on the new a-level philosophy syllabus

— cross-posted fromThe Guardian

For A-level students in the UK, there is only one exam board that runs a real philosophy course. And that’s about to be changed into yet another religious education course.

For the last nine years, I have taught the AQA’s A-level philosophy course. It’s a good course, and the only one to represent the breadth of philosophy as a discipline in its own right. So I was somewhat surprised to learn that the AQA have this week, without warning or consultation, published a completely new draft syllabus, which is now just waiting to be rubber-stamped by Ofqual.

The new specification completely excludes the previous options to study aesthetics, free will, all European philosophy since Kant, and – most significantly – political philosophy. This will be all replaced with a compulsory philosophy of religion topic, which will make up 50% of the AS course.

The exam board will also reduce the marks given for students’ ability to critique and construct arguments, and more marks will be given for simply knowing the theories involved. Essentially, where young philosophers were previously rewarded for being able to think for themselves and question the role of government, the new course can only be passed by students who can regurgitate classic defences of the existence and perfection of God.

It would not be difficult to see, were one looking for such things, a rather sinister agenda in all this. Secular students who consider the question of God to be irrelevant to their lives will simply not have any other option if they wish to be philosophers.

Meanwhile, the areas that have been casually dropped are the very areas of philosophy that make it a dynamic, relevant and academically rigorous subject. Political philosophy helps us make sense of politics and consider the importance of freedom and justice; considering free will gives us an opportunity to consider our responsibility for our actions. Both of these are apparently no longer worthy of teaching – nor is the option of a detailed reading of philosophical texts like Plato’s Republic or Mill’s On Liberty. It is not merely that the course that has been dumbed down; philosophy itself is being misrepresented.

A representative of the exam board told me on the telephone that it was “too difficult” to comparatively assess students across the different topics which were options before, so they were changing it so that everyone had to do the “most popular” ones. This is a bit like a science examiner saying that it would be “too difficult” to assess both physics and biology, so it would be better to just drop physics altogether.

(The reason philosophy of religion questions appear “popular” with students is actually that many centres ill-advisedly get an RE teacher to teach the course. Not being philosophers, they tell their students to do the religious questions whether they like it or not.)

But there is a broader danger than this. Philosophy – the vibrant, engaging, and often controversial practice of subjecting all concepts and ideas to rigorous logical scrutiny – has struggled for many years to be properly understood as a discipline apart from religious studies. And yet, philosophy is absolutely crucial for a proper questioning of the assumptions we make about government and about our lives in general.

In a climate where university philosophy departments face closure, the very survival of philosophy in the UK depends on philosophers being able to make clear to post-16 students what secular philosophy is and why it is worth studying. It is difficult to see how the new specification will make this anything other than impossible.

Not only will future students not get a representative grounding in philosophy; it is likely that schools and colleges will eventually cease to run a discrete philosophy course, and will increasingly staff the course from RE departments – if they run it at all. The implications for the discipline in general are likely to be devastating.

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stand-up philosophy: the academics’ edition

WOW.

On Tuesday night something a little weird and very special happened: about three hundred people turned up, at six-thirty on a Tuesday evening, to hear a bunch of academics talk about philosophy.

There were so many people that we had to run two shows simultaneously because there were just far two many people to fit in the 130-seater lecture theatre.

And I was the lucky, lucky fellow who got to compere it all.

—–

There is some backstory to this. Last autumn, I was talking to Dr. Gordon Finlayson of Sussex University about the idea of Stand-up Philosophy. We were discussing how it could work, who could do it, what its purpose would be, etc. Gordon suggested that since the emphasis would be on serious (but accessible) philosophy rather than comedy, it could be called ‘Philosophy Stand-up: No Joke.’

And then Gordon said that he thought it would be a good idea to talk about it to the rather prestigious and brilliant Forum for European Philosophy based at the LSE, which organises public philosophy events and of which he is part of their planning committee.

And then a few months later, as I was trying to organise my little experimental night in the Jeremy Bentham pub, Gordon said to me, ‘It’s happening. You should come to the next planning meeting of the Forum.’

Crikey, I thought. And then I went along.

The committee of the Forum for European Philosophy convene in a rather ornate meeting room, high up in the Old Academic Building of the LSE. The board is packed with various professors and senior lecturers and is chaired by the Forum’s director, Simon Glendinning. I hadn’t met Dr. Glendinning before, but I knew of him. He is something of a big deal authority on J.S. Mill. On that day he came in wearing a very smart suit with a waistcoat and tie, looking extremely distinguished and – for me – quite intimidating. And there I was – as a comedian – at a table with them all.

