Humanities: For whom?

Image: Paulinho Fluxuz


Reflections on a (neo)liberal critique of the university today

In the edition of June 22, 2020, the newspaper Gazeta do Povo published the article Why the human sciences lost prestige in liberal society and how to regain it[I], by Jean Marcel Carvalho France. The argument that the author produces to defend his central thesis – the existence of a crisis between the human sciences and liberal society – seems to us quite fragile, from a logical point of view, and extremely partial, from an ideological point of view, reasons why which we would like to offer here a critique of França's positions[ii].

In the first place, we will make a synthetic exposition of the main ideas from which the author builds his considerations, commenting on some of them and thus tracing the argumentative structure of his text. Next, we will problematize the author's assumptions, and finally, through a direct debate, we will seek to challenge each of the reasons that, according to França, would be the causes of the failure of the humanities: 1) the failure to deliver its “products” ; 2) the “resentment” of intellectuals; 3) the wide academic “supply” of illiberal ideas – pseudotheories, “conspiracies”.

general presentation

According to França, there are two maxims that are very evident today, namely: that there is a crisis of legitimacy in the relationship between Universities and liberal societies and that the human sciences, in particular, have lost relevance in the face of these same societies. The author gives a brief historical account of the origins of the link between liberal society and the modern University, comparing, to some extent, its position with that of the medieval University, leading us to think that even in the Universities of the Middle Ages it would be possible to detect the presence of “traits” that, residually, prove their fruitful relationship with liberal society, despite not pointing out precisely what these remaining traits would be. For the author, the close connection between the two areas – University and liberal society – was advantageous for both, especially between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, when on the one hand, the Academy gained in terms of autonomy and freedom of research, while on the other , society (always the liberal one!) enjoyed innovations and scientific and/or cultural advances.

After that, França basically starts to expose the reasons that, in his opinion, led to the crisis between the humanities and society, reasons that would be related to the modern condition of the University as an institution, according to his analysis, an environment that became massified , which increasingly adopted the regime of specialization and compartmentalization of knowledge and which allowed itself to be governed by an excessive bureaucracy. This characterization of the modern University constitutes, to a large extent, the basis of França's arguments; and, however, he seems to completely ignore the highly controversial character that it carries, since these characteristics are sources of countless criticisms and disagreements, since there is not the slightest sign of consensus, and even less of any evidence, in admitting, for example , that the issue of massification is something that harms the quality of scientific research and the relationship between the University and society.

Indeed, to justify the malaise between the University and society, França bases his argument on three main axes: 1) the failure of the human sciences to fulfill their social function, or, using the author's own vocabulary, the failure of these sciences to delivery of its “products” to society; 2) the existence of a kind of repression on the part of the intellectuals who make up the so-called humanities, that is, these professionals would be, for the most part, taken by a certain “resentment” towards the capitalist system; 3) the presence, or rather the high supply, within the university environment, of “conspiratorial” ideologies, which would be critical of the liberal/capitalist world and easily absorbed by the academic public, that is, the intellectuals of the human sciences would not do anything else but to “indoctrinate” students with “worldviews” that are nothing more than mere “conspiracies”. Nominally, França cites two dominant “conspiracies”: one, with a Marxist bias, and the other, with a Nietzschean bias.

Finally, if the title of the article states or, at least, implies that it will offer solutions to restore the prestige of the humanities, unfortunately the reader is disappointed to find that the “how to recover it” (part of the title) is nothing more than half a paragraph of generic and enigmatic ideas. By mentioning, at the conclusion of the text, a “new world that is emerging”, and by emphasizing the need for the humanities to renew their “portfolio of ideas and services”, the impression that remains is that the author defends a total ideological alignment of the University, not with a “new world”, but with the old (neo)liberal world. Now, what exactly does “renew portfolio of ideas” mean? Difficult to answer rigorously, but, based on the general tenor of França's text, this would represent the “solution” to the question of the social discredit of the human sciences, which would imperatively involve the abolition of criticism of the current system, capitalism. In practical terms, França's proposal transpires an appeal for intellectuals to admit that the liberal-capitalist system is the best possible alternative for socioeconomic organization, and then direct their theoretical and practical efforts to research that corroborates this ideal.

