The question of intellectual integrity

In evidence of the fact that a really good book should not go out of print, you can find Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican by Galileo Galilei (first published in 1632) on sale today; indeed in this edition you get the added benefit of a foreword by Albert Einstein. As many will know, the book was Galileo’s attempt to present a balanced view of astronomy and science, in which (through a series of dialogues) he presented the then competing theories of Copernicus and Ptolemy on the universe. While maintaining the appearance of balanced analysis, Galileo demonstrated his support for Copernicus, and in doing so opened himself to attack by the church authorities. He was accused and found guilty of heresy and, despite recanting, spent his remaining life under house arrest. It took the church the best part of 400 years to rehabilitate him.

The Galileo story is these days most often used as an illustration of the corruption of the church and of its interference in science, but while there is an important point in this about the appropriate relationship between theology and science, that is by no means the whole story. We know today that the basic premise of Copernicus – that the earth is in orbit around the sun rather than the other way round – was correct, but the evidence was not as straightforward back then, and along the way Galileo got some scientific facts quite wrong. The point of his analysis and his approach to the issues he was addressing is that he was committed to his search for truth and that he was willing to pursue it in the face of obvious personal and political risks, while still maintaing (or seeking to maintain) friendships with those who might disagree, including Pope Urban VIII.

Galileo was a leading academic of his day, and the controversy about the Dialogue was really about intellectual integrity. It is intellectual integrity that ultimately determines the value of the academy and the ideas it seeks to disseminate. But is this still understood in today’s universities, and are they actually able to host today’s Galileos? In some contemporary arguments this is described as the mission to speak ‘truth to power’, but I wonder whether that misses the point. As many of those who use it probably do not know, the expression comes from an 18th century charge to Quakers.  Today’s references sometimes carry an undertone of self-righteousness that doesn’t necessarily owe much to intellectual integrity. The task of the academy is not to preach, but to analyse and to debate. Academics are not particularly called to disseminate dogma (even unpopular dogma) and  ‘speak’ truth, but to seek it.

But in addition, the capacity of the academy to do this is compromised in other ways. It may not need to fear assaults by the church any more (or at least not in these parts), but its vulnerability in material terms exposes it even more. Nor is this particularly about the power and influence of commercial interests: often the biggest threat comes from the state as it cuts resources and aligns institutions with passing political priorities. What universities can safely do and support is often determined by an assessment of the risks they run in alienating those who provide the funds.

On the other hand universities are not set apart from the societies they inhabit, and so the pursuit of intellectual integrity needs to be placed by the academy in the context of the issues and problems faced by the community and the opportunities for improvement that academic inquiry may provide. It can be a difficult balance to get right. But right now there is no real consensus in society as to the importance of intellectual integrity, nor is there always an acceptance that the higher education community is a good steward of it. Restoring that sense of confidence in the value of what the academy does is perhaps the key mission of higher education today. Without this, universities will find it hard to host today’s Dialogue that could mark a turning point for tomorrow’s world.

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9 Comments on “The question of intellectual integrity”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    One of the several interesting aspects of Galileo’s work, besides its content, amd worth considering in an age obsessed with communication like ours is the communicative strategy chosen by the author, first of all the shorter original title was amended into what in Italian reads: Dialogo di Galileo Galilei Linceo, dove ne i congressi di quattro giornate si discorre sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo, tolemaico e copernicano
    this strategy fooled the Church authorities into alowwing publication because they believed that the work was only an academic discussion where the pros and cons of the Ptolemaic and Coperican systems were discussed, crucially, without arriving at a final conclusion. Secondly, contrary to what was the standard iterary genre for any XVII century scientist, a tractatus in Latin, Galileo mixes innovation and tradition by writing in Italian (hence enhancing accessibility) within the framework of the dialogue, a literary genre from classic tradition where the truth is seeked via the polyphonic intertwining of various characters’ opinions.
    To my mind though Galileo not only ‘was committed to his search for truth’, as argued in the post, also and maybe here lies its relevance for the contemporary reader/academic, he is the champion of *doubt*, only by putting into question the established truth can knowledge advance and benefit humanity, it is in this sense that for me he representes a valid example for any timeless academic mission. Academia’s task, as rightly pointed out in the post ‘is not to preach, but to analyse and to debate’, I would also agree that ‘academics are not particularly called to disseminate dogma (even unpopular dogma) and ’speak’ truth, but to seek it.’ Crucially though one could argue about how tenable a univocal concept of ‘truth’, which academia should seek is (within today’s scientific & philosophical discourse) and whether it should be more appropriate to speak of relative/circumstantial, muticulturally determined aspects of the ‘truth(s)’.

