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Insignificant Research into Trifling Details: René Guénon on the Failure of Universities

Thomas Flichy de La Neuville is a Research Professor at IWP and History Research Director (with French Agrégation qualification) and Professor of International Relations at the Rennes School of Business.

When René Guénon published Orient et Occident (East and West) in 1924, the industrialization of knowledge had already been inflicted upon the university machine for over a century, gradually leading it towards the kind of brain death in which this process typically results. During the interwar period, universities still had a spark of life in them, as witnessed by the creative efforts of some of its members and by its vigorous debates. René Guénon did not merely diagnose the stricken body’s ills; he shone a light on the cause of the disease and highlighted its consequences on how intelligence is formed.

Guénon’s main observation was that dividing universities into industrial-style units resulted in the multiplication of specialisms. Historical study had done away with narrative and chose to limit itself instead to works of simple erudition, or to “insignificant research into trifling details.”[1] Western science, which was nothing more than “analysis and fragmentation,”[2] caused intellectual myopia. In a strange inversion of natural hierarchies, universities prized narrow-minded experts who should logically have occupied the lower rungs of the ladder. In his words:

It is not among ‘specialists’ that we have the greatest chance of uncovering the potential for wide-ranging and deep-reaching understanding, quite the opposite. We should not count on them, bar a few exceptions, to train the aforementioned intellectual elite […] erudition is one thing, but real knowledge is another and, while they are not always incompatible, they do not necessarily support one another either. Surely, if erudition were content to serve the auxiliary role usually reserved for it, there would be nothing left to say as it would instantly cease to pose a danger and could, in fact, serve some purpose. Within these confines, one can very happily recognize its relative value.[3]

Nonetheless, the technicians of erudition played their specialist role tending to the great industrial university machine and mainly occupied themselves by digging deeper into and, first and foremost, defending their micro-fiefdoms. In no circumstances could they claim to hold any kind of vision. These technicians were characterized by a veritable “mental strife” – namely an unhealthy appetite for research – to the extent that this research was viewed asan end in itself, without any thought paid to what solutions it might generate.” This excess of erudition ultimately led to “an intellectual myopia that views knowledge as nothing more than research into details.”[4] As for the philosophy underpinning this research, “with its explicative essays, arbitrary delimitations, pointless subtleties, endless confusions, fruitless discussions and loose verbiage,” it was a “counterfeit version of intellectualism.”[5]

So why did this failure occur? The main reason was that Western science, having limited itself to an analysis of the material world, sheered itself off from metaphysics:

Metaphysics understands the key principles of the universal order upon which all things necessarily depend, directly or indirectly. When metaphysics is absent, surviving knowledge of any variety truly lacks its guiding principle, and while this might lend it some independence (not because it ought to, but simply as a consequence), what it loses in terms of range and depth is much more significant. This is why Western science is, so to speak, all surface. It fractures into an undefined multiplicity of fragmentary knowledge, getting lost in countless factual details and garnering nothing about the real nature of things.[6]

Having been severed from metaphysics, Western science presents as “an ignorant form of knowledge.” In fact, “a civilization without principles – or whose principles are purely negative and therefore not principles at all – is like a headless body stumbling on through a life that is both intense and disordered.”[7] Western science and philosophy’s ultimate fate is thus intellectual suicide.[8] Accumulating increasing amounts of analysis never allows a vision to emerge:

The Western idea that synthesis effectively serves as the end product of and conclusion to analysis is profoundly wrong. The truth is that one can never arrive at a genuine synthesis through analysis because the two belong to entirely different categories. So long as the subject being analyzed permits it, analysis can, by its very nature, be pursued indefinitely, without the analyst getting any closer to an overarching view of the subject. As such, it is a perfectly ineffectual means of reconnecting us to any superior kind of principle.[9]

As for teaching practices, they have almost entirely replaced intelligence with feats of memory. All we ask of students at every level of schooling is that they accumulate knowledge rather than assimilate it. As a result, the focus is on studying things that require no understanding. Facts have been substituted for ideas, and erudition is commonly mistaken for real science.

To promote or discredit a particular branch of knowledge or method, all one need do is proclaim that it is or is not ‘scientific’. ‘Scientific methods’, as defined by official consensus, are actually the least intelligent forms of erudition and the most likely to exclude anything not based on researching facts for facts’ sake, right down to their most insignificant details. It is worth pointing out that literature scholars are the most frequent abusers of the term. The prestige attached to the ‘scientific’ label – and it really is nothing more than a label – demonstrates how pure scientism has triumphed.[10]

The Grandes Ecoles that constitute France’s elite universities were in a position to either replicate a system that had been brain-dead for several decades or choose a model of their own invention. It is quite telling that some of them opted for the former, despite the fact that it would have been quite simple for them to bring their universities back to life by exhuming the pre-industrial history of their institutions. Those schools with a future are restoring university colleges by teaching small but multifaceted groups. They opt for tutoring over the illusory belief that the masses can be directed in industrial style. They prize personal reading as a means of learning, rather than purposeless monologues. In this regard, creative life is reappearing where we least expected it to.

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[1] René Guénon, Orient et Occident (Paris: Editions Vega, 1924), p. 21. All extracts cited throughout this article are translations of the original French text.

[2] Ibid., p. 31.

[3] Ibid., p. 12.

[4] Ibid., p. 103.

[5] Ibid., p. 98.

[6] Ibid. p. 41.

[7] Ibid., p. 112.

[8] Ibid., p. 118.

[9] Ibid., p.42.

[10] Ibid., p. 49.