I was quite taken aback by how much they seemed to like the idea of Stand-up Philosophy; they had already scheduled an event, and Gordon seemed to have persuaded them to let me compere it.

Simon and the other philosophers were, perhaps unsurprisingly, somewhat hesitant about my suggestion that we invite some stand-up comedians to take part too. But that didn’t matter: the point was that they were interested in the idea.

Afterwards, I worried. Was anyone even going to come? The event had been booked at six-thirty on a Tuesday evening, after exams had finished and outside of term time. It was booked for the Wolfson Theatre, a quite fancy new lecture theatre which seats 130 people and doesn’t allow people to take drinks in. There were no comedians on the bill, and most people outside of the very small world of academic philosophy wouldn’t have heard of any of the philosophers who had been invited to perform.

Surely we would be performing to about ten or fifteen sober postgrads in a room which was too humiliatingly large?

—–

Then, it seemed, philosophy made a comeback.

This summer, the ‘How The Light Gets In’ festival of philosophy and music at Hay-on-Wye seemed to really take off.

I started my night at the Jeremy Bentham pub, and the room has been consistently full (much fuller, in fact, than most comedy nights at this time of year).

A few weeks after that, an event called ‘My Night With Philosophers’ ran a night of public lectures at the Institut Francais; I went to see what was happening and there must have been close to a thousand people there.

And then we put on our event at the LSE on Tuesday.

I arrived at six in the evening, and there were already about ten people sitting in the Wolfson Theatre. That’s our ten, I thought. They’re keen.

Then more people came. And more. And more. They filled all the seats in the theatre by 6.20. And then they just kept coming.

Eventually, Gordon and Simon – who had both volunteered to perform – suggested that we were either going to have to run a second show, or turn away at least a hundred people. So we found some space and ran a second show – simultaneously with the first – with me frantically running between the two rooms, welcoming acts on to the stages, charing mini-Q-and-A-sessions and generally trying to give the whole thing the impression of orderliness.

It was brilliant.

After about an hour and forty minutes, everyone was exhausted but both rooms had seen all six philosophers speak, and they seemed very happy.

There was even a podcast made of the show in the Wolfson Theatre. It’s at http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=1939

—–

I’m starting to get the impression that many, many people have been interested in philosophy in a much more serious way than most academic philosophers like to think; they just find academic philosophy pretentious and inaccessible.

Philosophy has been concerned for its own survival for a while; academic philosophers are terrified about department closures, and cuts in teaching budgets and research funding. But at the same time, we’ve been gradually making our discipline so completely opaque to outsiders, especially in the language we use, that what we do is often impossible for any normal person to get their head around.

Too many academic philosophers complain that Alain de Botton can sell a million books, while doing almost nothing to make their own arguments available or accessible to the public. Instead, they obsess about whether they can get an article published in tiny niche journals that only about two hundred people ever read. These philosophers are right, I think, to be worried for their survival. And if they don’t survive, who will miss them?

But I think philosophy which makes itself as accessible and unpretentious as possible is capable of thriving. A few academic philosophers are starting to get this: that the general public of non-philosophers contains a huge number of people who are intelligent, curious, and want to know about philosophy. They do want to know what philosophers are doing, and do philosophy themselves, and know how philosophy can be fun and useful and important to them, too.

They just need ways in.

I want Stand-up Philosophy to be a way in. And I am finally starting to think that I am not the only one.

stand-up philosophy #2: ‘justice’

Well, Stand-up Philosophy is definitely working. The audience for last night’s show at the Jeremy Bentham were a strange, slightly mixed bag of philosophy postgrads, comedy fans, people I used to teach…and my family.

But the show was really fantastic – perhaps because we had a line-up of acts who were pretty much perfect in terms of them all being extremely proficient comedy performers, as well as all having interesting and different takes on the question of Justice…

– Dougie Walker opened the show pretty much perfectly with a thing called ‘What’s so fucking great about fairness anyway?’, in which he argued that a lot of the principles of fairness which we associate with the notion of ‘justice’ (ie treating people the same, etc) don’t really work. He nevertheless argued (with some success, I think) that justice would have to be in some way connected with empathy.

– Lindsay Sharman talked about a variety of problems associated with Justice, but in particular (or at least, this was the bit that was most interesting to me) raised some really interesting points about whether a person can be just or unjust to their future self. (She was also very funny – out of all the philosophers involved in the show, she the one about whom most people came up to me afterwards and said, “she was really funny”).

