There have been numerous pieces on the Guardian’s Comment is Free (CiF) about the Middlesex philosophy closure, usually protesting it on the basis of the department’s research excellence. Below the line, though, some commenters have questioned the very purpose of philosophy: particularly of the continental variety. Surely as resources are squeezed by recession, their argument goes, such a decadent subject, contributing so little to the economy and practical skills has a hard time justifying its existence? Some even suggested that philosophy is something that should just be done in one’s spare time, and does not warrant either a teaching post, or years of full-time commitment to study.
There seem to be a number of naïve assumptions underwriting these suggestions. The first reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my undergraduate students after our last seminar of the term. A few pints in, he asked, like many of them tend to, ‘why do you only want to teach?’ I explained that teaching a related subject in a university is one of the few ways you can have both the mental space and a sliver of free time available to attempt to make philosophical breakthroughs. He had different plans though: he was going to be CEO of a company, and write landmark philosophy books—like a Cicero figure, of sorts. I wished him good luck; but in the full knowledge that nowadays with tens of thousands of philosophers working full time in their fields, the idea is fanciful that anyone can engage at that level of thought in their spare time. It is simply incredulous that we can return to the days when Enlightenment gentlemen wrote treatises in their spare time; and headed to the salons at nighttime to discuss them. All those that engage with contemporary philosophy will know that like most else in the modern world philosophy is not immune to the increasing specialization, division of labour, and depth of knowledge required to produce new knowledge in the field—precluding any retreat to an amateur approach. Like most other professionalized fields, that is, it requires institutional support for its intellectual labour.
There are what are in classical economics are called ‘externalities’. These are effects produced by the operation of the market that are not internalized within the market itself—like the costs of pollution, for instance. However, things sometimes work the other way. Production unsupported by the market that the market gains from quite unilaterally, without bearing the cost of it. Recently I was invited into a major publisher’s office to discuss their new philosophy line. They had done the research; in the marketplace philosophy is thriving. So there is obviously a large demand for these works. But for anyone who knows much about publishing it will not come as a shock to learn that for the authors there is little more than pocket money in royalties produced for all but a handful of authors like J.K.Rowling. It is thus the case the institutional support of universities permits the supply of such rich philosophical works available to the general public at a cheap price. If philosophers were, god forbid, forced to try and make a living from the royalties of their books, the whole system would be unsustainable at anything less than something like £500 a pop! The point being that even to for people to study philosophy in their spare time—at least to the standard available from any inner city bookstore at a reasonable price—it is precisely only institutional support which enables that in the first place.
This leads into the second accusation: the idea that there is no need for philosophy in the first place. Science allows us to build computers, bridges and put rovers on Mars, what can philosophy claim to contribute? Isn’t it all just a bit of a waste of time? But really this is a gross abstraction from the real world. Few would deny that there is a persistent human tendency towards asking the ultimate questions. Questioning the cosmic, existential and greatest social-political questions has hardly withering away with capitalist modernity. In this sense I see philosophy, particularly of the continental variety, as serving principally the continuation of the Enlightenment project. This can be seen, most instrumentally, in drawing out the meaning of the multiple scientific and mathematical discoveries of the last three or four centuries. Alone science permits great technical advance, and yet this is not enough to render these insights meaningful for people’s everyday lives. In the other sense, I also see philosophy as filling in the hole left by the vacation of religion. Philosophy as a secular project seeks to understand what previously was attributed to divine causes. In my opinion it is the case that if philosophy withers, religion can return with vengeance. Cut philosophy, get theology.
Indeed, under New Labour we have seen the introduction of faith based schools, and whilst I don’t (as yet) have the figures to back it up my gut instinct is that whilst philsophy departments have been consistently under threat, theology departments have done rather well. The Arts and Humanities Council, for instance, has a huge Religion and Society program underway. They also recently finished a large project on recovering all of Isaac Newton’s theological writings. In the last ten years theology has, through a combination of intellectual fashion and, I suspect, a well financed revenue stream made great inroads into philosophy itself. It is increasingly expected that philosophers be familiar with the arcane metaphysics of St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotas. So, the predictable Marxist that I am, I would argue that we need to defend philosophy precisely because it serves to keep religion and theology at bay.
This argument and others can be debated at the ICA event: ‘Who’s Afraid of Philosophy’.