Étienne Balibar — Politics and Science: One Vocation or Two?

French Higher Education, Research and Innovation Minister Frederique Vidal speaks during a press conference in Paris on January 14, 2021, on the current French government strategy for the ongoing coronavirus (Covid-19) epidemic. (Agence France Presse/Thomas COEX / POOL)
French Higher Education, Research and Innovation Minister Frederique Vidal speaks during a press conference in Paris on January 14, 2021, on the current French government strategy for the ongoing coronavirus (Covid-19) epidemic. (Agence France Presse/Thomas COEX / POOL)

by Étienne Balibar


One might find it alarming (as I do) that the Ministers of Education and Higher Education, encouraged from the top, have dug out of the ideological gutter an epithet with sinister resonances to justify a purge of French Academia.

One might be worried (as I am) by the speed at which publicly-funded independent research is being dismantled, both through financial austerity and the widespread use of targeted and monitored funding.

One might feel disheartened (as I do), to see self-proclaimed spokespersons for the “excellence of French research” seeking to prevent our students from taking part in major international currents of innovation and critical thinking, deemed incompatible with our republican values, and thereby isolating us in a chauvinistic provincialism.

One can, even while defending, as I do, the legitimacy of the study of race, gender, class, postcolonial studies and all of their intersections, be aware of, and denounce simplistic and historically unfounded arguments and sectarian censorship that exist on the margins of academia.

And one can be disappointed (as I am) to see historians and social scientists who, after contributing landmark studies to the critique of inequality and forms of social or national exclusion, have joined, with bitterness, the camp of intellectual conservatism and corporatism.

But these feelings don’t address the epistemological question at the heart of the matter. In the domain of the said human and social sciences, what is the relationship between the necessity of taking a stand and that of knowledge for knowledge’s sake (the only form of knowledge that indeed merits the name)? We are brought back to the question posed by Max Weber in his 1919 lectures: what is the “vocation” of science? How is it different from the “vocation” of politics?[1] It seems that the solution that he proposed at the time—that of “axiological neutrality,” the separation of ethics into two dimensions, “conviction” and “responsibility”—turned out to be impracticable.

I see four reasons for this, and they form something like a unity of opposites, through which we must trace our path without sacrificing our exigence.

First, universities and research centers can no longer afford to speak only to themselves. More than in the past, they must open their doors and their ears to the rest of society, or even better, to the polity. No one is contesting that it is essential to produce and transmit verified and verifiable knowledge and to practice rational argument. All of this takes place in the classroom. But the object of study, that which we try to make intelligible, can only be found outside of the classroom and it is unavoidably conflictual, because we do not live, nor will we live anytime soon, in a peaceful society. In order for us to grasp and understand this conflict, it cannot simply be studied and investigated from afar. It must enter into our spaces of learning and knowledge through the presence of its real actors, unless researchers venture out to find them (for example in a “jungle” or in a “neighborhood”).[2] As Foucault might have put it, we must bring the teachers, students, and researchers out and let the protesters, with or without gilets, and the activists or active citizens in. They must be given a chance to speak in the same places that have, until now, been reserved for magisterial discourse. However difficult it may be, we owe it to ourselves to experiment with ways of doing this.

With conflict comes ideology. This is obvious. The problem lies in the fact that ideology does not just come from outside, it is always already there in more or less dominant forms. To state that the foundation of economic knowledge is the rational anticipation of market actors; that sociological knowledge is the constant interplay of methodological individualism and organic solidarity; that psychology and pedagogy share the adaptation of subjects as their common object of study; or that the trajectory of historical modernity tends to the secularization of religion, is not simply to state, it is to take an ideological standpoint, indissociable from relationships of power. Obviously, there are alternative positions to those outlined here, more or less visible depending on the period. An institution dedicated to learning that is alive, one that is capable of making space for the unknown, must pursue as its main goal the systematic questioning, including in national boards of evaluation, of every “incontestable” paradigm, to make sure that it becomes a subject of discussion. Let us not forget the disastrous episode that saw the elimination of the “Economics and Society” section within the CNU (National Council of Universities), and the price we’re paying for it now in the midst of the crisis.[3]

But the conflict between what Canguilhem called “scientific ideologies” and what Althusser named the “philosophies of scientists” may not be the heart of the problem. One could again be led to think that the conflict only resides in the object, in the intrusion of the personal interests and commitments of the practitioners of knowledge, but not in the concept, which is the real heart of knowledge. Yet, nothing is less accurate. Knowledge does not come to a concept by avoiding conflict. On the contrary, it does so by intensifying conflict around big ontological alternatives, forcing us to choose between irreconcilable understandings of the nature of things or beings. The history of truth is not to be found in synthesis, even if it is provisional, but in the polemical ascent towards the points of heresy of a theory. This is evident in many fields, from the humanities to economics and environmental science, and perhaps even beyond ­– in biology, for instance, with the theory of evolution.