– Tony Dunn approached the problem with an analysis of how justice might apply to psychopaths, considering the fact that it doesn’t make sense to punish psychopaths because their inability to empathise with others means that they often can’t really believe that they’ve done anything wrong. Added to the difficulties when it comes to identifying psychopaths, and the fact that they nevertheless have to be prevented from doing harm to others, he claimed (quite convincingly, I thought, if somewhat depressingly) that perfect justice is impossible in any world which contains psychopaths.

– Andrew Watts headlined the show with a new and fascinating spin on the question, pointing out that the principle that legal judgments must set precedents in order for later cases to be just, had thrown up all kinds of bizarre anomalies when it came to the practical application of justice; he illustrated this somewhat brilliantly with the problems surrounding the legal status of necrophilia.

And the audience seemed to love all of it, and somehow I wasn’t even too embarrassed to talk with Andrew about necrophilia in front of my Mum…

HOORAY.

stand-up philosophy 1: the meaning of life

Last night was, as far as I could tell, London’s first ever night of ‘Stand-up Philosophy’, and pretty smashing it was too.

What’s Stand-up Philosophy, you ask? Well, it basically seems to be somewhere between a stand-up comedy night and a public lecture.

My thought was this: I’ve been at literally hundreds of stand-up gigs where an act has actually said something philosophical and intelligent, and thought, I wish they could just make their argument without being tied up in trying to get laughs. Or philosophy lectures which have been really entertaining and accessible as well as insightful, and thought, I wish there was a bar and the possibility of heckling.

So now there is something which has it all. And last night we crammed it – and I mean crammed, there was standing room only for latecomers – into the lovely upstairs room of the appropriately named Jeremy Bentham pub near University College London.

For the first night, we started with the theme question of ‘The Meaning of Life’ – because it does seem to be the first question that people start with in Philosophy. And I tried to answer it, and so did Broderick Chow, Patrick Levy and Ahir Shah, all of whom were fantastic.

Before we started, I thought I’d better set some rules. For example, giving the philosopher onstage 10 minutes or so to make an argument before fielding ‘question-heckles’; not using loads of technical terms, because it was in a pub after all; and a general rule of ‘don’t be a dick’.

Which we all mostly stuck to.

And the audience were fantastic and lovely, and so were the acts. Brody argued that if life can be given meaning, we can do it though attempts to ‘organise’, ‘know yourself’, and ‘be a dog-person’; Patrick argued for a Levinasian other-grounded ethical life; and Ahir argued that life is basically chaotic and that looking for meaning is futile.

And just in case anyone missed it, here is what I argued…

 

 

The meaning of life is happiness

I think the meaning of life is happiness – to try and create as much happiness as possible. But ‘happiness’ is a pretty vague word, so I’m going to have to try and explain what I mean.

First of all I should say that I think happiness is something you can actually feel, you can experience it, and it’s something people do in fact want to feel. And I think that’s necessary to make any kind of decent judgment about any proposed candidate for something which might give life meaning; I don’t see how you can make any proper judgments about real things unless those things can be tangibly experienced. We need to try and decide our meaning, and what to do to make that meaning, based on things you can see or hear or feel (and I include emotions like happiness in that).

So metaphysical things like ‘God’s will’, for example, can’t be a contender for the meaning of life, because it can’t be experienced – it’s an abstract concept. Justice, too, is a concept that can’t itself be felt or experienced.

But happiness is something that can be experienced. It can actually be felt. And it’s something that, most of the time, we do actually want to feel. It’s what we look for as a result of the things we do.

So, it’s worth also saying that if believing in God’s will does in fact create happiness (and it very often does) then I have no problem with people doing it at all.

Additionally, the feeling of satisfaction which we feel when we see justice done also counts, I think, as happiness. So if people want to do things which create a feeling of satisfaction that justice is being done, that is great.

But metaphysical concepts like God or justice are a means to an end, and not themselves the meaning of life. The tangible feeling is the goal, because that is the part that we can honestly have some actual experience of.

So, I want to argue that what gives meaning to life is that feeling of happiness, and a meaningful life is one in which we try to do whatever will create happiness.

There are three problems with this:

– The first is, what do I really mean by happiness?

– The second is that if happiness is a consequence of other things, what if we don’t actually always know what will make us happy?

– The third is, whose happiness do I mean?

The first problem, of what happiness is, I’d like to put on hold for a moment – I’ll just say that a lot of people hearing this kind of theory assume it just means shallow hedonistic pleasure, and that’s not what I mean. I mean, I am a big fan of simple hedonistic pleasure (big gulp of beer, smile). But actually I think real happiness is a much deeper feeling, it’s a feeling of satisfaction or fulfilment with life. I will come back to this, though.

