Philosophy in the University: A Defense

Philosophy in the University: A Defense


“Far from being years of ‘enduring failure,’ the last 150 years have been philosophy’s best.”

So argues Scott Soames (University of Southern California) in an essay on the influence of academic philosophy in The New York Times column, The StoneFramed as a response to “When Philosophy Lost Its Way,” by Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle (University of North Texas), an essay we discussed here, Soames argues that the institutionalization of philosophy in universities has not led it to being cut off from other areas of inquiry, nor from questions concerned with living a good life.

Despite the often-repeated idea that philosophy’s true calling can only be fulfilled in the public square, philosophers actually function best in universities, where they acquire and share knowledge with their colleagues in other disciplines.

Soames writes that “the idea that philosophy was and still is isolated from other disciplines ignores much of its history.” He then goes on to discuss philosophy’s influence on and connection to logic and math, linguistics, decision theory, political science, economics, psychology, and physics.

Philosophy’s interaction with mathematics, linguistics, economics, political science, psychology and physics requires specialization. Far from fostering isolation, this specialization makes communication and cooperation among disciplines possible…

Philosophy thrives when enough is known to make progress conceivable, but it remains unachieved because of methodological confusion. Philosophy helps break the impasse by articulating new questions, posing possible solutions and forging new conceptual tools. 

The essay works well as a response to science-minded ignoramuses:

Our knowledge of the universe and ourselves expands like a ripple surrounding a pebble dropped in a pool. As we move away from the center of the spreading circle, its area, representing our secure knowledge, grows. But so does its circumference, representing the border where knowledge blurs into uncertainty and speculation, and methodological confusion returns. Philosophy patrols the border, trying to understand how we got there and to conceptualize our next move.  Its job is unending.

And it also responds to philosophical declinists who fret about how there will never be another Kant or Plato:

The knowledge required to maintain philosophy’s continuing task, including its vital connection to other disciplines, is too vast to be held in one mind.

Read the whole thing here.

Mehretu-Bombing-Babylon

(“Bombing Babylon” by Julie Mehretu)

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Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

While this does seem like a golden age of philosophy to me, before we can judge the success of philosophy, we need to decide what philosophy is supposed to do. Also, philosophy’s success or failure needs to be distinguished from professional philosophy’s success or failure. Before we can address that, we need to decide what professional philosophy is for and why society should pay for it.Report

Kolja Keller
Kolja Keller
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

Do we decide or discover what philosophy is for?Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Kolja Keller
5 years ago

‘discovering’ won’t change that someone has to pay for it which leaves OP’s “why someone should pay for it” remark unaddressedReport

Urstoff
Urstoff
5 years ago

Philosophy is a specialized field, just like any other mature inquiry. Take any random scientific study, and the layman will have trouble seeing why that finding matters at all (if they can even understand what the finding is). The same is true of philosophy. It would be nice for philosophers in other specialties if authors related this specific finding back to some general philosophical problem (and most could if they wanted), but the fact that this is not the norm does not make philosophy worthless.Report

recent grad
recent grad
Reply to  Urstoff
5 years ago

I just want to point out that your conception of philosophy (as a specialized field which, through a division of specialized labor, aims at the steady increase in philosophical knowledge) is a controversial one. It is one shared by many in analytic circles, but many also reject it as a picture of what philosophy ought to be.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
Reply to  recent grad
5 years ago

That’s a fair point, but I don’t see what the alternative is to a specialized mature inquiry, or why any alternative is desirable (apart from accessibility).Report

Zoe
Zoe
Reply to  Urstoff
5 years ago

Perhaps you could briefly state what you take to be the benefit to society of a “specialized mature inquiry” in general. Your comment suggests that you take this as obvious, or given, from your perspective, wheres the alternative is not obvious or given. However I think your perspective is not obvious or given for a many people, myself included. So I would suggest it is worth stating and defending our implicit assumptions, however obvious they may seem to some.Report

