Sunday, 11 April 2010

Philosophy and Public Reason

The majority of philosophers are employees of universities which ensures that their prime role, as such employees, is to act as official public servants who transmit an approved curriculum. It has been recognised, as long ago as Schopenhauer's famous essay on university philosophy, that there is something intrinsically paradoxical about this situation. Schopenhauer points out that the task of a philosopher is to think but the task of a teacher is not primarily to think or even, necessarily, to get their students to think, but rather to prepare students for assessment in regard to the approved curriculum, a task that might well involve something as unthinking as "drilling".

It is possible to be more optimistic than Schopenhauer concerning the possibility of the promotion of thinking through the teaching of philosophy whilst still recognising the point that there is something paradoxical about the role of such teaching. It is also paradoxical that the majority of philosophers should be engaged in such teaching when the activity of teaching is hardly, in and of itself, something that can help to progress enquiry in the discipline. There is, to put it bluntly, quite a different task for philosophers than this. The most general other task would be simply to do philosophy, that is, to write works that promote further philosophical reflection on the part of their readers. Within this general task of philosophizing should also fall the activity of engaging, in a general way, with public reason. Public reason is a broad arena, neither defined by teaching nor the university, nor by journalism or commentary or even by the activities of political activists. It should involve philosophers engaging more widely in public debate, seeking to clarify fundamental concepts in argument and enhancing general public engagement both with philosophy itself and with philosophical understanding of many matters, not least, matters moral and political. Rather than generally assuming the task of the philosopher is one that is mainly confined within the world of the university it would be very good if more would take it to be the point of philosophy to promote public engagement so that reasoning can be shown to be public and "the public" can be shaped by reason.

No comments: