Can We Save Philosophy? (Guest Post by Robert Kirkman) (updated)

Can We Save Philosophy? (Guest Post by Robert Kirkman) (updated)

The following is a guest post* by Robert Kirkman, associate professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech and director of its Center for Ethics and Technology, in which he takes up the problem of academic philosophy’s seeming irrelevance to others both inside and outside of academia.

 Can We Save Philosophy?
by Robert Kirkman

I write this from the margins of the discipline.

I hold a PhD in Philosophy, but I have only once had a full-time position in a philosophy department, as a visiting lecturer in the mid-1990s. After that I had the good fortune of moving on through two full-time but short-term appointments in interdisciplinary programs before landing a tenure-track job in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech.

Since then my ties to philosophy as a profession have become increasingly tenuous. In my teaching and in my research I am more likely to collaborate with engineers and economists than with other philosophers. I generally avoid conferences or publications that are too strictly disciplinary.

In the past few months, though, as I have read of the converging crises in academic philosophy, it seemed to me I should pay more attention to the field in which I was trained and from which I still draw the inspiration for and some of the substance of my work.

Readers of this blog know something of what I mean by “converging crises”: the resurgence of attacks on the liberal arts in higher education; the increasing national obsession with job training, especially in STEM fields; patterns of abuse and misconduct within academic philosophy; the continued predominance of white men in the field; recent upheaval over rankings and standards of merit and prestige; and the it-would-be-absurdly-comic-if-it-weren’t-so-bone-crushingly-sad state of employment for young philosophers.

With all this, it seems to me that if professional philosophy is not having an identity crisis, right about now, it ought to be.

When I was working for that philosophy program, long ago, a senior colleague told me that even if I were to be hired to a tenure-track job in the department I would never attain tenure. I don’t remember the exact words but the intent was unmistakable: What I do is not real philosophy.

In reading comments and stories on this blog and elsewhere from others who are at the margins of field, I keep seeing glimpses of alternative visions of what constitutes real philosophy and how philosophy as a discipline might be reformed, redefined, even revolutionized accordingly.

But, as far as I have been able to see, those visions remain scattered and the visionaries relatively isolated . . . and increasingly prone to frustration and even to despair.

This might be an especially good time to draw out those visions and draw them together, to have a serious and sustained discussion of the meaning and the future of philosophy in academia and in public life, and to consider how to launch a more coordinated effort to save philosophy from its current beleaguered state.

I propose the following questions for discussion:

What models are there for serious work in philosophy within academia that remains rooted in the tradition while being more directly and demonstrably engaged with the work of our colleagues in other disciplines, with the lives of our students, and with the pressing concerns of the wider society?

What models are there for a discipline or a profession that is inclusive of colleagues and students of very different backgrounds and ways of engaging with the substance of the field?

Once we find a vision of what philosophy may be, how do we get there from here?


UPDATE (2/22/15):  From a Times Higher Education article:

Despite the many benefits of philosophy, Professor Crane argued that “academic philosophy is in crisis” and no longer really hospitable to “the idea of challenging everything”, not least because the need to be published in a few top journals “encourages incredible conformism around a very narrow range of ideas”.

Professor Newberger took a similar line, reflecting that she had “only managed to maintain my enthusiasm for philosophy by staying away from philosophers”.

The article is mostly about a conference, “What Is the Point of Philosophy?”, that took up, among other things, Stephen Hawking’s claim that “philosophy is dead.”

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