Academic research as a force for truth 

Thinking, research and art do not exist within an empty freedom, but rather in discord with dogmas, authorities and institutional frameworks, argues Ari Hirvonen, Doctor of Laws and a specialist in the philosophy of law and legal theory. We asked Hirvonen to write us about academic freedom for the launch of Kone Foundation’s strategy.
Illustration: Marika Maijala

The lobby of the main building of Humboldt University in Berlin is dominated by a phrase engraved in golden letters: Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern. It is Karl Marx’s well-known Thesis Eleven on Ludwig Feuerbach: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”[1]

As part of Ceal Floyer’s installation in 2009, brass signs with the words Vorsicht Stufe were added to the stairs of the Humboldt University lobby, warnings of the risk of stumbling (“mind the step”). Keeping one eye on Marx’s thesis at the top of the steps and the other on the warnings, you will be in danger of spraining your ankle. Instead of being an ironic comment on order, it is a reminder of the risks involved in world-changing academic research, step after step.

Wilhelm von Humboldt’s call during the Enlightenment for academic freedom and the interdisciplinary integration of the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences became a concrete question about academic freedom in the current scientific and academic context. The Humboldt University (1809) founder’s notions of a university that offers a liberal, free and humanistic education may sound old-fashioned in the era of digitalisation and technology.

Let’s revisit the Humboldt University – even at the risk of stumbling – while reading the Finnish Constitution. Section 16 of the Constitution of Finland guarantees the freedom of academic research, the arts and higher education. According to section 22 of the Constitution, public authorities must guarantee, among other things, the exercise of academic freedom. According to section 2 of the Universities Act, the mission of universities is to promote independent academic research. Section 6 of the Act guarantees the freedom of research, art and teaching in universities.

The strategies and visions of Finnish universities and institutions that fund research coincide with the legislation. Their shared values are truth, education, freedom and communality. The scientific community must be an open, dialogue-oriented community of research, learning and bold thinking. Academic freedom is its starting point and fundamental principle.

Let’s take a closer look at the Universities Act. According to section 2, universities shall interact with the surrounding society and promote the social impact of university research findings and artistic activities. However, research is not only free, but has the power, or more precisely, the driving force for social change that Marx spoke of. For example, the University of Helsinki’s Strategic Plan 2021–2030 emphasises the power of academic research.[2]

I will examine the fundamentals of academic freedom by looking at the power of truth and science and at their institutional frameworks.


1. Truth

There is a line between truth and beliefs, knowledge and prejudices, and by this classification scientific inquiry is truth. It deals with the opening up and uncovering of the truth. Academic research is about confronting the opening up of the truth equally in the form of intellectual intuition, scientific analysis or artistic research and in the form of philosophy, empirical study or environmental research. In addition to opening up – or as a prerequisite to it – scientific knowledge relinquishes absolute certainties.[3] There can be no absolute legislator or statute book of scientific knowledge and methodology. Free research is about thinking and weighing things up without any set norms to support it.[4]

According to Jacques Derrida, academic research must be unconditional and absolutely free.[5] Academic freedom includes constant doubt about all definitions and outputs of science, social truths and prevailing symbolic, normative and ideological mechanisms. Academic freedom is a state of doubt, disagreement, rethinking, resistance and disobedience.

Absolute academic freedom is a possibility, but this freedom also includes conditions. Critical and innovative thinking requires knowledge of traditions, even if this is not acknowledged. Research also has to operate conditionally because it must be subjected to scientific evaluation and open debate. The public defence of doctoral theses, peer reviewers and recruitment are mechanisms through which research and its results are evaluated. Academic research does not submit itself to authorities, prejudices or pig-headedness, but requires a constant self-critical attitude. Academic research is always subject to rethinking. It aims for accurate information, not only by seeking new truths and eliminating its past mistakes, but also by questioning its own objectivity.

Yet, we must work to maintain the absolute academic freedom as a regulating principle. Such freedom is not a utopia or even a perfect state of affairs within research, but a principle that regulates it. Academic freedom is always around the corner, but specifically in its free form it sets the criteria for evaluation of its ever-changing freedom and its conditions. As such, science is already committed to something. It is committed to the promise of progressive thinking and progress in thinking.

