On Philosophy

May 31, 2007

The Value Of Philosophy Departments

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Most universities receive at least some money from the government. Given this you may want to know what exactly the university gives back to society. Now certain departments, like chemistry, are easy to justify; the research done by the faculty is often of practical value, or leads to something of practical value. Of course it is much harder to justify the film studies department. Actually I myself am at a loss as to how the humanities and art departments in general manage to justify themselves. Now I am not saying that art is without value, art is quite valuable. It’s just that most great art and literature seems to be produced outside the academic system. The academic system seems to produce critics and theorists, and I’m not sure how they are useful. But let’s forget about them, here I am only interested in justifying the philosophy department.

Historically philosophy has often been a source of inspiration for endeavors in other fields. Philosophy has prompted new ways of looking at problems. It has also inspired people to challenge the status quo, and to do new and interesting things. But I do not think the inspirational value of philosophy can justify the existence of the philosophy department. Inspiration can come from anywhere; without philosophy people would still be inspired. And the philosophy that tends to be the most inspiring tends to be the worst philosophy. The most inspiring philosophy, that which is most likely to grab the interest of the reader, is that which is written not as a careful argument or analysis, but rather that which is written as more of an opinion piece. Such authors don’t attempt to convince their readers by careful argument, but rather by rhetorical devices. For example, the work of Karl Marx is often classified as political philosophy. And although it has a history of being very inspirational and influential it is bad philosophy. Not because it was wrong, but because the arguments for communism and against capitalism were based on poor reasoning and little evidence. To produce such philosophy is not the goal of the philosophy department.

I think that the value of philosophy, and hence of philosophy departments, lies instead in the fact that it is one of the few disciplines that tackles normative questions. Instead of just describing how things are philosophy also tends to describe how things should be. Epistemology for example tells us how we should reason, and ethics tells us how we should act. And the branches of philosophy that don’t make any recommendations by themselves, such as metaphysics, often serve as a foundation for these other investigations. Now I’m not claiming that other disciplines never make recommendations of any kind. Engineering will tell you how strong the steel needs to be if the bridge is to hold, and economics tells you how the federal reserve should alter interest rates to counter inflation. But these questions are only asked and answered within a descriptive framework, for example the answers that economics gives are only valid because we are working within one particular economic system. In contrast philosophy tackles which economic system we should wish to live under and why, a question that cannot be answered from within economics.

That at least is how philosophy could be of value. But there is a slight problem, which is that no one seems to read modern philosophy except for other philosophers. Partly this may be because most modern philosophy is published as technical journal articles that aren’t readily accessible to most people. But I think it is also partly because of peoples’ attitudes towards philosophy. Many people treat philosophy as though it were a kind of literature, like an art of ideas. As such they tend to read the philosophy of the “big names”, just as many people focus on reading the works of Shakespeare and Proust. But this means that most people focus on reading the philosophy of the enlightenment (or earlier). This is a bad thing because philosophy is not an art of ideas. Philosophy has progressed beyond the ideas of the enlightenment, or so I should hope. Which is not to say that the enlightenment philosophers were completely wrong, just as the enlightenment scientists (often the same people) weren’t completely wrong. But the ideas of the enlightenment have since been discarded, refined, or improved upon. So a non-philosopher reading enlightenment philosophy is like a non-scientist reading enlightenment science. They may learn something, but they could benefit more by reading more modern material.

But just because academic philosophy and the modern reader of philosophy haven’t quite managed to meet doesn’t mean that the philosophy department is useless. Certainly some people read modern philosophy. And more importantly philosophy departments will keep philosophy moving forward, and eventually I suppose that academic philosophy and the modern reader will find a way to reach each other. At that point the work being done in philosophy will once again become of immediate practical value.

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