From politics to science to critical thought - 'we need philosophy'

Discipline has multiple applications and must not be cut, conference hears. Matthew Reisz reports

March 31, 2011

Recent events in Libya offer a strong demonstration of why our "philosophical heritage" remains a hugely valuable resource, a philosopher has argued.

At a time when the concept of research impact and other "intellectually bogus managerial and administrative ideas" are increasingly ubiquitous within higher education, it is urgent that we ask "why should philosophy exist as an academic subject?".

This was the argument made by James Ladyman, professor of philosophy of the University of Bristol, at the Philosophy Matters conference last week. The event in Bristol was held by the Royal Institute of Philosophy and organised by Professor Ladyman with Havi Carel, senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of the West of England.

Philosophy, in Professor Ladyman's view, "embodies the epitome of the independent scientific spirit". Philosophers retained their traditional Socratic roles as "gadflies, asking awkward questions and exposing epistemic hubris".

Given the global importance of British contemporary philosophy, it made no sense to cut "one of the few areas of activity where we do extremely well and which is vital to our future national interests", he argued.

For independent evidence of this, Professor Ladyman said, consider the Libyan rebels in Benghazi who had been "circulating the American Declaration of Independence in order to educate themselves in the ideas that are central to a democratic political culture".

Yet those words, some of the most famous in the English language, were "inspired by and borrowed heavily from (John) Locke's Two Treatises of Government".

What this proved, suggested Professor Ladyman, was that "ideas and concepts are a form of technology that should not be taken for granted".

Today, it seems natural that citizens should have the right to overthrow a despot who is governing without their consent, but these ideas were once forms of revolutionary thought that had to be invented, he said.

As well as endorsing efforts to ensure a continuing supply of important new ideas, Professor Ladyman took the opportunity to challenge stereotypes about philosophy.

Although it was often dismissed as splitting hairs, in reality "learning to make distinctions is vital to critical thought and excellent training for undergraduates. Making distinctions is vital to avoid talking at cross purposes."

Debate on the economic crisis, for example, had often been undermined by a "failure to distinguish between debt (total owed) and deficit (difference between income and expenditure in a given year)".

It was also easy to dismiss the time and effort Bertrand Russell had devoted to the issue of whether a sentence such as "the present King of France is bald" was just meaningless or actually false. Yet such "examples of apparently pointless, merely philosophical questions", argued Professor Ladyman, "provided the basis for artificial languages in computer science. And what could possibly have more impact than the latter?"

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