Survey on the Value of Philosophy


Andrew Mills (Otterbein) is conducting a survey about what philosophers think is distinctively valuable about philosophy. I’ve reproduced his note about it, below, and I encourage you to complete the survey. As he says, the survey might help us adjust our teaching “so that we are emphasizing those skills and content that we think are most important for students to know.” Also, “if the discipline of philosophy has a clear sense of what it is that we think is distinctively valuable about philosophy, we might be able to do a better job of articulating the value of our discipline and our classes to prospective students, their families and our administrations.”

Here’s Professor Mills’ note about the survey:

Many of us believe that it is valuable and important for undergraduates to study philosophy even if they do not intend to go on to graduate school. We have, however, different understandings of why studying philosophy is valuable. Is studying philosophy valuable because of the skills it teaches, or because of the content? Or both? Is there anything valuable that a student gets from one or two philosophy classes that they couldn’t get from classes in other disciplines? If so, what? In short, for students who don’t intend to study philosophy at the graduate level, is there anything that is both distinctive to philosophy and valuable for them to know? That is the question that I am thinking about and for which I would greatly appreciate your responses to the survey linked below.

I am interested in what those of us who teach philosophy think is distinctively valuable about what we teach so that we might make any necessary adjustments to our majors, our minors, and our popular philosophy classes so that we are emphasizing those skills and content that we think are most important for students to know.  Moreover, if the discipline of philosophy has a clear sense of what it is that we think is distinctively valuable about philosophy, we might be able to do a better job of articulating the value of our discipline and our classes to prospective students, their families and our administrations.

The survey, linked below, should take about 15 minutes to complete, and certainly no more than 20. I very much appreciate your time and would also appreciate it if you would forward this invitation on to any colleagues (graduate students included!) who you think might have the time to take the survey. If you want to receive a copy of the results of the survey when I have them, please feel free to send me an email at [email protected] and I will contact you with results when I have them.

Click here for the survey.

As you are thinking about the value of philosophy, if anything comes to mind to add to the Value of Philosophy Pages, feel free to email it to me.

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Ciaran Cummins
5 years ago

Here’s an idea: have philosophers demonstrate PUBLICLY the value of philosophy rather than just arguing with other philosophers about it and doing bloody surveys about it.Report

Ciaran Cummins
5 years ago

Which dichotomies are you referring to Justin?Report

Ciaran Cummins
5 years ago

If your comment is spurred by the ‘just’ in mine, I’d ask you to consider the possibility that I don’t actually think that arguing about philosophy’s value and conducting surveys about philosophy’s value are the only things philosophers do. I don’t mean to assume that that is what you mean – you could be referring to something in Mill’s statement for all I know – but if your comment is in reference to mine, than I’d ask you to go beyond my use of ‘just’ and consider the sentiment more generally.Report

Ciaran Cummins
5 years ago

Sorry Justin, I only just saw your reply and I see what you mean. I’d apologize for the annoyance behind my initial comment, but so much of what philosophers seem to be saying in any public (let-alone on sites like DN which are mainly read by philosophers; though I applaud the recent Dolezal and Charleston posts) domain seems to revolve what value philosophy has. So whilst you are right to point out that philosophers can both argue about/do surveys on the value of philosophy as well as demonstrate its value publicly, I don’t see a particularly good balance between those activities.Report

Ciaran Cummins
5 years ago

*and supreme court ruling post – all have been v good to seeReport

Demonax
Demonax
5 years ago

One valuable aspect of philosophy that we don’t find elsewhere is the freedom of thought to wander unfettered where the discussion takes us, as Socrates pointed out to Theodorus in Plato’s Theaetetus long ago. The very thing that leaves it open to narrow-minded accusations of ‘uselessness’ is what is most valuable about it. To put it Aristotle’s terms, it is the superlative activity of human reason that anchors the purposiveness of all other human activities but itself serves none. Philosophy is, and ought to be, good for nothing – it is good ‘for’ nothing (else) because it’s already as good as it gets in itself. Demands to get to the point and render philosophy ‘accountable’ to the economic exigencies of student/consumers in an increasingly stratified society would love to foreclose this and reduce philosophy to the art of ‘critical thinking’ that can be applied in a variety of business and professional contexts, a kind of ‘thinking outside the box’ in order to more successfully accomplish one’s job, whatever that job might be, from manufacturing weapons and drones, to advertisement and marketing, conducting surveys, etc. If that means philosophy no longer has a place in the corporatized space of contemporary universities then so be it – for much of the last two and a half millennia the best philosophy happened outside of universities anyway.Report

Ciaran Cummins
5 years ago

Demonax, you are right to be wary of attempts to “reduce philosophy to the art of ‘critical thinking'” (though (and this is unrelated, so please don’t go off on this) I wish people would stop denigrating ‘critical thinking’ as an idea, or programs which attempt to encourage it, it just doesn’t help anyone).

However, to think that we can only leave academic philosophy as is, and that any attempt to improve it is mistaken because philosophy is “as good as it gets in itself”, is ridiculous. Philosophy as “the superlative activity of human reason that anchors the purposiveness of all other human activities but itself serves none” might not need improving but philosophers and philosophy departments might.

