The Last Philosopher in Alaska’s Interior


As reported last month, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks is losing its philosophy major and eliminating philosophy as its own department. Now, the last remaining tenured philosopher at UAF, Eduardo Wilner, has published a column in which he recounts the death of the department:

When I arrived here 17 years ago there were five faculty in our department. But colleagues retired, or left, or passed away… Instead of renewal, the university reabsorbed the vacant positions. And the department shrank until it could almost shrink no more. Now, we’re down to two temporary appointments, and only one permanent position (mine). The number of students, however, barely changed (around 25).

He also offers a defense of philosophy, writing, of the cuts:

This amounts to one of the most significant amputations in UAF’s history. Am I exaggerating? No, and if it sounds like it, it’s because we’ve forgotten what philosophy is for. Philosophy is not about farfetched, untestable ideas. Philosophy is the mercilessly critical analysis of our most profound assumptions. We humans think in a scaffolding-like way. Our ideas pile in layers, each one resting on the one below. We naturally shy away from messing with the very bottom, fearing the collapse of the scaffolding. But the outside world can be brutal to those who hang on to false ideas. And just like with any superstructure (think about your home), a good scaffolding of ideas requires constant reassessment — foundation’s level included.

The column is at Alaska Dispatch News.

guest
5 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Thomas Davis
Thomas Davis
5 years ago

We should cut funding to Philosophy departments. Does anyone want to really try and justify funding “research” on Heideggerian phenomenology versus using that same funding to develop a vaccine to cure bone cancer? Especially when that additional funding coming from the savings of cutting Philosophy departments could make such breakthroughs potentially possible? My fellow Philosophers, as much as we wish to deny it, philosophy is not as applicable as other disciplines and the funding we receive should reflect this.Report

Kenny
Kenny
5 years ago

“Especially when that additional funding coming from the savings of cutting Philosophy departments could make such breakthroughs potentially possible?”

Compare the actual funding requirements of an entire department of philosophy to the funding requirements of a single lab in a single science department. I don’t think you’re going to cure many types of cancer on the budget of a typical philosophy department.

It’s *conceivable* that a studio art or architecture department could yield the relevant kind of savings if they’re cut, but somehow I suspect that even the materials and space costs there pale before most science labs.Report

Joshua
Joshua
5 years ago

@ Thomas Davis: The focus here on Heideggerian phenomenology is a red herring. The issue at stake here is not about appropriating different amounts of funding to departments of varied applicability; it is about the fact that an entire department is being cut. You surely don’t want to maintain that merely because some disciplines ought to be appropriated more funding than others that a particular program (philosophy) should receive no funding whatsoever. To see why, notice that “applicable” is poorly defined, and assume that administrators adopted your criteria of applicability and decided to appropriate funding only to those disciplines exemplifying the greatest degree of it. Either there will be one program which is the most applicable, or there will be many. If there is only one, then it follows that we should cut all other programs. If there are many, then we shall have to decide, in some principled way, how much funding to appropriate to how many. Suppose the many consists of only two, say bone cancer research and AIDS research. Should we divide the funding equally between them? Bone cancer research would have an even higher payoff (or at least a quicker one) if we appropriated all the money to it. The same is the case for AIDS. How do we deliberate between the alternatives? What about when situations become more complicated? Suddenly it sounds like we need to hire a biomedical ethicist…too bad we don’t have a philosophy program.Report

twbb
twbb
5 years ago

Regarding the headline, I am sure there are actually many philosophers in Alaska’s interior; while I’ve never been there, the environment as described and the months spent in darkness sounds like it might produce good philosophy. They just might not be philosophy professors.Report

Kate Norlock
Kate Norlock
5 years ago

The full essay was moving to read. It is hard to imagine how one could read it and recommend we should cut funding, since every paragraph of the write-up explains that it could not be cut much more at UAF, and I very much doubt that the remaining single salary is preventing a cure for cancer (but if someone can demonstrate that $60,000 would make the difference, by all means let the NIH know!).Report