Welcome to Five on Friday, a round-up of views on a theme. In this edition we look at whether philosophy is defendable in a society that values economic contribution. It’s often said that vocational education is for the hands while higher education is for the mind; can philosophy make friends with career outcomes?
Philosophy is a misunderstood discipline. Many people’s views are often caught up in stereotypes, perhaps the beardy musings of the Greeks Aristotle and Socrates, the red wine laden articulations of French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, or the elbow-patched academics that dawdle down university corridors.
But try to get a hold on philosophy and the discipline remains elusive—that’s kind of the point. So how can we evaluate the value of philosophy to education?
1. Philosophy ridiculed
Earlier this month Jamie Briggs, head of the Coalition's Scrutiny of Government Waste Committee, took out his magnifying glass to examine Australian Research Council (ARC) grants. It turns out Briggs is not a fan of philosophy, picking out two projects he thought were “ridiculous”.
But according to The Australian, Belinda Robinson, chief executive of Universities Australia, said there was no contest between a robust system of peer review and any superficial reading of project titles, on which Briggs seems to have made his decision.
Opportunities would be lost if we turned away from curiosity-driven research and its useful surprises, she noted. "If we followed this path, penicillin would never have been discovered, if Einstein hadn't been fiddling about, we wouldn't have had people on the moon.”
2. Philosophy defended
One of the researchers in question, Paul Redding, wrote an eloquent defence of philosophy as pure research as opposed to the ‘applied’ research of medical science, for example.
“Concepts are not the contents of so-called thought-bubbles. They are the hinges or links of reasoning processes. They describe those aspects of thought that enables it to make the right connections: connections with the rest of the world; with other thoughts; and with actions,” he wrote. Nicely put.
3. Knowledge industry
For all the hand wringing about Australia’s ‘brain drain’ did no one realise that a respect for intellectual capacity is the first step? Deakin University’s Patrick Stokes presented this argument on the New Philosopher website, wrapping philosophy around humanities in general:
“…funding a certain amount of basic, even speculative research shows that we are a society serious about knowledge itself, not simply about meeting our material needs. That is what the humanities do: they remind us we are human.”
Just to prove research isn’t just scientific, yo.
4. Philosophy questioned
In a society fixated on return on investment for research dollars, philosophy gets a bad rap. After all, it’s difficult to justify conceptual thinking over finding a cure for cancer. And yet the way we think about things is fundamental to all those other research activities. In other words, sometimes it’s not about answering the question, but asking the right question.
Stokes once again offers an explanation for what’s wrong with focusing on outcomes:
“According to these scientists [Lawrence Krauss, Stephen Hawking], philosophy and physics were chasing the same prize – an understanding of the ultimate nature of reality – and physics simply got there first.
Yet this misses the point of what philosophy does, and how it relates to and differs from other disciplines. “Is 2 to the power of 57,885,161 minus 1 a prime number?” or “Did Richard III murder the princes in the tower?” are questions for mathematics and history.
“What is a number?” or “Does the past exist?”, however, are not. It’s when these fundamental conceptual questions arise that the philosophical rubber hits the road.”
Which brings me to reconsider my title, ‘Is philosophy worth fighting for?’ Is that even the right question?
5. Personal philosophy
And then there’s this…
Have a great weekend!
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