Nigel Warburton, Star Philosophy Podcaster, On The State of Philosophical Profession

There’s a long article on Nigel Warburton, the hugely successful co-founder of the leading philosophy podcast, Philosophy BitesHe says so much in the article about his own choice to leave the university system and become a freelance philosopher that resonates with my own recent decision to do similarly. Plus he discusses free speech issues and his views on Dawkins and atheism, so check out the whole article.

Here are choice passages (from many to choose from) about the state of academic philosophy, starting with his decision to leave Open University and pick up work as a philosopher on his own:

“It’s complicated,” he says. “On the positive side, this is a wonderful time to explore new ways of communicating with a global audience free from the constraints and obligations of academic life. I’ve seen plenty of philosophy lecturers get increasingly bitter about higher education, and I don’t want to end up like them.

“Far better to have a go at following my own direction than stagnate. It might not work out, but at least I’ll be able to say I had a go. It feels exciting at the moment, and I wanted to see if it is possible to live as a writer and podcaster. I’ve always found lot of academic philosophy rather dry, but I love philosophy at its best. Through Philosophy Bites I’ve met some of the top living philosophers, and I’ve been inspired by them.

“But I feel weighed down by the short sightedness, the petty bureaucracy, and the often pointless activities that are creeping into higher education.

Then about the limitations of the specialists:

“A lot of professional philosophers lack the imagination required to think about what it’s like not to understand something. Some have got into a complacent habit of speaking to each other in a kind of technical language, which is almost at times the avoidance of doing philosophy. They’re part of a culture of people who always say the same things and make the same moves: just making finer and finer discriminations between whether they’re a particular kind of materialist or a particular kind of functionalist. People stake out little claims. When faced with the need to explain what they’re doing and why it should be of interest to anyone at all outside of that culture, many flounder.

“Not the best ones, interestingly. The really significant philosophers are able to explain with superb clarity precisely what it is that matters about a topic. Not just for others with similar interests but for anybody who might be concerned with philosophy at all. Weaker philosophers hide behind a series of coded nods and winks to each other. This often betrays a lack of clarity of thought.”

He criticizes their remoteness from what matters:

“Philosophers today have mostly got their heads down. They’re concerned with writing for a journal which will publish work that takes them two or three years, and only five people will read it. These are people who could be contributing to something that’s incredibly important. Gay marriage is just one example of many. I don’t think philosophers responded particularly well to 9/11. Issues about free expression, all over the world, are not just academic. They’re matters of life and death. There are exceptions, but philosophers are by and large more interested in getting a paper in Mind or Analysis than they are in commenting on the major political events of our time.”

And here’s how the academy itself is failing philosophy, how philosophers are wrongly responding, and what lies ahead for the discipline:

Part of the problem has to do with “the cuckoo in the nest, the burgeoning managerial class” which he sees as getting in the way of philosophical thinking and teaching. Other trouble lies with departmental committees hiring people who are just like them, creating clusters of similar people with similar views. Just as with society at large, he says, diversity helps departments flourish, but often departmental members are all nearly carbon copies of one another. So in their work they end up trying to discriminate themselves from each other with more and more hair-splitting but ultimately uninteresting distinctions. He reserves particular venom for the REF, the Research Excellence Framework, a system of expert review which assesses research undertaken in UK higher education, which is then used to allocate future rounds of funding. A lot of it turns on the importance of research having a social, economic or cultural impact. It’s not exactly the sort of thing that philosophical reflection on, say, the nature of being qua being is likely to have. He leans into my recorder to make sure I get every word:

“One of the most disturbing things about academic philosophy today is the way that so many supposed gadflies and rebels in philosophy have just rolled over in the face of the REF – particularly by going along with the idea of measuring and quantifying impact,” he says, making inverted commas with his fingers, “a technical notion which was constructed for completely different disciplines. I’m not even sure what research means in philosophy. Philosophers are struggling to find ways of describing what they do as having impact as defined by people who don’t seem to appreciate what sort of things they do. This is absurd. Why are you wasting your time? Why aren’t you standing up and saying philosophy’s not like that? To think that funding in higher education in philosophy is going to be determined partly by people’s creative writing about how they have impact with their work. Just by entering into this you’ve compromised yourself as a philosopher. It’s not the kind of thing that Socrates did or that Hume did or that John Locke did. Locke may have had patrons, but he seemed to write what he thought rather than kowtowing to forces which are pushing on to us a certain vision, a certain view of what philosophical activities should be. Why are you doing this? I’m getting out. For those of you left in, how can you call yourselves philosophers? This isn’t what philosophy’s about.”

“It’s going to fix itself because universities are going to become less important. People who are sophisticated users of the Internet will find ways to communicate which may not require them to be part of universities anymore. Established universities may be overtaken by publishers and other providers of resources and connections entering the world of distance education. What’s stopping people now is that they want a bit of paper at the end of it that says they’ve got a degree. Socrates didn’t issue degrees, but it would have been wonderful to have been taught by him. I think we’re entering a time of contact with interesting people. It’s difficult to imagine what’s going to happen, because things happen so quickly…If Philosophy Bites can make such an impact with two guys with a hard disk recorder and a couple of laptops, think what people who fully understand the new technology, who can write code, who can employ the best philosophical communicators around, think what they could produce. It’s only just starting. We’re going to see dramatic changes to how we learn, teach, do research and share ideas. I think philosophy’s future’s very bright.

Read the whole thing, it’s great.

I feel very at peace with my decision to make my way as a philosopher outside the academy. And I’m looking forward to starting my own philosophy podcast soon, Hammering Out Ethics, so be on the lookout for that. And if you don’t already listen to Nigel Warburton and David Edmonds’ Philosophy Bites you’re missing out.

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