Lastly, and more deeply, we cannot forget that knowledge does not exist without subject(s). This is not a shortcoming of scientific inquiry but its very condition of possibility, at least in any science that has an anthropological dimension, and perhaps in others too. In order to know we must venture as subjects into the field in which we are already “situated”, with all the baggage of “characters” (as Kant would call them), that make us “what we are” (through processes of historical and social construction, of course). There is no “transcendental subject” of scientific knowledge. Or better still, we must venture towards that point of identity “trouble” where every subject resides, with more or less difficulty, with/in their “difference”, whether it be masculinity, femininity, or another “gender” ; blackness, whiteness or another “color”; intellectual ability or inability, or “religious” belief or disbelief, in order to make that very point the analytical lens through which we read the social forces that imprison, exclude, and direct us. For even if no one can freely choose their place in society, by virtue of the power relationships that construct and traverse it, no place is assigned once and for all. The goal, then, is to turn our lived and recognized anthropological difference in all its uncertainty into the instrument with which we dissect our collective body politic, and to make the analysis of the mechanisms that produce and reproduce it, the means of countering its normative effects. This is perhaps not the royal road of scientific inquiry, but it is certainly a necessary step. I think here of what Sandra Harding called “strong objectivity” that includes knowledge of one’s own position as subject, and of how badly positivisms tend to miss the point.

The road ahead of us is very difficult. I have been a professor in an era which we could in retrospect describe as “golden”. Conflicts could be violent at times, but the cold-war era bans and institutional prohibitions were behind us. The “value of science” was rarely contested. May 68 and its desire to shake the foundation of academicism and take down barriers left widespread disappointment in its wake, but also a fervor and furor that have nourished a large number of “programs” in which the young scholars of today, half of whom are living from one short-term contract to the next, were trained. We realize now that our ruling class is no longer a bourgeoisie in the historical sense of the word. It does not have a project of intellectual hegemony nor an artistic point of honor. It needs (or so it thinks) only cost-benefit analyses, “cognitive” educational programs, and committees of experts. That is why, with the help of the pandemic and the internet revolution, the same ruling class is preparing the demise of the social sciences, humanities and even the theoretical sciences. To accelerate the process, why not have the victim become the culprit (“Islamo-leftism”, “activism”, “ideology”…)? It will make things easier.

As citizens and intellectuals we must oppose with all our strength this destruction of the tools of knowledge and culture. But our success is conditional on our awakening to the revolutions that the academy needs, and on discussing them among ourselves without being too reticent or holding back our opinions.

Translated from the French by Tommaso Manfredini. b2o would like to thank Étienne Balibar and Libération for permission to publish this translation. We would also like to thank Madeleine Dobie for her help in arranging the translation.


Étienne Balibar is Professor Emeritus of Moral and Political Philosophy at Université de Paris X–Nanterre; Distinguished Professor of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine; and Visiting Professor of French at Columbia University. His many books include Citizen Subject (Fordham, 2016); Equaliberty (Duke, 2014); We, the People of Europe? (Princeton, 2003); The Philosophy of Marx (Verso, new ed. 2017); and two important coauthored books, Race, Nation, Class (with Immanuel Wallerstein, Verso, 1988) and Reading Capital (with Louis Althusser and others, Verso, new ed. 2016).

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A version of this article appeared on March 9 2021 in the French newspaper Libération under the title: “Le conflit fait partie des lieux de savoir.” It is a contribution to the debate that followed the announcement made by Frédérique Vidal, French Minister of Higher Education, on February 16 2021 to the National Assembly, to signal the launch of an official investigation of the presence of research programs inspired by “Islamo-leftism” in French universities. Even though the statement was immediately rejected by the CNRS (National Center of Scientific Research, France’s – and Europe’s – largest research body) and, among others, by a group of 200 researchers affiliated with American institutions who, in an editorial published in the newspaper Le Monde on March 4 2021, pointed out the chilling echo of “Judeo-bolshevism” in the Minister’s words, neither the French Government nor the President have officially condemned the use of the phrase. One may thus suspect that they approved it.

[1] Max Weber, “Wissenschaft als Beruf” (1917) and “Politik als Beruf” (1919).

[2] The original French words, “jungle” and “quartier” respectively, have social and political meanings in addition to their seemingly plain ethnographic sense. “Jungle” refers to the camps that regularly spring up – and are periodically dismantled by the French police – in various places around Calais, and in which find shelter and sometimes humanitarian assistance persons who are trying to cross the Channel without papers. Similarly, “quartier” also defines are the poorest neighborhoods in the banlieues of Paris and other great cities where the majority of the young generations, often of African and North-African origin, and heavily unemployed, are concentrated [Translator’s note].

[3] In 2015, the CNU (National Board of Evaluation of Qualifications for Positions in Higher Education) was considering the creation of a special section called ‘Economy and Society’, which would create a space in Universities for economists working outside the ‘mainstream’ neo-classical school. It was abruptly cancelled, through the direct intervention of the Government, after intense lobbying from the establishment, especially from Jean Tirole, ‘Nobel’ Prize in Economics in 2014.



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