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.


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