The place of the humanities in the era of the technological university

Image: Kaique Rocha


Commentary on an essay by Arley Ramos Moreno

In “The Humanities in the Age of the Technological University”,[I] Brazilian philosopher Arley Ramos Moreno brings to light in a clear and nuanced way an ideological maneuver that distorts the place and appreciation of critical thinking. This maneuver consists of applying non-pertinent criteria to judgments of critical thinking, appropriate only to judgments about the operations of the empirical sciences and technology. The essay has as its object the place of the humanities in the university model that the author calls “technological”. For this, it retraces a historical journey of building a distinction between science and practical knowledge, in order to clarify the complexity of the relationships between scientific theories, technological knowledge and critical reflection. Its purpose is not to justify any kind of hierarchy among these exercises of the human spirit. On the contrary: through a clearer and more objective view of their relationships and differences, it is about doing justice to the requirements of their different operations, metrics and expected results.

Arley Moreno starts from a classic distinction: the “scientist” elaborates theories about universals, and the “engineer” applies these theories to particular situations – “which certainly causes new questions to proliferate, absent from the exclusively theoretical reflection of the scientist”. Now, among the humanistic disciplines we find some that aim at the practice of the “scientist” (theoretical knowledge) and others that aim at the practice of the “engineer” (practical knowledge). This criterion does not serve us, therefore, to demarcate the humanities from other types of knowledge. A more appropriate criterion would be “the focus given to the object of study by these activities”, centered either on causality or on the meanings attributed to them. Psychology is a good example: its field ranges from physiological reactions to significant aspects of behavior. The criterion of focus given to the object, namely, causality or meaning, allows the author to shift the axis of his discourse in relation to his classical antecedents.

The text then goes on to extract consequences of this displacement, based mainly on a contrast that was not articulable in the scientist-engineer paradigm: on the one hand, the “humanistic approach” is “pervaded by concepts of the researcher himself”, who elaborates “meta- concepts to interpret the meanings it thematizes”; on the other hand, the “empirical approach” operates with object concepts “to describe and explain natural processes according to mechanical and causal models”. A first consequence of this displacement is a luminous analysis of an ideological process that transforms quantities into valuation criteria, and which ends up determining evaluation metrics at the university. It would be an ideologically marked process not only by confusing quantities and qualities, but above all by justifying itself as a criterion for its supposed impartiality in the face of precisely and automatically quantifiable magnitudes. The time spatialization process is then used as an illustration. Its various instances consist of “effective techniques for appropriating natural and mechanical processes by scientific thought”, making the course of empirical processes in general measurable in spatial quantities (via instruments that mark gradations), such as the boiling point of water . It is a “theoretical work of objectification” that is not built to be applied “to processes that are not natural and mechanical in which meaning intervenes, such as symbolic processes”. That is, when evaluating beauty or justice, or “the amount of thought or understanding” expressed in an articulation between concepts, we will have to elaborate meta-concepts to preserve the objectivity of these concepts in relation to their subjective uses – just as the psychoanalyst does when apply their conceptual constellations to the patient's discourse. In this case, when we seek to neutralize subjective contents, we do not do so to make causal processes discrete and quantifiable (which in themselves do not make sense), but to interpret subjective meanings and communicate them in a more controlled manner. This is how, for example, the process of taking concepts at will to make it critical, as the author says elsewhere.[ii] The text then shows why the “indiscriminate generalization of the scientistic ideal of objectivity” would be an ideological operation, and how this operation affects the relations between the humanities and other disciplines in the university space. The way Moreno analyzes and clarifies this ideological operation, resuming what he calls a profound lesson of Cartesian idealism by reintroducing the subject of knowledge into the scene of the Galilean paradigm, clarifies many of the perplexities that, by remaining confused, paralyze the discourses in defense of the humanistic disciplines today. We will thus have "a chance to avoid the ideological consequence [resulting from scientism or the Galilean paradigm taken as absolute] which consists (...) in transforming conceptual relations of meaning into relations between spatialized units through numerical indices". In the specific case of the place of the humanities in the technological university, Moreno's essay allows us to understand the deep reach of the ideological operation that consists of “neutralizing the eventual value [of any fact or process, such as books, essays or classes] to, only afterwards, number” and hierarchize such facts or processes according to the resulting magnitudes. The objective of this criticism is not, however, to deny legitimacy to the Galilean paradigm, but to guard against its abuse, an abuse whose success depends precisely on an ideological cover-up:

Value is not a substance that accompanies each object as if it were its physical extension, but something that is added to it in the use that is made of it. Therefore, when trying to neutralize the value of one of these units, we will, in fact, be ideologically applying the legitimate requirement of Galilean objectification to natural facts, namely, we will be acting as if it were less exposed to errors and mistakes to discretize what is not is discretizable than issuing value judgments based on interpretations of the meaning of concepts.

Arley Ramos Moreno left us early, at the height of his philosophical creativity, just as he was finishing two volumes in which he gave a more complete form to his authorial philosophical system, a general reflection on what he called an epistemology of use. Inspired by Wittgenstein, Granger and the best tradition of what he called XNUMXth century philosophical pragmatics (Benveniste, Austin, Grice and others), the idea is to account for the way in which connections between signs and objects, made in a primordially vague and arbitrary way , conditions and makes possible all further operations of knowledge, and even the experience of meaning in general. Some of his former students prepare these unpublished volumes for publication, in Portuguese, English and German.

Arley was an example of a philosopher open to plural, frank and rigorous dialogue, and a researcher with a profound public spirit. I leave here a simple and nostalgic tribute at the moment when three years of his death are completed.

*Rafael Lopes Azize is an associate professor at the Dept. of Philosophy and the Graduate Program in Philosophy at the Federal University of Bahia.


[I]  Republished on In defense of the humanities (org. and presentation by Rafael Lopes Azize, Salvador: EDUFBA, 2020, available at

[ii] Interview by Arley Ramos Moreno to Rafael dos Reis Ferreira and Rafael Lopes Azize (magazine kinesis, v. 5, no. 10, 2013, Marília, SP). Available in

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