The problem of assumptions

França works throughout his argument with fragile assumptions, which need further verification as to their adequacy to reality. For example: the very statement that there is a crisis between the University and liberal societies and that this discredits the human sciences is an excessively vague reasoning, thus dispensing with a more objective foundation. Political sectors or specific layers of the population cannot correspond to society in general. It would be necessary to identify quantitatively and qualitatively which social groups feel dissatisfied with the university institution. To speak of “liberal societies” is exaggeratedly generic, it would be necessary here to “name a horse”. Against whom exactly did the human sciences lose prestige? To business and mass communication conglomerates? To conservative and reactionary politicians? To the economic elites? Facing salaried workers? To popular leaders? If one intends to solve the supposed crisis of the humanities, first of all it is necessary to clarify which agents are involved, their interests, their priorities.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that under the spirit of our time, a certain feeling of obsolescence hovers over the human sciences, however, analyzing this problem seriously requires us to think about a greater number of complex factors, such as: the advancement of technology in all spheres of human life, the sacralization of profit and the cult of entrepreneurship, the excessive secularization of knowledge, etc.

Another highly debatable issue is the author's insistence on the rigid separation between the University and liberal society. Such a separation is fragile and artificial, as it does not seem reasonable to believe that academic institutions have an autonomous, independent life, without objective correlations with the society in which they are inserted. The way in which França's argument understands the relationship between University and liberal society is overly simplistic, as it consists in the mere opposition of social spheres (University x society), as if the two spheres were guided by sovereign and self-sufficient interests. Just as the medieval Universities, mentioned by our author, were the result of a specific historical time, marked by ideologies, beliefs and a concrete world arrangement, the current University is also a result, it is a production and reproduction device of its historical, political context , social and economic; in short, the University today is also determined and determinant of its context, it is a reflection of society, and it is not possible to simply dissociate one thing from the other. By so statically separating Academy and society, the author fails to consider the mutual influence and interconnections between the two parts. Therefore, it is a false, erroneous dissociability. Furthermore, the plurality of ideas and criticisms that circulate in the university environment is something natural and legitimate, since such an institution is precisely inserted in a liberal system, and, consequently, to reproach or want to abolish this plurality, as it seems to suggest França, it would be contradictory, inconsistent with the very basic principles of liberalism.

There is yet another fragile assumption that runs through the entire text by França: the moralizing belief that the liberal-capitalist organization of society is the best and/or only possible one. The author implies that such a worldview is undeniably superior to any other, and that it should be universally valid. However, in order to put the moral superiority of liberalism to the test, we could, by way of mere illustration, remind its apologists of the complacency of liberal-capitalists towards slave-owning and colonialist regimes (it does not hurt to remember: England and Holland, until the middle of the XNUMXth century, colonized countries in Africa and Asia!)[iii]. Freedom and the supremacy of the individual over the State are liberal principles that throughout history were valid only for small portions of society. Native populations, blacks, the poor, women and other minorities were not considered citizens, and in some cases, not even people. We can also mention the open support of liberals, including their intellectual core, to Latin American dictatorships in the last century (perhaps the most eloquent case is that of the famous “Chicago School”, which, notable for training liberal theorists, openly supported the Pinochet regime in Chile). In other words, when France talks about “principles of civility”, it can even sound like dissimulation and a certain perversity. Millions of people, entire nations bled and were subjugated, people massacred and condemned to work until death, decimation of indigenous ethnic groups, all in the name of progress and economic expansion. What is “civilized” about this history of liberalism, which so deserves to be revered by the Academy?


