Friday, April 22, 2011

First, Let's Shoot All the Philosophers

Francisco Goya, The Shootings of May Third 1808, 1814A few days ago, a friend of mine on Twitter linked to an article written earlier this month by the chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Professor Todd Jones.1 Apparently the state's current fiscal crisis has inspired the university to consider eliminating the entire department and firing all of its members. Naturally, Mr. Jones took exception to this assault on his profession and livelihood, and he took to the pages of the Boston Review—friendly and understanding fora for such arguments apparently being rather thin on the ground in the land of perpetual sunshine, consequence-free sex, and instant, undeserved riches—to make his case.

Mr. Jones founds his argument on the practical utility of philosophical education:
people think of philosophy as a luxury only if they don’t really understand what philosophy departments do. I teach one of the core areas of philosophy, epistemology: what knowledge is and how we obtain it. People from all walks of life—physicists, physicians, detectives, politicians—can only come to good conclusions on the basis of thoroughly examining the appropriate evidence. And the whole idea of what constitutes good evidence and how certain kinds of evidence can and can’t justify certain conclusions is a central part of what philosophers study. Philosophers look at what can and can’t be inferred from prior claims. They examine what makes analogies strong or weak, the conditions under which we should and shouldn’t defer to experts, and what kinds of things (e.g., inflammatory rhetoric, wishful thinking, inadequate sample size) lead us to reason poorly.

This is not to say that doctors, district attorneys, or drain manufactures cannot make decent assessments without ever taking a philosophy class. It’s also possible for someone to diagnose a case of measles without having gone to medical school. The point is that people will tend to do better if, as part of their education, they’ve studied some philosophy. (This is one of the reasons why undergraduate philosophy majors have the highest average scores on the standard tests used for admission to post-graduate study.) No matter what goals someone has, she can better achieve them through assessing evidence more effectively, which philosophy can teach her. Questions about whether this or that goal is one that is good to have or whether certain goals are consistent with other goals, in turn, concern ethics and values—other subjects that philosophers have long pursued.

Perhaps it is superfluous for me to say this in this forum, but I am unpersuaded.

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Arguing that society should fund university philosophy departments because they teach practical knowledge is disingenuous, at best. There's nothing remotely practical about philosophy. It is the most radical (from the Latin radix = "root") intellectual discipline of all, because it recognizes no limits to its subject matter and no limits to the depth or breadth of its analysis. Philosophy aims to discuss not only what we know, how we know it, and why our belief is justified (epistemology), but also the very nature of reality (ontology and metaphysics) and the justification for our actions toward each other (ethics), inter alia. Its tools are rigorous critical analysis, rational argument, and logic. It considers no subject off limits and no question or issue completely and permanently resolved.2

This is a key point to understand: philosophy, as a discipline, does not provide answers.3 Notwithstanding the inference a naive reader might draw from Mr. Jones' discussion of physicians and detectives, there is no body of widely accepted answers to commonly encountered questions like reason for belief or standard of proof, such as might be found in a natural science, for example. Instead, almost every subsector of philosophy known is riven by multiple competing critiques, opinions, and worldviews, each carefully and exhaustively argued, which even professional philosophers cannot—and do not wish to—reconcile. Philosophy provides questions, plus the tools with which to try and answer them and persuade others to your point of view. As such, it can be rightly said that the proper effect of philosophy is to make people exquisitely alert to their assumptions, sensitive to the rigor of their analyses, and—truth be told—permanently uncomfortable about the validity of their conclusions. If anyone should realize that, an epistemologist should. If Professor Jones does not, perhaps he doesn't deserve to teach philosophy.

I shudder to think what a sensitive and intelligent criminologist, jurist, or physicist would take away from a rigorous course in the foundations of knowledge. If he or she has half a brain, they would be rendered permanently uncertain about the validity of their own day-to-day work. Frankly, this may not be such a bad thing. The most likely practical outcome from a non-philosopher taking one or more philosophy courses is the potential inculcation of healthy self-doubt and skepticism. Even if a student does not or cannot take each argument fully on board, the mere exposure to powerful, persuasive, contrasting points of view on multiple sides of a carefully defined issue can persuade the densest individual that life, knowledge, and "truth" are not the oh-so-simple constructs he or she may have been led to believe. At its most basic and abstract, philosophy teaches that no topic is off limits, that there are no simple or unchallengeable answers, and that there are only good questions. Among more sensitive and reflective souls, this can engender a lifelong skepticism of simplistic arguments, facile rhetoric, and conventional wisdom.

* * *

Now I happen to believe that training our young people to think this way can be highly salutary for society in general. In my opinion, we need more independent thinking, more critical analysis, and less blind obeisance to party lines of every stripe. Accordingly, I am a big proponent of philosophical training for almost everyone. But you can see how authority of every kind—social, political, economic—would find such attitudes irritating at best and terribly threatening at worst. Mr. Jones himself acknowledges this, by calling attention to the fact that the enlightened Athenian democrats of 399 BC sentenced their own leading philosopher, Socrates, to death for "corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and of 'not believing in the gods of the state.'" Power has never enjoyed having truth spoken to it, much less the truth which calls its very existence and justification into question. True philosophy concedes the privilege of being right to no-one and nothing. It is the ancient enemy of authority of all kinds. Accordingly, perhaps Mr. Jones should be less surprised that the State of Nevada has decided to use the cover of fiscal distress to remove yet another source of gadflies from its polity.

I am sorry Professor Jones and his colleagues seem likely to lose their jobs. However, the counterargument he puts forth here just won't fly. If he is determined to fight practical fire with practical fire, perhaps he should pursue the argument that philosophy departments—like humanities courses in general—actually subsidize many of the more glamorous and supposedly profitable disciplines taught at modern universities. After all, as another of my interlocutors on Twitter opined, running a philosophy department is pretty darn cheap. You need professors, a few rooms, pencils, and some pads of paper. I don't know what the tariff for higher education at UNLV is nowadays, but you can be damn sure that every $50,000-a-year Philosophy major at Harvard is subsidizing a hell of a lot of electron microscopes for the glamorous—and much less profitable—Molecular Biology majors.

Don't even get me started on the MBAs.

1 Perhaps you, Dear Reader—like me—are surprised to learn that a hotbed of scholarly inquiry like UNLV actually has a philosophy department in the first place. But, putting aside any special needs UNLV might have concerning the ontology or metaphysics of college basketball, or the ethical justification for bribery of student athletes, I suppose it makes sense, if only for the sake of curricular completeness.
2 Naturally, you should understand that I am talking about the Western philosophical tradition. I am not talking about Eastern philosophy, with which I am largely unfamiliar, although I will observe that it strikes me as much more focused on mysticism, spirituality, and the provision of answers than the cultivation of questions. I am open to being corrected here.
3 Sure, sure. Plenty—if not most—Western philosophers have come up with their own systems, answers, and worldviews which their writings advocate in no uncertain terms. But last time I checked, the discipline of philosophy has not said, "Look, Kant got the categorical imperative pretty much right, so let's all just move on, shall we?" in the same way physicists have done with Newton and Einstein. We are talking about the discipline of philosophy here, which is concerned with only questions.

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