11 thoughts on “Making Philosophy Matter

  1. So I actually found quite a lot of this article unbearably patronizing and annoying. What does it mean for philosophy to “matter”? Is it only engagement with practical issues and current events? Personally, I would’ve thought participation in an intellectual enterprise thousands of years old matters. I would’ve thought asking hard – perhaps unanswerable – questions about what the world is like, about how we know things, about how we communicate, about how we should treat each other matters. It might not be that useful. But neither, in many cases, are art, literature, music, pure mathematics, etc, and they matter too. There’s a lot more that matters in the human experience than bare practical applicability.

    This part bugged me particularly: “A good way to start might be to share with our students why we ourselves care so much about philosophy—how it has helped us in our own lives, as citizens or even personally.” There was then an implicit suggestion, in subsequent discussion, that if you don’t do this you’re probably a lazy or uncommitted teacher.

    I remember very distinctly what, as a student, first really “grabbed” me in philosophy class. It was, back to back, the presentation of Hume’s problem of induction followed by Kant’s lone hand in space. Neither of those philosophical problems have impacted my life as a citizen or personally, whatever that means. I loved them – and I still love and cherish them – because they *completely blew my mind*. That matters to me. I hope it matters to my students.

  2. Scroll down to “phikaw’s” comment to see how misleading the declining enrolment statistic is that underpins the author’s death of philosophy alarmism. And then scroll down further and click through to the Atlantic link, and then further through, to read another story that talks about how upbeat things are for philosophy, with rising enrolment! As the saying goes: “There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

  3. Wow – I took the author of the article to agree with everything ME took him to deny!

    These quotes stood out for me:

    “[L]let me stipulate that the benighted administrators who proposed eliminating the philosophy department within a university with a liberal-arts college need some serious remedial education in what a university means.”

    “[T]he goal—especially at the undergraduate level—should be to help students recognize that philosophy matters. Not just because it will improve their LSAT scores (which it will), but because philosophy has the potential to change the very fabric of who they are as human beings.”

  4. Eh. The problem with philosophy isn’t that it isn’t “relevant”. The problem is that majoring in philosophy guarantees you will be unable to do philosophy. Philosophers have given up on /solving/ problems. They think talking endlessly about the same old arguments – even after they’ve been proven wrong – is somehow useful, or fun. And the students don’t learn the tools they would need in order to address philosophical problems, such as knowledge representation, evolutionary theory, or modern physics.

  5. I took the central claim of the article that if philosophers want to save their departments, they have to get out of their hidey holes, take action that will enhance public understanding of the discipline (which does include but is not limited to relating philosophical material to accessible topics), stop treating their students like obstacles to “real” work, and accept that their professional responsibilities involve participation in shared governance of the university, and generally do what professors in other disciplines have been doing.

    Consider a contrast case. (NB: I’m not advocating any of the following views about the discipline, I’m just stating what I take to be broad cultural generalizations about it.) Art is a field that has been “under attack” by politicians for ages (at least, in my US-based experience). It has all of the same “pitfalls” as philosophy — its not directly or obviously training for a “job” in the traditional, middle class sense; at the advanced levels, it is difficult for the untutored to understand (consider what you see in some highly respected galleries …. it is not what most people immediately think of as art); it seems to be “economically irrelevant” or “the purvey of an elite class who doesn’t need to worry about money”. It’s practitioners (artists and art faculty) are negatively stereotyped in just about the same ways as philosophers — they are “weird” people who cannot relate to “normal” people in the right ways, they are moody/temperamental, they act in unpredictable and strange ways, they are egocentric and narcissistic, etc. Art is terribly expensive to teach because it requires small classes, supplies, studio space, etc. (Philosophy seminars are less expensive but still pricey if you consider the costs of paying one professor to teach maybe five or seven students.) Students are discouraged from becoming artists (or studying art) using the same kind of “relevance” arguments; students who do study art get the same “what are you going to do with that degree?” nonsense philosophy majors do. Art is “useless”.

    Yet despite being stereotyped and dismissed by the culture at large in ways much like philosophy, art thrives as a discipline. What’s the difference? I am close friends with an art professor, and it seems like the big difference is exactly what this piece is underscoring — the discipline overcomes negative cultural and political attacks by *taking its students seriously* and *going to the public*. (Admittedly, this is all based on anecdata, so I could be wrong.) Art professors get asked to make pieces for their university all the time. “Can you do a portrait of this person after whom this hall was named for us to put here?” “Can you make a permanent sculpture to put in front of this new building?” etc. Despite the fact that the art professor in question might not have any interest in doing a portrait, they will. Art professors on the whole are really, really active in developing their undergraduates talents and trying to get them “in” to the game. Art professors do joint shows with their undergraduates, organize gallery events for them, and go to their events. Qua artists, art professors frequently are frequently represented by galleries or have studio space in art “communities” where they connect with non-academics and the public at large. They give (often unpaid) volunteer talks at art museums, do community events, etc.

