On the Shoulders of Decapitated Giants – A capitalistic perspective on university practices

Af Anne Sofie Engberg

Humanity has an advantage when compared to any other living creature on earth. We have the ability to create giants on which to stand. The human capacity to express and preserve knowledge in cave paintings, rituals & stories, religions, books, etc. is one of the most distinctive differences between human beings and other mammals or every other living creature that we know of. It is this exact capacity that has made it possible for humans, over time, to create the sciences and societies we have today. Actually, this ability seems to be the very essence of what makes humans human.

It also seems inevitable to stand on the shoulders of giants. Firstly – because the likeliness of surviving decreases dramatically when not using pre-existing knowledge, that is when not standing on the shoulders of giants. Lets consider prehistoric times, where a good hunting method or ones knowledge of poisonous berries passed on from generation to generation through cave-paintings, rituals, weavings, and other ways of preserving knowledge, could make or break your possibility of surviving. Secondly – when thinking of contemporary developing societies, surviving should or could be understood in a more metaphorical way, the way with which this article is mostly concerned, as for example academic survival, ideological survival, economic survival in the market or career survival in the workplace. If we did not stand on the shoulders of giants, who from hard-earned experience and creative thought-processes, have created technological wonders, scientific theories & ideas (generally useful knowledge), survival, in the metaphorical sense, would all the sudden become much more difficult and arbitrary.

In educational institutions like the university, it seems like the demand of students to learn, love and respect, or learn to love and respect, the great academic giants they study in order to pass the exams and in order to become contributing members of society, is becoming much more present and paramount. Understandably, this requirement is imperative in order to pass the exams, and the demand to study and memorize the pre-existing facts is indisputably at the foundation of the scholarly infrastructure, but have we forgotten the value and importance of thinking for ourselves, discovering our own ideas and opinions? Are we not permitting ourselves or being permitted by the institutions to do these discoveries? Are we not allowed to go out into the forest and taste all of the berries once again risking death by poisoning, but with the chance of in return to discover hitherto unfamiliar amazing and revolutionizing ones?

The ability to create knowledge and pass it on is what secures, and what have always secured, our evolutionary development as a race, but the evolutionary part of it does not, in my opinion, imply only the need of standing on giants, but also the need of decapitating some of them – or at least it entails the need of considering the possibility and the possible necessity of doing so. It is necessary before proceeding to stress the point that it is seemingly inevitable to stand on the shoulders of giants, inter alia because of the fact that people who have tried explicitly not to stand on giants’ shoulders, people like Descartes or Husserl, have been somewhat unsuccessful.  To clarify what is meant by decapitation of the giants, consider capitalism. It is capitalistic practice to decapitate giants, and capitalism’s continuous existence is mechanically based on this act. Capitalism serves as a great explanatory example of the mechanism I think needs revival in the university. A mechanism called creative destruction.

Decapitation within capitalism

Creative destruction is a term created by the Austrian economist Joseph A. Schumpeter (1883-1950), and the term basically refers to the normal understanding of the phrase “to be standing on the shoulders of giants”, namely “one who discovers by building on previous discoveries.”[i]. But creative destruction refers to the decapitating nature of capitalism itself:

“The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers’ goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates.”[ii] And if that is not enough, capitalism: “[…] incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”[iii]

As it appears from the above, capitalism recreates itself continuously by continuously destroying itself. The recreating part of the mechanism of creative destruction, I believe, has the same meaning as the phrase “to be standing on the shoulders of giants” and the continuous destruction is, I find, the same as the decapitation of those giants on which we stand. The term creative destruction is best explained with Schumpeter’s term of creative response, whilst creative destruction is the name of his theory, the facilitation of creative destruction is conditioned by creative response. Creative response has three characteristics:

  • First […] it cannot be predicted by applying the ordinary rules of inference from the pre-existing facts.”[iv]
  • “Secondly […] Creative response changes social and economic situations for good, or, to put it differently, it creates situations from which there is no bridge to those situations that might have emerged in its absence.”[v]
  • “Thirdly, creative response – the frequency of its occurrence in a group, its intensity and success or failure – has obviously something, be that much or little, to do (a) with quality of the personnel available in a society, (b) with relative quality of personnel, that is, with quality available to a particular field of activity relative to quality available, at the same time, to others, and (c) with individual decisions, actions, and patterns of behavior.”[vi]

As Schumpeter states, creative response cannot rely solely on pre-existing facts, that is, creative response cannot rely solely on the thoughts from former giants. In fact, the beheading of giants is necessary in order to change social situations i.e. social structures, or any other thing. Finally, and maybe most importantly, creative response relies on the quality and actions of the individuals in society, which in this case would be the quality of the individuals within the university, and our courage to speak up and act on our ideas, thought and criticisms. In turn, this demands that the universities encourage and allow its students to indeed speak up and act upon their individual reflectiveness. In Schumpeter’s terms, we should all act as, or be, entrepreneurs. Because: “Seen in the light, the entrepreneur and his function are not difficult to conceptualize: the defining characteristic is simply the doing of new things or the doing of things that are already being done in a new way (innovation).”[vii]

