Making the unmeasurable visible: philosophers unite to fight back

Threat to discipline stems from an obsession with productivity, argue scholars. Matthew Reisz reports

June 3, 2010

The current threat to philosophy in universities is partly attributable to "a capitalistic dread of things that can't be measured", academics have claimed.

The argument was made at a recent event at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, where the vital role of students in defending the discipline was also noted.

Alberto Toscano, senior lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, said the debate, "Who's Afraid of Philosophy?", had been inspired by recent protests against plans to end teaching and postgraduate research in philosophy at Middlesex University.

The campaign against the plans, which included an 11-day student occupation, formed part of a "wider struggle against cuts and managerial marketisation" in the academy and a desire to reclaim the university as an intellectual space, Dr Toscano said.

He added that he was heartened by colleagues who had sent "virulent" letters to the authorities at Middlesex of their own volition.

Peter Osborne, professor of modern European philosophy at Middlesex, also expressed gratitude for the widespread support that his department had received, particularly from philosophers who were academically hostile to its brand of critical, continental philosophy.

The internet age resulted in a significant, and very inclusive, revival of philosophical debate, for the first time since the mid-1980s, he said.

In this context, with clear signs of public interest in their work, he questioned why universities "seem to have a need for (philosophers) to disappear".

While some participants in the discussion claimed that this arose from fear of philosophy, Professor Osborne argued that it was "a combination of loathing and anxiety or dread - a capitalistic dread of things that can't be measured or quantified.

"Philosophy will always be opposed to the view that things don't exist that can't be measured. The time spent on a problem has no relation to 'productivity' or the value of a result."

Alexander Garcia Duttmann, professor of philosophy and visual culture at Goldsmiths, argued that politicians were afraid of philosophy's "hyperbolic idealism", since it would never "stop raising questions where power would like it to".

Yet the subject had also been betrayed from within by worldly and opportunistic "professional philosophers" and "champions of academic drivel" whose skill at filling in grant application forms made them natural allies of the administrators, Professor Duttmann observed.

Nina Power, senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University, said she was committed to defending a style of left-wing critical continental philosophy against traditional anglophone analytical philosophy.

She said she was suspicious of "the utopian rhetoric about creating new intellectual spaces outside the academy. Do we really want to retreat and let our enemies take over our universities?"

Alex Callinicos, professor of European studies at King's College London, suggested that "an exceptional crisis is confronting British universities - and we've only seen the opening skirmishes".

However, he noted "a whiff of 1968" in the response to proposed cuts at Middlesex, the University of Sussex and even King's College London, where students had helped "turn round the threat and force back the worst of the cuts".

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