A Philosopher And NEH Reviewer Weighs In

A Philosopher And NEH Reviewer Weighs In July 20, 2009

Last week, we had several posts (“Wanted: Non-Philosophers To Do Philosophy”, On The Goals Of Introductory Philosophy Courses, and On The Various Disciplines’ Resources For Engaging The Enduring Questions) discussing the NEH grant for novel courses on the “enduring questions” and what it said about perception of philosophy in the academy.  Brian Leiter draws attention to a comment from a philosopher who was on the NEH’s review panel and who thinks philosophers have reason to be “worried.”  Here was the stretch of his account and analysis that I found most helpful:

One applicant (unfortunately not a winner) proposed having her students spend the semester studying a single play (along with other texts) and then learning more about the characters and their motivations and interactions by having the class culminate with their own performance of the play. Maybe this sounds gimmicky to some of you, but plenty of serious moral philosophers are worried about the dominance of abstraction and general moral theories in philosophical ethics, and counsel engagement with the particulars.This is one interesting way to grapple with the particulars. In any event, I don’t remember hearing much about this kind of activity in the typical philosophy course. And if this doesn’t appeal to you, there were other good ideas, such as in the truly excellent (yet, alas, non-winning) proposal for a course team-taught by an English professor and a biology professor on the question of what is human nature. Some of the proposals whose content fit the more traditional introductory ethics or philosophy course seemed detached and sterile by comparison. To sum up this first point, many of the enduring questions concern how to make sense of some aspect of life. One way to start this inquiry is to become familiar with said aspect. This stage of the inquiry need not be philosophically sophisticated to be valuable. To the extent that philosophers hold fast to the view that only they are qualified to teach courses centered around good lives, wisdom, human nature, war, religion, freedom, happiness, etc., I am concerned that we do not understand how ignorance about life and its varieties can render philosophical inquiry empty or baffling to the typical undergraduate, nor how other disciplines might contribute to philosophical learning.

That said–and this takes us to the second point–there is a limit to how much progress one can make on these questions without some kind of philosophical expertise. And while I reviewed some excellent proposals by philosophers who were grant winners (such as Mike Austin’s, mentioned upthread), some good philosophical applications were overlooked. Even worse, there are signs that people at the NEH are indeed ignorant of what philosophers do, and dismissive of the idea of philosophical expertise. One application listed several of the classic questions of moral philosophy and then proceeded to complain that too few philosophers address these questions. The applicant is obviously highly ignorant of contemporary moral philosophy, his application flaunted this, and yet he is one of the award winners. Seeing something like that is infuriating. Even more worrisome than the NEH’s carelessness about philosophy is the ignorance displayed by some of our colleagues in other departments. Many of the proposals by non-philosophers took up the more philosophical questions.

Yet in aspects of their applications, from the stating of the course’s core questions and assumptions to the listing of the bibliographies, often I found myself frustrated at the absence of basic and helpful philosophical distinctions and the absence of classic and directly relevant philosophical texts. I only had a small sample size to work with, but the impression I got was that the view that “anyone can do philosophy well” is common in academia.

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