towards a properly ballsy defence of academic philosophy

Philosophers need to grow some balls.

We’re complaining and protesting the cuts to philosophy departments – like the planned closure of the department at Middlesex – with a tail-between-our-legs victim complex; as if budget cuts to philosophy were something that the nasty capitalists are trying to do because they don’t understand that our lovely pure wisdom is ‘above’ impact assessments and the like.

This isn’t enough. We can’t defend ourselves by playing the role of the victim. Unless we completely change the way we’re handling this – and in doing so, the way HEFCE et al. consider the value of philosophy – then the cuts will get worse. In ten years, philosophy in UK schools and universities could be demolished, department-by-department, in a way that could take several generations to recover – if it ever does.

Despite debates about the funding structures for further and higher education, the root of the problem comes down to the fact that after two-and-a-half thousand years, we still don’t seem to have figured out what our relationship with the world outside academia is supposed to be; in other words, what our ‘impact’ – if we have one – should be.

It’s understandable, in some ways, that philosophers are confused about what to do with the current academic/economic state of affairs. In particular, we’re struggling to deal with the importance of research impact assessments because we are used to recognising a range of types of value reasoning, and ascribing different kinds of value to our work: moral value, political utility, the intrinsic good of a better understanding of experience. Our discipline existed – as we know only too well – before modernity narrowed its focus on the instrumental scientific and economic value of every judgment.

So when a research exercise asks us to measure the value of our work, academic philosophers have always been able to say with confidence that we are doing the important intellectual work of making ourselves, and other humans, brighter, better, wiser people. We learn to make better, more reasoned judgments, and we teach others to do the same.

But because we see the intrinsic worth in this, we are often unable to provide specifics as to the exact ways in which we are assisting industry, or the economy, or helping with the production of arts or medicine. And these are the things that the people who determine our budgets need to know.

There’s an extent to which this is all John Locke’s fault. He was wrong to describe philosophy as an “under-labourer of science” when he should have been arguing that philosophy, the love of wisdom when making critical judgments, is the only discipline which can stand above science, to hold science (both good and bad) to account.

Unfortunately, we have relinquished our right to do this, and we’ve done it in a number of ways. The first is that when researchers in other fields ‘specialised away’ a lot of our research interests – in the studies of nature and society and thought – we responded by trying to over-specialise ourselves. Often this has led us into in areas which are not only of no instrumental use but are not even worth philosophising about for their own sake. I saw a university department website recently on which two philosophers – I won’t say who – appeared to define their work as ‘defending a naïve realist view of colour’. But when our physics and biology departments have got colour-optics all sewn up, this kind of research can really add very little of any kind of value.

The second is that we’ve assumed that just because things like Research Assessment Exercises can’t possibly understand philosophy properly, that we shouldn’t bother to make them try. We’ve fallen into shuffling around, muttering under our breath at how you can’t quantify wisdom or how you shouldn’t expect philosophy to have extrinsic value.

This is not good enough. Philosophy departments are being closed and if we don’t act then we will be grumbling all the way to the jobcentre.

There are two things that need to be made absolutely clear.

1) There is a great deal of philosophy that does have extrinsic, practical value. In particular, philosophies of value, of ethics and politics and aesthetics, can genuinely make people’s lives better – what Dewey called the melioristic motive. And if they aren’t making people’s lives better, then we must accept that they are failing to have that value. This doesn’t mean ditching our work, of course; but it does mean we must be more active in getting it out there into the world. We should get as involved in the world outside academia – in politics, in journalism, in the production of art, even in business – as we can possibly be. We must put our philosophies to work, so that we may prove that they do. Rather than complaining about the principle of impact assessments, we must be proud of the impacts we can have, be excited about what we will say next time we are asked what impacts we are having, and make sure everyone – not just everyone in academia, but everyone – knows about it.

2) We must be prepared to stand up and defend properly, and collectively, the intrinsic value of wisdom. Philosophical research which does not obviously have a melioristic motive (for example, studies into logic and the nature of judgment itself, or attempts to analyse consciousness), often nevertheless have the intrinsic value of gaining a better understanding of ourselves and our thought. We must also be prepared to argue properly, and collectively, that this kind of philosophy often furnishes the rest of philosophy, as well as the sciences, with the thinking skills on which to base its judgments.

This means, of course, that we must be as discriminating as we can possibly be about which work has these kinds of value, either instrumentally or intrinsically. Too much philosophical research is still either meaningless study towards ‘a deeper understanding of the work of philosopher x’, or self-indulgent tinkering at the margins of mathematics or neurobiology, without providing any really valuable insights that can be used outside of academia.

But we must also be significantly more courageous and articulate in our championing of the intrinsic value of wisdom.

It’s worth pointing out that the supposed split in British philosophy departments between ‘continental’ and ‘analytic’ philosophy has simply got to stop. When KCL attempted to shrink its philosophy department, there were posts on the wall of the protest facebook group saying things like ‘another sad day in the slow death of analytic philosophy’; and since Middlesex announced it is cutting its philosophy department I’ve already had conversations with continental philosophers complaining that the university is somehow too eurosceptic.

These claims aren’t going to get us anywhere. We have too much in common to be squabbling when we need to work together on our shared areas of interest.

We need to make clear our case: that philosophy of all varieties, when it’s done well, is a genuine force for making humanity better, cleverer, and most of all wiser. It’s a tautology to say this, I think, but the value of philosophy and philosophers lies in how much we can achieve through our love of wisdom.