Human sciences and the logic of commodification

Reading carefully, it is possible to observe that França seeks to explain the social discredit of the humanities, always basing his analyzes on market criteria, even going so far as to equate philosophical systems with merchandise! Despite this equation becoming more noticeable in the third element that justifies the crisis between human sciences and liberal societies (the Marxist and Nietzschean theories as the two great conspiracies that dominate the University), it is present throughout his text, because when he says that the humanities failed to deliver their products and services (first justifying element), and even when it states that intellectuals are resentful of the liberal-capitalist system (second justifying element), France ends up reducing the whole problem to economistic categories. This is a very relevant fact, as it exposes the author's partiality and ideological involvement with the neoliberal system.

According to França, the humanities failed in their social commitment by not delivering what was expected of them, according to their own words, basically two “products”: 1) “wisdom for conducting one's own life”, and 2) “principles of civility that make human coexistence in society less conflicted and more cohesive”. Although we consider this view of the author somewhat romanticized and uncritical, it is not our objective here to discuss the question of the pertinence or not of expecting such results. What draws our attention is the author's enormous effort to frame these results from a perspective that only wants to corroborate the supposedly insurmountable character of mercantile relations in liberal society, for whom, only what is a “product” has value.

In market societies, the notion prevails that knowledge must be instrumentalized, it must have a practical application. Contemplative, abstract knowledge has no space, no value in itself. That the researcher, whether in the humanities or not, must submit his studies to the pressure of external interests (mainly economic-market ones) is already an artificial premise, not to mention a strongly ideological one. Equating knowledge with a “product”, a simple “merchandise”, is the serious symptom of a system that subjugates everything to the interests of economic and market power. Furthermore, even admitting the premise of practical utility, the statement that the human sciences are failing in their social commitment is demonstrably false, see the surprising results recently published in the CHSSALA report[iv].

If common sense does not perceive the importance, contributions and decisive effects of the human sciences for the country's development, this is not a problem of the value of the humanities, it is a problem of another nature, a cultural issue, of public opinion perception , and to solve it, or at least minimize it, we need to think about other models of civilizational project. Effectively, this would involve, at the very least, the universalization of access to the most basic and highest levels of education, the guarantee of material living conditions, elementary conditions for the entire population, the engagement of people in the political debate and involvement with public affairs, by providing opportunities for free time, so that people can enjoy cultural, artistic and intellectual productions, etc.; finally, it seems, only a transformation of this nature will be enough for society as a whole to finally realize the indispensability of the human sciences. It is really about making a “new world emerge”.

Are intellectuals merely resentful critics?

Let us now move on to the thesis on the supposed resentment of intellectuals in the human sciences. Supported by a hypothesis by Robert Nozick, Jean França maintains that the explanation for the intellectuals' grief, directed at capitalism, finds its origin in the relations between student/school, or students/teachers, given that in the school environment some students would stand out in the activities that involve language and the production of ideas, and therefore would have their recognition guaranteed in that environment. Still following this hypothesis, when the moment of integration into the “market society” (different from the “school society”) arrives, the student described above would no longer have the same level of recognition and attention that he had at school, which would cause him a negative feeling towards this competitive society. In short, this is the core of França's interpretation of the issue of “resentment” by intellectuals in the humanities. If we are to take Nozick's hypothesis replicated by França seriously, we could ask ourselves: which countries were on Nozick's horizon when elaborating this reasoning? Did he consider the educational system and Brazilian characteristics? That is, taking into account our specificities, would it be possible to apply such reasoning to our context? Essential questions, but without the slightest clarification on the part of our author. In this sense, the argument cannot be sustained, because it simply ignores a series of factors and mishaps of all kinds (subjective, family, socioeconomic, political, etc.), which influence and concretely determine individual choices and limitations. Such factors and mishaps are present in the life of each and every individual, especially in Brazil, a country with so many adversities for those who intend to dedicate themselves to an academic career; therefore it is a serious mistake to disregard them.

But even so, let us overlook all this and, hypothetically, assume in advance that most of the academic world linked to the areas of human sciences is anti-liberal or anti-capitalist. Would this be explained merely by the subjective and sentimental aspects? Wouldn't this be an exaggeratedly reductionist, psychologistic explanation? Now, wouldn't there be objective conditions that, to a certain degree, would contribute to the feeling of aversion to the current system? Let's see.

