Assignments: Philosophy of Inquiry


"A telling but little remarked fact about the provenance of Jean-Françis Lyotard's coinage of 'postmodernism' is that it occurred in a 1979 'report on the state of knowledge' to the higher education council of Quebec. Lyotard dedicated his report to the 'institute,' or department, where he held a chair in one of the new universities of Paris, wishing that it may flourish while the university itself withered away. This sentiment neatly captures the postmodern normative posture — one that celebrates the endless proliferation of inquiries and condemns the submission of this 'information explosion' to the institutional containment of the university, which, after all, presupposes a clearly bounded 'universe of discourse' that is traversed in a 'curriculum.' Put in historical perspective, Lyotard challenged the last bastion of medievalism in the modern university, namely, the idea that everything worth saying can be confined in its walls …" (Steve Fuller, 1999)

Jean-Françis Lyotard's white paper, the The Postmodern Condition, stands as the most remembered, if not most prominent, report of the state of inquiry in the contemporary university. Similar analyses in books such as Daniel Bell's The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973) and Alvin Gouldner's The Future of the Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class (1979) have not fared as well historically. Lyotard's work, then, continues to influence (in rather contested ways) academic policy. As Steve Fuller describes above, postmodern normative sentiment "… celebrates the endless proliferation of inquiries …" while keeping academic research captive to the "cult of priority." The "proliferation of inquiries" continues unabated in the contemporary academy. The "cult of priority" in research has social scientists and humanists scrambling to make their research all the more empirically"hard." In 1990, the Boyer Commission's report, Scholarship Reconsidered, suggested a more dynamic approach to research, scholarship and knowledge. However the conventional wisdom that academic research, by the very nature of its labor, should have priority in the university goes unquestioned. Since the virtues of academic research remain unassailable and, so, unarticulated, its practice is seen as necessary for faculty and students alike. In this environment, we fail to take up the challenges at the heart intellectual inquiry — reconsidering and re-imagining our bedrock assumptions regarding the nature and purpose of academic work.

Due Dates

This assignment has five related elements due on the following dates.


As of this writing, fourteen students are enrolled in the course. By the end of the first week of the course, I would like you to form into four groups of three or four (I can form the groups if you wish and reform them if enrollment changes). As a group, I would like you to write a philosophy of inquiry.

Broadly defined, and subject to your redefinition, I understand a philosophy of inquiry to be an analytical "statement" — the content of which is negotiated among group members — regarding how you (collectively) understand the ways in which we — as students, scholars, researchers, teachers and intellectuals — seek truth, knowledge or information. The statement will be both descriptive and normative. That is, I would like you to critically describe academic and intellectual inquiry as you, and others, understand and experience it and, perhaps more importantly, offer normative conceptions of how inquiry ought to be pursued in the academy and in society. An important note: I do not view the philosophy of inquiry as either a personal statement, rant or manifesto. Rather, in developing the philosophy of inquiry, I want groups to model a larger process by which we question the presuppositions supporting our inquiry. From these questions we will seek new ways to form problems and to develop criteria by which we can make critical judgments about how we and our colleagues — as academics, scholars and intellectuals — should pursue inquiry.

This assignment has five parts:

Descriptions of each part of the assignment follow.