Yes, it would be lovely if we all just wandered unfettered outside universities with our discussions unfettered also. But universities exist, and they are the homes of philosophy departments, and for better or for worse, I believe having them in universities seems preferable to not having philosophy encouraged anywhere at all.

Because that is what you seem to overlook. If you don’t have philosophy departments , and don’t encourage philosophy in other ways (that is, having public philosophy; however that is encouraged (perhaps by implementing, at the very least, critical thinking programs in public and private institutions – heaven forbid!)), then where are people going to learn about Socrates pointing out the value of philosophy to Theodorus?

Offer constructive suggestions, don’t lament the way things are and hanker on about past philosophy and philosophers.Report

Demonax
Demonax
5 years ago

Ciaran Cummins, I hardly know where to begin and it would take too long to consider your misreading of my post point by point in detail, but let this suffice for the present regarding your claim that ‘…having them [philosophy departments] in universities seems preferable to not having philosophy encouraged anywhere at all’ – I would just respond and reiterate, in the words of Justin, that “Another idea would be to avoid posing false dichotomies.” In fact, your response to my earlier statement is little more than a series of such false dichotomies – (1) either one improves existing philosophy departments or one is committed to an idealized conception of philosophy that is utterly impractical; (2) either one works within the existing institutional framework of university philosophy or else one gives up on philosophy altogether; (3) either philosophy is preserved in philosophy departments and from there extended into the public realm or else it disappears entirely and the dark ages commence. I’d just like to call your attention to something I alluded to in my earlier post: whether we posit the origin of the university in the Middle Ages or more recently, it has to be acknowledged that philosophy, as a discipline and as a way of life, has survived just fine for the majority of its run outside of universities altogether. And as far as your last remark goes, that I offer constructive suggestions instead of lamenting the way things are and ‘going on’ about dead philosophers, my first constructive suggestion is directed to you: please spend some time studying the fallacy of the false dilemma before you deign to shoot an imperative my way again.Report

Ciaran Cummins
5 years ago

Demonax, apologies, I shouldn’t have shot an imperative your way and I did over do the dichotomies. I didn’t mean to come across as thinking they detailed the only options available, but it was lazy of me to not make that explicit. I was in a bad mood, and shouldn’t have gone off on a tirade. I find this debate about the value of philosophy just so often full of resignation when it comes to its place in universities, as if there is no way that it could be the very best it can even given the corporatized space of contemporary universities. Still, I don’t like others venting lazy arguments, so I shouldn’t do so myself.Report

Demonax
Demonax
5 years ago

Fair enough, Ciaran. Apology accepted. I agree that resignation is not the right response. We need strategies for resistance. The first step is to make a convincing case for refusing to demonstrate the ‘use-value’ of philosophy, to show our ‘papers’ to the authorities demanding an accounting. That discussion is already lost the moment we engage in it: we will then either reduce philosophy to various applied iterations and informal logic/critical thinking (if we ‘win’) or else have to concede that philosophy is useless if one’s ambition at university is to become a competent accountant or nurse, a business manager or sports therapist (if we ‘lose’). There are a variety of ways that a third option can be articulated. Personally, I’m fond of the argument made by Aristotle and one of his commentators (Alexander of Aphrodisias?) that, like anything that really matters, philosophy’s ‘uselessness’ is what gives it a supreme value (it’s what allows other, lesser activities or objects to be ‘useful’ at all by being the end toward which they converge). But one can make a convincing historical case as well – after all, universities would not exist if were not for philosophy. It was the first major, so to speak. Far from outgrowing the need for it we need it more than ever: witness the prevalent functional illiteracy and willful ignorance running riot at almost every level of our contemporary culture. I guess if one needs a practical justification maybe Adorno put it best: let’s at least make sure Auschwitz doesn’t happen again.Report

PeterJ
5 years ago

is it not the case that usefulness is in the eye of the user and not a property inherent to philosophy? And then how we do it and how successful we are will play a huge role in our perception of its usefulness. When someone argues that philosophy is useless can we not just conclude that they must be rubbish at it?

There is also the problem that one would have to be a very good philosopher to be capable of showing the uselessness of philosophy, and the proof would then be a self-defeating proof of its usefulness.

The evidence shows that people who argue that philosophy useless are invariably unsuccessful philosophers. It is like a badge of incompetence.Report

Demonax
Demonax
5 years ago

PeterJ: It is not the case that usefulness is in the eye of the user. In fact, I would hope that nothing is in the eye of the user – otherwise, the user would be hard pressed to effectively use anything since his or her vision would be impaired. I’d like to follow up on your last claim about ‘the evidence’. Let the record show that Aristotle argued that philosophy (at least philosophical contemplation, its essential activity) is useless. On your reasoning, Aristotle is thus an invariably unsuccessful philosopher, who merits a badge of incompetence. Maybe you can petition that APA to posthumously honor him with one. They might even give you one, too.Report

PeterJ
5 years ago

Demonax

It seems inevitable to me that usefulness is defined by the user. How else could it be defined? Is there some Cosmic yardstick for measuring usefulness? A thing is useful if we find it useful, and the more useful we find it the more useful it is. How would you go about measuring usefulness? If Aristotle felt that philosophical contemplation is useless then how would you explain his life and works?Report