If there is a kind of “grievance” towards capitalism, surely it is because there is also an objective basis for it, and what basis is that? The very contradictions of a market society. In general terms, especially in some more specific subareas, scholars of the human sciences are directly faced with the way societies function, they analyze and break down mechanisms of social, political and economic organization, they are aware of the diversity and complexity of cultural organizations, their values ​​and principles, understand the influence of the past on the present and on the future, see the dynamism of the historical movement; finally, the philosopher, the anthropologist, the sociologist, the historian, and others, are much more capable of understanding society scientifically than professionals in other major areas. To a certain extent, this is naturally understandable and has the obvious consequence of the fact that researchers in the humanities have greater contact with the inconsistencies and dramas of the society in which they are inserted, and since this society is liberal, it is logical that liberalism is the one to be criticized.

As an example, let's take the analysis of a specific problem. Historian Luiz Marques, professor at UNICAMP, in his book Capitalism and environmental collapse (2015)[v], defends the incompatibility of reconciling the maintenance and operation of the industrial market system with the ecological survival of the planet, which ultimately means human survival. An analysis of this type of problem is essential in our times and has been produced by someone with a very solid background in the humanities. Would it then be legitimate, due to the criticism produced, to accuse him of being “resentful” or “envious”? That sounds ridiculous! To assume that someone dedicates four, five years of research work, publishes a consistent book, full of data and rigorous analysis, with the main objective of gaining recognition and socioeconomic prestige, is intellectually impoverishing. The case of our example, far from characterizing resentment or envy, reflects much more the urgent realization that the signs of exhaustion on the planet are already evident. The capitalist doctrine defends the increase of production and wealth, as well as the infinite enjoyment of material goods, in fact, they preach it as if it were something really achievable for everyone, but, imagine if the entire world population consumed at the same levels as the US , for example, the maximum representative of global liberalism, well, that would be catastrophic. The most elementary principles of capitalism are not consistent with environmental balance, it is impossible to sustain them in the long term. This is a basic objective contradiction of the liberal-capitalist system. In short, understanding the logic of capital makes it possible to expose its intrinsic inequalities. There is no middle ground: for one region of the planet to allow itself the luxury of squandering, others have to suffer the most essential privations. And yet, most staunch defenders of capitalism are reluctant to admit that the Earth has a physical limit and that this may not be so far away.

Well then, even if we accept the “resentment” of intellectuals as an assumption, given the above, wouldn't it really be legitimate to develop some kind of aversion or resentment towards capitalism? Our position on the objective contradictions of the capitalist system, briefly presented here, at least demonstrates greater fruitfulness than the reasons presented by França in her text, these having an excessively psychological character, without ballast with the concrete dynamics of reality. In fact, contrary to França's thesis, it is more plausible to state that it is capitalism that has a strong resentment, a certain antipathy, towards intellectuals and the humanities in general, as these are, to a large extent, responsible for the elaboration of the most forceful criticisms of him. When the irrationality and contradictions of market society are denounced, obviously its most radical apologists are opposed and create a certain moralizing aversion to their critics.

The Marxist-Nietzschean Conspiracy

Another justification that would explain the destruction of the good relationship between the human sciences and liberal society would be, according to França, the propagation of Marxist and Nietzschean theories within the University. The author seems to suggest that such theoretical perspectives are nothing but pseudo-theories, that is, they have no critical, scientific foundation, and would be easily absorbed by the general public, as they adopt the principle of conspiracy.

That is to say, for France, the ideas of Marxist and Nietzschean inspiration represent nothing more than a double conspiracy, the Marxist ideas, forged to mistakenly convince people that their lives are dominated by those who hold more economic and political power; Nietzsche's ideas, formulated to disrupt the ordinary life of subjects, making them mistakenly think that in the universe of their microrelationships, the universe of small powers, there is always a person or group that dominates, exerts influence over another.