Within capitalism, then, the entrepreneur is the giant, but the entrepreneur is also the executioner of the giant. The doing of new things makes you an aspiring giant. The doing of things that are already being done in a new way, makes you an executioner of giants, if in fact that new way of doing the specific thing proves to be a superior way of doing it. However, to become a giant or to execute one, also depends on various and varying criteria such as: peer recognition, the use of correct scientific methods, resulting in lasting scientific theories until falsified, proof of your gigantic nature through financial success in the market and/or lasting financial success in the market, the extensive use of and reference to your theories instead of the use of and reference to the theories of the giant before you etc. Again, it becomes imperative to accentuate that it is inevitable to stand on the shoulders of giants, just as it is for an entrepreneur, inevitable not to build upon former entrepreneurs’ thoughts, inventions, visions etc. You may decapitate him or her, but decapitation does not mean complete annihilation of said giant. To clarify, imagine a giant standing with a lot of very small aspiring giants on his shoulders. Then imagine another giant on top of the first giant’s shoulders. With all of the small aspiring giants standing there as well, there would be no room for the second giant’s feet. The second giant would have to behead the first giant, whilst keeping him in an upright position after the decapitation – the first giant does not fall dead to the ground, he stays on his feet. Now, the second giant is the only giant. The former giant’s thoughts, inventions and theories do not disappear or become unimportant, but they become the new giant’s foundation from which he stably stands taller, until he himself gets beheaded.

Fortunately, we very small and so far unimportant university students do not have to become giants immediately, if ever, but it is of acute importance that we practice the “art” of decapitation. Schumpeter writes: “It should be observed at once that the “new thing” need not be spectacular or of historic importance. It need not be Bessemer steel or the explosion motor. It can be the Deerfoot sausage.”[viii]. To reiterate, the quote above pertains to the notion that a new thing is better than no new thing, even if the new thing is only a sausage. The crux is that the very mechanism of critical new-thinking is essential for the process of sophisticated development, both as it is for the modern man or woman and as it was to the ancient man or woman from the berry-picking days. Thus, it is crucial, whenever handing in a paper or stating something at an oral exam, to bring something new to the table, whether it is of great humanitarian importance or not, whether the new perspective is entirely correct or not. You have to do so, if not for the sake of humanity (which is highly recommended!), then at least for the sake of evolving as a student and as a human being.

Schumpeter makes a significant distinction. He distinguishes between the “inventor” and the “entrepreneur”.

The inventor produces ideas, the entrepreneur “gets things done,” which may but need not embody anything that is scientifically new. […] The fact that Greek science had probably produced all that is necessary in order to construct a steam engine did not help Greeks or Romans to build a steam engine; the fact that Leibniz suggested the idea of the Suez Canal exerted no influence whatever on economic history for two hundred years.”[ix]

The inventor produces ideas whereas the entrepreneur invents and gets things done. The inventor might very well discover something new or think of something new, but the entrepreneur is the inventor that brings those ideas to life. The entrepreneur is the one that builds prototypes or, in a university context, the one that tests tangible ideas, plans and thoughts, by putting them forth to be judged by the public. In sum, the quote expresses that it is not only necessary to think like a giant or memorize all the giants’ thoughts and theories, additionally it is key to express your new-thinking, to publish it, to speak of it, to get an assessment of it from your peers etc. In fact, if we do not express our thoughts, even if they were of great humanitarian importance, they would have no influence and no change would happen because of them. We should not only think of ourselves as students of the great giants, we should think of ourselves as entrepreneurs. If we think of ourselves as entrepreneurs, then maybe one day, we would be seen and thought of as giants.

There are great risks involved when being an entrepreneur: the risk of failing, the risk of humiliation, the risk of not being right and therefore being wrong. The list is horrible and endless, so why should we indeed go out and try to decapitate our giants? Why should we try to eat an unknown berry? Why should we be critical towards our books? What happens, besides nothing, if we do not practice our decapitation skills, our skepticism and our creativity? Why should we even bother trying? It is possible to shed some light upon these questions by referring once again to the term of creative destruction:

“The impact of the new product or method spells losses to the “old” firms. The competition of the man with a significantly lower cost curve is, in fact, the really effective competition that in the end revolutionizes the industry.”[x]

