Human Science and Being an Intellectual

As human science’s project is to transform the world, so is it the task of persons who are engaged in the pursuit of human science. I would go so far as to say that if you are a human scientist, you are by definition a revolutionary intellectual. As Edward Said so eloquently stated, “the challenge of intellectual life is to be found in dissent against the status quo at a time when the struggle on behalf of underrepresented and disadvantaged groups seems so unfairly weighted against them” (Said, 1996, p. xvii). Why is this so? To me it is because a fundamental aspect of humanness is being free.

In modern and post-modern discourse, at nearly all levels of society, the question, or problematic, of freedom is nearly universal. As an aspect of individual life, freedom is a modern notion, arising in the Renaissance as a part of the new legal conception of rights of individuals to live life as they prefer (Berlin, 1969, p. 129). Freedom is held to be a fundamental value of being human and a basic value or standard of evaluating life, societies, nations, cultures, art, gender, and a myriad of other aspects of human reality. As such, freedom is at least a metaphysical aspect of humanness, if not an ontological characteristic. The nature of freedom for humans is viewed as the basis of being able to evaluate and comprehend most, if not all, other aspects of human existence. In current human experience, the view that one has on the nature of freedom impacts many arenas of life: ethics, knowledge, expression and art, the scope of political action, the ability to realize potentials, contrasts of opportunity and options in life and death. This position can be deeply philosophical, moral, political, or totally “common sense” depending on the question at hand and the participants in the discussion.

Personal autonomy and equality are two of the main components of this view of liberty, or freedom, and much of the historical, and ongoing, debate is over the range and quality of these two aspects of socio-political life. What does this freedom or liberty entail? Different positions or orientations have traditionally been taken to answer this question from the beginnings of philosophical thought which have explored the basis of freedom and liberty in connection with free will, ethics and morality, aesthetics and beauty, and, of course, democracy and equality. Conditions of personal autonomy should have certain aspects in order to fulfill the nature of liberty as a right. Freedom from violence or the threat of violence, either in the everyday aspects of life or from the political force of the state is one of the first essential aspects of freedom. The free relationship of the individual to the state, even within a democratic regime, is not a guarantee that the positive definition of freedom is realized by it. The ability to manifest my own desires, that is, the freedom to do or be, is not the same as the freedom from constraints.

We can see the continuation of this historical tension in myriad current events: unsettled reality of the post-Arab Spring, the disarray in Afghanistan and Iraq, Mubarak without Mubarak in Egypt, civil war in Syria, Libya and elsewhere, the repression in Pakistan, and the on-going intensity of the occupation in Palestine, the subjugation of entire nations and their economies by other nation’s banks in the Eurozone, and our own political sclerosis and government by surveillance in the United States. These are but a few examples that point to a deepening of the fact of the dismissal of freedoms in exchange for the interests of the state. The new twist on this, however, may be the complete disregard for even the interests of the state versus the needs of an international globalized elite who have no allegiance to anyone except their own cohort.

Discourse about the nature of freedom in the face of the barbarism of the Islamic State may seem esoteric or even irrelevant for the unfortunate souls swept up in its immediate brutality. But the question of what constitutes freedom is actually profoundly in need of exposition and redefinition, especially in regards to who controls society and the social institutions embodied in the state and the culture as a whole. The consequences for people all over the globe are that access to an imagining of a different reality, of a life lived otherwise, has been under assault for decades. Freedom from violence, or the threat of violence, from stereotyping, discrimination, religious intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, hunger and starvation, lack of opportunity, access to basic cleanliness, health care, shelter, nutrition, the ability to appreciate beauty and have peace of mind are all imbedded in this one concept, freedom.

Again, quoting Said, “The purpose of the intellectual’s activity is to advance human freedom and knowledge. This is still true, I believe, despite the often repeated charge that ‘grand narratives of emancipation and enlightenment’. . . are pronounced as no longer having any currency in the era of postmodernism” (Said, 1997, pp. 17-18). Having technical skills, knowledge, expertise, or intelligence does not make someone an intellectual, nor does fame or having a platform to promulgate one’s views. The key to being an intellectual is stand for the desire for more human freedom and realization of human potential. In present reality, this demands that we are challenging the status quo of global capitalism and the havoc it is laying down on the earth and its inhabitants. As Sartre once said “There is no such thing as a right-wing intellectual.” This is the legacy of all of the people, known and unknown, who have taken a stand to challenge the reality they faced and decide that it is unacceptable to allow it to go unchanged. Without this, we are no better than robots, living from day to day in a honey-colored haze. “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. He who believes himself the master of others does not escape being more of a slave than they. How did this change take place” (Rousseau, 1762/1987, p. 141)? Over two-hundred and fifty years following Rousseau’s declaration, we are still searching for an answer that can create another level of change and a quality of freedom worthy of humanness.

So, I guess this is a challenge to all of us as we take on the task of creating and building a transdisciplinary learning community of scholars and practitioners dedicated to creating a humane and ecologically sustainable global future through education and research. How do we answer this challenge? Given the miserable mess the world is in, do we have an alternative? ‘Progress’ is not inevitable, but more barbarism may be. What do you all think?



Bentz, V.M. & Shapiro, J.J. (1998). Mindful inquiry in social research. Thousand Oaks, CA. Sage.

Berlin, I. (1969). Two concepts of liberty. In Four essays on liberty. 118-172, London, UK. Oxford University Press.

Creswell, J. (2013). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches. Los Angeles, CA.  Sage.

Habermas, J. (1973). Theory and practice. Boston, MA.  Beacon Press.

Locke, L.F., Spirduso, W.W., & Silverman, S.J. (2014). Proposals that work: A guide for planning dissertations and grant proposals. Los Angeles, CA. Sage.

Marx, K. (1967). Writings of the young Marx on philosophy and society. L.D. Easton & K.H. Guddat (Eds. & Trans).Garden City, NY. Anchor Books.

Robson, C. (2011). Real world research. Chichester, UK. Wiley & Sons.

Rothberg, D. (1991). Inquiry in the realm of meanings: The idea of human sciences. Theories of Inquiry Learning Guide. PDF for Saybrook Resources.

Rousseau, J-J. (1987). The political writings. Indianapolis, IN. Hackett Publishing.

Said, E. W. (1997). Representations of the intellectual. New York, NY. Random House.

Jim Smith

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