Kant and the Universities

May 4, 2012

In the last session of this year’s CEMS series on ‘The Universities in Historical Context’, Professor T. J. Reed spoke on Immanuel Kant’s The Conflict of the Faculties. Professor Reed set this fascinating text in the context of the anti-Enlightenment reaction in Prussia under Frederick William III. More generally, as he showed, it is a classic statement of the relationship between the principles of philosophical freedom and the vocational model of the university – in the terms of his time, between the ‘higher faculties’ of theology, law and medicine and the ‘lower faculty’ of philosophy. Kant challengingly sets this traditional hierarchy against the institutions of the French Revolution: ‘The higher faculties (as the right-hand side of the Parliament of Learning) defend the government’s statutes, whereas in a free constitution, as it must be where truth is at issue, there must also be an opposition party (the left-hand side) which is the bench of the philosophical faculty, because without their strict examination and objections the government is not sufficiently informed on what may be beneficial or detrimental to it’. In discussion there was some debate over the difference in relative standing between the ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ faculties in England and Prussia, and the extent to which some theologians furthered the Enlightenment. The ambiguities of Kant’s conception of the public which is to be addressed by his ‘public reason’ were also found to bear on the current situation of the universities, caught between the demand for the widest possible access and the need to defend critical independence.

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