Saturday, 2 January 2010

Reflections on Philosophy

I was prompted today to think about philosophy in a general way, partly after browse reading the latest issue of the Times Literary Supplement. There wasn't anything specific in this issue that struck me as stating anything concerning philosophy in particular though there is the perennial suggestion in the periodical that there is something basically wrong with contemporary academic prose. This general attitude is one that always strikes me as odd from standard newspaper columnists and reviewers who are themselves rarely especially good writers and this was one of the sources of this posting, the consideration of philosophy as a mode of writing and specifically as a mode of academic writing. Connected to this question was a general one about the notion of philosophy as an academic discipline and its relation to the university. Finally, I have been thinking, on and off, for some days about the specific nature of practical philosophy and its relationship to political considerations in a more general sense. So this posting is going to provide some reflections on each of these topics.

Starting with the state of philosophy as a form of academic writing, I am struck here by the way in which academic writing generally has fallen into disrepute in the broader culture. I don't think is a phenomena specific to the UK, since general coverage of academia in the US also appears to bear it out. It may be, though I doubt it, that this phenomena has no wider resonance. The reasons for the disrepute into which academic writing appears to have fallen are due not to some general cause such as the alleged "decline of deference" but more, I think, due to the sense that such writing is, in its specialized character, often devoid of clear insight to those outside its specific mode of address. In other words, academic writing is deemed generally to be remote from general concerns and at risk of irrelevance. This generic verdict appears to bear heaviest on humanities and social science works since the natural sciences are thought to bear within themselves the means of their own application. This contrast is problematic in many respects, not least in that it remains true that scientific research, scientific theories and the possibilities of application of scientific results all call for skills that are not, to put it mildly, exclusively learned within the sciences themselves.

Leaving such caveats aside the general sense that the social sciences and humanities have "gone astray" is certainly due to a difficulty with their mode of address compared to the general culture's demand for accessibility and a clear form of "relevance". Applied to philosophy in particular this general temper cuts as much against analytical philosophy with its patient attention to very specific claims as it does against European philosophy with its alleged "obscurity". Effectively it cuts against philosophical reflection that does not concern itself directly with questions of "application" although anyone who reads works of social, moral or political philosophy might well feel that even these areas are not ready for any simple model of "application". So it might well be that academic philosophy as such is written in a way that does not match contemporary demands (and this may indeed be part of what fuels the demand for "impact assessment").

Once the challenge is put on this level it becomes a question about the place of philosophy within the university and a problem about how the university shapes philosophy in a way that renders it not evidently "relevant". Put like this the challenge to academic philosophy has antecedents within the history of philosophy itself, in, for example, Schopenhauer's attack on university philosophy. Schopenhauer was certainly not an advocate of a clear model of applicability of philosophy though he does relentlessly pose as a champion of clarity in the same dubious way later philosophers often have done. The real charge Schopenhauer made however was that philosophy had failed in a way due to its assimilation to the university. The problem with such assimilation is that the university is really the home of bureaucrats who are acting on behalf of the state. In making this charge, however, Schopenhauer is attacking philosophy for attempting to present itself at the service of the state's general view of the common good whilst contemporary charges seem to be of the reverse order, namely, that it is precisely not concerned with the general problems that have been identified as of great concern by politicians!

How is that philosophy can be attacked in two such divergent ways and what is really at issue in its relationship with the university? Schopenhauer is right that the place of philosophy in the university is one that is uncomfortable and does leave it susceptible to being requested to proceed in a manner and a style that arise externally to it. This much is something that is evident both from Schopenhauer's attacks on university philosophy and from the present trends to request philosophy submit to a mode of accounting that has itself arisen from models that have not been subjected to philosophical questioning. If the problem is thus one in which philosophers as recipients of public funding can be called to account by those who disburse such funding does this lead to the conclusion that the culture would be better served if philosophy was not, as an endeavour, so completely assimilated to the university?

In one respect this seems the right answer and surely if a multiplicity of forms of philosophical practice would arise then this would be a good thing. There have been, in some respects, for some time, moves in this direction. There is, for example, the model of philosophical counselling, in which philosophy is turned to as a guide for life which acts as an alternative to psychology, which even has its own society of practitioners. Similarly, there are philosophical ventures such as the attempt to address a broad general public by such medium as the Philosopher's Magazine and the proliferation of philosophy webcasts, podcasts and, indeed, blogs!

Such general proliferation of modes of address does, to an extent, succeed in freeing the practice of philosophy from the models of writing demanded by academic publishers and journals and does, to some degree, inaugurate a practice that is not solely determined by the needs of research exercises on the one hand or the direct needs of pedagogy on the other. So, to an extent, philosophers have been responding to the fix that the relationship between academic conditions and a general culture that operates in a manner apparently antithetical to its mode of operation appears to have created. However, whilst this is a matter for some interest and a certain amount of applause there is still the problem that philosophical writing, should it be of any sustained and serious kind, does require a pace and mode of operation that does not readily fit modern media or its demands.

Moving on from this point I'd like to look next at the particular situation of practical philosophy, philosophy, that is, that is concerned with social, political and ethical matters. Such a mode of philosophy is one to which there would appear good reason to request insight into matters of general relevance and hence such philosophy should help to orient judgment in relation to, for example, international affairs and the structure of institutions. Again there is much that points in this direction. The explosion of interest in practical ethics and professional ethics is a case in point. The former engages with clear matters of contemporary concerns including the environment, the status of animals and life/death issues that have been given extra sharpness by contemporary technology. The latter, by contrast, concerns itself with medical practice, business ethics and questions that arise in specific professional settings, again addressing matters of evident import.

There is still lacking, however, a generic framework for practical philosophy such that the move from tackling such evidently philosophical questions as the relationship between the right and the good or the status of formalism in ethics to the nature of human rights and the implementation of policies that have some claim to be just often appears somewhat tenuous. Perhaps the sharpening of such connections and the formulation of ways to bring them together would be one activity that philosophers in general could adopt as a project of some importance for the future.

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