Three Tribes in Academia

Perhaps the university is populated by three tribes, differing in their faiths, locked in eternal warfare. At any moment, two of these tribes are in alliance against the third. The three never come together as one. Instead, as issues shift, the alliance changes, with one tribe always on the out.

The Materialists. Patron: Hawking. Home town: Cambridge. They believe in objective Truth but not the Good, nor God. Motto: “It is what it is.”

The Absolutists. Patron: Aquinas. Home town: Rome. They believe in  objective Truth, the Good, and God. Motto: “Faith and reason.”

The Criticists. Patron: Foucault. Home town: Paris. They believe in the Good but not objective Truth or God. Motto: “Power corrupts.”

(A fourth tribe, the Spiritists, has never had much presence on campus. They don’t believe in objective Truth but they do believe in the Good, and in God(s). Their Patron is Jung and their Home town is Berkeley or Sante Fe. Motto: “Let it be.”)

Take a question like, is the sky blue. Materialists would say that this is a true aspect of reality, because they believe truth exists outside of us and that science can discover it.

Absolutists would agree with the Materialists that the sky is indeed blue, but would add that God has in some deep way made it so.

Criticists would disagree about the God part, but add that “blue” is a construct that only exists in our minds, and furthermore, the color blue was quite probably imposed through the work of a power structure.

Now watch the alliances shift.

If the Criticist says, “The sky is not blue,” the Materialists and Absolutists ally in opposition.

If the Materialist says, “The sky is blue and there’s nothing morally relevant about that,” the Criticists and Absolutists ally in opposition.

If the Absolutist says, “The sky’s blueness is an expression of God’s hand in nature,” the Materialists and the Criticists ally in opposition.

Round and round it goes. There are no stable conditions, because in human conversations, Is generally leads to Ought, and Ought generally leads to Why, and back again. Truth, value, and meaning, back and forth. Depending on which aspect of the conversation is foremost, different tribes are on different sides. Anyone who proposes a coherent combination of the three – and all three tribes do so – is outnumbered by two others who disagree with at least one part of it.

Robert Bellah, in his Religion in Human Evolution, says the problem of our time is its incoherence. True. The academy as a whole can’t make coherent, firm statements about reality, because the three tribes are locked in this endless dance.