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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Why Are Philosophy Departments Important?


Amy Ferrer, the new Executive Director of The American Philosophical Association (APA), has just finished a week of guest-blogging at Brian Leiter's philosophy blog.  She ended with some words about the need to improve philosophy's public image, especially concerning the value and importance of university philosophy departments.  I agree with the need, but I think her argument for the value and importance of philosophy needs to be improved.

Her argument is:

For one thing, philosophy and the humanities give schools a lot of bang for their buck. Most philosophy departments do not require the large research funds and expensive equipment that other fields may need, so their budgets can reasonably be significantly smaller than departments needing such resources. And yet with those smaller budgets, philosophy departments make a sizeable impact. Philosophy teaches students the hallmarks of a quality education: critical thinking, problem solving, writing, analysis, and argument construction, to name a few. Philosophy considers the biggest questions there are—and what is the academy for if not for asking big questions? And philosophy students routinely outperform students of nearly all other disciplines on standardized tests for postgraduate education such as the GRE and LSAT.

The claims are:

1) Philosophy departments are cheaper than many other departments.
2) Philosophy departments make a sizable impact.
3) Philosophy classes teach many of the principal skills valued in our education system.
4) Philosophy classes deal with the biggest questions there are.
5) Philosophy students do better on standardized tests.

I'll address the points in reverse order.

5. The fact that philosophy students do better on standardized tests does not mean that philosophy departments (or even philosophy classes) help them do so.  It just means that people who tend to study philosophy also tend to do better on those tests.  Furthermore, if we are selling philosophy for its ability to improve test scores, then we're essentially saying that philosophy is of value because it helps people pursue other academic fields.  Then the question is, why do we need philosophy departments?  All we apparently need are philosophy classes--and not Kant studies or phenomenology, but just classes which focus on the skills needed to do better on the LSAT and GRE.  So point (5) is possibly irrelevant (because it is just a correlation) and actually hurts the argument that philosophy departments are important.

4. A lot of people have no faith that academic philosophers will ever find compelling answers to the Big Qestions.  It is hard for a lot of intelligent, informed people (including some professional philosophers) to distinguish between grappling with the Big Questions and self-indulgent, if cooperative, naval gazing.  So when philosophers (or their advocates) claim that philosophy deals with "the biggest questions there are," a lot of people think it's a load of self-aggrandizing hogwash.  Philosophers might do better to present themselves with a bit more humility, and also a bit more focus.  What "big questions" are we dealing with, and why should anybody think that it is important to have academic departments invested in their pursuit?

3. This is true, philosophy classes teach all kinds of important skills, especially involving communication and argumentation.  However, do we need philosophy departments for that?  See my response to point (5), above.

2. Impact on what?  On the rest of the university?  On the world at large?  What sort of impact?  Is the claim that philosophy departments improve the pursuit of other disciplines?  If so, then philosophy is being valued in terms of its ability to help people pursue subjects other than philosophy.  In that case, why do we need philosophy departments to do this?  The nature and scope of the impact is not clear, so it is impossible to address this claim in a more substantive way.

1. So far, we have no clear reason why philosophy departments are important.  Philosophy classes are being advocated for their ability to help people who are really interested in studying subjects other than philosophy.  There's no apparent need for philosophy departments at all, unless it is to pursue the Big Questions.  If that pursuit is just a waste of time, then it really doesn't matter how cheap the departments are.  They are still a waste of resources.

Philosophy departments need to be defended with stronger arguments than this.

The public image of philosophy will not improve unless there is a greater understanding and appreciation of its goals, practices and methodological principles.  The biggest obstacle might just be that there is no general consensus on that matter.