What Are Professional Philosophers For?


Most academic philosophy departments see themselves primarily as housing a specialized academic discipline, and contributing only incidentally here or there to a university’s general education curriculum. The priority needs to be reversed. Frankly, there is little or no need for specialized academic philosophy; if it disappeared overnight, the only ones who would notice would be the practitioners themselves. But on the other hand, despite the occasional iconoclastic polemic saying otherwise, there is a widespread recognition that philosophy provides a valuable contribution to the mind of an educated person, even if the person is not working toward a degree in the field. Philosophy professors need to see their primary job as enriching the mental lives, values, and discourses of non-philosophers. For almost everyone, we should be a side dish rather than the main course. That is where our societal value lies.

Charlie Huenemann (Utah State) argues that the primary job of philosophers should be to “enlighten masses,” and that the training of philosophers and the attitudes prevalent in the profession need to change to recognize this. Philosophy should “move out of the tower and back into the agora.” You can read the whole post at his blog, Huenemanniac

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Fritz J. McDonald
6 years ago

I am not sure if my department is representative or not, but we teach a substantial number of general education courses. We teach western civilization courses as well as logic, which fulfills formal reasoning requirements. We teach required ethics classes to pre-nursing and engineering students. We offer bioethics for students pursuing careers in the health professions. As a program with a strong interdisciplinary bent, we teach students from a variety of programs, from psychology to political science.

At my alma mater, Rutgers, I started taking philosophy courses, in part, to fulfill similar requirements.

I disagree with the claim that there is little need for specialized academic philosophy. In order to make progress on the issues that Huenemann rightly claims can contribute so much to the education of nonphilosophers, we need strong support for good philosophical research.Report

Derek Bowman
6 years ago

I guess I have four main beefs with his argument

1. Most importantly, I think that his specific proposal for graduate education is a dangerous one: “They would be required to write not dissertations, but books that could meaningfully inform the lives of their fellow citizens.” Why think that graduate students, or young scholars at the beginnings of our careers are qualified to generate such books. In Book V of the Republic Socrates rightly warns his interlocutors that it is worse to be wrongly believed by your friends than wrongly ridiculed by your enemies. Philosophy is hard, and attaining the wisdom to know how to apply it to real choices is harder. Why think that even the best graduate education in philosophy is sufficient to generate such wisdom?

2. I think philosophy’s ability to make a distinct contribution depends in part on its allowing us to partially separate ourselves from the concerns of everyday life so that we can look at those concerns with a critical eye. And this is not some self-serving idea produced by the modern idea of the university – again we can trace it back to Plato’s conception of the philosophers, as expressed in the famous digression in the Theaetetus. The demand that we address ourselves in terms that the public at large would immediately recognize as useful to their daily lives risks encouraging the very kind of expediency driven ideology that Prof Huenemann blames for the vices of the modern university. Philosophers need to spend our time on seemingly esoteric problems not only because we might make grand discoveries, but because it can encourage us to achieve the alienation from ordinary life that allows critical reflection on it.

3. As with Fritz, my experience with a wide variety of different institutions of higher ed (as both a student and a teacher) has been that philosophy departments do identify themselves as part of the general humanities education of their students. Similarly, I’ve seen frequent cross-disciplinary collaborations between philosophy and cognate disciplines like linguistics, psychology, cognitive science, classics, and political science.

4. I agree with Prof Huenemann that the practice of philosophy is distinct from (and sometimes impeded by) the professionalized activities of philosophy professors. But once we notice that, I think we should see that our job in educating the wider public not as ‘philosophers’ educating ‘non-philosophers,’ but rather as encouraging our students to themselves be practitioners of philosophy in their daily lives. Moreover, it should lead us to genuinely question whether modern universities, given their economic and bureaucratic realities, are the best place to do that teaching.Report

dmf
dmf
Reply to  Derek Bowman
6 years ago

“be practitioners of philosophy in their daily lives” where can one study with experts/researchers in this discipline?Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  dmf
6 years ago

Traditionally universities. But there’s nothing essential to the university as the social setting where the study of philosophy takes place. If universities allow philosopher instructors to make a living wage while making philosophical education accessible to the public at large, then great. But if the economic realities of operating a university lead them to impoverish teachers while restricting access only to those whose families can afford to pay, then it’s time to ask whether there aren’t other means for carrying on philosophical inquiry and instruction.Report

KateNorlock
KateNorlock
6 years ago

Wait a minute, wait a minute: There’s a tower??? That sounds amazing! I’ve been in this business for 15 years and not once have I been in this tower he speaks of. And here I’ve been teaching to students from every major on campus, speaking to community and non-profit groups, and providing publishers with free content.

Golly, a tower.Report

KateNorlock
KateNorlock
6 years ago

(To clarify, in all seriousness, I agree that departments of philosophy in higher ed are still clinging to 20th century models in a 21st century world. But the statement “most academic philosophy departments see themselves primarily as housing a specialized academic discipline, and contributing only incidentally here or there to a university’s general education curriculum,” is hard to see as true when most higher ed institutions are primarily undergraduate, rely on adjuncts for more than half of all instruction, and are usually pressured by administrators, politicians, and boards to contribute to general ed in abundance.)Report

Jake
Jake
6 years ago

I don’t mean this to sound glib, but the author seems to be unaware of the existence of liberal arts universities. Many of the changes that the author recommends for the field of philosophy are actually pretty routine and uncontroversial in traditional liberal arts curricula.Report

Anon reader
Anon reader
6 years ago

Well, most philosophy professors teach intro philosophy classes as part of our jobs, so we are contributing to the general education of non-philosophers. We do that even when we teach upper-division courses, since most people who take them aren’t going to go on to be philosophers themselves. But how could we even be in a position to do that, or to contribute anything to the education of non-philosophers, if there weren’t a discipline of philosophy for us to draw on, and how could there be a discipline of philosophy if we weren’t also pursuing inquiry at more specialized levels, and advancing philosophy by writing texts directed at one another? The author might just as well say that historians (or psychologists, or linguists, or theoretical physicists, or whatever) should stop pursuing specialized research and devote themselves entirely to writing books to educate a broad audience.Report