The Purification of Philosophy

The Purification of Philosophy


[The] institutionalization of philosophy made it into a discipline that could be seriously pursued only in an academic setting. This fact represents one of the enduring failures of contemporary philosophy.

So argue Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle (both of University of North Texas). Philosophy’s institutionalization in the modern research university was a kind of “purification” of philosophy.

This was the act of purification that gave birth to the concept of philosophy most of us know today. As a result, and to a degree rarely acknowledged, the institutional imperative of the university has come to drive the theoretical agenda. If philosophy was going to have a secure place in the academy, it needed its own discrete domain, its own arcane language, its own standards of success and its own specialized concerns.

Frodeman and Briggle argue that “philosophy should never have been purified.” Philosophy is really “present everywhere, often interstitial, essentially interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary in nature,” but institutional forces have turned it into a science-envious failure detached from the society.

They also bemoan the separation of philosophical inquiry from the goodness of a philosophical life:

The act of purification accompanying the creation of the modern research university was not just about differentiating realms of knowledge. It was also about divorcing knowledge from virtue. Though it seems foreign to us now, before purification the philosopher (and natural philosopher) was assumed to be morally superior to other sorts of people. The 18th-century thinker Joseph Priestley wrote “a Philosopher ought to be something greater and better than another man.” Philosophy, understood as the love of wisdom, was seen as a vocation, like the priesthood. It required significant moral virtues (foremost among these were integrity and selflessness), and the pursuit of wisdom in turn further inculcated those virtues. The study of philosophy elevated those who pursued it. Knowing and being good were intimately linked. It was widely understood that the point of philosophy was to become good rather than simply to collect or produce knowledge.

Readers may recall the essay, “The Complications of Philosophy,” by Tom Stern (UCL), which makes a similar point.

Frodeman and Briggle conclude:

Having become specialists, we have lost sight of the whole. The point of philosophy now is to be smart, not good. It has been the heart of our undoing.

The whole piece, “When Philosophy Lost Its Way,” appears in The Stone at The New York Times. Frodeman and Briggle blog at Philosophy Impact, and have a forthcoming book, Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st-Century Philosophy.

Discussion welcome.

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