The full version of Professor Fynsk's essay appears in 'What is education?", an anthology with contributions from Hubertus von Ameluxen, Wendy Brown, Henrik Jøker Bjerre, Mladen Dolar, Elie During, Steen Ebbesen, Christopher Fynsk, Kirsten Hydgaard, Steen Nepper Larsen, Siegfried Zielinski and edited by Anton Bech Jørgensen, Jakob J. Justesen, Nana Bech, Niels Nykrog, Rasmus Bro. The anthology will become available to order for free in September, 2017. For further information, visit:

Autonomy and Academic Freedom

I will adapt, for my remarks, the framework of inquiry offered by the editors of this volume with their three questions regarding the value of “autonomy” as a traditional end of higher education.[i]

I should acknowledge from the outset, however, that I will have to struggle with this term “autonomy”—it remains deeply at odds with a thought of human finitude.  “Freedom” speaks to me much more immediately, and if we are to win terms back from the tradition in full cognizance of their destiny in modern metaphysics (to which a near-century of European thought has directed its critical energies), I would prefer the latter word, given that it preserves the possibility of a relation to otherness that “autonomy” would seem to frustrate.  “Functionality,” which “consumer satisfaction” only cloaks, perhaps names best the end of most education in the modern, developed world (this, sadly, is how we must answer the question “What is education today?”).  Resistance to this fate of the educated subject in the era of neo-liberalism and Technik is difficult to think without reference to a notion of freedom (a value to which the term “liberal”—in the phrase “liberal arts”--must struggle more than ever to reach[ii]).  But a notion of autonomy can perhaps also be brought forth that serves this latter notion of resistance.

In any case, a notion of autonomy can be articulated that speaks to the highest ends envisioned in the speculative efforts of those who prepared the foundation of the University of Berlin, and while the philosophical assumptions and ambitions of these thinkers cannot be taken over without critical transformation, their understanding of academic freedom, and what thought at the university might be, mark an invaluable precedent.  They set many of the terms of a struggle relating to education that might have seemed almost hopeless in Europe less than a year ago (though meaningful struggle without hope is still conceivable), and only more difficult today in the midst of convulsions that may bring new restrictions to projects of critical thinking and other manifestations of freedom.  This is not the occasion for returning to the texts of these thinkers, but I want to retain their inspiring efforts (and a tradition of thinking that has proceeded from them) as a point of reference for measuring the ever-more essential character of the struggle against the educational processes that serve that grim term, “functionality.” 

I.  Teaching Autonomy

So, working with a loose sense of the term “autonomy,” let me ask how, in higher education, we can endeavour to free an autonomous exercise of thought, be this in any field of research or creative practice.  And let me begin by speaking from my own site, which today is the European Graduate School—an effort to recover a meaning for the European university that remains modest in actual resources, but is nonetheless commensurate with the speculative endeavours of those who prepared its re-foundation over two centuries ago.

I speak from this special site because I believe that new educational practices serving the end I have defined must be won experimentally.  I recall here the delightful thought-experiment undertaken by Gérard Granel in De l’université in 1982, and the playful fiction he proposed, despairing of any effort at reform in the socio-economic context of the time.[iii]  I remain in agreement with him regarding the profoundly limiting scope of the horizons of possibility offered by our modern socio-economic order (even if I disagree with him about the futility of struggling from within), and I am inclined to think that these horizons have not significantly broadened with the extraordinary technical developments now on offer.  Accordingly, I am not sure that a practical design for a new university exists that can satisfy the idea of the university toward which I have gestured—a university where the possibility of a free thought of a worldly character can be practiced or prepared.   Clearly, a new university must be invented.  But I am a bit more accepting of our finite conditions than Granel, and a bit more open to the possibility of the event (in education).  From this ground I remain devoted to a concrete form of experimentation guided by values such as academic freedom. 

