Academic Purpose

Scholarship is the business of exposing ideas to criticism. They may be our own ideas or those of our peers. Or we may critique the ideas that inform the leaders, managers, and artists we study. In any case, the aim of our scholarship is to bring an idea into the light and examine it. We are not surprised, nor offended, when this examination reveals the weaknesses of an idea. Some ideas may be improved and some may need to be discarded altogether. Sometimes our inquiries will reveal flaws in the very foundations on which the ideas have been proposed. But here, too, we are neither surprised nor offended; rather, we are grateful to be disabused of the errors we have inherited from the past. We are moving towards the light.

In the academic setting, then, I bring my ideas before my peers to be tested. “Unless special institutional arrangements are made,” Steve Fuller reminds us, “language functions primarily to move people to act, speak, and feel in certain ways” (2004, p. 153). There’s nothing wrong with these functions of language. But Fuller also teaches us to distinguish them from the “representational function of language” and cautions us to observe the “rhetorical function of representation” (when a statement of fact is treated as true, uncritically). The whole point of a university, I would argue, is to make the “special institutional arrangements” that allow us to make and critique statements of fact. This, as Fuller points out, amounts to implementing “a language designed to represent reality”, i.e., to establishing “standards [that] would test the validity of [an] utterance” (p. 154). Without such a critical environment, we might say, there are no facts to speak of.

Criticism is hard. It is hard to give and it is hard to take. But anything that can be done well can be done badly and done better. The difficulty you feel is simply the experience of getting better at something, of learning. If Robert Graves struggled, in his poetry, with “the huge impossibility of language”, we struggle, in our scholarship, with the particular difficulty of discourse. Our work is much easier than poetry; indeed, it is simply possible where all poetry is destined to fail. Like poets, however, writing affords us a precision that is not available in oral culture. Being literate puts the means of saying things more efficiently and more exactly at our disposal. (If it brings precision to the poet’s glorious and inevitable failure, it sometimes just exactly allows us to succeed.) We sometimes complain about the difficulty of this task too. But we must remember that writing is hard only to make criticism easier and we are in the business of exposing ideas to criticism. That is our purpose.


These are some preliminary reflections inspired by my participation in the 2019 BALEAP conference at the University of Leeds  — notes towards a philosophical investigation of the meaning of “English for academic purposes”.

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