    In my experience, professional philosophers generally fail to do these things. (Of course, many of us *do* these things, and do them well — but the number of people making the effort is a far smaller share of the whole than it needs to be to achieve critical mass.) At least in my experience (and my observations of others), what passes for “mentorship” — even of graduate students — is seriously depressing. It is very rare to see professors actively mentoring undergrads; I was even told recently that any mentoring of graduate students on part of faculty was done “out of the goodness of their hearts” rather than because they have a professional responsibility to do so. I have rarely — if ever — seen senior professors come to undergraduate philosophy group meetings, graduate meetings/talks/conferences, unless they have some compelling reason to be there. Doing general audience, public talks is something most philosophers I’ve met completely dread or hate doing. On the rare occassion they do happen, the philosophers tend to be so condescending to the “public” that the talks do not continue on or become successful. Community events? Museum talks? Philosophy night at the local bookstore? I think about the way most philosophers I know talk about their undergradutes classes and students — and on the whole, people who genuinely take undergraduate teaching seriously for its own sake are rare gems. Most people do it because they have to, and do only as good of a job as they think they need to so that they can further their own interests. So, also, with administrative responsibilities and shared governance.

    This is not just about PR. It’s about a cultural perspective. We think “they” should come to “us”. But if we wait for that, we’ll be waiting forever. If we want people to understand and know enough about our discipline so that our university departments are not shut down, then we need to go to them. We need to give them enough of a connection to what we do so that they realize what we already know — that its important, relevent, as well as intrinsically valuable and a huge part of human history and culture.

    One of my favorite quotes from Aristotle (I picked up as an undergrad from a prof who translated the entire section of Metaphysics we were working from himself): “For you to be is not for something educated to be, for you are not educated by virtue of yourself.” People have to become educated — they are not just going to magically be that way, any more than you magically were. If we want them to appreciate our discipline enough to leave it on the books, they need to become educated about it. And the only people who can do that are philosophers — you know, those of us who know the stuff?

  6. Going to disagree here a bit with Urban CC Prof (from another CC prof).

    The discussion here and on Leiter’s blog got me thinking of Frankfurt’s address at last year’s Eastern APA. He agreed with the idea that philosophers should make philosophy more relevant, but he also chided philosophers for being too much enamored with the perks of the profession – good pay, flexible scheduling, lots of time off, flying all over the world, etc. (I plead guilty to all of this). He seemed to be claiming that we’ve gotten too far away from being philosophers by trying too hard to be philosophy professionals. At the time I thought this characterization too harsh, but since then it’s started to ring true(r).

    Much of what has been suggested seems motivated by an understandable desire to have the profession flourish (or at least not fade away) – to keep our jobs, in other words. I’m beginning to think that doing philosophy with this as the chief goal can only be bad for philosophy. It was suggested in one of the above articles that contemporary philosophy of mind was lacking in part because it didn’t reference things like modern slavery in the Sudan. I suppose those with greater creative powers than myself can come up with a relevant connection, but trying to shoehorn such a problem into philosophy of mind so that philosophy can be viewed as sufficiently pertinent does not strike me as likely to produce good philosophy of mind. Neither does basing tenure on the amount of grant funding produced or the frequency of being cited by news outlets – since the people likely to be giving grants, or reference philosophers at news organizations, are unlikely to know good philosophy when they see it. The departments of the future will be stocked with followers of Ayn Rand.

    While there have been some interdisciplinary success stories – say, with philosophy and neuroscience – there are at least as many cautionary tales. Modern semiotics has descended into caricature (for reference, see the abstracts for this year meeting of the Semiotics Society of America). So-called “argumentation studies” in Europe seems to be just a way for people in various disciplines to pad their CVs. The flagship conference there is filled with papers that reduce to pointing out “Here is an argument a politician from my home country made. She’s using this rhetorical device.” This is not to say that there’s no philosophically interesting things going on in these areas, just that they are buried under an avalanche of drivel.

    One reason some philosophers (well, at least me) struggle in speaking about philosophical issues with non-philsophers is that philosophy is really hard. To have a discussion on the matter with the untrained usually requires dumbing things down quite a bit, and even asserting some literal falsehoods (this is not an insult to the untrained). Sure, professional philosophers should be more visible and vocal on issues where we have important and helpful things to say. But, if saving the profession of philosophy requires this sort of thing as a guiding principle, then philosophy faces an even greater risk – that of being not worth saving. If being true to the discipline means lacking popular recognition, smaller departments and fewer students, then so be it.

  7. Quote 1 from the article: “The profession of philosophy has had ages to make itself more relevant to what people … care about.”
    Quote 2: “[Philosophy] can help [people] to consider what is worth caring about.”

    Does the path to #2 lead through #1? There’s some kind of tension there.

    Does anyone feel as though society has had ages to become the kind of milieu that produces more members for whom philosophy is relevant? Now who’s dragging their feet?

    Anyhow, I’m with ajkreider about the possibly greater risk of the discipline becoming not worth saving. Though I confess to favoring the term philosophy professor over philosopher in all but rare cases (I’m with Thoreau on that one).

  8. I talk about my work with other experts in my field very differently than I talk about my work to other philosophers. I talk to graduate students differently than I talk to undergraduates. I am not dumbing things down when I do this, I am merely being aware of my audience.

    Philosophy is hard, so is any other academic discipline. Philosophy is not *uniquely* hard. Look at cosmologists, their work has at least as little practical import as philosophy and yet they have several (dozens if not hundreds) of well known popularizers and advocates who manage to convey to the public the wonder and interest of their field. Philosophers should be able to do this.

  9. O tempora ,o mores!Oh what a time,oh what a custom! I would like to repeat after ancient minds.
    Long,long ago philosophy was regular subject to study in high school.

    Modern world does not need to study philosophy.Why? because we do not need wise people.It is much easier to manage stupid,misinformed,flock.

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