Sunday, October 6, 2013

Academic violence

One is always somewhat surprised when academics who, in the words of HL Mencken, are generally as “harmless as so many convicts in the death house”, turn to violence. In general, academics dislike violence and prefer to pursue their trade peacefully, although there are many examples of verbal violence. I know of an English university department which speakers are reluctant to speak at because of the extreme verbal violence of one member there.

Yet it is surprising when this violence escalates to the level of arms. The BBC reports one such incident in which an argument about the German philosopher Immanuel Kant escalated to such levels that it ended by the use of rubber bullets fired by one protagonist against another. What the bone of contention was is not recorded. It could have been the “a priori synthetic” or the “categorical imperative” or perhaps the “transcendental synthetic”. At any rate, one of the protagonists was charged with causing grievous bodily harm.

Kant himself would probably have been very surprised. His book, Critique of Pure Reason, apparently sold only five copies when first published, of which two were purchased by himself (I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this story, which I read somewhere years ago). He was in general a very peaceful man whose habits were so punctual that housewives apparently set their watches by when he went to work and when he returned. The French critic Rémy de Gourmont marveled that a man like Kant who had neither wife nor mistress, who died a virgin (as Gourmont believed) could have written a book on the metaphysics of morals!

Yet, violence in academic circles has been recorded before (I mean real violence, not the verbal one, which is very common). There is, for example, the story of Pierre Marie, an eminent French neurologist, who accused another eminent French neurologist, Déjerine, of doing science as some play roulette. But, upon being challenged to a duel, Marie wisely chose to retract his accusation.

On one occasion, I was told not to mention 40Hz when giving a seminar if a certain gentleman was in the audience, for fear that he may suffer a heart attack. I wisely obeyed. But I am told that he later died of a heart attack anyway.

Perhaps it is only fear that keeps academics from resorting to real violence. I know of stories of one German physiologist saying of another, “Now that I have shown that he cannot use a slide ruler, I intend to take no further notice of his work”, while another accused a colleague of “auto-plagiarizing”. I can well imagine such incidents boiling over and resulting in - well, the firing of rubber bullets, at least.

It all goes to show that the dispassionate academics, searching for truth in their ivory towers, may not be impervious to these human instincts, just like the rest.