The Judith Butler Affair

What is an intellectual activity?

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Erik, you constantly refer to something you call an “intellectual activity.” What do you actually mean by that?

Dear student, I’m glad you asked me that question. Intellectual activities are what a university is — or rather, should be — about. Intellectual activities are what we should engage in instead of fighting over promotions and office space. Intellectual activities, briefly put, is the life of the mind, it is a matter of thinking.

But hasn’t post-structuralist theory once and for all proven that thinking is a phallocentric power-game which perpetuates existing injustices and confines women to a subordinate position in society?

Well, no. If you believe that you’ll believe anything. First of all, post-structuralists themselves would object to the idea that they are in the business of delivering “proofs.” That’s just not what post-structuralism does. And if you want to do something about existing injustices I suggest you leave academia and join a political party. Politics too is a noble activity. But let the rest of us go on with our intellectual activities.

But surely there are many truths? Many ways of looking at the world? How can we ever decide between them?

We are actually not talking about a search for truth. Intellectual activities are not concerned with goals. Instead they describe a process — a process of making claims which are backed up by arguments. The arguments can be of different kinds — logical but also factual — and the intellectual process is concerned with investigating the power and applicability of those arguments. You say something which I try to refute. From our disagreement a conversation arises. This conversation is the intellectual activity.

Yeah, right. But what if men dismiss women’s arguments as invalid because they are based on experiences which men cannot share?

This is why thinking, and thinking together, is a process. It never stops. Intellectual activities require freedom and they have no respect for authority. If you try to direct them by arbitrary means you are exercising power. You tell people to shut up and obey. This is why we must oppose gender quotas on reading lists and all other kinds of external interference. In what I call the “university of the spirit,” no one has more power than the power of their best argument — and nobody takes orders from anybody else.

But what if you still fundamentally disagree?

This does happen of course. After all, there are many disputes between scholars that drag on for years and years. But this “dragging on” is just the point. We go on talking, go on testing the validity of each other’s claims.

That’s a nice answer. I now understand why post-structuralism is a danger to the university and why intellectual activities must be safeguarded at all costs.

You are a good student. Unless we believe in a shared standard of argumentation we might as well start throwing pies at each other. And remember, don’t take what your teachers say as the truth. Poke the bastards in the stomach with your sharpest argument. It is your responsibility to go on questioning.

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