If we can’t make this clear to the government, the public, and to our bursars, we may as well just pack up now.


this new government might just be quite good – thanks to new labour

Okay, I’m going to say it: the outcome of this election is – so far – pretty much the best that any liberal or social democrat could have hoped for. Better, in fact.

There, I’ve said it.

Why would I say such a thing? Have I gone mad? How could I be satisfied – hopeful, even – about the idea of a Conservative government, having struggled so hard against it? How could I be pleased that the Liberal Democrat party I voted for, campaigned for in the hope it would help keep the Tories out, have helped it to happen?

Well for one thing, I might be a Liberal Democrat now but I still love the Labour Party, and this result is actually very good for them. They are in a position where they have not only proved they still have a lot of loyal support and can rack up a respectable number of seats in parliament, but they also have a batch of really good, smart potential leaders who are ready to rejuvenate the party now that they don’t have to worry about running the country.

For Labour this may even have been – and I think, deep down, they know it – a good election to lose. They won’t have to be the ones making the cuts, and they’ll be a better party after they’ve had a rest and regrouped. Plus, of course, they are the only opposition now. When it comes to Prime Minister’s Questions that will count.

But that’s not the main reason why I’m hopeful. The main reason I’m hopeful is that, having read the coalition agreement between the Tories and the Lib Dems, it’s actually really quite good.

I mean, it’s not perfect: Trident will still be replaced; any idiot will still be able to open their own schools and expect other schools in the area to pay for it; and the idea of ditching the Working Time Directive should appall anyone who’s ever felt their employer might be stealing their life.

But when you look at what the Lib Dem negotiators got in return, it’s just remarkable – it’s almost frightening to see just how far the Conservatives have come.

In particular, the tax agreement that will help people on low incomes (rather than the disgustingly unjust inheritance tax cut the Tories originally proposed); the pupil premium for poorer students; the commission to separate investment and retail banking (which has got Vince Cable’s delicate, expert fingerprints all over it); the fully elected House of Lords – elected by proportional representation, for goodness’ sake…

It’s almost hard to believe that this is the same party at all.

The reason for this, of course, is that under David Cameron’s leadership, it isn’t the same party any more. I’m not quite sure what it is; it’s some kind of capitalist party, of course, but a surprisingly liberal one which is prepared to increase funding for the NHS and scrap ID cards and give tax breaks to low earners.

Which means that everything we thought we knew about the Conservatives: the nasty party; the wreckers of lives; the slashers of schools and the NHS; the police-state Thatcherites we were fully justified in hating…it all goes out of the window.

And with it, perhaps, goes our dogmatic party tribalism, and our ridiculously over-simplistic ‘left-wing/right-wing’ distinction (which never fully accounted for the authoritarian/liberal difference which really matters). And in its place comes this seemingly genuine talk of fairness and reform and collaboration.

But what, you might ask, if it’s all a con? What if our instinctive Tory-hating was right, if Cameron is a bizarre anomaly, and the Conservative backbenchers who represent the ‘real’ Tory party intend to smile now but wreck it all later? Well then, it will be those ‘real’ Conservatives’ fault, everyone will know it, and they’ll be punished by a resurgent Labour Party at the next election for sabotaging a promising new kind of collaborative politics.

And if it works? Then it will have been proved that coalitions can work, and that a fairer electoral system would not lead to unstable governments at all. Basically, it’s a win-win situation.

And who is to thank for this? Gordon Brown.

Well, Brown and Blair, really – New Labour. Blair and Brown forced the Tories to change or face permanent opposition – Tony Blair even once said something along the lines of that his job would only be done when the Conservatives had completely abandoned Thatcherism. And, in getting David Cameron – and, of course, the Liberal Democrats – into government, it looks like maybe they have.

I’m not saying I’d ever vote Tory, of course; and I’m as surprised to be saying this as anyone – but…perhaps this is a Conservative government that – if the Liberal influence can keep a check on the mad backbenches – might just be better than we thought possible.

the dream team

So the UK General Election seem to have become a two-horse race between the Conservative Party (led by David Cameron and supported by the wealthy, the foolish, and most of our newspapers), and the Hung Parliament campaign (led by Nick Clegg and supported by everyone else).

Obviously since I am neither wealthy nor foolish, I’m hoping for a hung parliament. But if that happened, what would the executive branch of government actually look like? The cabinet obviously wouldn’t be made up of members of just one party.

But – what if that meant that the best person from ANY party could do the job? How great would that be? It won’t happen of course, but since a) dreaming for better is my ‘thing’, and b) I had nothing better to do, here is my


Prime Minister: Nick Clegg (LD) obviously

Deputy PM: Alan Johnson (Lab) for his competence

Chancellor: Vince Cable (LD) has a PhD in Economics

Business Secretary: Ken Clarke (Con) knows his stuff

Home Secretary: Ed Balls (Lab) he’s basically a decent guy

Justice Secretary: Baroness Scotland (Lab) for her legal expertise

Foreign Secretary: David Miliband (Lab) because he’s doing bloody well

Transport/Environment: Dave Cameron (Con) he’d be really good at this

Children + Schools: Ed Miliband (Lab) because he’s cute and clever

Higher Education: David Willetts (Con) see above, only not as cute

Defence Secretary: Paddy Ashdown (LD) actually knows what war’s like

Equalities Minister: Harriet Harman (Lab) she’s done it well so far

International Development: Chris Huhne (LD) knows his stuff

Work + Pensions: Lynne Featherstone (LD) a proper businesswoman

and so on, etc etc

And by the way:  See? I don’t hate all Tories.

Like I say, though, it won’t happen… (sighs)