Thinkers never die

November 20, 1998

Ray Monk argues that academic philosophy does not have to be dry, boring and useless

Among the many, many things called "the new rock and roll" by journalists lately, the most surprising, perhaps, is philosophy. The oldest academic discipline still taught at universities, philosophy has always had a reputation for austerity, difficulty and remote abstraction. "Do not all charms fly," Keats once wrote, "at the mere touch of cold philosophy?" More recently, it was almost universally held that the analytic, "linguistic" variety of philosophy taught at British universities was intolerably narrow, boring and useless. When the number of philosophers teaching in Britain was reduced by about a third during the Thatcher governments, few voices were raised in outcry. Serves them right, the general view seemed to be, for being so dry, so insular, so uninteresting.

British philosophers refused to help their own cause by often being all three of these things, thus adding fuel to their critics.

And so, philosophy departments got smaller, philosophers got older, and fewer and fewer people took any notice of the work they produced. It is only a matter of time, people thought, before the discipline dies a natural death.

But the sick old man of academia refuses to lie down. Students refuse to take the hint to apply to do something more useful. Applications have risen and universities are realising that the Thatcherite injunction to respond to market forces demands larger philosophy departments not smaller ones. Philosophy is, in its modest, sedate way, booming.

One of the biggest selling books of recent years has been Sophie's World, a cross between Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy and Lewis Caroll's Alice in Wonderland. While publishers look around for someone to write the next Sophie's World, journalists turn their attention to the growth in popular philosophy magazines, the springing up of "philosophy cafes" and other signs that the general public finds this stuff interesting. But what, exactly, do they find interesting? Truth-conditional semantics? Kripke's analysis of necessity? Dummett's interpretation of Frege? No, these issues, which dominated professional philosophical discourse in the 1970s and 1980s, are a minority interest.

What attracts people to philosophy are not the concerns that were long ago identified as the proper "subject matter" of the discipline; but the hope that philosophy might help them to think through the important questions of life.

It is not that they are naive enough to believe that a three-year course in philosophy will tell them the meaning of life, nor give definitive answers to questions about consciousness, art, morality, etc. What they, quite reasonably, expect is that philosophy should not entirely ignore these questions, even if it fails, in the end, to answer them.

Within the discipline, there are signs that some philosophers in Britain are responding to this reasonable expectation. The subject is not only expanding in size; it is also expanding its horizons, returning to subjects it abandoned in the 1950s as outside its brief (namely, most of the interesting questions of philosophy) and engaging with traditions of thought (such as so-called "continental" philosophy) which it previously ignored. It also finds itself at the cutting edge of modern education thinking, its time-honoured concern with the close and rigorous analysis of texts and arguments repeatedly identified as the key transferable skill that all university disciplines are being urged to develop in their students.

Indeed, university disciplines are now to be judged as modern precisely to the extent that they approximate to philosophy, so that The Times was quite right in its editorial of last summer to hail philosophy as "the quintessentially modern discipline".

The moral of this story is that philosophy cannot live on its own. Forced to identify its own subject matter, it becomes narrow and boring; allowed to engage with the wider world, it stimulates interesting debates on the mind, art, literature, science, politics, etc. Some philosophers have learned this lesson. Just one thing stands in their way. It is called the research assessment exercise.

Obliged by the RAE to define what research in philosophy is, British philosophers are having to revert to their bad old ways, constructing artificial boundaries to fence off their discipline from its neighbours, condemning everything else to that dreaded category, which the Higher Education Funding Council for England openly admits it does not know how to deal with: the category of "interdisciplinary research".

If we have learned anything over the past 20 years, it is that very little interesting work is done in philosophy that is not interdisciplinary. Let us hope that the RAE finds some way to recognise this and that the "new rock and roll" is not forced to let its public down by being compelled to play nothing but the old standards.

Ray Monk is a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Southampton.

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