Thursday, July 22, 2010

What's the point? Again.

I didn't have In Socrates' Wake bookmarked on my laptop, so I haven't been keeping up with it over the summer. Trying to catch up, I came across this old post and discussion thread there. It even has the stuff about physics making the country worth defending rather than helping defend it. Two other things strike me about it: 1. we philosophers don't seem to be very good at articulating a shared sense of what philosophy is for, and 2. several people defend philosophy by linking it with questions to do with ethics and religion.

Given the kind of danger faced by philosophy programs (alluded to here, for instance), #1 seems like something we ought to address. That is, if philosophy programs are going to be cut (as they have been at Middlesex University, e.g.) unless they seem more relevant, then we ought to try to present a united front of relevance. It might not be too late to emphasize the connection between critical thinking and philosophy. Ethics seems to me to be promising too: shouldn't every school offer a course like Michael Sandel's Justice? Once you've taken Critical Thinking then you might try Logic, and then maybe Philosophy of Language. After Contemporary Moral Issues, why not Ethical Theory and then Meta-ethics? And after World Religions why not Philosophy of Religion and then Metaphysics? The nature of causation can seem very abstract as an issue, but probably seems more relevant after you've wrestled a bit with the cosmological argument. This might partly explain why Intro Ethics courses sometimes seem to be more successful than general Intro to Philosophy courses.

That's how I would try to build and sell a philosophy program anyway, making sure along the way that students learned at least something about the history of the subject. But I know some people would see this as both pandering to the bureaucrats and missing much of the real meat of philosophy, which they see as dealing with problems in metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of language. It's that conception of philosophy that makes it seem irrelevant though. Which might be what kills it off in the end.


  1. Yes, this is a problem (from the "administrative perspective") just as soon as it is even open to question that studying philosophy is part of a well-rounded education.

    I'm lucky, if I may say so and brag, that EKU's philosophy and religion department seems to be winning on most of the fronts you mention: the University's mission, the Quality Enhancement Program (QEP), states that EKU's mission is "to develop informed, critical, and creative thinkers who communicate effectively." Thumbs up for the practical reasoning class (and our profs are working with the QEP people. We have courses in environmental ethics, biomedical ethics, and technology and values, which are for both PHRE majors and students with majors in the other relevant fields (as required courses for the latter). We'll be adding Animal Ethics to this list starting next spring, as support to the newly approved Animal Studies major. PHRE faculty also co-teach humanities courses for the Honors program. So I feel pretty good about the "state" of my department, and it doesn't strike me that any of these relationships are somehow forced (out of the necessity to stay alive) but are just an extension of philosophy into relevant areas that in various ways serve the educational goals of the larger university community.

    So, maybe another way to make your point is that PHIL and PHRE departments need to integrate rather than isolate. This isn't to say we should get rid of those areas that are mainly only of interest to philosophers, but what I hear from some fronts is that some departments do themselves the service of being isolationist, which strikes me as stupid or snobby, and probably often both. The problem, I guess, in some places, is that there's a core of "hardcore" M&E folks who still have a latent positivist disdain for value theory, and those people run the risk of making themselves irrelevant (if they don't get the cognitive scientists and physicists to hang with them).

  2. I meant "disservice" in the last paragraph above.

  3. Yes, integration without isolation might be a good way to put it. Your department seems to be doing very good work. My perspective is a little different since I'm in a Department of Psychology and Philosophy (and I'm the only full-time philosopher in it). So everyone at the school likes the idea of critical thinking, but no one (except perhaps me) thinks of this as something that ought to be taught by philosophers. Maybe I should start up a Practical Reasoning course. I might be able to do that without treading on the toes of my colleague who teaches Critical & Creative Thinking. There aren't enough hours in the week to do everything though.

    If latent positivism is at work I think it is also what's driving the disdain for philosophy by non-philosophers. If philosophy's connections with science are going to be emphasized, people had better start having some science-type results to show. Although even physics is in danger in some places, so perhaps I'm being unfair. There is some kind of irony in positivistic/scientistic/hard-headed attitudes pushing philosophy (as it is taught) away from hard-headed/hardcore philosophy. But I can see that happening. The result might be that really hardcore M&E only gets taught at resource-rich schools, which could increase its prestige still more. It'll be interesting (and I hope not too depressing) to see what happens.

  4. By the way, I've read Summertime now, and posted a short comment here ( if you're still interested.