I would also underscore that I accept Gérard Granel’s argument that the exercise of thought in any given discipline of study must engage the existence of those who practice the discipline, and must seek to draw forth the meaning of that practice for those practitioners and for a larger public at the level of their world.   The latter term can only mark a question at this juncture, but one that remains unavoidable, for it is perfectly obvious (and has been so since the founding of the University of Berlin) that any question of profound social meaning requires some thought of the whole of social existence.  We encounter this, for example, in the painful exigency of thinking today what a term such a “refugee” implies.  Universities have increasingly surrendered to technocratic imperatives that reduce education to the preparation of expertise in a “knowledge economy“ that requires discreet forms of professional specialization or mere technical skills.  But the resulting isolation of disciplines from one another (with the eclipse of the question of the whole to which I am pointing) condemns all of them to some degree of abstraction.  Therefore, it becomes imperative to keep alive in higher education not only the question of the foundations of any given discipline, but also its relation to all other fields of inquiry in a “university” worthy of this name.   One must therefore seek, in and through every discipline, a question of the order of the one Maurice Blanchot posed for literary study: “What does it mean that something like literature should exist?”   This is a question that leads to the imperative of broad cross-disciplinary inquiry, even as it leads back to literary study by reason of the singular character of the literary event, forcing an acute form of disciplinary reflection. Without a questioning of this kind on its horizon, once again, a discipline’s study is prey to formalism and the hold of abstract jargon, however “scientific” in its formulations; it can only produce further abstraction.  I have sought, in The Claim of Language, to draw forth what this argument implies for the humanities inasmuch as they address and deploy distinctive usages of language, opening by this means to concrete questions bearing on all dimensions of human existence (including a relation to the world that obliges us to entertain, today, notions of the post- or in- human).   I would argue that the individual who undertakes and undergoes such an engagement with language (taking this term in a broad sense) effectively opens to a free exercise of thought.[iv]

But I wonder if one passage of this kind (from one disciplinary site), can ever suffice for a concrete form of “autonomy.”  And is the opening not always threatened by a disciplinary closure where the relay called for in exposure to limits of any discipline (when it touches on questions of fundamental social meaning) is impeded, if not blocked?  To rephrase what I have said thus far: every practice of thought calls for complementation of its efforts vis à vis the exigencies of that “thing” to which the phrase “res publica” points, the real that lies at the horizon of every search for social meaning in a particular discursive mode.[v] Thought knows in the always singular paths of this search the lure of a whole; and what inspired researcher does not sense that they have touched upon this whole when they achieve in their writing or presentation an experience of concreteness?  (Everyone will be familiar with the phenomenon wherein researchers believe that their work is echoed in many other forms of research going on around them—what is important about this slightly comical phenomenon is there is some truth in the experience.)  But the self-reflective researcher will also recognise in that same movement the inherently partial (or better, fragmentary) character of that concreteness, and hence the requirement of the relay to which I have referred.  Every striving for reality in thought must go to the limits of the path chosen, and will inevitably disclose those limits.  Is it not therefore imperative that a “higher” education reveal to the student multiple passages of a fundamental character? And in a time when mythic constructions of the whole are in resurgence, is this critical practice not all the more imperative?

With this principle in view, I believe it is possible to affirm philosophically the choice of the European Graduate School (in the Division devoted to Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought) to construct a curriculum that is without disciplinary bounds in the sense that it requires of its students work in a series of seminars that implicitly (or explicitly) entail a fundamental questioning of the fields taken up in them—there being no limit to the number of fields that might be broached within a course of study involving 12 seminars (for each of the advanced degrees: MA and PhD).  Every student, whatever their special field of expertise or professional background (the EGS actively promotes diversity in this respect), must undertake this cross-disciplinary experience.

 It should be noted immediately that a very particular form of teaching is required for this form of curriculum, one that is inherently public in its address insofar as it cannot presuppose advanced preparation on the part of the students, and can only rely on a profound interest and a willingness to attempt the course of study.  Professors must effectively translate their thought in terms that are accessible to a diverse group, but in no way reductive with respect to the questioning undertaken.  It is this challenge that seems to bring the distinguished faculty back to the EGS year after year, for their recasting of their thought in such exceptional circumstances is inevitably generative of new thinking, along with remarkable pedagogical encounters.

 Of course, such a movement between disciplines implies that seminar training cannot be directed to the development of mastery in a particular area of research (a process that normally entails progression from introductory levels to more advanced ones).  Mastery will come once a chosen field is defined and explored by the student in independent study, the supposition being that such learning does not require constant oversight if advanced students are initially given the means to address the fundamentals of any discipline.  The latter means—habits of enquiry sharpened by extensive exposure to philosophically informed theory and sustained questioning with respect to contemporary topics--are provided in the seminar training of the EGS, where seminar directors are leading proponents of their fields, individuals who in many cases have shaped the very fields they address in their seminar.

What is crucial in this model, I emphasize, is not acquisition of a fund of knowledge, but repeated passages, in fundamental questioning, to the limits of what any given discipline can offer with respect to some topic of inquiry.  This course of study, when it is genuinely engaged, will foster a distinctive freedom in the student’s approach to their own chosen field of research—a singular capacity to construct a problematic requiring cross-disciplinary inquiry, and an ability to address that problematic with a special breadth and methodological sophistication.  Let us call this a disciplinary reflexivity of a kind, though “reflexivity” does not quite capture, as I will try to show in addressing the second point raised by the editors, the form of freedom involved.