So, let’s look at the second problem: that we don’t always know what will make us happy. Because it’s true that most of the time we don’t know what will bring happiness. Anything we might choose to do will bring about all kinds of problems and unintended consequences, and we don’t know what they’ll be.

Fortunately, we can look at a situation and use what we’ve experienced in the past to make pretty good bets. For example, I know that almost every time I see my friend Lawrence, it makes me happy – seeing his face makes me feel happy.

Look at his face! It’s the exact way I don’t feel when I listen to the music of Justin Bieber.

So I can make some pretty well-informed bets – I can choose to spend time with Lawrence’s face, and not listening to Justin Bieber.

Obviously I can’t know for sure whether what I choose to do will make me happy until after I’ve chosen, which I will accept is quite annoying. Especially because it means that, until time stops, one choice will almost create more happiness than another, so there almost always definitely is a right or wrong answer to any decision – I just can’t possibly know what it is until long after the decision has been made.

This kind of consequentialist theory is often quite unpopular because it pleases nobody – it doesn’t please people who want there to be a right answer, and it also doesn’t please people who want there to be no answers.

It’s like saying it doesn’t matter whether you like pizza or not, there definitely is pizza – but it’s not coming out the oven until you’re not hungry, and maybe not even then. It pleases nobody.

But this is not a reason to reject the theory: it just means we have to be cautious, because we can make informed gambles but we can’t be certain. And if we are to ground meaning in what can be actually experienced, then we don’t really have much else to go on. (Pizza is all we’re really getting). So we have to make these gambles in the most informed way possible.

The third problem was, happiness for who?

Well, I think the only realistic answer is, happiness for me. Because I only experience my own happiness, and I don’t really feel other people’s happiness. But this is not necessarily as selfish as it looks, because I can see signs of whether they are happy or not; and if I feel empathy for someone else, as most humans tend to do, then their happiness makes me happy. If I look at Lawrence’s wonderful face and he looks miserable, then I won’t be happy either. But seeing him happy makes me feel happy, especially if I’ve helped make him happy.

And, to go back to the first question, I have found – empirically – that this kind of happiness, a shared happiness with other people, is a much deeper and more rewarding kind of happiness than if I decided to just sit on my own eating chocolate.

Now this doesn’t have to be true for everyone. I mean, not everyone knows Lawrence. Other people might find the deepest happiness by excluding other people, and I have to accept that if that is what makes them satisfied and happy with their lives that is ok, too. But for me, what gives me that deep kind of happiness is to share that happiness with other people, to feel I am a cause of their happiness and for their happiness to cause mine. Another word for the way I feel happiness might be the word ‘love’.

But there’s another aspect to this, too, and I think it will get us closer to the answer overall.

Last September, I was at a party, and I was talking to a girl, and I was a bit drunk and probably, I think, hoping I might get off with her. And then she asked me a question.

She asked, if there was a news flash that a meteor was going to hit earth in six hours, and everybody was definitely going to die, what would you do?

Well…what would you do?

And I know a lot of people would think, let’s get drunk, right? Maybe that’s what she was hoping for. But straight away I knew what I would do. I wouldn’t be talking to some random person at a party.

I would find the person whose happiness I know has the most significance for my own. Who it really makes me feel happiest to share my happiness with.

And if they weren’t nearby, I would start running, and I would run and run until I got a stitch so it felt like I was tearing apart and I would just keep running, until I found them.

And I would try to spend the last few hours trying to share with them whatever happiness was still possible. Even if they didn’t want me to! I would still try – I would have to – because it would be my best hope for happiness.

(That person might not be Lawrence. I suspect his wife might get first call on that.)

But the point is this: that even if there is no meteor, time is still limited: it might be in six hours, or six days, or six years, or sixty years – but however much physicists may say time is infinite, my experience of time is that it isn’t infinite. It is very very finite.

Not long after that party conversation, there was an electrical explosion in the badly-wired warehouse I was living in that somehow managed to not kill me.

And that sharpened up the question to which the meaning of one’s own life is the answer. The question is: given that time is limited, how should I spend my time – and who with? – in order to create the deepest feeling of happiness in whatever time remains?

So. Happiness, I think, is a deep feeling of satisfaction or fulfilment with your life and what you do. You can’t ever be sure whether what you’re doing is going to make you feel satisfied or fulfilled or not, but for me, and I think for a lot of people, happiness comes from a shared happiness with other people.

