between accepting a view that appears to be obviously true and agreeing to a view in the wake of having considered and weighed its validity. Acceptance of a view implies that our reasons for believing produce conviction without our having to deliberate about them specially, while agreeing to a view depends upon our deliberating about the reasons and deciding that they are valid.

Everything turns on the key question whether we can freely decide what beliefs we have, whether what we believe is independent of our will. This question immediately gives rise to another: What does this imply for the ethics of belief?


Epistemological Virtues

The basic idea concerning epistemological virtues presented and explained by Pouivet in his book, Qu’est-ce que croire?,[16] is that our beliefs do not depend upon our will. We cannot decide whether or not to have a particular belief because we take on our beliefs without any active contribution from ourselves. For this reason, the very idea that we might refuse to agree to a belief unless we have first investigated its warrant is completely unrealistic. It would imply the elimination of all belief, because agreement is an act of will and thus the result of a decision. In other words, it is simply an illusion that we might deliberately eliminate or suspend all of our beliefs. This means that increasing the likelihood that our beliefs are true cannot be achieved by inventing methods or rules for accepting them on the basis of reasons that we consider valid. Rather, what matters is that we have acquired epistemological virtues that insure as well as possible the validity of our beliefs.

Pouivet sets out the following list of epistemological virtues:

a)      Intellectual Impartiality.It is very important to be open to the views of others and to make a concerted effort to understand them. Furthermore, one must exhibit good judgment concerning the weight of intellectual authority and have a sense for one’s own fallibility. The two vices that contrast with this virtue are intellectual partiality and intellectual indifference.

b)      Intellectual Sobriety. It is important to be circumspect, especially in the face of “exciting” ideas, and to respect competent intellectual authority, without excessive credulity. The two vices that contrast with this virtue are intellectual profligacy and intellectual narrowmindedness.

c)      Intellectual Courage. This characteristic consists in examining seriously views that contradict received opinion and showing perseverance in research, defending one’s own ideas if there is no other reason for considering them wrong than that they fail to conform with accepted views. The two vices that contrast with this virtue are intellectual cowardice and intellectual paralysis.

d)     Intellectual relevance. This characteristic conduces to the choice of research methods that aim at truth. The two vices that contrast with this virtue are intellectual dissipation and intellectual obsession.

e)      Reflective Equilibrium. This entails knowing how to modify a rule when it would lead to the rejection of a clear intuition and knowing when to reject an intuition when it would contradict a fundamental rule. The two vices that contrast with this virtue are intellectual rigidity and intellectual weakness.[17]


I think that there is no doubt that the virtues described here play a key role in the ethics of knowledge. They concern the whole university community and all of its units, large and small. The university must promote and insist upon these virtues for the reason that individual scholars, caught up in the passionate search for knowledge, do not necessarily develop them without prodding. As Pouivet points out, “belonging to a community that promotes the intellectual virtues is no little matter.[18] And he cites the authority of Plato, who says that, “except in the case of transcendent natural gifts no one could ever become a good man unless from childhood his play and all his pursuits were concerned with things fair and good.”[19]

The responsibility for knowledge is thus not primarily an individual matter but a concern of society, since “the development of the epistemic virtues is the work of the social community.”[20] And Pouivet adds the following remark, which is of fundamental concern to universities globally:


That the beliefs of each person satisfy the demands of the ethics of knowledge does not depend upon the efforts of individuals but upon the importance that human society accords to epistemic values. There is thus a firm connection between the ethics of belief and the ethics of education.[21]


The university is a community of those who have chosen to devote themselves, wholeheartedly, to the acquisition, preservation and transmission of knowledge and is built upon an explicit engagement to concern itself with human knowledge in its entirety. Thus, knowledge resembles money to the extent that, like money, it can be distributed throughout the world; but it is more interesting than money, because it can be distributed to everyone, everywhere, at the same time.[22]

Just as banks are responsible for money, universities are responsible for knowledge. It is for this reason that we need an ethics of knowledge whose first task would be to define and delimit the epistemic responsibilities of the university. The task of the university would not be just that of acquiring, preserving, and transmitting knowledge, in the traditional sense of these words, but also that of cultivating and promoting the epistemic virtues.


