“Wanted: Non-Philosophers To Do Philosophy”

“Wanted: Non-Philosophers To Do Philosophy” July 13, 2009

The National Endowment for the Humanities is offering grants to academics outside of philosophy to develop courses on “enduring questions” that have long been the domain of philosophers and philosophy classes:

They make the dubious and ambiguous claim that these questions are “pre-disciplinary” because they are, supposedly “questions to which no discipline or field can lay an exclusive claim. In many cases they predate the formation of the academic disciplines themselves.”  But:

this remark, Bradley notes in his blog post, seems to ignore the very existence of philosophy. Though no subject can lay exclusive claim to these questions, he writes, the subject of ethics has long been focused on answering them.William Craig Rice, director education programs at NEH, said that using the word “pre-disciplinary” was meant to show that, “the idea of disciplines as self-contained experts is a new phenomenon,” that arose in Western cultures in the 19th century. He added that students in all realms of academe should have access to the study of enduring questions: “Whether it’s in chemistry or anthropology or pre-law, we hope to see students, regardless of major or concentration, engaging as equally as others.”

John Powell, professor of philosophy at Humboldt State University, stated in an e-mail that he sees the framing of the questions in the grant application as evidence that NEH is looking for professors to teach philosophy without the philosophical context.

“The questions are so clearly mostly old chestnut philosophy problems that they seem evidence that NEH staff don’t know what philosophy is,” he stated. “I take them as confirmation for my view that most people do philosophy without ever having it labeled as philosophy, so that one of my tasks in teaching is to let students know that philosophy is, in fact, familiar to them. We start with What is the Meaning of Life? which is probably a better version of [the application’s example question,] what is the good life?

But is this problem of underappreciation of philosophers the fault of the philosopher community itself?

In a study of multidisciplinary peer review panels, Michèle Lamont, professor and senior adviser on faculty development and diversity at Harvard, found similar patterns. Lamont wrote a book called How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment (Harvard University Press), in which she identified philosophy as “problem discipline” because it did not mesh well with other academic subjects. She wrote: “Several panelists express at least one of the following views: (1) philosophers live in a world apart from other humanists, (2) non-philosophers have problems evaluating philosophical work, and they are often perceived by philosophers as not qualified to do so, (3) philosophers do not explain the significance of their work, and (4) increasingly, what philosophers do is irrelevant, sterile, and self-indulgent.”

While I think this is likely true and I am personally a big proponent of philosophy popularization (which is one of the reasons I wholeheartedly embrace the blog as a medium for doing philosophy) and while I am a big believer in cross-disciplinary interaction that benefits from pooling together research from different areas to give us reintegrated and more fully informed accounts of reality, my problem is with this statement:

Rice emphasized that the point of the grant was not to pit one discipline against any other, but rather to transcend typical divisions in academia. “We are cultivating philosophers among non-philosophers,” he said.

The problem with this is the arrogant presumption that non-philosophers can do what philosophers do just as well, i.e. that without rigorous training in the particular discipline of philosophy which has developed thousands of years worth of conceptual resources one can just as well try one’s hand at doing philosophy on an academic level.  I am all for other disciplines engaging philosophical questions when they become relevant to their own field of inquiry.  Philosophers ourselves are constantly bumping into questions which are the provenance of other fields.  To do philosophy well, one needs to address the findings of psychology, biology, physics, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, etc.  And sometimes we may speculate about the meaning of empirical findings for philosophical questions or we might take literature as a resource for understanding a philosophical concept.

And it would be great if in psychology classes, psychologists referenced developed philosophical categories or if in science classes some of the philosophical work on the nature and methods of science was referenced or if in literature classes the philosophical questions raised in texts were explicitly made a topic of class discussion.  But that’s entirely different from asking these other members of the humanities to teach classes specifically on philosophical topics.  As a philosophy professor I am equipped to discuss psychology where it is relevant to philosophy, but I don’t presume to develop my own introduction to psychology class.  I can draw on the research on moral psychology for when I teach ethics from a normative perspective but that does not qualify me to teach a class that claims itself to be a psychology class on morality.  And so neither should psychologists presume to teach normative ethics classes.  It’s not their training, it’s not the subject of their research, and they don’t have the kind of familiarity with the historical and contemporary conceptual resources developed by the philosophical examinations of the subject.

The ideal that non-philosophers should engage philosophy is one I wholeheartedly support.  I want members of other disciplines to engage our resources and insights in the interpretation of the findings of their own work.  I don’t want philosophy trapped in an irrelevant ghetto with all of its rich distinctions ignored by members of other disciplines.  But I think it is presumptuous to claim that those who have not been trained in philosophical thinking or studied philosophical topics rigorously from philosophical perspectives are as qualified as philosophers to teach those subjects on the college level.  It’s rather insulting.

Margaret Atherton, from the comments section to the article quoted above, seems to agree with me and then to ask important follow up questions:

The quotation from William Craig Rice of NEH that I find most disturbing is “We are cultivating philosophy among non-philosophers.”  And the question that I have is, why?  It might be very valuable for example to cultivate an understanding and appreciation of natural science among non-natural scientists, but to encourage in non-natural scientists the belief that they are in fact practicing natural science does not seem like a good idea  Why is it important to get non-philosophers to do philosophy?  One possible reason, and one that would account for the NEH’s desire to encourage philosophy courses to be taught by non-philosophers is that they believe that philosophers are on the whole bad at doing and teaching philosophy.  If this is so, it would be good to know the basis for this belief, but would still leave unexplained why the NEH also supposes that non-philosophers would do a better job.

Thanks to Leiter Reports for drawing attention to this story.

See more of my thoughts on this topic in these follow up posts On The Goals of Introductory Philosophy Courses and On The Various Disciplines’ Resources For Engaging The Enduring Questions both of which reply to comments from one of my own graduate school professors.

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