In Defense of Academic Philosophy

July 15, 2014

Ten years ago, when I was Executive Director for Secular Humanism at the Center for Inquiry, I was also involved with classroom teaching on a regular basis, though I was not a full time "academic." Indeed, like many, I believed that academia was too cloistered, too uninvolved in matters of daily import, and prone to elitism (a charge you may think me guilty of as you read the following). Having now spent the past six years in full-time academia, let me now defend it and defend philosophy as an academic profession. I have changed the way I approach problems and issues due to the nature of academia, and my outlook has broadened in ways it did not, and perhaps could not, before I entered this world. Universities are among the great crucibles of the Enliightenment, and the scientific method and the institutions of professional academic humanities are partly responsible for much of our modern progress. This is no less true in Philosophy than in Physics.

Philosophy has suffered some public disparagement of late, even from prominent physicists. The term for what we do is often used with imprecision, and philosophers are only slightly less guilty than others for bringing upon ourselves some derision. What counts as philosophy should be carefully defined and maintained, and the nature of modern academia, with increasing pressures from various forces outside and within the academy threaten to alter how all research proceeds. Philosophy is the mother of all disciplines, and the unfortunate balkanisation of faculties and departments in modern universities produces a number of competitive and sometimes destructive pressures on everyone. But at their best, academic disciplines still move us forward in ways that public movements and other social forces outside the academy cannot. The nature of publication and peer review, flawed as they are, still provide impetus and screening of the best arguments and findings, and help us to separate the wheat from the chaff quite usefully even if not perfectly. Despite many problems with modern scientific and academic publishing, there is still no better way to ensure that thoughtful, logical, and well-founded discussion of ideas is produced and disseminated. In academic journals there is a level of argument that cannot be found in opinion pages or polemical books. Philosophical conferences and other formal fora also serve to provoke useful discussion, and sometimes germinate world-changing ideas. Exposing these ideas to the broader world is still a necessary and difficult challenge which academics still must perfect.

Basic science and fundamental investigation will not occur in the private domain. Polemics may be useful in public debate, but without the basic scientific research that only (so far) publicly-funded, university-based research encourages, the foundations for our public arguments would not be as trustworthy. The process of academic life and promotion also help to produce better philosophers despite the flaws of these institutions. My three year old daughter may have the most basic elements of a philosopher (she asks "why" constantly), but a formal philosophical education, grounded in a canon of literature, and supported by formal training in logic, can still best be gleaned by studying philosophy as a profession. Once studied, the practice of philosophy (or any academic profession) hones those basic skills as public life or practice cannot. Confronting peers similarly trained, engaging in debates via journals and conferences, testing and revising our arguments and notions, and at best broadening our range of interests and knowledge over time, turns fledgling philosophers into thinkers who can and do contribute in ways that would seem difficult (though perhaps still possible) outside this rigorous and well-travelled path.

Philosophy is surely something that almost anyone can do (to varying levels of competence) and everyone should study. But as with any field, expertise comes with practice, and the academy is (still) where the best get that practice. Philosophers should nonetheless be wary that if they isolate themselves from the world, do not engage in public debates, and fail to explain the nature of what they do to those who fund them, the public will be likely (even if not necessarily justifiably) be wary of their usefulness.