Posts Tagged ‘Academia’

The survival and future of philosophy

February 21, 2021

Is academic philosophy dead?  Is philosophy itself dead?  Is it even worth bothering about?

Rep. Rick Santorum, R-PA, argued years ago that the study of welding would give you a bigger payoff in terms of earning power than the study of philosophy. 

A lot of political leaders, business executives and college administrators have endorsed that view.  They think that what the country needs is more students of STEM (science technology, engineering, mathematics) topics and fewer liberal arts majors. 

Philosophy is a subject that contributes neither to individual career success, business profits nor national power.  So why bother with it?

Philosophy also has enemies within.  Some teachers of philosophy teach that philosophy teaches nothing—that there are no certain grounds for distinguishing reality from unreality, truth from falsehood or knowledge from ignorance.   If so, why bother with it?

My friend David White e-mailed me an article from the Times (of London) Literary Supplement by a philosophy professor named Crispin Sartwell, pushing back against philosophy’s foes.

The questions themselves arise in some form even among children, and they concern matters that are central to the lives of all of us: the question of how I or we should live is not a scientific question, and it is not so easy, on a sleepless night or on a beautiful day, to set it aside entirely.

That we are not likely to answer such questions once and for all or test our accounts with double-blind studies or particle accelerators, does not entail that the activity is avoidable or that it is profitless.

The fact is that everybody has a philosophy of some kind.  Everyone has some idea of good and bad, truth and falsehood, and some criteria for telling one from the other.

Every parent is a philosopher.  Good parents try to answer their children’s questions about how to live.  All parents teach children how to live, if only by example.  

Some people are unconscious of their philosophies; some have thought them out in detail.  Some philosophies make sense; some don’t.  Some learn from life experience rather than books, and many such have valuable wisdom.  Others learn from conversation, and still others learn from books.

The advantage of learning from books is that you don’t have to start from the beginning.  You don’t have re-invent the wheel.  There’s benefit from knowing what the great minds of the past have thought.

Philosophy may or may not survive as an academic discipline.  Philosophy as a human activity is eternal, as much for scientists, technicians, engineers, mathematicians—and welders—as anyone else.  Hopefully, people will never stop trying to figure out what life is all about, and never stop talking about it and writing about it.

Prof. Sartwell concluded his article thus. 

I take the persistence of philosophy and its return in some form to its traditional terrain to suggest that philosophy as an inquiry into ultimate values (or something along those lines) is irrepressible: we just weren’t going to be able to leave the questions alone forever, or the history of distinguished attempts to address them.

So the internal reasons for philosophy’s survival are not that puzzling.

And even through all the science, the university never entirely stopped viewing (or marketing) itself as a repository of human values and intellectual traditions.

A small philosophy department is an inexpensive way to express that.

Perhaps philosophy, like art, should congratulate itself on being, or on having been, open and critical enough to attack itself in its own entirety, even if, in both cases, many interesting and potentially useful traditional elements were jettisoned almost cavalierly.

In both cases, the traditional elements have slowly been recuperated in new forms; there is a lot of painting in the contemporary galleries.

The overweening scientism was uncritical and defensive, and the zeal of many twentieth-century philosophers against their own kind excessive.

As to Rorty’s notion that philosophy should merge with poetry or fiction, or that it should just admit that it always had been a merely literary genre: well, I find that as irritating in 2021 as I did in 1986, but I’m less worried now that the view will gain currency.

It has itself become a curious artifact in the museum of ideas.