The whole thing is predicated on what amounts to a shotgun approach to knowledge: you let people metaphorically fire wherever they wish, and statistically speaking they’ll occasionally hit a worthy target. Crucially, there doesn’t seem to be a way, certainly not a centralized or hierarchically determinable way, to improve the efficacy of the target shooting. If we want knowledge about the world (or anything else), our best bet is to give smart and dedicated people pretty much free rein and a modest salary, then sit back and wait for the possible societal returns—which will fail to materialize more than 99% of the times.
The demand for justifying academic endeavors on the grounds of their usefulness often ignores this point. Good for Massimo Pigliucci (CUNY) for raising it in a post on progress in philosophy at Plato’s Footnote.
More generally, the demand for “practicality” is often an epistemic overreach, and that’s certainly the case when politicians start complaining about funding allegedly “useless” academic work.
This is not to say that the value of academic work, or more specifically, the value of philosophy, lies solely in its usefulness. But when we find ourselves having to defend philosophy’s usefulness, it’s good to be ready to deploy one of the philosophy’s oldest weapons: pointing out how ignorant we really are.