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Autonomy intrinsic to ensuring public features of social sciences

SUN GUODONG | 2018-07-11 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)


Academic research is different from other forms of speech, such as private conversations, in that it is fundamentally public. It is public regardless of whether the issues of concern are public topics within the scope of the political community. It cares about whether the mode of presentation and the evaluation criteria are intrinsically public.

Autonomy: Intrinsic requirement
Since he fully recognized the public features of academic arguments, Immanuel Kant regarded academic research as a typical form of public use of reason. This means a scholar as a member of the entire commonwealth, indeed even of a cosmopolitan society, addresses readers in an unbound space and time. Reason can be used by anyone as a scholar in front of the whole audience.

Kant maintained that the role of a scholar is inherently public. Being a scholar is not a special profession. Any citizen is speaking as a scholar as long as he/she is practicing public use of reason.
To scholars, autonomy is the precondition for public features. In other words, the autonomy of social sciences is an intrinsic requirement to ensuring their public features.

This public feature means the possibility of extending time and space, and subjects infinitely. It is a value that aims to enhance intergenerational, intercultural and intersubjective public interests. Only with autonomy can researchers give their speech the possibility of extending time and space and subjects infinitely.

Generally, the autonomy of social sciences can be external and internal. External autonomy denotes the logic of fields like economics, politics and society, while internal autonomy is relative to personal preferences.

Arguments based on personal preferences are not autonomous because autonomy doesn’t equal self-love. In Kant’s words, it is the grounding of the dignity of human nature and of every rational nature. The external and internal autonomy of social sciences research respectively corresponds to the public natures of the standpoint and content of speech.

External autonomy
The external autonomy of social sciences research means the autonomy of academic domains relative to such fields as economy (market) and society (media). In other words, academic research cannot replace the logic of knowledge production with the market logic of the economy and the media logic of society.

To achieve this, social sciences scholars must be always just. They should act in the right way and speak by reason, never indulging their will for comfort and wealth nor changing their principles because of danger.

Only the principle of being just can free social sciences research from the manipulation of market and media logic, and can its external autonomy to other fields be guaranteed. The external autonomy can ensure the public nature of the standpoint of speech.

The claim that academics should be independent of the logic of other fields doesn’t mean the logic of other fields must have violated the public good of the political community or the community of a shared future for mankind. Primarily, it tells us that the logic and evaluation criteria of other fields cannot replace those of academic fields.

In a well-ordered society, other fields also serve the public good of the political community, even the community with a shared future for mankind, but they have their own specific logic.

Internal autonomy
The internal autonomy of social sciences research means academic speech, particularly public discourse on public affairs, must be independent of and divorced from the value preferences of the speaker himself.

Modern society is one to awaken and uphold the self. The self-centered ethical identity, as a constituent of the self, plays a decisive role on the irreplaceability of the self. Therefore, as long as the self is awakened, the self-centered ethical identity, or values, in essence belongs to fully autonomous domains. It is autonomous not only in norm, but also in fact.

Tactical identity represents that values are fully autonomous. It means compulsory identification is wrongful in norm and ineffective in fact. Accordingly, shared values of the political community are radically products of intersubjective public discourse—ethical discourse in the words of Jürgen Habermas.

Hence in modern conditions, public discourse is the only moral, realistic and effective way to settle disputes over values, seek common ground and form a collective identity within the political community.

When it comes to academic research, to consciously resist the influence and control of personal value preferences, despite the unavoidable value load, is the only proper course to ensure the public feature of the content of speech.

In order to guarantee the internal autonomy of social sciences research to personal value preferences, we need to ensure that the content of this speech is cognitive. This means the content of speech is not only recognizable, but also sharable.

In modern society, all religions, philosophies and comprehensive doctrines have lost the ability to apply this cognitive quality to all social members, namely, they have lost sharability. Thus, those making a public speech based on the religion, philosophy and comprehensive doctrine that they believe in are merely engaging in pyramid selling of concept, however reverent they are.

They can probably secure a congregation, but they are by no means practicing public use of reason. To ensure that the content of speech is cognitive, we can only make public speeches with sharable values, theories and knowledge.

It is worth noting that the cognitive aspect is not an endowment of humanity. Instead, it is an ability gradually acquired in the process of human socialization. Human beings acquire the ability to realize intersubjective communication and discourse in modern conditions.

Intersubjective communication and discourse with language as the medium is the only moral way to settle disputes and reach consensuses in modern conditions. It is in this sense that Habermas regarded the cognitive quality acquired by humanity as a learning process: To the entire world, it advances social evolution, while to individuals, it promotes the socialization of individuals. In this regard, we can say that ensuring the internal autonomy of social sciences research should be an ability that scholars should develop in modern conditions.


This article is abridged from “Public discourse and the public feature of academic research: On two dimensions of social science” published on Issue 01/2018 of the China Social Science Review. Sun Guodong is an associate professor from the Fudan Institute for Advanced Studies of Social Sciences. 


(edited by CHEN MIRONG)