Matt LaVine
Matt LaVine
5 years ago

While I think Soames gets a number of things right in this piece, I think there are two issues which keep it from having the take home it was supposed to have. First, it does not paint a satisfying picture of the relationship between philosophy and ordinary, public life. Second, it ignores the second event offered by Frodeman and Briggle as an explanation of philosophy losing its way—namely, “the placing of philosophy as one more discipline alongside these sciences within the modern research university”. I’d like to briefly address each of these in turn.
With respect to philosophy and the public, I’d like to begin by pointing out that Justin’s original post is slightly misleading on this matter. Justin says that Soames “argues that the institutionalization of philosophy in universities has not led to it being cut off… from questions concerned with living a good life”. One might hope that this means that philosophy has continued throughout this time period to be centrally concerned with living a good life. This is not what Soames intends to claim, though. Rather, Soames thinks that philosophy has always been somewhat cut off from questions of living a good life, since “the study of goodness, justice and virtue… was never its central aim”. In case this seems a quick jump on my part, it is perhaps instructive to give Soames’ position on these matters from elsewhere. In his two-volume history of analytic philosophy, he says:
“In general, philosophy done in the analytic tradition aims at truth and knowledge, as opposed to moral and spiritual improvement. There is very little in the way of practical or inspirational guides in the art of living to be found, and very much in the way of philosophical theories that purport to reveal the truth about a given domain of inquiry. In general, the goal in analytic philosophy is to discover what is true, not to provide a useful recipe for living one’s life.”
This seems to me to be the kind of attitude that Frodeman and Briggle are taking issue with and I don’t think Soames has given reason to think they’re wrong for doing so—even if he has given reason to call into question their first explanation of this attitude.
As for the second event offered as an explanation for philosophy losing its way, I think there is more plausibility to it and I would have liked to see Soames address it more. It does seem to me to be a problem for philosophy to be thought of as just one among other disciplines of the modern European university. Such a view seems problematic conceptually and ethically. I can’t help but feel that one has missed something essential about what philosophy is to think that the differences between physics, biology, and psychology are of the same kind as the differences between any one of these and philosophy. More importantly, though, these disciplinary divisions were created in the age of European colonialism. For philosophy to buy into this disciplinary scheme and take cues from it is to ensure that this scheme will be utilized in a Eurocentric fashion. The vast majority of thinking that has ever been done would not recognize or heed these divisions. So, in order for these divisions to not squeeze out all other knowledge, we need a discipline which sees itself very differently from others. We need a discipline with a radical agenda—an agenda that aims at doing things like looking into (i) Islamic falsafa, kalam, and fiqh despite their not fitting neatly into any of our disciplinary boundaries and (ii) Mayan mathematics, astronomy, and religion despite its constant crossing of our disciplinary boundaries, etc. Whether or not the last 150 years of philosophy have been fantastic, this seems an area where we are failing.Report

Phil
Phil
Reply to  Matt LaVine
5 years ago

Regarding the idea that philosophy is just one among other disciplines of the modern university…I agree that one has missed something essential about philosophy to think that the differences between physics, biology and psychology are of the same kind as the differences between any one of them and philosophy. But I don’t see how Soames has committed himself to this claim. It doesn’t follow from the claim that philosophy is properly concerned with discovering what’s true, at least so far as I can see. For philosophy might be concerned with truths that are different in kind from those sought in physics, biology and psychology (perhaps because they are more general or because their discovery requires a fundamentally different methodology). Another point: you say these disciplinary divisions were created in the age of European colonialism, and conclude on this basis that for philosophy to accept these divisions is to “ensure that this scheme be utilized in a Eurocentric fashion.” This really seems like a non sequitur to me. Your idea seems to be that historically these divisions wouldn’t have been recognized in many cultures. But again I don’t see how this fact (assuming it is a fact) establishes your conclusion. Nor do I see why I can’t accept these disciplinary divisions and also be interested in the things you name. (Like, if I think for whatever reason that studying Mayan astronomy is going to lead to philosophical insight, do I myself need to reject the division between astronomy and physics/biology/psychology? Why?)Report

Matt LaVine
Matt LaVine
Reply to  Phil
5 years ago

Phil—very good questions. Thank you for asking them.

