Over at Orienteringsforsøk, vh has a nice post on the value of studying philosophy. It's refreshing to see someone question the value often attributed to it by philosophers. As he says:
reading philosophy and acquiring the analytic and argumentative tools on offer is, as demonstrated by Erasmus Montanus, not the same as becoming a clearheaded thinker. Mastering a philosophical style, may even -- if it is true that certain philosophies offer nothing but fashionable nonsense -- have quite pernicious effects on one's judgement. Not even (mainstream) analytical philosophy is what Hacker has in mind when he hails philosophy as "a unique technique for tackling conceptual questions". Judging by his many heated debates with colleagues, mainly from the anglo-american tradition, it is reasonable to interpret the quote with which I began as deliberately echoing a sigh by his friend, Bede Rundle: "Whatever their limitations, earlier analytical philosophers had at least a nose for nonsense. Sadly, so many philosophers today have only a taste for it."While Anscombe may be right that Oxford moral philosophy does not corrupt the youth because they already think as badly as Oxford moral philosophers, I do think that studying philosophy can have pernicious effects. This applies not only to the studying of fashionable nonsense and the worst kinds of mainstream analytic philosophy but to studying Hacker's work too. I say this as a former closed-minded Hackerite (without meaning that it's Hacker's fault that anyone ends up like that).
In a word the problem is dogmatism. If you teach your students that utilitarianism is true then you are really not teaching them moral philosophy, even though you might make them better people and give them a useful tool that helps them think better about some issues. (Think of what a course or two by Peter Singer might do in a best case scenario.) The same goes for any other theory or position in philosophy. Including Wittgensteinian ones, of course. And you can teach dogmatism without doing so explicitly or consciously. In fact it's probably almost impossible to teach philosophy without encouraging some kind of dogmatism about something. The best you can do might be to minimize this kind of harm while, of course, maximizing the beneficial encouragement of careful thinking. It's a difficult act to pull off. And it is an act, a kind of behavior or activity, as many people (not just Wittgensteinians) like to point out. So there aren't philosophical findings that we teach our students. Just, or at least primarily, certain habits of mind that we try to develop and maintain in ourselves and others.
In this essay Hacker refers to philosophy as a technique. That doesn't seem right. He also says that philosophy gives us techniques, which is closer to the truth. But this still makes it sound more mechanical than it really is. You don't sniff out nonsense by applying a technique. The practice of philosophy seems to me to be more like the application of ordinary critical intelligence, asking questions like "What do you mean?" and "What are the grounds for that claim?" But it's the application of ordinary intelligence informed by familiarity with certain patterns of thought (both particularly good examples and particularly difficult examples of bad thinking) and lots and lots of practice. In short, philosophers don't really do anything that non-philosophers can't do, and they don't necessarily do it better, but they ought at least to do it better than they themselves did it before they started studying and practicing philosophy, and they ought to do it without some other mission. Every good teacher teaches critical thinking, but non-philosophers usually have some facts, theories, techniques, or dogma that they aim to teach as well. Philosophers do usually want their students to know who Plato was or how to define anti-realism, say, but this kind of thing is, I think, less central to philosophy than it is to any other subject. Philosophy is (even) more about questions than any other subject is.
(Am I falling into fantasy or thoughtless repetition of stale ideas here? I don't think so.)
Which brings me to the question of non-philosophers teaching philosophy. There is no reason why a non-philosopher could not teach philosophy well. Statistically it seems more likely that a philosopher, i.e. someone who has had years of philosophical education and practice, would do a better job, but there are no guarantees either that a philosopher defined this way will be good at philosophy or that a non-philosopher will be bad at it. History professor Robert Zaretsky does little to allay the fears philosophers might have about his teaching a philosophy course, though, when he writes that: Neither the reading list, bursting with texts from Bacon and Locke to Montesquieu and Diderot, nor the publication of my own book on Hume and Rousseau undid the suspicion that a professional historian simply didn’t have the requisite philosophical chops to teach such a course.
A philosophical reading list does not a philosophy course make. And the intelligence it takes to publish a book need not be the kind primarily associated with philosophy. Indeed, a quick look at amazon's page for Zaretsky's book suggests it is more a history book than a work of philosophy. Which is not to say that philosophy is better than history. It's just not the same thing. And recognizing this fact is not the same thing as political protectionism, as Zaretsky implies.
(There's a danger that this could be read as a failed attempt at subtly criticizing some of my colleagues. That's not what I mean. I do reject, though, the idea that the humanities are all more or less the same thing focusing arbitrarily on different texts. That's one thing that I think I disagree with Rorty about.)