Disciplines are resistant formations; they will always reassert their hold in some measure as a student strives to define the question that organizes their study and to support their argument in a scholarly manner.  The structures by which disciplines reproduce themselves are powerfully constraining—and this can be affirmed without consideration of the more coercive practices sometimes involved.  Scholarly protocol in each field and in each national context is profoundly defining (both enabling and limiting) and the constraints involved are easily hidden by institutional practices involving a distribution of rewards.[vi]   The EGS recognizes the necessity of those defining elements of discipline; it is wholly committed to academic standards.  But it is also seeking to impart a free relation to disciplinary constructions and a capacity for singular passages between them—not in a spirit of eclecticism, but for the purpose of addressing freely core dimensions of existence in the contemporary world.  Exposure to theory, in itself, does not bring the critical freedom I have sought to describe.  The explosion in theory of the last century has not brought a true explosion of disciplines simply because disciplines can easily contain the purchase and philosophical implications of theoretical inquiry.  The “free use” of philosophically informed theory of the kind we seek to advance at the EGS requires a constant passage beyond the limits of the disciplinary articulation of knowledge and institutional mechanisms serving the containment of thought.  The effort can have only limited impact in relation to the stultifying structures that largely define what teaching is today.  But freedom, when exercised, has a way of propagating itself.

[i] The questions, as communicated to me, are the following:  1) A classical answer to the question 'what is education?', is often formulated in terms of its ideal purpose, namely that autonomy is the end that critical education strives towards. But this answer prompts us to ask: what does autonomy mean as a educational ideal?
 2) The educational situation itself, insofar as it builds on a relation between students and an educational authority, raises questions towards the ideal of autonomy: How do autonomy and authority relate within education itself? And, how, by which processes, is the autonomy of the individual even made possible through the relation to an authority?
 3) Autonomy is not only held as an internal ideal of education, classically the autonomy of the educational institutions have been held as a necessity in their external relations to society and politics. However, the nature of these relations poses recurring questions: how is education challenged by the contemporary demands of society and politics? Is it possible or sufficient still to maintain the idea of education as autonomous? 

I will not try to adhere strictly to these three immense questions, though I will move through them as I would in response to a questionnaire.  My hope is that the answers these questions have prompted will speak to the spirit of this collection. 

[ii] The notion of establishing a foundation for higher education in the liberal arts has been slow to reach Europe, and the values invested in the liberal arts in the post-war American universities are now more remote as a horizon for grasping the meaning of higher education than ever.  For a recent, succinct account of the way neoliberalism is eroding these values and undermining the very conception of the way training in the liberal arts might sustain the project of democracy, see Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015), particularly Chapter 6, “Educating Human Capital,” 175-200.  The ideological constructions at work in many liberal arts curricula in American universities must of course be subjected to sustained scrutiny.  But the principles animating a liberal arts education ultimately point in the direction of the goals that I will seek to articulate with respect to a profoundly cross-disciplinary training at advanced levels.  The curricular experiment I will describe radicalizes the notion of Bildung and thus the understanding of “autonomy” that is normally proposed as the end of liberal arts education.  But I consider defense of the ideals instituted in undergraduate liberal arts programs to be of critical importance.

[iii] Gérard Granel, De l’université (Mauzevin: Trans-Europ-Repress, 1982), 75-96.

[iv] The Claim of Language: A Case for the Humanities (Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 2004).  This volume has recently been translated into German by Katharina Martl and Johannes Kleinbeck: Der Anspruch der Sprache: Ein Plädoyer für die Humanities (Berlin: Turia + Kant, 2016).  I draw the phrase “free use” from Friedrich Hölderlin, though I drop here his reference to a “proper” or “national.”

[v] I speak very allusively, here to be sure, and I would not help by saying that the evocation of a “real” forces us to look beyond the “public” relation to forms of exposure that exceed the political order.  We touch here, of course, on a field of questions that are the purview of psychoanalysis, whose research is pertinent to all fields in the humanities, though no less in need of “complementation.”

[vi] This is why the common argument that “cross-disciplinarity presupposes disciplinarity” inherently dooms a genuinely cross-disciplinary endeavour.  In fact, the need for the historically tempered knowledge afforded by a discipline is something that should ultimately appear from the exigencies of cross-disciplinary thinking.  Every thinker will discover that rigorous cross-disciplinary work on questions of crucial social import requires what “discipline” can provide, but it is cross-disciplinary questioning that defines most effectively and meaningfully what is required of a discipline.  If the methodological order I describe is not pursued, the discipline will inevitably reproduce its hegemony.   —Christopher Fynsk, Dean of the Division of Philosophy, Art and Critical Thought