That is, according to our author, people who hold greater economic and political power do not exercise dominion over the lives of people with lesser power, this is a Marxist “conspiracy”. Likewise, according to França, the micro dimension of our relationships, our ordinary day-to-day life, is fully harmonious and fair, which is why to assume that there are power relations there is to “conspire” in a Nietzschean way against the natural peace of our routine. . Well, well, now we are convinced: Marx and Nietzsche really are two mere conspirators and nothing more!

To close his thesis on conspiracy theories with a flourish, França argues that the dissemination of such ideas is due precisely to the fact that they are conspiracies, as common sense would be prone to incorporating this type of theory. At this point, we will only say that a conception of “common sense” more “common sense” than this one would not be possible for us to imagine.

France must also be reminded that both Marx and Nietzsche are thinkers of the liberal-capitalist West, and not only that, their speculations and theories are correlated and, in one way or another, influenced by the liberal tradition. It is a serious mistake to want to homogenize the history of Western thought, as our author does. The way in which the notion of society is approached by him suggests that the development of all modern and contemporary thought was constituted exclusively through a single genre of ideas, that of liberalism, when, in fact, other philosophical currents stood out so much theoretically , as in the practical sphere. Positivism, Romanticism, Socialism, Existentialism, as well as others, are all, originally, western philosophical-cultural movements that developed in liberal-capitalist states and that resonated and still resonate in liberal culture, affecting it in degrees and measures. different, but never failing to cause some kind of impact. What we want to say with this is that liberalism, like any other cultural-philosophical perspective, is not homogeneous, free of interference or external influences.

Especially in relation to Karl Marx, it should also be noted that, in 2019, the National Association of Graduate Studies in Philosophy (ANPOF) carried out a survey in which a very low amount of research on Marx was found in Brazilian Universities, thus contradicting the paranoid belief that there is a “cultural Marxism” plotting, from within the Academy, to take power in all social spheres. Of the 47 graduate programs in Philosophy that were then part of the ANPOF, 46 were analyzed, and of these, there were 34 that did not even include Marx in their bibliographical references.[vi]. This survey is important because it reveals, to some extent, how plural the Brazilian university environment in the humanities is, made up both of people opposed to the liberal-capitalist ideology, as well as of people who are sympathetic to it.

There is a caveat to be made here, although obvious, important: not all individuals, whether intellectuals, researchers in the human sciences or not, who are critical of liberalism are necessarily illiberal or anti-capitalist. There are those who adopt reformist positions, whose disagreements are specific, not even defending the overcoming of the capitalist model. In this sense, it is naive to think that each and every person or group that eventually opposes liberalism has Marxist inspiration. More radical Marxists postulate the total overcoming of capitalism, the radical transformation of society through revolution. Now, in this sense, we agree that the current scenario, not only in Brazil, but in the world, does not even remotely allow us to corroborate França's thesis that Marxist ideas are largely incorporated by the general public. If this were really the case, it would probably already be possible to visualize the boiling of a socialist revolution. In the current international geopolitical circumstances, would any lucid argument even be capable of sustaining such a belief?

Finally, the importance of Marx's thought is undeniable, his theoretical contributions go far beyond the philosophical field, also resonating in history, economics, political science, anthropology, sociology, etc. Is this whole range of knowledge simply being indoctrinated by a conspiracyist for over a century and a half? Such an argument cannot be sustained and to accept it would be to greatly underestimate the intelligence and discernment capacity of many generations of researchers and scholars.

Deciphering the “solutions”

For all this, we understand that França's positions are marked by excessive generalizations and simplifications, which not only do not allow the real dimensioning of the existing quarrel between human sciences and society (specifically liberal-capitalist society), but ideologically distorts it.

Of course, as we have stated, it is not our intention to deny that in current times, facing a highly computerized and pragmatic society, the humanities are experiencing a certain wear and tear and that the feeling of their obsolescence is not real. Understanding such a phenomenon requires theoretical-analytical efforts that, seriously carried out, we know, are beyond the scope of a journalistic article, however, it is unreasonable to take into account a diagnosis sustained on such fragile bases, as the text by França presents and less it is still possible to believe in the promise of its title to provide solutions to the problem.

