Spring 2013

On the Universality of the University: A Response to Jean-Luc Marion

D. C. Schindler

“Gratuity is part of the fundamental meaning of education. Only if we embrace this gratuity at the heart of the university do we in fact respond to the crisis of fragmentation.”

1. Jean-Luc Marion on the fragmentation of the university


Concerns about the fragmentation of the modern university that results from overspecialization and professionalization are nothing new;2 in the contemporary situation, fragmentation has achieved the status, beyond any worrisome possibility, of an evident fact.3 But Jean-Luc Marion, in a recent lecture on the universality of the university, which is being published here, has pointed out that the fragmentation goes further than is typically recognized: what is being lost is not only universality, but also the specialization and the professions for which the universality is sacrificed. The fragmentation has become so radical, we might say, that the fragments themselves are dissolving. If higher education aspires to nothing but practical relevance to the actual historical situation, it is already obsolete the moment it comes to completion. As Marion brilliantly puts it, given the constant disappearance of the professions for which the students are being trained, the university cannot have a future, because it does not even have a present. This remark reveals that a certain temporal fragmentation corresponds to the theoretical fragmentation: just as there is no unifying principle that would transcend the particularity of the disciplines, and indeed of the professions, so too there is no principle that transcends the particularity of the present moment to unite it with the past and future. As philosophers have always observed about time, without any connection with past and future, the present cannot avoid simply evanescing, which is precisely the situation that Marion says besets the contemporary university. It goes without saying that this is a crisis for the university, but if it is true that the university represents the culture it is meant to serve in the sense of being the place wherein that culture thinks itself and so makes itself in a certain way explicit, then this crisis concerns more than just professional academics.

The question that faces us is nevertheless where to find, or perhaps to recover, the principle of unity, such that we may once again use the word “university” in a meaningful way. Marion observes that the term originally indicated the community of scholars who came together to pursue the life of the mind. This observation raises the same question from a different perspective: what is the nature of the common good sufficient to make this community possible? But we need to ask the question, not simply out of historical interest, but, as Marion does, in a way that casts light on our current situation: What, today, brings people together in the university, and what ought to bring us together? I wish to reflect on this question here in terms of “catholicity,” a term that not only includes the basic theme of “universality” that Marion discusses, but adds to this a reference to the community of persons created by the existence of a truly common good, insofar as “catholic” means “according to the whole.” The importance of community will become apparent toward the end of these reflections.

Without going into the details of Marion’s lecture, which is here to be read for itself, I take the essence of the positive response to the diagnosis he presents to be the following: the principle of unity cannot be found in the endless diversity of things known, but, as Descartes understood, resides in the knower the mind of whom is like the sun that casts its light over an infinity of objects. But more radically still, as Pascal understood even if Descartes did not, the knower is in fact more fundamentally a lover. One cannot come to have knowledge without learning the difference between what one knows and what one does not know—without, that is, learning the limits of human knowledge. This capacity for knowledge lies, as it were, between two essential unknowns, which is what makes human intelligence essentially and inescapably finite: on the one hand, the knower can never know himself, because the self can never be an object of knowledge, and he can never know the infinitely other, God. The love of truth exceeds, in fact, the desire to know, because knowledge itself rests within an essentially unknowable desire for what remains essentially unknowable. We are lovers of truth only because we are first of all, and most fundamentally, lovers. Though Marion does not put the matter exactly in this way, we might say that, paradoxically, the principle of unity that gathers knowers together in the university is their ignorance.

* I would like to dedicate this essay to my colleagues in the Humanities Department at Villanova University in gratitude.

2. Two classic texts are Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling’s Lectures on the Method of Academic Study (1802–03) and Cardinal John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University (1852 and 1848).

3. See Alasdair MacIntyre, “The end of education: the fragmentation of the American university,” Commonweal CXXXIII: 18 (20 October 2006): 10–14, and God, Philosophy, and Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), esp. 173–80.