    As for the Quaker expression Speak Truth to Power, and in spite of its religious dogmatic undertones, I believe there is some validity in the following quote (from the piece the post refers to)

    *We speak to power in three senses:

    To those who hold high places in our national life and bear the terrible responsibility of making decisions for war or peace.
    To the American people who are the final reservoir of power in this country and whose values and expectations set the limits for those who exercise authority.
    To the idea of Power itself, and its impact on Twentieth Century life.
    There is now almost no place in our great universities, few lines in the budgets of our great foundations, and little space in scholarly journals, for thought and experimentation that begin with the unconditional rejection of organized mass violence and seek to think through the concrete problems of present international relations in new terms. It is time there was.*

    This particular piece was written in 1955, at the peak of the cold war, when the pacifist message had a particular resonance. The third point in particular, the idea ‘to speak to the idea of Power itself’, to put it into question is as valid today as it was in 1955, equally fresh is the aspiration for universities to be places for thought and experimentations and to contribute to contemporary poltical debates concretely. Actually, the issue of academia’s reltionship with power (of the State, of commercial entities or otherwise), which seems to be the real topic of this post is clearly exposed in all its contradictions at the end when one reads:
    *Nor is this particularly about the power and influence of commercial interests: often the biggest threat comes from the state as it cuts resources and aligns institutions with passing political priorities. What universities can safely do and support is often determined by an assessment of the risks they run in alienating those who provide the funds.*

    I suppose Galileo with his Dialogue tried to do exactly that a ‘risk assessment exercise’, the whole process though destroyed him in the end, let’s hope that history does not repeat itself!


  2. […] “What universities can safely do and support is often determined by an assessment of the risks they run in alienating those who provide the funds. On the other hand universities are not set apart from the societies they inhabit, and so the pursuit of intellectual integrity needs to be placed by the academy in the context of the issues and problems faced by the community and the opportunities for improvement that academic inquiry may provide …” (more) […]

  3. Vincent Says:

    Much of the comment about both Galileo and Columbus is pure propaganda from the religious wars between the Church and protestantism.
    It’s rather hilarious but the only place in the world that might have some sort of understanding would be Ireland. Given that it’s only in the last few years that their primary function was in the production of churchmen, shifted. Where anyone swimming against the flow was not so much going against the tide but the Victoria Falls.
    The result of this is amply displayed when for the first 50 years of the Queens University it nursed many of the sciences of which Boole is stellar. While the next 100 or so can be marked by the removal of science from the primary curriculum. Ah shur, why would they need science it wont help them push a shovel.
    And if you haven’t noticed we are heading back into that very mentality. The very idea that the first thought of all students is creative is plainly laughable. But heck, going back to a ‘nobs and navvies’ programme is not much good, no matter how upmarket the navvie.

  4. jfryar Says:

    I think intellectual integrity is all well and good, but if Galileo had been living in Ireland today, could he have written and researched the Dialogue? I suspect his funding would’ve been cut and his telescope would be lying unassembled because his research didn’t meet the strategic aims of the government.

    There is a serious point there. Einstein took a decade to go from the Special to the General Theory of Relativity. It took the best part of 40 years to go from Einstein’s theory of stimulated emission to the invention of a device that used it, the laser. Intellectual integrity is being compromised by our ongoing attempts to assume science departments in universities should operate like corporate R&D departments.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      Quite right, jfryar and I’m glad to hear you make the point. Tenure, of course, has been and continues to be the main means by which disinterested academic research is protected from short-termism and the insistence that research be “profitable.”

      • Al Says:

        Ernie

        You’ve mentioned “disinterested academic research” here, and few times that I remember in the past, here and on other blogs.
        Can you define it further?
        or have you in the past?
        Maybe a guest post if FVP would accommodate you?

  5. Mary B Says:

    “It may not need to fear assaults by the church any more (or at least not in these parts), but its vulnerability in material terms exposes it even more.” Some people would maintain that the role of The Church as corporate bully has been passed on to ‘The Market’ – that is, anything that questions the capitalism turn is the modern equivalent of heresy. The question of how far the Academy should focus solely on the utilitarian has been discussed in other posts. I have been working with a colleague who is a critical theorist, which is wonderful for me as his logical thinking leaves mine standing, but he wants to stop when he’s arrived at ‘truth’ as he sees it, whereas I want to say ‘if this is truth, what do we do as a consequence?’ It ought to be that vocational universities are uniquely placed to argue for this one – using the evidence of intellectual enquiry to change policy. The research into the smoking and lung cancer link is a good example which the corporates were trying to supress.
    Anna: your thoughts are really profound on this issue.


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