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Blog - Blogue

  • On Anscombe and Wittgenstein

    Friday, January 08, 2016
    Louis Roy O.P.

    As a doctoral student in Cambridge, I paid a visit, in 1981, to Professor Elizabeth Anscombe in order to ask her authorization to attend her course on “Existence.” She was the best disciple of Ludwig Wittgenstein and a strongly built, formidable (in the sense of “to be feared”) lady. Her esteem of me was perhaps rather low, since she had heard me, in a Sunday homily at Blackfriars’ chapel, wanting to say “successively” about the Samaritan woman, wrongly say that “she had successfully had five husbands.” During homilies, she and her husband Peter Geach, himself also a renowned philosopher, would look at the preacher with severe, apparently distrustful eyes. Given that they had got in touch with the Dominican prior provincial of England to accuse of heresy a friar at Cambridge who was on the whole more traditional than me in his ideas, it was intimidating to preach in front of these two powerful and highly critical intellects.

    She nonetheless graciously consented to my presence in her course. During our conversation, I blundered again by mentioning my interest in Lonergan’s thought. She replied, making short pauses: “Lonergan … Lonergan … He is obscure … And when occasionally he writes clearly, he is wrong!” Needless to say, I never uttered Lonergan’s name again in front of her. Peter Geach confided that the three times he began to read Insight, Lonergan’s masterpiece, he fell asleep.

    In class, she spoke very slowly, with an aristocratic pronunciation. She was obviously thinking aloud, with the help of a few notes on very small pieces of paper. At times, Peter Geach would express a thought and, being seated in the front row, this big man would turn towards us and look at us pointblank in a dire silence, as if to ask, “Who among you, doctoral students, would dare contradict me?” Evidently, the two of them were not keen on dialogue; they could be blunt and tough with people who disagreed with them.

    Yet they cared for Dominicans and they invited me to dinner once. Their residence had no curtains – a bit like the bare house Wittgenstein had designed for his sister. Seated on the floor, they drew for me the truth tables (or logical constants) of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus on a little black slate. Realizing that I was not understanding much about those tables, I was afraid they would summon me to rephrase the gist of what they had taught me – which I would have been incapable of doing. Fortunately, I did not undergo this humiliation, because it was soon time for supper. The prayers were pronounced with piety. Suddenly John, a simple-minded person who would spend his days in town, speaking with anybody – including me –, appeared and ate with us. The Geaches had invited him to occupy a room in their home, but he declined, explaining he would prefer staying next door, in the shed.

    For all their staunch and militant conservatism – they played a key role in obtaining permission to maintain the rite of Pius V in several parishes of England –, they were generous and charitable. I am the one who gave them the news that the Dominican who had received them into the Catholic Church had died. This Dominican had previously left the Order. I do remember that Elizabeth was moved and I was struck by the fact that far from condemning his having renounced the exercise of his priesthood, she said, with compassion and tenderness, “Oh, Tony.”

    When Wittgenstein became very sick, he asked Elizabeth to find him a priest in order to prepare for reconciliation with the Church. Wittgenstein had been for decades what the British call “a lapsed Catholic.” He added: “I want a priest who is not a philosopher.” The Dominican Conrad Pepler told me, with British humour: “Then Elizabeth chose me!” He and Wittgenstein met a few times, but he passed away before making his confession. Conrad, with whom I lived in Cambridge, was a very holy and prayerful friar, with profound insights into the Christian life. Wittgenstein could not have found a better spiritual accompaniment as he prepared for his encounter with the God of love.

  • Academic Freedom and its Current Challenges

    Wednesday, December 23, 2015
    Iva Apostolova

    The institution of the university, as we know it today, originates in the High Scholasticism period of the Middle Ages. The best way to describe universitas is as a scholarly corporation. In other words, at its root, university is an organization whose goal is to provide and produce learning and knowledge. The first universities grew out of monastic schools associated and attached to various religious establishments. As feudal wars across Europe subsided, and cities prospered, universities became more commonplace. As a result, they gained their independence and turned into self-sufficient scholarly communities. It is this self-sufficiency, combined with the communal spirit, that is still the university’s most prized possession to date.

    Universities are spaces, literally and figuratively (hence, the need today for university campuses), where one goes to learn. But learn to what end? Sapere Aude! is one of the oldest mottos used by university establishments. Dare to Know! or Dare to be Wise! (in literal translation from Latin), the phrase also carries the connotation of ‘knowledge for the sake of knowledge’. Upon reflection, isn’t this what academic freedom is ultimately about – having unrestrained access to information while, at the same time, critically evaluating it in a way that produces new knowledge which can, in turn, be freely distributed and accessed by anyone?

    In this sense, however, universities are odd organizations. Unlike any other organization, where loyalty to the institutional body is a key element to its success, in universities, the only loyalty expected of the ‘magistri’ is to knowledge itself.

    Are universities still places of free exchange of knowledge? Everyone who works in academia would certainly like to think so. However, we can’t ignore the challenges we face today. Apart from the petty and not so petty faction wars that every academic unit faces, I can single out two snags that pose a threat to the university spirit. The ubiquitous electronic media extends the space of learning well beyond the boundaries of the university campus. While this is often perceived as a positive thing, it sometimes leads to blurring of the lines between private and public, which, without proper critical evaluation, can threaten the integrity of the academic dialogue. Should a comment on a facebook page reflect on the academic reputation of a professor? What about a student? Should the university care?

    Despite their communal origin, universities function in the public space as legal and economic bodies. The high price of post-secondary education, particularly in North America, inevitably imposes the business model where education is just another type of service provided by the professors and consumed by the clients (the students). While this model allows universities to co-exist and interact with other public and private institutions, it poses problems for the integrity of the scholarly community as well as the shift of the common goal from knowledge to profit.  

    Will the university manage to protect its spirit? Let’s hope so.

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