With respect to the idea that philosophy is just one among other disciplines of the modern university, I agree that Soames has not committed himself to this claim. What I was saying is that, even if philosophy being institutionalized is not a problem, it seems like it may be a problem for it to have been institutionalized in a way that it is just one among other disciplines. And I, very honestly, just would like to see Soames talk about this issue more.

As for your later questions, I don’t think that current disciplinary divisions make it so you can’t be interested in falsafa, kalam, etc. I do think that disciplinary divisions which make philosophy just one among others make it unbelievably unlikely that you’ll be given a chance to be exposed to, and become interested in, falsafa or kalam, though. The idea here is that, if philosophy is just one among other disciplines in our current classification scheme, then it won’t see itself as needing to challenge or problematize anything about that scheme. If philosophy doesn’t see itself as needing to challenge much about that scheme, then philosophy will be unlikely to do much with knowledge that doesn’t map on to the divisions of that scheme neatly. As an example, something like the falsafa/kalam distinction doesn’t map directly on to any distinction from current Anglo-European disciplinary boundaries. Given this, study of falsafa and kalam are unlikely to show up in any disciplines outside of philosophy. And, if philosophy just sees itself as one among others in this scheme, it’s unlikely to venture into areas that don’t fit this scheme as well. If I’m still being unclear, my basic worry is that the belief that philosophy is just like any other discipline that currently resides in Anglo-European academia will contribute to their being no institutional home for research into non-European thought.

Again, thanks for the opportunity to try to clarify some of my earlier thoughts.Report

Phil
Phil
Reply to  Matt LaVine
5 years ago

Thanks for the reply, and sorry that I misunderstood your initial remarks. You weren’t attributing to Soames the view that philosophy is just one among other disciplines in the university, you were merely expressing a desire for Soames to speak on this issue.
I’m still skeptical of your main points, but maybe that’s because I don’t understand what it means to say that philosophy has been “institutionalized in a way that it is just one among other disciplines” (I don’t have time to reread the Frogeman and Briggle paper, so I apologize if this issue is clarified there). If this means that the differences between physics and biology are of the same kind as the differences between physics and philosophy, then I reject it (so do you, I gather). But if it means that it’s appropriate and beneficial for philosophy to have its own department (alongside the physics department, biology department, psychology department, anthropology department, etc.), its own degrees (along side physics degrees, etc.) and its own journals (along side physics journals, etc.) then I accept it (and so does Soames, I gather). What other way of institutionalizing philosophy could there even be? (I’m genuinely asking.)
I have things to say in response to your other points, and I started typing them out, but it became painfully long and dense, so I’ll spare you (maybe for another occasion!).Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
5 years ago

Projects involving true interdisciplinary communication and public outreach are far too frequently maligned as “uninteresting” or “not real philosophy” by today’s practitioners for me to buy this as a descriptive claim, at least in my anecdotal experience. If those things really are “philosophy’s true home” it seems to count against the conclusion philosophy hasn’t “lost its way” in recent times.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

Matt – “If I’m still being unclear…”

Clear as a bell, and your analysis seems spot on to me. So spot on that some remedial action seems justified.

The following remark from the article would be a crucial problem for me..
.
“The knowledge required to maintain philosophy’s continuing task, including its vital connection to other disciplines, is too vast to be held in one mind. ”

It is not clear to me that the knowledge required to maintain philosophy’s (as he defines it) continuing task has yet been acquired, largely for the reasons given by Matt. In fact it seems quite obvious that it has not. Also, I’m not able to understand things unless they’re in my mind, and for me the view that philosophy is so complex that it cannot be grasped by one mind would be a third reason for its current state to add to the two that Matt’s notes.

The idea that the analytical kind of philosophy is not concerned with the ‘good life’ seems rather like the idea that telescopes are not concerned with distant objects.

