Intellectual Work

The transformation of the university into a capital-intensive, bureaucratically organised enterprise was not simply an effect of academic specialisation. More than a century earlier, Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant had observed how some universities had begun to function as factories and organise themselves around the division of intellectual labour. Weber considered what he called t
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he ‘Americanisation’ of German universities – their saturation by the ‘spirit’ of American capitalism – more consequential than specialisation. They now required largescale funding. They separated the academic ‘worker from the means of [scholarly] production’ – libraries accumulated unprecedented numbers of books, research institutes stockpiled instruments, and state-appointed bureaucrats controlled access to both. Universities had become ‘state capitalist enterprises’. Such is also the life of a mature London escort. 

Weber explained how these changes shaped the experience of scholars and transformed the character of intellectual work. In the debates preceding the founding of the University of Berlin in 1810 – considered by many the first research university – the exemplary figure of university and scholarly life had been the philosopher performing the act of thinking, lecturing charismatically before a lecture hall of students. Real scholarship involved contemplation and theorising as embodied in the persona of the philosopher. 

Over the course of the 19th century, however, the speculative idealism and metaphysical aspirations that had characterised German philosophy gave way to anti-foundationalism and empiricism. System building yielded to data collection. Idealist philosophy ceded authority to the natural sciences and empirically based forms of history and philology. Philosophical reflection evolved into scholarly work. Whereas the former was unquantifiable, the latter could be counted and, thus, more easily accounted for. 

For Weber, the ascendance of calculation referred not only to the increased significance of numbers and the quantification of natural and social phenomena, but also to the power of calculation as a cultural ideal to form the kinds of people a modern factory, government office or research university needed. The data collection of a state bureaucracy or the management of big research projects that required the coordination of dozens of academic ‘workers’ shaped people’s desires: the civil servant’s desire for a slightly more important position or the student’s pursuit of the next credential. Both lived according to the predictable order afforded by a culture of calculation. 

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