On the Necessity of Useless Scholarship

“The days of scholarship for its own sake are over.”

So wrote David Freedberg, an American academic who was, for a fairly brief period, Director of the Warburg Institute in London. What is the Warburg Institute, and what is the context of this rather chilling remark? The answers to these questions are of central importance to scholars of western esotericism.

The Warburg Institute, for those who have not had the blessing of knowing it first hand, is one of the best places on earth. It is a uniquely-organised library full of books on shelves – a dying breed – and, although they have grudgingly dispensed with card-catalogues in favour of computers, the library itself remains stubbornly adherent to its founder’s vision: open-stack books in serried ranks, inviting the browser to become distracted halfway toward the goal of finding a particular book, and spending the rest of the day reading some other volume of no direct relevance. A library of fertile chance encounters. Who was the founder of this visionary temple of the Muses? Aby Warburg (1866-1929), of the Warburg banking dynasty, who had no head for business and set out instead to spend his part of the inexhaustible family wealth on founding the world’s first interdisciplinary institution for the study of the Classical tradition. They describe themselves thus:

Founded by Aby Warburg in Hamburg at the end of the nineteenth century and exiled from Germany in 1933, the Warburg Institute attracted the greatest humanist scholars and philosophers of the time – from Erwin Panofsky and Edgar Wind to Ernst Cassirer. The Warburg Institute quickly became one of the leading centres in Germany for the understanding of the interactions between images and society across time and space.  It transformed the histories of art, literature, and music, and in emphasizing fields such as astrology and magic, anticipated many of the developments in the modern understanding of the history of science.

But the Warburg is so much more than this. Certain institutions have a subtle scholarly vibe which no mission statement can summarise fully, and the ‘Burg is one of these; people speak of a ‘Warburg School’ of scholars, but you can’t quite pin down any common elements which might make them a ‘school’. But a list of names includes some real luminaries of twentieth century scholarship, including pioneers in the study of western esotericism like Frances Yates and D.P. Walker, whose contributions helped put the subject on the map of respectable research interests, and giants like Gershom Scholem, who used the library as a home away from home whenever he was in London.

The Institute was originally in Hamburg, but the rise to power of the Nazis led Warburg, the scion of a Jewish banking family, prudently to relocate to London in 1933. The Institute was absorbed into the University of London in 1944. And things went swimmingly for some time: amazing scholarship was published, both game-changing books (Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, first published in 1964, has never been out of print; D.P. Walker’s Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella is a tour de force which helped give serious academics permission to study magic as a historical phenomenon) and in the delightful Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, a classy scholarly ‘zine.

That’s not one of the finest libraries in the world – it’s a wasted real-estate deal

Things went well, that is, until recently, when the University of London decided that the Warburg needed to give up its purpose-built, one-of-a-kind, world-class library premises (which – by pure coincidence – is a piece of central London real estate worth, literally, zillions) and move to some cramped closet somewhere with three computers and hot-desking. Online petitions and concerted efforts by scholars all over the world, along with the fact that the University is legally required to respect the Warburg’s premises according to the original deal of incorporation with said University, have led to the failure of the University’s efforts to strip the Warburg’s assets. So far. But we must stay vigilant. They will certainly try again. To a manager posing as a scholar – a member of the parasitic class now increasingly controlling the UK’s universities – the thought of unspoilt shelves of actual paper books sitting there doing nothing but being read, day in and day out, as though scholarship were about something other than quantified research targets and trendy slogans – this makes their blood boil. It keeps them awake at night. They feel an instinctive need to bring such anomalies within the fold of the commodified realm of neoliberal content-provision, a.k.a. ‘education’. And this brings us back to the notion that ‘the days of scholarship for its own sake are over.’