As already mentioned, in order to recover prestige and overcome the crisis between the University and society, the author chooses as a strategy the renewal of the “portfolio of ideas and services” offered by the academic community linked to the area of ​​human sciences. Needless to say, this is extremely vague. However, we are going to try to decipher our author's insinuations here. Let's take a risk.

The expression “the wheel has turned” suggests something of a celebration of the arrival of a new government in power.

In this other sentence, the quotation marks indicate an ironic criticism of those who oppose the government: “It is true that we can 'resist', we can accuse the 'dark times' and we can even dream the dream that we fight against a renewed dictatorship.”

The author's pro-government position is clear, or at least a willingness to align himself completely favorably with the country's current political administration.

Second point: the current government has, as we know through its positions and public policies, two fundamental characteristics: 1) neoliberal in the economy (just look at the projects of Paulo Guedes and his team) and 2) conservative or even reactionary in customs , (for this, we just need to look at figures like Damares Alves, the former Ministers of Education and the statements of the President himself, in addition to countless examples that could still be cited).

Would anyone be so foolish as to deny these two central features of the current government? Unlikely. Now, observing our author's vocabulary, is it not clear its alignment with these characteristics? Quite believable.

Finally, we did not find in the author's conclusions clear and concrete proposals for resolving the impasse between the University (humanities) and society, and thus, whoever reads the publication by França in the expectation of envisioning better days for the human sciences and for society, he has to settle accounts with a double frustration: political and intellectual.

* Rafael Lopes Batista He is a professor of philosophy in the state education network of Mato Grosso do Sul.

*Weiny César Freitas Pinto is professor of philosophy at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul (UFMS).



[I] See

[ii]Jean França's text served us as a starting point for carrying out a task to which we do not deny the urgency and importance, namely: defending and promoting the existential, social and epistemological value of the humanities. The publication by França presents, in a more or less systematic way, part of the beliefs that underlie the opinion of detractors of the human sciences, and in a medium-sized communication vehicle, a fact that considerably increases the number of people reached. In general terms, this was the motivation for writing this text, whose content had the contribution of suggestions from Igor Matela, whom we thank.

[iii] Here is a small reference, which can serve as a means of introducing the subject:

[iv]Research report on the situation, in Brazil, of the Humanities, Applied Social Sciences, Linguistics, Letters and Arts (CHSSALLA). The survey was carried out by the CGEE (Center for Strategic Studies and Management), at the request of the MCTI (Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation). The report has just been published in book format and can be found here:

[v]MARQUES, L. Capitalism and environmental collapse. Campinas, SP: Editora da UNICAMP, 2015.

[vi] Available in: on August 12, 2020.

See this link for all articles


  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • Impasses and solutions for the political momentjose dirceu 12/06/2024 By JOSÉ DIRCEU: The development program must be the basis of a political commitment from the democratic front
  • Union registrationSUBWAY 11/06/2024 By LAWRENCE ESTIVALET DE MELLO & RENATA QUEIROZ DUTRA: The Ministry of Labor has decided to grant union registration to Proifes. However, union registration is not the same as union representation
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table
  • Confessions of a Catholic LadyMarilia Pacheco Fiorillo 11/06/2024 By MARILIA PACHECO FIORILLO: Congenital reactionism is not only the preserve of evangelicals
  • The STF, Artificial Intelligence and the Labor Courtsouto-maior_edited 07/06/2024 By JORGE LUIZ SOUTO MAIOR: The implementation of the replacement of the human being by AI presupposes that it has already been trained to act in the way desired by the ruling class
  • A myopic logicRED MAN WALKING _ 12/06/2024 By LUIS FELIPE MIGUEL: The government does not have the political will to make education a priority, while it courts the military or highway police, who do not move a millimeter away from the Bolsonarism that they continue to support
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario