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Budgetary Hemlock
April 7, 2011 2:20 PM   Subscribe

How can you have a university without a philosophy department? In response to a 17% budget cut to higher education by Governor Sandoval, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas is proposing the complete elimination of its Philosophy Department. The Mayor of Las Vegas has called it a sin. Others have said it seems like something out of an episode of The Simpsons. Todd Edwin Jones, chair of the UNLV Philosophy Department, makes his case.
posted by Lutoslawski (159 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Really? When they could have just gotten rid of Sociology instead?
posted by signalnine at 2:27 PM on April 7, 2011 [10 favorites]


Their sports program operates at a 1.3 million dollar deficit.
posted by empath at 2:30 PM on April 7, 2011 [29 favorites]


The post is somewhat out of date: UNLV will may not be axed.
posted by Jahaza at 2:33 PM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


> Really? When they could have just gotten rid of Sociology instead?I'd have picked Leisure Studies.
posted by Wash Jones at 2:33 PM on April 7, 2011


When they could have just gotten rid of Sociology instead?

Hah! The new plan calls for terminating all untenured faculty in Philosophy, but adds untentured faculty in sociology and anthropology.
posted by Jahaza at 2:34 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. ~ Mark Twain
posted by mullingitover at 2:35 PM on April 7, 2011 [56 favorites]


Do Vroomfondel and Majikthise know about this?
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:36 PM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


All they need is a sweet endowment like the Harrah's Hotel Management School or the Howard Hughes Engineering School and they'd be OK. The Wayne Newton College of Philosophy sounds nice.
posted by birdherder at 2:36 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I only took one philosophy class but it was invaluable. I still use so much of what I learned there. It changed my understanding of religion and enhanced my ability to reason and make arguments. It's hard to count all the ways that one class still informs my perspective.
posted by Danila at 2:37 PM on April 7, 2011 [5 favorites]


> I'd have picked Leisure Studies.

Hey, the "student" athletes have to major in something
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:38 PM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


They're getting rid of Women's Studies and Social Work too, along with Construction Management. Sounds like they're in real trouble.
posted by demiurge at 2:39 PM on April 7, 2011


Same way you can have an economy without a middle class.
posted by vorpal bunny at 2:40 PM on April 7, 2011 [22 favorites]


“I'm not one of those complicated, mixed-up cats. I'm not looking for the secret to life.... I just go on from day to day, taking what comes.”

-Frank of Patterson.
posted by clavdivs at 2:42 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. ~ Mark Twain

Yes, our nation's prisons are full of people who turned to a life of crime primarily because they were unable to get a Philosophy degree.

On the other hand, our nation's law firms are full of people who turned to law school primarily because it's the only thing they could think of to do with their Philosophy degree.

It's a double-edged sword, you see. Two edges. One sword.
posted by The World Famous at 2:42 PM on April 7, 2011 [21 favorites]


The Women's Research Institute of Nevada also looks to be on the block. This oral history project of theirs looks cool, though it obviously suffers from a lack of funding.
posted by Iridic at 2:45 PM on April 7, 2011


> I only took one philosophy class but it was invaluable. I still use so much of what I learned there. It changed my understanding of religion and enhanced my ability to reason and make arguments. It's hard to count all the ways that one class still informs my perspective.

Well, you see, critical thinking skills like those only lead to critical thoughts, and the less of those we have, the better.

/ HAMBURGER
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:45 PM on April 7, 2011 [3 favorites]



On the other hand, our nation's law firms are full of people who turned to law school primarily because it's the only thing they could think of to do with their Philosophy degree.


No one said majoring in philosophy makes you imaginative. Or law school your only recourse.
posted by liketitanic at 2:46 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Really? When they could have just gotten rid of Sociology instead?

Heh. I was at Washington Univ. in St. Louis in the late '80s when they axed the sociology dept. (among much outcry and protest). In response, the university issued some press release that said something to the effect that "we are confident that the university will continue to uphold the academic excellence something something 'Harvard of the Midwest'." To which a certain university in Cambridge, MA, tersely replied: "Harvard has a sociology department."
posted by scody at 2:46 PM on April 7, 2011 [27 favorites]


There's something poetic, in a Weltschmerz sort of way, about the philosophy department going down amidst all of that money being lost and won by chance.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:48 PM on April 7, 2011


Their sports program operates at a 1.3 million dollar deficit.

Whaaaa???? You mean I've been lied to by everyone who argues that college sports programs are self-sustaining? Nah. Can't be.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:48 PM on April 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


Look, if you just want a trade school, you don't need a philosophy department.
posted by orthogonality at 2:51 PM on April 7, 2011 [10 favorites]


I am familiar with the appeal to the argument that philosophy helps teach critical thinking skills, having read and heard variations on this argument many times, and I understand the obvious reasons one turns to this argument whenever the discipline of philosophy is charged with uselessness--yet part of me also dislikes this constant (and very American) need to justify every humanistic pursuit through the lens of maximum utility. Surely we can argue that the potential utility of philosophy as practice is only part of its value, and that there are other reasons (such as renewed humility in the face of the limits and excesses of our reason) why philosophy might be worth pursuing.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 2:51 PM on April 7, 2011 [10 favorites]


This means eventually we'll have to outsource all our philosophizing to China.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 2:57 PM on April 7, 2011 [16 favorites]


Their sports program operates at a 1.3 million dollar deficit.

A world where universities don't have any 'official' sports programs would be a very interesting thing to see.
posted by reductiondesign at 2:59 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just for some context, Nevada has the largest budget deficit by percentage of any state in the country. Nevada's unemployment is significantly higher than the rest of the country because they were hit extremely hard by the foreclosure crisis. Frankly, I'm surprised that we haven't been hearing more of these horror stories coming from Nevada.
posted by Weebot at 3:00 PM on April 7, 2011


Their sports program operates at a 1.3 million dollar deficit.

Was the philosophy department making a profit?
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 3:00 PM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Philosophy students score the highest on the standardized test for law school

My googling suggests physics, math and economics tend to beat it out, but point taken. The philosopher in the good professor him might, however, consider whether the US at least really needs more lawyers.

part of me also dislikes this constant (and very American) need to justify every humanistic pursuit through the lens of maximum utility.

Absolutely. But given what colleges charge these days....
posted by IndigoJones at 3:01 PM on April 7, 2011


Was the philosophy department making a profit?

No, but religious studies turned a prophet.
posted by perhapses at 3:02 PM on April 7, 2011 [16 favorites]


Look, if you just want a trade school, you don't need a philosophy department.

I don't want to deride UNLV too much, but I know where this is coming from. UNLV has a bunch of majors that seem more trade-oriented than not. I mean, a university that offers a degree in Hotel Management? I guess that makes sense in Las Vegas, though.

Then again, I think it would be awesome for a big non-profit university to have a hardcore Bachelor of Arts program in culinary arts, focusing on some sort of high-level food theory. History! Anthropology! Linguistics! Chemistry! Literature! Economics! All rolled into a delicious, tasty degree. Oh, and my fantastical degree comes with a minor in Alcohol.
posted by jabberjaw at 3:04 PM on April 7, 2011


The Emperor of Ice Cream, I think the "improves critical-thinking" claim is a proxy for demonstrable market value. So long as the latter is the bottom line, I don't see how we can ever get away from that or similar justifications for keeping philosophy departments around.
posted by treepour at 3:04 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


these horror stories coming from Nevada

Well Nevada has been gambling on the illusion of infinite exponential growth for some time, and is as such merely a harbinger for America as a whole; perhaps they could teach the Philosophy of Casinos as Metaphor for The American Economy, or the
Philosophy of Housing Bubbles: the Role of Chance in History, Speculation and Greed.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 3:06 PM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Emperor of Ice Cream: "Surely we can argue that the potential utility of philosophy as practice is only part of its value, and that there are other reasons (such as renewed humility in the face of the limits and excesses of our reason) why philosophy might be worth pursuing."

So humility doesn't have utility?
posted by pwnguin at 3:06 PM on April 7, 2011


So humility doesn't have utility?

It may, but it's not obviously or necessarily the case that a renewed sense of humility is helpful (in terms of showing results) to a functioning society, at least not in the same way that "critical thinking skills" might be; after all, one underlying appeal in "critical thinking skills" is economic, given the "information" economy, etc. And there are many people (re: Ayn Randians) who think society (as they imagine it) thrives on competition and greed, not on humility or introspection.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 3:11 PM on April 7, 2011


This smacks of "Washington Monument Syndrome".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:12 PM on April 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


Their sports program operates at a 1.3 million dollar deficit.
Was the philosophy department making a profit?


They would have been doing quite a lot of undergraduate teaching while having rather low operating expenses as compared against other departments. It's conceivable that they could have been above break-even.


part of me also dislikes this constant (and very American) need to justify every humanistic pursuit through the lens of maximum utility.

See, that's why you need philosophy departments. We are the only thing standing between you and the unburied corpse of Jeremy Bentham.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:13 PM on April 7, 2011 [8 favorites]


The Mayor of Las Vegas has called it a sin.

Dude... you're the Mayor of Sin City.
posted by delmoi at 3:15 PM on April 7, 2011 [5 favorites]


I dunno, I took a bunch of philosophy classes and all it taught me was how to be annoying at parties.
posted by ghharr at 3:16 PM on April 7, 2011 [7 favorites]


I don't see how we can ever get away from that or similar justifications for keeping philosophy departments around

I agree; my point was merely to lament the form of reductive simplification such arguments must take. One does not expect to argue for keeping philosophy departments by appeal to such books as Pieper's Leisure: The Basis Of Culture, Russell's In Praise of Idleness, or Illich's The Right to Useful Unemployment.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 3:19 PM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


My googling suggests physics, math and economics tend to beat it out, but point taken. The philosopher in the good professor him might, however, consider whether the US at least really needs more lawyers.
My friend just got law license.... aaaand he's making like $29k, with a shitload of debt.
posted by delmoi at 3:20 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


My friend just got law license.... aaaand he's making like $29k, with a shitload of debt.

The sad part is that, given the state of the legal job market, he's one of the lucky ones.
posted by The World Famous at 3:22 PM on April 7, 2011


The philosophy department is probably the best equipped to handle existential angst.
posted by storybored at 3:23 PM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


I would google a pithy quote from a dead philosopher about this situation but I am too tired from teaching philosophy as a non-tenure track lecturer to curious undergrads all day to even bother:

.
posted by joe lisboa at 3:26 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


While it is true that there are many subjects such as philosophy which you can major in and try for law to make a living, there are now many lawyers who are unable to find jobs in a field they thought would lead to lucrative careers. (see comment above this one)

You do not have to major in a subject, in this case philosophy, and can still find a course or two worthwhile for a good education.

Many states, if not all, face money problems. Many schools will cut programs and teachers. But there are perhaps creative ways to deal with some of these issues, though here is not the place to go into them. But, for example, if you take any state at random, and ask how many colleges there are that all offer a major in a subject, you will find a massive duplication. Why not cut programs at schools A,B,C,D and tell those juniors who want to major in Program X, to transfer to college E, where the program is offered. This of course confronts the public and/or private school issue, but state colleges proliferate and duplicate programs.
posted by Postroad at 3:30 PM on April 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


But that's so measured and pragmatic and doesn't give us an opportunity to demonize anyone!
posted by John Cohen at 3:32 PM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yes, our nation's prisons are full of people who turned to a life of crime primarily because they were unable to get a Philosophy degree.

I know you were making a snarky quip, but our nation's prisons are full of people who turned to a life of crime in part because they were told in words and deeds that education doesn't matter, or that the only way they could get anywhere in life was to use their sports ability, etc. They had the pleasure of going to shitty schools where they could look around at their crappy surroundings every day and see the evidence that no one gave a shit about them (unless they were good on the field or the court).

Awesome, right?

One of my closest friends was a Phil major; she is now a nurse practitioner. For what it's worth.
posted by rtha at 3:44 PM on April 7, 2011 [11 favorites]


Gotta say that I don't see the point of university philosophy departments. And I was an English major, so i know from useless.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 3:46 PM on April 7, 2011


I'm a student at University of Nevada Reno, we're going under the same budget cuts. The schools have to prioritize, and the colleges of science and engineering are far above the college of liberal arts not only in grant money brought to the University, but importance of study. Simply put if you have to choose between Philosophy or Chemistry, a university would be foolish to choose Plato over Pauling.
posted by karmiolz at 3:50 PM on April 7, 2011


Re: argument over relative merits of sports programs and philosophy deparments.

Solved.
posted by logicpunk at 3:52 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Gotta say that I don't see the point of university philosophy departments.

They teach university students about philosophy.

Why did you major in English?
posted by twirlip at 3:57 PM on April 7, 2011 [10 favorites]


Thorzdad writes "Whaaaa???? You mean I've been lied to by everyone who argues that college sports programs are self-sustaining? Nah. Can't be."

Isn't football and for a few schools basketball the only sports programs that make money?
posted by Mitheral at 3:58 PM on April 7, 2011


This means eventually we'll have to outsource all our philosophizing to China.

You joke, but Han Fei would probably go over pretty well with our ruling elites.
posted by Naberius at 4:00 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Chocolate Pickle writes "This smacks of 'Washington Monument Syndrome'."

Pretty mild case. If they wanted to do that they'd cancel a hard science, engineering or english department.
posted by Mitheral at 4:00 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Isn't football and for a few schools basketball the only sports programs that make money?

Where I am at the University of Texas, my understanding is that even the football program operates at a loss. The idea that it's a money-maker is based on the (untested) belief that it drives up alumni donations.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:10 PM on April 7, 2011


This was inevitable...at least to the hard determinists.
posted by rocket88 at 4:11 PM on April 7, 2011 [12 favorites]


The stoics are OK with it, though.
posted by rocket88 at 4:12 PM on April 7, 2011 [13 favorites]


You can teach pretty much everything useful about philosophy in one or two high school classes. Once you get into upper-level academic philosophy, it just starts to get stupid and insular and wanky.
posted by tehloki at 4:26 PM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


> drop philosophy department

You drop the philosophy department.

> l

You see:

- no philosophy department


>get no philosophy department

Taken.

>i

You have:

- no philosophy department


> x no philosophy department

It is all forms and no form.

> listen no philosophy department

It sounds like one hand clapping.

> smell no philosophy department

It smells like herrings. Or Søren Kierkegaard. Maybe a bit of both.

posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:28 PM on April 7, 2011 [25 favorites]


I could see getting rid of the philosophy major but I cannot conceive of a college worthy of the name without at least a few courses in it. For that matter I have only taken one philosophy class in my entire life (metaphysics, at NC State) and it's actually one of the few classes I took there that has been useful in my later life and studies.


I believe there should be more people in trade schools and fewer in liberal arts colleges but darn it, if you are going to be a college BE a college.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:32 PM on April 7, 2011 [6 favorites]


I once worked at a university (RMIT) without a philosophy department for a few years. Granted, it had started as a technical school, and was largely a vocational university, teaching things like computer science and design, but it was legally a university and offered undergraduate and postgraduate degrees as one. Mind you, a university with a philosophy department was five minutes away by tram.
posted by acb at 4:32 PM on April 7, 2011


Mitheral, that was one tactic last year, when substantial cuts were also made. The initial proposal to eliminate the philosophy department was made in a plan that sketched out the impact of making only 60% of the cuts proposed by the governor's budget. A new report that details the full amount requested has just been released. There has been some discussion about whether consolidating some of the campuses in the Nevada system will generate substantial savings.

Some proposed cuts that rely on eliminating positions held by tenured faculty can be made only if UNLV declares financial exigency. Since 2008, UNLV has already cut administrative costs and faculty and staff salaries, eliminated low-yield degree programs, increased faculty teaching loads, furloughed staff, and increased student tuition and fees.
posted by zepheria at 4:34 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Let's just move to the five minute university system and be done with it already.
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:39 PM on April 7, 2011


The point of different departments in universities at the undergraduate level is to teach undergraduates different ways of thinking. That is to discipline thinking to a particular method and standard of reasoning and evidence (this may be while they're called disciplines, I suppose). The point of teaching undergraduates to think and reason in particular ways, even if those particular ways don't end up being applied day in and day out in the workplace, is to teach that thinking CAN and SHOULD be disicplined. That there are different systematic ways of looking at the world and evaluating evidence and that "hurf durf, it seems to me..." is not one of them, or at least not one worth taking seriously.

So, given this, I say if you have to cut a whole department, cut something interdisciplinary. They aren't teaching ways of thinking, they're just thinking about a particular thing. You want to think about that thing? Go learn a way of thinking and think about it. That is NOT to say that I don't our understanding of X is improved when you take a bunch of people who think different ways and have them think about topic X. It probably is. But before you can do that, you need a bunch of people who can think in different rigorous ways.

oh, and of course this learning a disciplined way of thinking is the purpose at the undergraduate level. At the facult, graduate student, university and to some extent national/international level, the purpose of departments is to advance human knowledge and understanding. I'm not a philosopher, but perhaps we can agree that our civilization and others' are better for their philosophical traditions, and there's no reason to suppose that only people who lived hundreds of years ago could advance knowledge and understanding and how we know everything so we don't need to do it anymore.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 4:41 PM on April 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


karmiolz: "The schools have to prioritize, and the colleges of science and engineering are far above the college of liberal arts not only in grant money brought to the University, but importance of study."

Seriously?
posted by autoclavicle at 4:41 PM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yes, seriously. Tell me why that is not the case. Why medicine, science, and technology do not rank above the arts in importance.
posted by karmiolz at 4:45 PM on April 7, 2011


You can teach pretty much everything useful about philosophy in one or two high school classes. Once you get into upper-level academic philosophy, it just starts to get stupid and insular and wanky.

I don't agree with this, but how many Americans study philosophy in high school? (I genuinely have no idea)
posted by atrazine at 4:46 PM on April 7, 2011


Seriously?
posted by autoclavicle

Yes, seriously.
posted by karmiolz


Please don't.

Maybe further stick measuring isn't useful, but not all philosophizing is created equal. Does anyone have figures on how UNLV's Phil Dept compared not with other UNLV programs, but with other US Phil Depts?
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 4:47 PM on April 7, 2011


oh cute, karmiolz is asking us to prove a negative

if only there were some course of study that might have taught him the problem with proving negatives
posted by LogicalDash at 4:48 PM on April 7, 2011 [22 favorites]


LogicalDash you are correct, my phrasing led to a ludicrous and request. Tell me why the arts matter more than the sciences.
posted by karmiolz at 4:51 PM on April 7, 2011


oh cute, karmiolz is asking us to prove a negative

if only there were some course of study that might have taught him the problem with proving negatives
Is that really what they teach in philosophy school? Because his challenge to you can be trivially rephrased into asking you to prove an equivalent positive.
posted by Flunkie at 4:53 PM on April 7, 2011


I don't think anyone argued that the arts matter more than science, karmiotz, but it's worth pointing out that empiricism, the basis of science is an epistemological philosophy, developed by philosophers before it became the basis of modern science.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 4:54 PM on April 7, 2011 [11 favorites]


The straw man/false dichotomy/whatever of some fundamental opposition between the humanities and sciences is one of the more ridiculous and tragic consequences of the profit-driven way American universities are run now. Why the hell should any academic institution ever have to choose between the two? So the administrators can take home bigger paychecks or build some state-of-the-art cafeteria?
posted by oinopaponton at 4:56 PM on April 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


You can teach pretty much everything useful about philosophy in one or two high school classes. Once you get into upper-level academic philosophy, it just starts to get stupid and insular and wanky.

Some parts of philosophy can be taught in one or two high school classes. Other parts of philosophy are stupid and insular and wanky. Almost everything that's really interesting and worthwhile about philosophy belongs to the vast expanse between those two extremes.
posted by twirlip at 4:56 PM on April 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


This isn't about UNLV randomly cutting their Philosophy Department, it's about them choosing to sacrifice that department in an effort to support others. Oinopaponton is correct that it's a false dichotomy and the arts and sciences need not be enemies, especially when they can compliment each other.
posted by karmiolz at 4:59 PM on April 7, 2011


Philosophy is so broad that it hardly even qualifies as a field. Getting a degree in "philosophy" would be sort of like getting a degree in "science" or "business". You need to get a great deal more specific before you get to something you can actually study.

Philosophy includes, among other things: ethics, logic, ontology ("what do we really know?"), epistemology ("how do we know it?"), and there are philosophical branches of pretty much every practical discipline--for instance, "philosophers of science" are responsible for telling us why the scientific method works, what exactly we can conclude based on our scientific evidence, and how to go about devising new experimental techniques.

This really shouldn't be news, I picked it all up from Wikipedia and friends.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:02 PM on April 7, 2011


karmiolz -

I'd like to point out that you have not offered any argument thus far for why the sciences are more important than the arts. But I don't mind going first.

Neither is more important than the other. To try to rank essential human pursuits (and yes, both are essential) is ludicrous. Art is essential to human nature. What are the oldest records of human activity : tool making (technology), idol carving (art), cave painting (art), ceramic creations (technology and art).

I will begin with your implied instrumentalist point of view (that the sciences bring in more grant money to universities) : did more people buy Zunes or iPods? Did more people buy Androids or iPhones? Which products cost more? Do automakers only make the Toyota Camry or is there also a Ford Mustang? Design (it's one of the arts, by the way) is a critical part of all products. Design sells. People buy things because of design/art/aesthetics.

Science itself has a philosophy, if you'd like to focus in on philosophy as one of the arts. Google Tuskeegee Syphillis Experiment to see an example of science unfettered by philosophy (or arguably US atomic testing in the 50s).

Lastly, I'll leave you with my most cryptic observation - is love a medicine? Is love a science? Is love a technology? Is love an art? Is love a philosophy?

- Philosophy BA, Art/Design MFA, Design Prof
posted by dirtmonster at 5:03 PM on April 7, 2011 [5 favorites]


Yes, seriously. Tell me why that is not the case. Why medicine, science, and technology do not rank above the arts in importance.

Medicine, science, and technology all benefit from the work of philosophers, especially when it comes to questions of ethics. Philosophy has been immensely valuable to western culture. Nearly all of the "useful" disciplines either descended from philosophy or have benefited immensely from the work of philosophers.
posted by Hylas at 5:06 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was under the impression that science, which let us not forget has been for most of history undistinguished from philosophy (Metaphysics was coined by the librarians of Alexandria, who, when cataloging the works of Aristotle, didn't know what to call the book that came after his 'Physics,' for it was unnamed, and so they called it 'Metaphysics,' literally 'that which comes after the Physics'), pretty much owes its entire methodology and ability to have truth value to philosophy and philosophers.

But if you're actually asking why the arts are 'better' than the sciences, 1) you'll never know, 2) you've clearly never taken a philosophy class, for if you did you'd have reasoned that this is a very ill-formed question and utterly absurd, like asking whether sex or eating is better, for how (and indeed why) would anyone try to compare such things, 3) what could you possibly mean by 'matter' (utility? elegance? economy? what?), 4) the arts and sciences have only everything to do with one another, and 5) don't. Stop now.
posted by Lutoslawski at 5:07 PM on April 7, 2011 [8 favorites]


dirtmonster-

People will still draw, design, paint, write and create all manner of art without University instruction. How many engineers will we produce without formal education, how many physicists? I agree that art is essential, but treating it the way we do in our culture is a luxury.
posted by karmiolz at 5:07 PM on April 7, 2011


I agree that art is essential, but treating it the way we do in our culture is a luxury.
You contradict yourself.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:09 PM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


How many engineers will we produce without formal education?

Quite a few, as it turns out! Their bridges may not be quite as sturdy, however. Likewise, people who act on any subject informed by philosophy— as we all do every day— can benefit from knowing a little about philosophy.

I agree that art is essential, but treating it the way we do in our culture is a luxury.

In the sense that not living your life in a cell eating gruel is a luxury, yes.
posted by hattifattener at 5:11 PM on April 7, 2011


No, I really don't. Try thinking that one out just a little. Expression is clearly an essential aspect of humanity. Sending people to become formally educated is not necessary for man to continue creating.
posted by karmiolz at 5:11 PM on April 7, 2011


People will still draw, design, paint, write and create all manner of art without University instruction. How many engineers will we produce without formal education, how many physicists?

