Remember: “Philosophy’s the thing”

A pair of essays in Times Higher Education—one by Simon Blackburn (Cambridge, UNC) and the other by Mariana Alessandri (Texas, Rio Grande Valley) and John Kaag (UMass, Lowell) —aim to defend the value of studying philosophy.

Each has interesting bits worth considering. Blackburn talks about progress in philosophy:

philosophy has indeed both changed and improved. It has always changed, because the social and historical matrix in which it is practised changes, and it is that matrix that throws up the questions that seem most urgent at particular times. And it has improved first because there is a constant input of improved scientific knowledge that feeds it, and second because sometimes improved moral and political sensibilities filter into it.

He also raises some concerns about the quantitative assessment of philosophy’s “impact”:

perhaps the civil servants, accountants and managers could benefit from better interpretations of their activities and words. An ironic example is the demand in the UK that university departments demonstrate the “impact” of particular pieces of research over a relatively short timescale and excluding effects on students, or even sales of books. “Impact” is a term drawn from mechanics, where it implies a particular kind of causation, a definite event giving some other identifiable thing a shove or a biff. Its magnitude can be quantified and, of course, if quantitative methods are all you are allowed to use, there is a temptation to suppose that everything else can be quantified as well: to him whose only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But improved understandings do not work by shoving or biffing. They can seldom be traced back to one particular essay or one moment in time. Ideas work by osmosis, filtering into people’s minds over long periods, manifested in innumerable subtle changes of thought and behaviour seldom attributable to just one antecedent event.

Alessandri and Kaag briefly discuss some of the practical benefits of an undergraduate education in philosophy (e.g., high scores on graduate and professional school entrance exams), but think it is a mistake to focus on them:

Students fall in love with [philosophy] not because it provides a gateway to professional success but, rather, because it offers one to existential meaning. When we emphasise to students how useful philosophy is, and enumerate the skills it will provide to help them compete in today’s global economy, we have already lost sight of what makes it worth doing. Philosophy’s chief value for students lies not in making them better professionals – although it will do that – but in helping them live better lives…. When philosophers tout philosophical skills such as critical thinking, reading comprehension, ethical reasoning and written and oral articulation as profitable, we have turned philosophy into a commodity. Philosophy was never meant to be sold on the market…. Perhaps we should stop trying to market philosophy, because doing so demeans it.

While I disagree that marketing philosophy demeans it, or that touting its practical advantages turns philosophy into a commodity in some objectionable sense (it certainly doesn’t render it a mere commodity), Kaag and Alessandri are right in saying that we should not ignore the goods inherent in philosophical study, nor underestimate our students’ hunger for them:

[Students] want the chance to think for its own sake—to pretend, for just a minute, that no strings or grades are attached. Philosophy’s job is to give them that chance.

After all, as they write: “Philosophy’s the thing.”

Meanwhile, for those who didn’t see it in the Heap of Links, let me draw your attention to this piece by Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse (Vanderbilt), which makes a point similar to the one made by Alessandri and Kaag:

Philosophy’s value doesn’t consist in its capacity to develop skills and capacities that make philosophers useful to someone else. Rather, philosophy provides the kind of training that enables philosophers to make sense of themselves, to rationally consider the question of what is worth pursuing. And that allows them to make sense of much else. 

the thing b


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Thom Brooks
8 years ago

I’m afraid that I don’t agree with how Blackburn understands “impact” (in the UK’s Research Excellence Framework). It is a common criticism that somehow it’s government ministers and their civil servants deciding what impact is – when this is not what happened. Philosophers decide how impact is graded on a 0-4* scale – it isn’t like scores were out of 100 or results of an impact case study were “this one is a 3.261 and the other…”. Nor is it the case that impact is expected to come from any single identifiable event – it may arise out of a collection of activities centred around a particular project – and it can include book sales with the proviso that “impact” is understood as impact on “non-academic users” of research. So selling lots of books for undergraduates does not count, but writing for a more popular audience beyond the academy does count.

I can see – and accept – many arguments against the impact agenda. But I think it’s critics can do better in providing a more fair and accurate response to what will be a certain part of our academic future for at least the short-term. When I hosted a roundtable funded by the Political Studies Association in the House of Lords, much of the panel delivered powerful critiques that I’m afraid showed better understanding of how REF works and the issues it raises. (That said, I remain on balance in favour of impact and continue to believe it is a good thing overall – but again I can see and accept many of the arguments on the other side.)

8 years ago

It all seems a bit lukewarm. As usual the methods are praised and promoted, as they should be, but there is no mention of solving any problems. This leaves the main criticisms unanswered. For a summary of those criticisms I would refer to the brief preface for the most recent (I think) ‘Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics’. It states bluntly that metaphysics is useless. This is the criticism that needs answering. Studying the problems is valuable, but surely solving them is the actual task.