Academic research has no conditions. It breaks away from authorities, prejudices, pig-headedness and stubbornness, surrendering to a constant self-critical attitude. It aims for accurate information, not only by seeking new truths and eliminating past mistakes, but also by questioning its own objectivity. It involves critical, public and transparent autonomous power of information, and its activities and outputs are not affected by political and economic authorities or ideological mechanisms outside science.[6]

Scientific inquiry therefore constitutes a radical transparency of thinking and action. It does not contain pre-set norms for the methods of truth and knowledge and scientific, academic or artistic research. Academic research involves an endless balancing of thinking, observation and action, ultimately not supported by any pre-specified methodological basis.

When talking about academic freedom, the rationality of science and objectivity of research are often mentioned. The subject, experience, background and views of the researcher are excluded from study. Yet, research must confront both the researcher’s supposed free subject and the structures of language, the symbolic system, experiences and various structures of normativeness that define this subject. In their freedom, scientific, academic and artistic research produce breaks and fractures in the given order of things and in the subject’s own position within this order. The state of thinking is the state of resistance, where set coordinates at the level of knowledge, tradition, society and the subject are called into question.

Academic research involves a theoretical quest for truth and the production of applicable knowledge. In addition, it includes wonder and contemplation, confronting things and being present. Thinking is not possible without allocating time for it, which is a fundamental condition for academic freedom. Yet, less and less time and periods of inactivity are allowed for research today. The continuous reporting, evaluations and publication requirements, as well as outputs and impact, steal time away from thinking. Academic freedom requires a special kind of active laziness.


2. Power

Creative thinking/action – the starting point for academic research – precedes scientific or social impact. It involves unique action, straightforward openness, uncalculated perception, a mind that does not assign value, as well as immeasurable value. Science is a transparent and critical power of knowledge whose terms are not dictated by political, economic or administrative mechanisms.

In other words, academic freedom is the power of knowledge, which involves not so much social impact as the impact of thinking and research that, by their own power, affect, for example, the society, economy, the law, health and the world we share with other species. Academic research sees the big picture and is therefore able to intervene.

There is no academic freedom or power of knowledge without a theoretical foundation. Free science requires a critical theory that liberates thinking and research from dogmatic traditions. Academic freedom must incorporate theory. We must confront the way thinking, observation and action change in the name of academic freedom and within the institutional environments of universities. This may allow theory and the scientific, academic and artistic research based on it to break out of prescribed models of thinking. Academics confront the historical situation, which allows them to influence the state of affairs at hand and participate in radical emancipatory activities. Research not only explains or describes the world; it changes it.


3. Institution

As mentioned above, academic research, art, and thought are radically free, but let’s return to the beginning. Academic freedom is not disconnected from the legislation that gives it its legal framework. It is also defined by institutions that engage in science, as well as their visions and strategies.

On the one hand, thinking, research and art are free from dogmas, authorities and institutional frameworks. On the other, they do not exist within an empty freedom, but rather in discord with the state of affairs and the prevailing institutions. In other words, freedom – including its discord – is part of institutional and administrative structures, ideological mechanisms, and economic logic. But at the same time, freedom is the power of knowledge and will that has the ability to break these. I see free research as dispute without which it would not be free.

But what are the academic, institutional, political and economic preconditions for public, scientific and academic debate? Is it possible to practice academic freedom and generate truths based on them in the current institutional environment? The freedom of basic research is undermined by the ever-increasing number of trendy key projects, development projects focused on future research, various strategic emphases aimed at universities’ and their faculties’ own visions (which always translate as pruning measures in certain disciplines or cuts in their resources). Emphasising social impact can easily result in research projects that serve the status quo and the administration. On the other hand, the social impact of free research should not be ignored. Let us hold on to Marx’s idea of the transformative power of science. Properly funded and targeted, numerous projects have the capacity to promote equality, emancipation, sustainable development and living peacefully side by side with other species at the national, transnational and global level. The social impact of academic research must not be an empty phrase; instead, we must assess what it means and what it may impact.

