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.


(“Bombing Babylon” by Julie Mehretu)

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