This can be explained in a simple and illustrative manor. In business, whenever a new product, a new production technology or a new managerial concept is developed (and other things alike), every entity that does not have the same product or method are at the risk of suffering from market death, at the risk of going out of business. Therefore, those entities without the competitive advantage become much more vigilant in the pursuit of gaining advantages, whether that results in inventing new products/methods/technologies of their own or the reinvention of others’. Think of the university as a market. When you are a university student, you have an incredibly low competitive advantage, because you do not have a great amount of knowledge – at least when compared to teachers and studied theorists, you have no knowledge worth speaking of, which makes you inferior. But, you have one thing they have not! You have the new mind, the new eyes on old subjects, the capability to conceive new ideas, where the giants might be locked inside their own minds, restrained by their old methods, being products of their own time, and to put it in “market-lingo”, restrained by old, traditional and loved products or methods, unable to conceive something new and revolutionizing. Finally, to put it in our berry-picking-”you better be building on pre-existing facts or die”-analogy: the professors know which berries to pick, and they have been picking away for a long time before we are even being given the chance of picking any. They have the competitive advantage in the university, and either we die of hunger, or we take the risk, of tasting some unidentified berries and see what happens. If we do not, we suffer from famine; we suffer from academic death. To really profit from our studies and our academic endeavors, we have to compete in the same way as one would in the capitalistic marketplace by responding creatively. The process of creative destruction, thus the process of decapitation of giants is of massive importance, it is what ensures individual survival in the long run.

Furthermore, the really important thing to reflect upon when talking about the decapitation of giants is to contemplate what would happen if we did not consider decapitation as a possibility at all. Ernst Freund Professor of Law and Ethics in the Philosophy Department at the University of Chicago, Martha C. Nussbaum, has similar concerns about the practices of liberal education in universities, the place that should be cultivating humanity by personal and educational enlightenment. By reference to the Greek philosophers, especially Socrates and the Stoics, her book Cultivating Humanity appeals to a reform of the educational practice into a shape of “Socratic self-examination”[xi]. “Socratic education requires ensuring that books do not become authorities”[xii] because according to Socrates and Nussbaum:

[…] books could short-circuit the work of active critical understanding, producing a pupil who has “false conceit of wisdom.”[xiii]”. […] “Such pupils, having internalized a lot of culturally authoritative material, may come to believe that they are very wise. And this arrogance undercuts still further the motivations for real searching. Such people are even less likely than ignorant people to search themselves, looking for arguments for and against their culture’s ways of doing things.”[xiv]

If something is conceived as the ultimate truth, as the ultimate authoritative giant, then the praxis of standing on the shoulders of giants becomes implicit and treacherous. When the giant is something we consider fundamental or natural, humanity has a problem. When we do not consider the moral and ethical consequences of our giants’ thoughts, which would be the case if the act of decapitation were not an option we considered, standing on the shoulders of giants becomes dangerous. Luckily, humanity has a tendency to resent and to be skeptical of groundbreaking new knowledge and practices as well as historical knowledge when it interferes with our concept of morality and ethics. Unluckily, this tendency does not seem to be cultivated nor practiced sufficiently in the universities. To conclude, Schumpeter would say: “A great and profitable task awaits those who undertake it.”[xv]. In addition: those individuals who are willing and have the entrepreneur’s personal quality and courage in actions, those individuals that have great virtù, and those individuals that are able to undertake this great and profitable task must also suffer the risk of

[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standing_on_the_shoulders_of_giants

[ii] Joseph A. Schumpeter: The Process of Creative Destruction; published in Journal of Economic History (1947)  p. 83

[iii] Joseph A. Schumpeter: The Process of Creative Destruction; published in Journal of Economic History (1947)  p. 83

[iv] Joseph A. Schumpeter: The Creative Response in Economic History; published in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1944) p. 150

[v] Joseph A. Schumpeter: The Creative Response in Economic History; published in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1944) p. 150

[vi] Joseph A. Schumpeter: The Creative Response in Economic History; published in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1944) p. 150

[vii] Joseph A. Schumpeter: The Creative Response in Economic History; published in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1944) p. 151

[viii] Joseph A. Schumpeter: The Creative Response in Economic History; published in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1944) p. 151

[ix] Joseph A. Schumpeter: The Creative Response in Economic History; published in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1944) p. 152

[x] Joseph A. Schumpeter: The Creative Response in Economic History; published in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1944) p. 156

[xi] Martha C. Nussbaum: Cultivating Humanity: a classical defense of reform in liberal education; published by Harvard University Press (1997)

[xii] Martha C. Nussbaum: Cultivating Humanity: a classical defense of reform in liberal education; published by Harvard University Press (1997) p. 33

[xiii] Martha C. Nussbaum: Cultivating Humanity: a classical defense of reform in liberal education; published by Harvard University Press (1997) p. 34

[xiv] Martha C. Nussbaum: Cultivating Humanity: a classical defense of reform in liberal education; published by Harvard University Press (1997) p. 34

[xv] Joseph A. Schumpeter: The Creative Response in Economic History; published in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1944) p. 159