What business, you might ask, has the director of an institution like the Warburg Institute, a place which has not merely suggested, but outright proved that scholarship for its own sake is a hugely valuable cultural institution, to make such a statement? Well, the key word in this question is not ‘scholarship’ or ‘institution’; it is ‘business’. Let’s have a look at Freedberg’s remark in its context, delivered as a speech introducing the wonderful new approaches he was planning to bring to the Warburg:

So there is a huge task – to make the Warburg original, innovative, not antiquarian. Humanities have lost ground because they are not able to justify what they are doing in the way that scientists can. What I am hoping to do is to make clear why the humanities are essential to life not only in the academic world, but in the world at large. We cannot just lose confidence in our sense of the relevance of what we do. It’s not just a matter of collecting information, being documentary. The days of scholarship for its own sake are over.

What does ‘Humanities have lost ground’ mean, exactly? It means ‘Humanities have lost funding’. In my experience, workers in the humanities have not lost confidence in the sense of the relevance of what they do; it’s just that they can’t find jobs, because people aren’t funding the humanities.

This is not the place to decry the ongoing collapse of the humanities in academia, nor even to dissect the ways in which Freedberg’s programme here, posing as an attempt to revivify the humanities, is in reality a ceding of the high ground to the forces of commodification. Instead, I would like to make two more basic points:

  • Firstly, that scholarship for its own sake self-evidently is, and has always been, a good thing
  • and, secondly, that there has never been a better time to pursue scholarship for its own sake than right now.

Take the first point, that scholarship for its own sake is inherently good. This is not to argue that every instance of scholarship for its own sake will have amazing outcomes – a lot of it will be crap. The argument is rather that society as a whole benefits immeasurably from creating the environment in which such self-driven scholarship flourishes. Let’s consider a single example: from antiquity until the seventeenth century, higher mathematics was widely seen as a science with no practical applications. The crazy people who studied and advanced it were tolerated as parasites on the useful fabric of society, who perhaps had something to contribute to the airy world of ideas, but weren’t worthy to shine the shoes of someone like a weaver, a banker, or an astrologer, all people whose skills gave concrete results here in the ‘real world’. Nevertheless – and crucially – some of these men and women either found patronage or had sufficient funds of their own to devote themselves to ‘scholarship for its own sake’. They worked on higher mathematics.

Well, it turns out that higher mathematics was, against all odds, the perfect philosophic language all along, enabling the entirety of modern applied science, engineering, theoretical physics (which tends to become practical, applied physics), electronics, computing, and a host of other fairly useful things. They naysayers were wrong. But that is not to say that the mathematicians knew any of this. They were just driven, for the most part, by a fairly crazy obsession with numbers (which, remember, are ‘imaginary’) and for seeing what they do in different situations (also ‘imaginary’); they weren’t predicting the invention of the computer or the mathematical modeling of the big bang or even modern structural engineering. But they studied anyway.

History contains, in fact, an epic saga of useless scholarship which turned out later to be surpassingly, transformatively useful. Books could and have been written on the subject, so I won’t belabour the point here, except to point out an obvious corollary: no one could predict that mathematics would become the most powerful intellectual engine of world-transformation in human history, not because they lacked imagination or insight, but because such predictions are generally impossible to make. Thus, we have absolutely no way of knowing what amazing and fundamentally-important new developments will arise from what undirected, seemingly useless research-stream by what dazed, useless scholar in what field; the only sensible policy is, as a culture, to support every possible scholarly endeavor, for its own sake, and to the hilt (except weapons-research, which is obviously anti-human, so no government or society in their right mind would fund it … wait, never mind). The more the better; later generations will undoubtedly reap the dividends long after the currently-trendy managerial bullshit has faded from academia.

This leads to my second point, that there has never been a better time to pursue ‘useless’ scholarship for its own sake. This is true both concretely and metaphysically. Concretely, is it heretical to suggest that the richest societies the world has ever seen might possibly be a teensy bit shortsighted in dismantling humanistic education because they just can’t find the money to pay for it in the face of ‘the realities of today’s economic belt-tightening’? That the headlong rush toward commodification of literally every branch of human life just might be culturally-suicidal?