I find DN a great place and don’t want to antagonise anyone by continually posting sceptical comments, but it seems very clear and quite widely agreed that philosophy has a problem. I genuinely believe that if the profession does not deal with it and continues in the same way then philosophy will attract nothing but increasing criticism over time. It is becoming an epidemic. As for the idea that the last 150 years have been the best time ever for philosophy, it seems a perfect illustration of the problem. There were a few good years around the time of the birth of QM, as scientists got involved but then they gave up and it was back to business as usual. The philosophy of this and that sub-discipline has been added to the list of topics, but the philosophy of philosophy, the metaphysical basis on which all these sub-disciplines need to be secured, is where it was in Plato’s time, while Kant, is admired and ignored. I cannot see how the criticisms of Tyson, Hawking, Dawkins and the rest can be dealt with under the circumstances.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  PeterJ
5 years ago

“[I]t seems very clear and quite widely agreed that philosophy has a problem. I genuinely believe that if the profession does not deal with it and continues in the same way then philosophy will attract nothing but increasing criticism over time. It is becoming an epidemic.”

I agree that institutionalized academic philosophy has problems, but I’m not sure I think there is any consensus that it has “a problem” in the sense that there is a common root to the various criticisms of and dissatisfaction with those academic institutions.

But I’m more puzzled by the idea that the measure of the health of the discipline is whether or not it attracts criticism, as well as the idea that this is a distinctive problem of contemporary philosophy. Criticisms of philosophy and of philosophers in the Western philosophical tradition are as old as the tradition itself. Socrates was publicly mocked and satirized by Aristophanes before eventually being sentenced to death. And before Socrates we have the story of Thales falling into a well because he was more interested in the distant heavens than what was in front of him.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

Derek – I think perhaps we see things in rather different ways. I believe that there is common root, and a very visible one, for the various criticisms and dissatisfaction of this branch of philosophy that stretch back through time. It would the failure of this tradition to solve any problems. It is as if nobody wants to examine the source of this failure or even admit that it is one. The institutional and professional issues are no doubt important, but they are not philosophical issues.

I would agree, of course, that ‘there is ‘no concensus that it has “a problem” in the sense there is a common root’. This is the problem I was trying to highlight. It seems too obvious a problem to be having to point it out since It is surely the central problem of the entire discipline, viz. how to demonstrate that the study of philosophy is not an infinite wild goose chase.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  PeterJ
5 years ago

I’m afraid I can’t really make sense of how these remarks are consistent with your earlier comment to which I replied. You originally claimed it to be “widely agreed” that philosophy has “a problem,” but now you claim this very problem is not widely agreed upon. Your remarks that if philosophy continues on its current track it will face increased criticism over time is also hard to square with the idea that you’re talking about the entire history of Western philosophy. Is your claim that there has been a steady increase of criticism of philosophy since the time of Socrates (or Thales), a trend that you predict those criticisms will further continue to increase?Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

I proposed that philosophy has a problem and has had it since Plato, namely a failure to solve philosophical problems. This is not in doubt. I proposed that this is the root cause of all its problems, including most of the criticism it receives. This is not widely accepted, or not within the profession. Thus philosophy has a well-known problem but it is not widely agreed by philosophers what it is. Many assume that progress will be made and the problem will go away. An historical survey would not support that view and meanwhile impatience is growing.

I’m not surer there has been an increase of criticism over time. That I wouldn’t know. But given the healthy level of criticism at this time and the lack of response it is hard to see why it would not increase. I would want to go on the attack faced with critics like Tyson and Dawkins, but they get away with their nonsense because at this time it is clear that university philosophy has a serious problem and that it is not being addressed. In this respect its critics are doing philosophy a favour.

There has been much talk of institutional issues and no talk of philosophy itself, and so it seemed a good idea to point to the real problem, or what many would see as the real problem. To suppose that there is no root cause for the various problems that attract such criticism would, it seems to me, be massively counter-productive and contrary to the evidence.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

Check out the end of this interview with Soames: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uq5QEUwNyr0&edufilter=na&safe=active

The interviewers ask Soames at 52:59: “Do you live a philosophical life?” His response: “Well, I do philosophy quite a lot. I am quite taken up with the problems I mentioned… I do tend to get up very early in the morning, to go to my office, to start working very early in the morning. I usually put in 12 hours a day, five days a week, and on the weekends I work another ten… That’s not entirely work on philosophy because I am chairman of the philosophy department at USC. And I am very interested in building a world class graduate program…I don’t know if that counts as living a philosophical life or not, but I do feel quite engaged with the projects I have outlined…”

The issue regarding philosophy outside academia isn’t about whether academic philosophy is a failure; so no need, as Soames does, to list yet again some of the highlights of what philosophy professors have accomplished. The issue rather is: is there a mode of philosophical thinking which Socrates or Kierkegaard engaged in which is hindered by the academic context?