Academic Thought and Everyday Thought

In order to understand the university enterprise, it is necessary to distinguish between the academic mode of thought that occupies itself with theoretical problems, and the everyday mode of thought, that occupies itself with the problems that arise in life.[23]

            The latter mode of thought is concerned with solving those problems that we need to address here and now in order to survive. Increasingly, everyday thought has been forced into dependence upon academic thought, which alone is capable of producing solutions to theoretical problems. Nevertheless, one must not confuse theoretical problems with practical ones. The former arise in seeking adequate solutions to the latter. There are numerous examples of this, for instance, in the pharmaceutical industry, where people have to address all sorts of theoretical questions in order to find, in the end, the best drug for curing a particular disease. Another example would be textual translations within international institutions. They generate theoretical problems that need to be solved in order to find satisfactory ways of mediating thoughts between one language and another.

What distinguishes academic thought from everyday thought is that the former does not depend upon opinions, except as concerns its own innovations or the reliability of its instruments, while the latter thrashes about in a sea of opinions from morning to night. It thus appears to me necessary to distinguish clearly between the ethics of involuntary opinion and the ethics of voluntarily accepted opinion.

The principle of the ethics of voluntarily accepted opinion is critical thought.[24] By this I mean a mode of thinking that does not consent to any idea, theory or view until it is understood exactly what it contains and until its truth has been sufficiently warranted. Here we arrive at an explanation of the sense in which studium may be called a search for understanding as well as a quest for truth.[25] Critical thought, thus defined, is the primary virtue of the academic enterprise, which is also based upon the epistemic virtues that are necessary in order to increase the likelihood that our beliefs are true, whether in everyday life or in our academic work. Taken together, the ethics of involuntary opinion and the ethics of voluntarily accepted opinion constitute the ethics of knowledge.

Theoretical thought presupposes everyday thought, while everyday thought calls upon theoretical thought when necessary. But sometimes communication between them breaks down, even in one and the same individual. The reason is very simple: Everyday thought is subject to fewer requirements than theoretical thought. Everyday thought is not constantly subjected to the criteria of consistency, clarity, articulate presentation, independence and objectivity. In short, the impersonal rationality that dominates theoretical, academic and critical thought is not demanded of everyday thought.

To be sure -in reality, that is to say, in our lives as flesh-and-blood individuals -this distinction between everyday and theoretical thought is not always apparent.  Faced with an urgent problem, one may be incapable of posing theoretical questions that are troubling, or that seem ridiculously abstract, even though they might possibly conduce to finding new ways of solving the problem at hand. On the other hand, we should not forget that people who dedicate themselves to solving theoretical problems that seem removed from the common preoccupations of ordinary mortals are also faced with urgent life problems. The academic domain is part of the everyday world, but the reverse is not the case.


The Theoretical and Actual Status of the University

The participation of the academic domain – the university domain – in the social, political and economic world poses problems that concern everyone as well as concerning the university. The real problems faced by universities arise most often from insufficient social, economic and political support.

From thetheoretical point of view, the status of the university is clear. Universities are meant to contribute to society by inventing ideas, models and methods applicable to the solution of real, everyday problems. There presently exists a robust “industry” devoted to finding and promulgating theoretical solutions to practical problems. And in the future, the pressure upon universities to deal with the diverse and never-ending problems of individuals, institutions and the state will increase. As George Gusdorf puts it:


There will always be people who claim that the university does not serve any purpose. And in a way they are right. People forget that the university is not there to serve a purpose. It is there to serve. By its very existence, no matter how médiocre those who animate it may be, it summons men to the order of humanity.[26]


I believe that we can properly speak of a global university culture, a culture that calls upon us to assist humanity in its effort to distinguish truths from lies, a global culture that discusses, analyzes and enriches the experience of all men and women, as if all of humanity were a single person from the very start. The goal is to try to understand the world in a manner that would enable us to shape it in a responsible and constructive manner. In order to achieve this goal, we must acquire technical skill and scientific knowledge, but above all we must achieve the moral wisdom that would allow us to use our knowledge well.