And that – for me – is the meaning of life.

what a teacher isn’t

I was asked the other night what a teacher is. Despite having been teaching for eight years, I found it very difficult to say. It’s much easier to say what a teacher, or teaching, is not. So…

Teaching is not, in itself, a skill.

– It is more like finding yourself immersed in beautiful water, sticking your head out and saying to anyone who will listen, “OH MY GOODNESS YOU HAVE TO GET IN THIS WATER! It’s amazing…” (And, sometimes, offering a ladder for anyone unable to jump.) But you have to really be in the water first, and you have to really care about sharing it. After this, any development of the supposed ‘skill’ of teaching is peripheral; it’s just a few extra rungs on a poolside ladder.

A teacher isn’t necessarily cleverer or more mature than their students.

– They just happen to have some information, and put a value on that information, that the student doesn’t. As it happens, I am cleverer than many of my students – but by no means all of them. And the first time I meet any new student, I remind myself that any of them could be much, much cleverer than me, once they have the information I have.

A teacher doesn’t tell anyone what values to hold.

– That would be the job of a philosopher. It is not for teachers to persuade anyone to agree with their values – or the values of their institution – but for each teacher to provide opportunities for students to decide, to support or challenge their own values. For example, I am not a Tory and I wish the Conservative party little goodwill; but if one of my politics classes reach the end of a course without at least one student switching their sympathies from Labour to the Conservatives, I take it as a sign that I haven’t given them enough encouragement to challenge themselves.

Teachers are not all the same.

– The notion of a fixed set of standards that all teachers should meet is absurd if it misses the one crucial thing about them – that they really really care about what they’re teaching and who they’re teaching it to. And every teacher is different in the way they do this.

A teacher, like anyone else, is not a neutral vehicle for information…

– No person is neutral, and pretending to give neutral information entails exactly the opposite. Michael Gove’s new Teaching Standards framework contains an explicit phrase about how teachers must not expressing personal beliefs in a way which might ‘exploit pupils’ vulnerability’. This framework itself, of course, is far from politically neutral: it is an attempt to enforce the political values of Michael Gove. Additionally, it is clumsily worded and easily ridiculed. In the interests of transparency I read this section of the standards out loud to my students at the beginning of this year – they found it hilarious. We now have a running joke: any time I am asked whether a certain value or argument or policy is a good thing, I ask: ‘from whose perspective? Not mine – I wouldn’t want to exploit your vulnerability, after all.’ And we all laugh.

…and they do not insult their students’ intelligence by pretending to be.

– And after the laugh has ended, the brightest students sometimes get angry about this idea that it would be ‘exploiting their vulnerability’ to know what their teacher’s opinions are. They know it is an insult to their intelligence. They want to know what their teachers think, and why, so that they can evaluate the information they are given – bearing in mind what they know about their teachers’ biases – and decide whether they agree. I often find myself in a position where I have to give my politics classes clues about who I voted for at the last general election, and the means to assess how biased the information is which I am giving them. I hope that this is not a breach of the standards.

A teacher, when teaching, is not a representative of an institution.

– It is possible for people who work as teachers to represent the institution, and the values of the institution, for which they work. If they work for a school or college or university, they might enforce rules, check uniforms, or communicate notices to each other and to their students regarding the affairs of their institution. This is often important for the basic functioning of the institution. But this is not teaching. In teaching, the teacher represents only themselves, their own discipline and their own relationship with it. The role of the institution should be to facilitate this. We do well to ask of any institutional action which is not clearly and directly related to teaching, ‘what is the point of this, and why are we letting it take us away from the subjects we love?’

Teachers are not to be taken seriously as people.

– “A good teacher,” wrote Nietzsche, “takes nothing seriously except in relation to their students – not even themselves.” He didn’t just mean that good teachers are ridiculous people, and are aware that they are ridiculous in their willingness to give up so much of their time for the sake of other people’s understanding. He meant that the call they make, from the thing they love to the people they want to make love it, subsumes any other value they might have as people. Everything that a teacher is can be seen in their students. And eventually, that fades and nothing is left of them at all.

Teachers do not rightfully have authority.

– What teachers have is leadership – and these are two different things.

Some teachers might be disciplinarians, but disciplinarians don’t necessarily make good teachers.

– Or, often, make teachers at all. Punishment and coercion are not good teaching methods. Some teachers recognise that, but still think that good discipline over students is a necessary condition of good teaching. That belief is for teachers who are too boring or rude to give students any other more persuasive reason to listen to them.

A teacher is not afraid to be an entertainer.

If they aren’t, then nobody’s getting in the water. Sure, you can push them in; but they’ll get out as soon as they can, and never go near that pool again.

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.

  • Calendar

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