We should lament the demise of philosophy departments

Rigorously and open-mindedly exploring ‘what if’ questions is more necessary than ever in a troubled world, say Brian Ball and Patrycja Kaszynska

June 21, 2024
A statue of Socrates
Source: iStock/thegreekphotoholic

What has philosophy ever done for us?

In a famous scene from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, John Cleese’s character tries to drum up support for his revolutionary plan to expel the local Romans.

“They’ve taken everything we had,” he says. “And what have they ever given us in return?” A tentative voice replies, “The aqueduct?” A series of further suggestions follows, ultimately reducing Cleese to asking, “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, the wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

Colin Swatridge has, in effect, recently asked the same question about philosophy in these pages. We should not lament the closure of philosophy departments, he contends, because “few will agree that philosophy has yielded knowledge, or skills of a sort that can compare with the fruits of most other university and college subjects”.

Swatridge’s central charge is that philosophy “has no province” of its own and is therefore not a “subject” at all. And it is true that philosophy aims at an unusual level of generality (or breadth of application) in its findings. But academic disciplines in general are not differentiated by their subject matters so much as by the methods of investigation their practitioners employ.

In any case, let us debunk the ignorant claim that philosophy has not progressed as a discipline. Some of the great intellectual advances of the last century have come from philosophical logicians, who have formalised principles of reasoning about what is possible (Barcan 1946; Kripke 1963; Lewis 1973), what is, or can be, known (Hintikka 1962) – and, indeed, truth itself (Tarski 1933). This matters because through these and similar advances, philosophy delivers what science alone cannot.

Philosophy has taught us why a urinal is an artwork (Danto 1964), explained the notion of function in biology (Millikan 1984), and interpreted the pursuit of artificial intelligence (Boden 2016). Philosophers have also provided new insights on probabilistic reasoning (Jeffrey 1965), and new frameworks for linguistic (Grice 1975) and psychological (Sellars 1956) theorising.

But let’s focus on the exploration of possibility. Philosophy has a knack for implanting counterfactual questions that might have not arisen otherwise: questions of “What might have been if…?” While other disciplines do arguably have a capacity for counterfactual modelling, philosophy raises “what if” questions in an exploratory way, with rigour and yet without falling into the rabbit hole of what is pre-empted by the methodological orthodoxies of other disciplines.

It is able to do this precisely because it makes claims to generality and abstraction from first principles guided only by the spirit of systematic investigation in pursuit of consistency and, ultimately, truth. Without philosophy, we would be impoverished in our ability to understand what else could be in the broadest of terms.

Asking these questions of possibility now – when, arguably, we are sorely lacking in alternatives for how to respond to the ascent of the far right, the challenges of technological change, or, indeed, the climate emergency – seems important not just for the sake of keeping philosophy alive but for sustaining what is left of the natural environment and the liberal democratic social order. While other humanities disciplines might survey historical or geographical variations that reveal the contingency of the local present circumstances, and the arts may present future imaginings, it is philosophy that is best placed to tease out the essential aspects of such scenarios. In short, philosophy teaches us how to formulate the means of consistent, systematic counterfactual investigation – and this provides reason enough to keep it alive.

Once we discern what is possible, we can begin to ask which of the possibilities is to be preferred and pursued – or in other words, what ought to be done. Here again, philosophy offers us something that science is unable to supply.

Swatridge is sceptical, noting that he “once thought that ethics might justly survive as a focus of philosophising…What, though, have all the books and taught courses on ethics added to the Golden Rule, in any of its versions: treat others as you would have them treat you?” But we suggest that some specificity has, in fact, been forthcoming from philosophers.

A great many vegetarians and vegans would point to Peter Singer’s writings – and his 1975 book Animal Liberation in particular – as an influence, for instance. And the suffragettes drew on the views of Mary Wollstonecraft in securing women the right to vote. “Don’t eat meat” and “Allow women to be educated” do not seem to us to be mere rephrasings of the Golden Rule.

This is just the barest beginning of the list of philosophy’s achievements. Before we dismantle its institutional home, and jettison the accumulated expertise, we should stop and reflect on what further benefits philosophy may yet bring. Perhaps it will do even more for us than the Romans – after all, it has been around for longer, and the need for it persists.

Brian Ball is AI and information ethics research lead and former head of faculty in philosophy at Northeastern University London. Patrycja Kaszynska is a senior research fellow at the University of the Arts London and a research affiliate at Northeastern University London.

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Reader's comments (2)

"Philosophy has taught us why a urinal is an artwork". I'm all for it, but this is not an achievement I'd have drawn attention to.
Response to Brian Ball & Patrycja Kaszynska I was surprised by the observation that, in general, disciplines are not differentiated by their subject matter. Isn’t it precisely what distinguishes, say, oceanography from linguistics that each has a field of enquiry and its own methods of investigation? I wonder what it is that gives philosophers in their university departments the confidence to think of the methodologies of other disciplines as ‘orthodox’, and as ‘rabbit-holes’ into which philosophers in their deliberations are preserved from falling. Surely no discipline boasts only a single, ‘right’ methodology; and how is it that philosophers bring to physics, or history, a perspective, an ‘objectivity’ that physicists and historians lack? I am sure that these practitioners would defend their capacity for self-criticism and analysis with the same rigour that philosophers claim for themselves. Is it likely that non-philosophers will have heard of, never mind read, Barcan, Kripke, Lewis, Hintikka, Tarski, Danto, Millikan, Boden, Jeffrey, Grice, and Sellars? Perhaps the AI fraternity of the fairly recent past will have come across the work of Margaret Boden; but theorists of reasoning have contributed little if anything to the way we reason in so-called ‘ordinary’ language; such language-in-use is impatient of axioms and equations that affect to mimic the supposed certainties of mathematics. Kahneman in his Thinking Fast and Slow (2011) and Mercier and Sperber in The Enigma of Reason (2019) owe the above theorists of logic and semantics little or nothing. A case could be made for the influence of Peter Singer on eating habits among a tiny minority of book-reading vegetarians; but the long-term trend towards meat-and-dairy-avoidance has been as much climate-emergency-driven as it has been the writings of any one individual. Feminism has taken even longer to bring about gender-equality, and we are not there yet; Wollstonecraft, a thinker rather than a professing philosopher, did undoubtedly contribute to feminist thinking if not directly to suffragism. It is not to re-phrase the golden rule, but it is to invoke it, when we acknowledge that we are just one self-regarding species among many, and when we accord to women the same rights that we accord to men. Asking ‘what if’ questions is by no means the preserve of philosophy: historians and political scientists ask them – indeed, scientists of all stripes do so when they hypothesise and test their hypotheses in the field or laboratory. They are probably quite happy to leave it to philosophers and theologians to decide ‘what ought to be done’, on the strength of their ‘what if’ answers. It is true that ‘philosophy’ aims at an unusual level of generality’; but it should be wary of attempting to construct theories for which its tools are either inadequate or out of date, or it will find itself being merged with other humanities subjects in Integrated Studies, or Liberal Arts departments, if it is not discarded altogether. The job-security of all those metaphysicians and epistemologists cannot be guaranteed indefinitely. Colin Swatridge