Universities have from the beginning sought to advance moral wisdom no less than technical knowledge. Such wisdom does not arise spontaneously, but through deliberation and in the wake of dedicated research into the ways in which mankind has from it earliest days attempted to conquer injustice, prevent catastrophes and fight against crime. Every university must join in this battle. In a critical spirit, universities must analyze and evaluate the fundamental values of each culture. In this way, they will triumph over the crisis in which, in the view of many, they currently find themselves. And academic thought, with epistemic virtues as its guiding light, will create new ways for humanity to deal with its life problems.


[1]This article is based on a lecture presented in French at the Collège de France, on  April 6th 2006, at the invitation of the research group, Groupe de travail sur l’éthique et la philosophie des sciences (GTEPS).

[2]Clark Kerr, The Uses of the University, 5. ed., Cambridge (Mass.) and London, Harvard University Press 2001, p. 7.

[3]Ibid., pp. 14-15.

[4]Olivier Reboul : La philosophie de l’éducation, PUF 1989, p. 42-43.

[5]Alain Renaut:Que faire des universités?, Bayard Éditions, Paris 2002. Of interest in this context is also his magnum opus, Les révolutions de l’université, Calmann – Lévy, Paris 1995.

[6]Que faire des universités?, p.81.

[7]In my view, one key item is missing from this description, which is the transmission of knowledge; probably Kerr took this as too evident to require mentioning.

[8]Wilhelm von Humboldt: „Über die innere und äußere Organisation der höheren wissenschaftlichen Anstalten in Berlin.“ Schriften zur Politik und zum Bildungswesen. Werke in fünf Bänden (vol.4, pp. 255-266). Berlin: Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften 1964, p. 256.

[9]Michael Oakeshott: “The Idea of a University”, in The Voice of Liberal Learning, Yale University Press 1989, pp. 96-97.

[10]Georges Gusdorf : L’Université en question, Payot, Paris 1964, pp. 88-89.

[11]Robert Paul Wolff: The Ideal of the University, Beacon Press, Boston 1969, p. 128.

[12]The Ethics of Science, Routledge, London & New York, 1998.

[13]What I call here the “ethics of knowledge” does not correspond exactly with what Pouivet calls the “ethics of belief”, as will be seen from what follows.

[14]Roger Pouivet: “Pourquoi les hommes ont-ils besoin des vertus épistémiques?” Les vertus intellectuelles, Presses Universitaire de Strasbourg, p. 150.

[15]Discours de la méthode, Seconde partie.

[16]Qu’est-ce que croire?,Librairie philosophique, J. Vrin, Paris, 2003.

[17]Ibid. pp. 34-35.

[18]Ibid. P. 39.

[19]Plato, Republic VIII, 558B.

[20]Roger Pouivet, Qu’est-ce que croire?, p.40.


[22]The difference between money and knowledge is discussed by Marcel Hénaff in his book, Le prix de la vérité,  Seuil, Paris 2002.

[23]I speak here of everyday thought rather than of practical thought, because the latter can be academic as well as everyday.

[24]Critical thought, as it is here defined, may be contrasted with ideological dogmatism, on the one hand, and with cynical skepticism, on the other.

[25]Shortly before his death, Jacques Derrida published a small book called L’Université sans condition (The Unrestricted University) wherein he celebrates unconstrained freedom in the quest for truth: the basic, key ideal to which all universities are dedicated.

[26]L’Université en question,  p.85

The University and the Ethics of Knowledge


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