If you think, ‘No, we are right to eliminate this humanities nonsense – there is real research to be done, and we all need to get busy with that’, well, so be it. I hope you are at least consistent, and don’t enrich your life with any music, art, literature, film, or even engage in cultivated conversation, since to do so would of course make you a hypocrite and a betrayer of the dream of human perfectibility through pure, unalloyed ‘science’. Perhaps you could take up Nuspeak to purify your thinking of all that humanistic frippery. But let us assume that you are here because you are interested in some absurd and ‘useless’ subject related to western esotericism. There has literally never, in the history of mankind, been a time when society can afford more resources to support your devotion to a life of study and research (or even esoteric spiritual practices of all kinds). The technological marvels which the useless researchers-for-its-own-sake of the past have made possible make it possible for you basically to study whatever you want for your entire life. If that feels like your mission, go for it. You may have to jump through all manner of hoops to get paid to do this, but find a way, and not in the spirit of ‘paying your way’, but rather in the spirit of ‘drawing your social dividend’. In the medieval Islamic world there was a whole class of wandering scholars who traveled around seeking knowledge full time. It was quite normal to travel from Bukhara to Granada, discussing ideas with a trans-national republic of letters along the way. These scholars would be supported, as a matter of course, by any community in which they rocked up. Of course, they weren’t working on real, serious stuff like scientific research, they were just doing useless stuff like transforming logical theory (making the computer possible), music theory (making jazz possible, and jazz makes all the rest of modern music possible), making breakthroughs in useless astronomical theory (making serious navigation possible and paving the way for Galileo and Copernicus – two other useless scholars-for-its-own-sake), and inventing the hospital (kind of useful, it turns out). So were the Islamicate common folk right to support these scholars, living as they did much closer to subsistence level than even the poorest people in modern developed capitalist societies, and themselves never living to see the eventual benefits of all this work? Damn right they were, and the modern world OWES US A LIVING in corresponding proportion to the degree to which we are all that much richer today.

Metaphysically, the society that strips the assets of the Warburg Institute is a society in its death-throes. I don’t want to sound all Oswald Spengler here, because I don’t believe in inevitable-decline-and-fall narratives, but let’s look at the Roman Empire for a second. The arts and the humanities flourished in Rome right up till the end, of this there is no doubt. They were diminished, the lights were gradually winking out, but the torch was still passed until the dark ages swallowed the cultures of the western Mediterranean entirely, and even then the Orthodox Roman world carried on for nearly a millennium. But the point I want to make is that, from the second century on, the choices that were made at the state level served, essentially, to ‘underfund’ the humanities, as all resources of the vast empire were increasingly absorbed by the bloated, all-dominant military machine. Taxes went up and up, but it all went to the army. Every time they won a victory they got a pay rise, and there was never a reversal of the trend. It was, in fact, a victory of the ‘practical’ over every other possible aspect of societal wealth – just keep the army afloat at all costs or we go under – with worrying parallels in our own times. They bailed out the high-finance gamblers with our money back in 2009, and now they’re telling us that the time when we can afford old-fashioned humanistic scholarship and engagement with history is past.

There’s no dearth of cash. It’s just going into the wrong pockets. There’s no dearth of will; people nowadays are bathing in information of all stamps, and exploring all manner of avenues. Granted that increasingly many of them will never read a book in their lives – there is enough wealth comfortably to support ALL the scholars of western esotericism in a giant phalanstery on our own private island for the next hundred years, and all we’d need to do is relieve a single banker of his yearly bonus to have it! We could even buy some old-fashioned paper books, and learn obscure languages, and pursue recondite currents of thought wherever they lead, in the knowledge that we are all part of the Republic of Letters, and therefore our work is valuable FOR ITS OWN SAKE.

This is a metaphysical problem, it is a problem of priorities. Scholarship for its own sake is the only answer.