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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Can philosophy survive in an academy driven by impact and employability?

"Why reports of Socrates’ impending demise are greatly exaggerated." according to Simon Blackburn, Bertrand Russell professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge and remains a fellow of Trinity College, Mariana Alessandri, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and John Kaag,  associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Photo: Alamy montage

Those hungry for an understanding of the human world find some tools, in elementary logic and critical thinking, and will practise taking care to say what they mean. Simon Blackburn writes:

I have always had a sneaking sympathy with parents who react with despair and horror, as mine did, when their beloved offspring announce that they want to read philosophy at university. Bang go dreams of social prestige (medicine! law!), wealth (economics! maths!) or, indeed, anything that is easy to explain to the neighbours. And it has to be admitted that philosophers have done little to help dispel the shock: for much of the 20th century, many in German and French traditions actually prided themselves on being incomprehensible, while those in so-called Anglo-American philosophy took an equally lordly attitude to anyone philistine enough to ask what we do, or to find the answers opaque.

Times have changed. Some of us were trying to rectify this situation even before governments, civil servants, accountants and managers insisted that we replace the architecture of the ivory tower with that of Bentham’s panopticon, so that all our activities are visible, quantifiable and accountable. We pointed out how our ideas shape our identities, our self-conceptions, our understandings of the world and ourselves. We pointed out how history has witnessed a long line of changing conceptions of these things, marked by shifting and puzzling terms such as knowledge, reason, truth, authority, equality, liberty, justice, law, sovereignty, responsibility, democracy, race, gender and many others. These abstractions do not exist in Plato’s heaven, but in the minds of men and women, and sometimes on their banners and in their manifestos.

Photo: Alamy montage

Philosophy is useful, yet its chief value for students lies not in making them better professionals, but in helping them live better lives. Mariana Alessandri and John Kaag writes:

Rumours of philosophy’s demise have always been greatly exaggerated. When Socrates was condemned, he expressed real concern that the discipline would not live on. But it did – through the Dark Ages, through wars that destroyed most of the world – into the 20th century. But the rumours endured: Martin Heidegger said that philosophy actually perished in the 1890s, and Richard Rorty – a thinker who abhorred the term “philosopher” – echoed this eulogy in the 1980s. They were wrong: philosophy lives on, albeit in a form that Socrates might not have recognised.

Like Socrates, philosophy has spent much of its history defending itself against the charges of irreverence, sophistry and corrupting the youth. But the most trenchant criticism of the discipline has turned on its supposed uselessness: philosophers don’t do anything except think, and thinking, at least in our modern day, takes a back seat to acting. Philosophy bakes no bread. The stereotype of a philosopher remains a picture of the ancient Greek mendicant-Cynic, Diogenes, sleeping in the streets, his clothes in rags, begging for food while he jeers at the townspeople. Socrates embraced his own self-imposed penury and spent the bulk of his Apology – the speech he delivered in response to the charges against him – chastising his fellow Athenians instead of catering to them. But times have changed, and, today, professional philosophers tend to capitulate to their critics and, for better and for worse, take care to locate and then photograph philosophy’s most profitable side.

The truth is that philosophy is useful. The analytical skills that US philosophy majors foster are reflected in Graduate Record Examination scores that, in verbal reasoning and analytical writing, outstrip all other undergraduate majors at US universities. This means that young philosophers are particularly well positioned to apply to graduate programmes outside their specific major. This includes practical subjects such as business and law; philosophy is regarded as the humanities major for students aspiring to attend law school. While parents continue to wring their hands over the potential unemployment that haunts many majors in the humanities, and especially philosophy, there are signs that their worries are unjustified. In 2013, in a survey carried out by of mid-career professionals, philosophy majors ranked in the top 25 per cent of salaries, ahead of biology, nursing and business.