Academic research cannot be free unless we analyse how the criteria for researchers and knowledge production are defined institutionally. How are knowledge and its creation organised in society and universities? Academic research must assess the definitions and norms set by traditions, authorities and institutions. It must put up opposition against the prevailing power relations and take a stand on the deficit in university democracy.

I would also like to highlight the emphasis on publications in the evaluation of academic research. On the one hand, emphasis is placed on the number of publications achieved, not on the quality of research. On the other, their Publication Forum (JUFO) classification takes centre stage, limiting the freedom, critical approach, openness and creativity of science. The researcher is expected to publish their output in publications that often require them to follow the norms of the academic discipline in question. Interdisciplinary research falls between the cracks of top publications focusing on a single discipline. Open publications, which I consider a precondition for free research, may free academic publication activities from restrictive norms and consequently promote academic freedom. Truth is published where it makes the most difference. Academic freedom is about the quality of research rather than publication forums or the number of publications achieved. Generally speaking, we should value new kinds of publishing and operating mechanisms that are not founded solely on text-based publishing activities. This is where other disciplines can learn a great deal from artistic research. Kone Foundation has made it possible to introduce and highlight other kinds of research results and experiences.

I am not worried about academic freedom or researchers’ willingness to face the opening up of truths through academic or artistic research. The willingness to seek and encounter scientific, academic or artistic truths will not fade or disappear. Jean-François Lyotard once pointed out that knowledge has become a force for production over the control of which there is an ongoing battle.[7] The problem is, on the one hand, funding and, on the other, the institutional strategies and ideology of productivity associated with it. An additional significant challenge today is the courage required of the researcher to publicly reveal research results that they anticipate leading to online shaming.

Who can free themselves to carry out free research and on which topics? One of the prerequisites for producing reliable information is the functionality of the practices employed by universities, foundations and, above all, research communities.[8] We must understand that academic research is alien within the spheres of the economy, society and public administrative mechanisms, which seek to keep it as well as researchers under control. However, this alien quality is the basis for academic freedom. We need to leave institutional norms behind and return to truth and producing truth through scientific, academic and artistic research. Knowledge is not the object of institutional struggles but, in its temporal truth, a force for change.

[1] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Teesejä Feuerbachista (English translation of the original work: Theses on Feuerbach). Valitut teokset 2, Kustannusliike Edistys, Moscow 1978, p. 66.

[2] University of Helsinki’s Strategic Plan 2021–2030: With the Power of Knowledge – for the World, 2020.

[3] Juha Sihvola, Tarvitseeko tiede toisinajattelua? In Sakari Karjalainen, Veikko Launis, Risto Pelkonen and Juhani Pietarinen (eds.): Tutkijan eettiset valinnat, Gaudeamus, Helsinki 2002, pp. 109, 113.

[4] Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus. Gaudeamus, Helsinki 1996, p. 92.

[5] Jacques Derrida, Tulevat humanistiset tieteet. Tiede & edistys 4 / 2000.

[6] Ilkka Niiniluoto, Tieteen tunnuspiirteet. In Sakari Karjalainen, Veikko Launis, Risto Pelkonen and Juhani Pietarinen (eds.), Tutkijan eettiset valinnat, Gaudeamus, Helsinki 2002, p. 37.

[7] Jean-François Lyotard, Tieto postmodernissa yhteiskunnassa (translation of La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir). Vastapaino, Tampere 1985, pp. 10-16.

[8] Samuli Reijula and Petri Ylikoski, Tutkijan vapaus institutionaalisen tietoteorian näkökulmasta. In Esa Väliverronen and Kai Ekholm (eds.),Tieteen vapaus & tutkijan sananvapaus, Vastapaino, Tampere 2020, p. 20.



Ari Hirvonen 

Doctor of Laws, Dr. Habil. in Philosophy of Law and Legal Theory / University of Helsinki, Faculty of Law