Note that I say “a” mode of philosophy Socrates engaged in. I grant there are many different things Socrates did qua philosopher: some of it is philosophy of science, ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, etc. But in addition to all this, there was something else he did: he (a) developed a holistic vision by bringing together his thinking about all of these topics and (b) implemented that holistic vision in relation to a life practice. The challenge to academic philosophy is whether being ensconced in academia has come at the cost of being able to do (a) and (b).

In the interview Soames says philosophy should be concerned with the big questions, which are in turn best pursued by breaking them into smaller pieces, and then systematically addressed. But if, as he says, “philosophy is too vast to be held in one mind”, the obvious question is: once the big questions are broken into smaller pieces, who or how can the pieces be put back together to answer the big questions? Also: whether then philosophical practice gets reduced only to the kind of day-job work philosophers do (research, teaching, dept work)? Surely there is more to trying to live like Socrates than just doing the professional work of academic philosophy 12 hours, or even 24 hours, a day.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

Bharath

“In the interview Soames says philosophy should be concerned with the big questions, which are in turn best pursued by breaking them into smaller pieces, and then systematically addressed. But if, as he says, “philosophy is too vast to be held in one mind”, the obvious question is: once the big questions are broken into smaller pieces, who or how can the pieces be put back together to answer the big questions? ”

Just had to note my agreement. The idea that metaphysical problems can be solved one at a time is surely a very strange idea and it appears to be a recipe for certain failure. Indeed, I just said this in an article. It would signify a misunderstanding of the subject and the task. It would impossible to solve one of these problems without solving them all, such is their interconnectedness or even equivalence.

Right here is my complaint, that there is no global theory and very few people interested in constructing one, leaving ten thousand speculations to float free like balloons in the wind while their owners waive their arms at each other in Kant’s ‘arena for mock fights’. Philosophy is more healthy elsewhere.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  PeterJ
5 years ago

There is a clear reduction of Soames’ argument. If academic philosophy has been great, and that is in part because of specialization within the profession, then Soames seems way out of his depth in responding to Frodeman and Briggle, who specialize in the issue of connecting philosophy to the public, and the various pros and cons of academic philosophy. Soames is an expert in phil language and history of analytic phil; nothing in that suggests he is qualified to talk about whether academic philosophy has been, on the whole, more beneficial to what philosophy can achieve in the public domain. What he is giving is just his _opinion_, which sounds more than an opinion just because he was at Princeton and is now at USC. There is no reason to think that Soames is in any particularly good position to evaluate Frodeman and Briggle’s argument. That would be like saying Soames can pick up Parfit’s latest book, and determine if he is correct even though it is so clearly out of his area of specialty.

Of course, I do think Soames can judge Frodeman and Briggle’s work, and that he can contribute to the debate, even though I am sure Frodeman and Briggle have spent thousands of hours more thinking about this topic in depth than Soames has. That is because, contrary to Soames’ view, there is a holistic dimension to philosophical thinking which is not a unique purview of some experts as opposed to others. It would be absurd if after a lifetime of inquiry Soames was only qualified to think about philosophy of language. But if this is so, then why can’t it be that there are dimensions to philosophical thinking which aren’t just the purview of academic philosophers, but which are more expansive than what happens in academia? This is not a bad thing, or a thing to bemoan, as if we can’t give the masses the right to enter into debate with professors. It rather speaks to the majesty and mystery of philosophy that, in certain of its forms, it truly belongs to every thinking human being, irrespective of their day job or professional expertise. Parts of philosophy are like wild nature reserves; they belong to everyone, and not just those with the corporate badges saying “philosophy professor”.Report