09 February 2017

Towards an Idea of Universitality

Ruins of Plato's Academy
What would it mean to reclaim the university from its ruins? To revisit what were considered the fundamental conditions of the social epistemology of the university without falling into the trap of nostalgia and traditionalism? In this short post I want to think about what might be the content of a notion of what I am calling universitality, understood precisely as the conceptualisation of a constellation of thought and practice manifested through multiple histories, practices, institutions and bodies related to the idea of a university (Readings 1996; Rothblatt 1972; Thelin 2011, Whyte 2016). By means of a set of hodos, I intend to examine the notion of a university, with a view to developing a new conceptualisation in response to the contemporary crisis of the university, but also in terms of the crisis of its epistemology in and through the university in its modern corporate form.

This is to rethink the university in light of the more recent challenge to universities and collegiality. To turn a critical eye over the return of a philosophy of utility which hangs over the fate of universities in the 21st century and which dates back to before the founding of the University of London (Collini 2012; Holmwood 2011). Not to say, of course, that this is necessarily a new threat to the university (Newman 1996; Shils 1972). Indeed, the history of the university has also been a history of thought against power, reason against utility, until in the 20th and 21st century thought and reason become themselves instrumentalised in the service of a project of economism driven in part by computationalism and neoliberalism. But what I explicitly seek to do in this article, in contrast to Collini (2017: 24), is to "propose some ideal or essence, some way of distinguishing supposedly 'real' universities from institutions that do not deserve the name". In other words, by making a cut, which here Collini (2017) is reluctant to do, one develops the means of describing and classifying what we might call the university-ness of a university. This is, by its nature an exercise in genealogy as much as description, but it is also about recovering an idea of the university that seems to be all but forgotten, and without which we struggle to articulate a sense of an idea of what a university is for.

I draw the notion of universitality from the Latin Universitatis, in the particular sense of Studium Generale (understood as a place where students came to study) and more particularly as Magistrorum et Discipulorum (e.g. master and scholars, where scholars here means students). A universitatis is a form of organisation that can own and control a groups’ property in common for its members and which has a set of rules and regulations which the masters and students must conform to be accepted into the guild. Indeed, this is the etymological source of the notion of ‘university’ which was originally formed of a corporate body formed of masters and students acting as a legal person. The universitatis typically exists where a resource is too large for a single member to administer or to provide temporal security beyond individuals' lifetimes. These corporate bodies, subsequently granted by a royal decree, were similar to municipalities or guilds which would often own property, such as racetracks and theatres. What is important to note here is that the term university, is not drawn from universal or general knowledge, but rather from the generality of the people who can study within the universitas. The idea was that a universitas could be joined by anyone capable of profiting from being there, that is without distinction of class, age, rank or previous occupation. So the universitas was understood as a specific form of corporation or society, hence the notion of members of the society being identified as socii (e.g. Fellows, a term still used at Oxford and Cambridge, and elsewhere for visiting academics). In this understanding of the university only the Fellows are essential to the university, and they are tasked with the search after knowledge, to advance knowledge and to possess knowledge for themselves. Indeed, historically, the role of the university has been closely associated with the production of knowledge, right up to present times. But universitatis also created the conditions for particular epistemologies and particular ways of seeing.

Here are clues to the first aspect of universitality, the notion that those who make up its core are a community of associates, the masters, dedicated to the advancement of knowledge, understanding and learning. Built around this core group, are the structures of the buildings, the libraries, and the scholars or students who are instructed, trained, educated but also tested, licensed, and qualified for competence by the masters. This is also the basis for the assertion by Kant that the university is ruled by an idea of reason emerging from philosophy, in other words, with infinity (see Derrida 2004: 83-112). Kant outlined this argument of the nature of the university in 1798, under the notion of The Conflict of the Faculties. He argued that all of the university’s activities should be organised through a single regulatory idea – the concept of reason. Kant argued that reason and the state, knowledge and power, could be unified in the university by the production of individuals capable of rational thought and republican politics – the students trained for the civil service and society. This is the beginning of the modern notion of a university and with it the development of both objective and subjective attempts to shape knowledge and learning towards the needs of modernity and its complex society. With this we see the development of the second aspect of the concept of universitality, the idea that a specific social epistemology of a scholarly community is regulated by the notion of reason.


Collini, S. (2012) What Are Universities For?, London: Penguin.

Collini, S. (2017) Speaking of Universities, London: Verso.

Derrida, J. (2004) Mochlos; or, The Conflict of the Faculties, in The Eyes of the University, Stanford University Press.

Holmwood, J. (2011) (Ed.) A Manifesto for the Public University, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Kant, I. (1991) The Conflict of the Faculties, in Kant, I., Kant: Political Writings, Cambridge University Press.

Newman, J. H. (1996) The Idea of a University, Yale University Press.

Readings, B. (1996) The University in Ruins, London: Harvard University Press.

Rothblatt, S. (1972) The Modern University and its Discontents: The Fate of Newman's Legacies in Britain and America, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shils, E. (1972) Intellectuals and the Powers and Other Essays, The University of Chicago Press.

Thelin, J. R. (2011) A History of American Higher Education, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Whyte, W. (2016) Redbrick: A Social and Architectural History of Britain's Civic Universities, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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