You know that we had engineers and scientists long before universities would deign to teach either subject, right? Back when they only taught what they considered higher things, like philosophy?

But of course, these days scientists and engineers are trained in universities, just like people who analyze literature and think rigorously about ethics, beauty, knowledge, and language. If you kicked them all out of universities, knowledge would be lost and the disciplines would move backwards.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:11 PM on April 7, 2011


karmiolz, I think maybe you don't fully understand the amount of work and training it takes to produce valuable work in the humanities and arts. Unless you think we should revert to some pre-modern apprenticeship system, universities are and will remain the places where thinkers and artists learn and practice their crafts.
posted by oinopaponton at 5:12 PM on April 7, 2011


I mean, a university that offers a degree in Hotel Management?

I know, right? That must be a really shitty school.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 5:13 PM on April 7, 2011 [8 favorites]


I agree that art is essential, but treating it the way we do in our culture is a luxury.
You contradict yourself.
There's no contradiction between the two. "It is essential" isn't contradicted by "we don't have to teach it formally", if you take as your assumption that people would still do it without formal teaching. Which he did. Explicitly.

Again, is this really what they teach in philosophy school? No offense, but from this example and the last, it really seems like you're just sniping on (incorrectly) perceived transgressions of formalities, rather than actually engaging in meaningful debate.
posted by Flunkie at 5:14 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


It is unfortunate that the University system, when strained by budget cuts, turns it into a bit of a pissing match. I studied four years of History Science, and currently finishing up my third year of Engineering. I can tell you that the course-load and effort for the two are not the same. That's not to say that if they had the funding they should still slash the arts anyways, just that when choosing between the two, art can survive without formal education, the sciences are far less likely to.
posted by karmiolz at 5:15 PM on April 7, 2011


"I took a bunch of philosophy classes and all it taught me was how to be annoying at parties."

Professors can teach but they can't force students to learn.
posted by oddman at 5:16 PM on April 7, 2011


A philosophy department is neccesary! Somebody has to work at Wal-Mart.
posted by jonmc at 5:18 PM on April 7, 2011


Unless you think we should revert to some pre-modern apprenticeship system

Actually, is this such a bad idea? Those systems produced a lot of really excellent artists and thinkers. I feel like I personally would have benefited a great deal from a structure like Plato's Academy. It's sad to see entire philosophy departments getting eliminated from our existing education systems, but the modern university really isn't a great place to learn the kinds of things that artists and philosophers need to know.
posted by twirlip at 5:22 PM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Flunkie, you realize you're are being rather unusually nit-picky about comments on an internet discussion board, right? People aren't exactly aiming at Tractatus level of rigor.
posted by oddman at 5:24 PM on April 7, 2011


98% of philosophy is completely fucking useless intellectual masturbation.

2% of philosophy is crucial to effectively functioning as an informed citizen in a complex time.

But because there is no way to determine which 2% applies to any given student, philosophy departments are necessary. Even mandatory.

Cuz kids sho ain't learnin' critical reasoning in high school.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 5:24 PM on April 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure undergraduate course load is a useful measure of the extent to which something can be learned at an equivalent level of expertise or understanding outside a university.

A better test would be to compare people doing philosophy with formal training to those doing it without, but that's not really possible in the current world, since people are non-randomly assigned to university vs. not. So the people doing philosophy without ever having had any contact with a philosophy department are mostly cranks.

Still, I can't imagine a system where people learned these skills outside a university system would look like. Maybe before we can say that people would learn to do this kind of work just as well without learning it in a university we should ask what that system of learning would look like. Then we could start to think about whether it would work as well. Oh, and would this system really be any cheaper than a university philosophy department?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:25 PM on April 7, 2011


Flunkie, you realize you're are being rather unusually nit-picky about comments on an internet discussion board, right? People aren't exactly aiming at Tractatus level of rigor.
I'm sorry, are you kidding me? I was responding to nitpicks. And I was doing so not because they were nitpicks, but because they were (A) incorrect nitpicks and (B) the entire argument that was being put forth in the two posts that I responded to.
posted by Flunkie at 5:25 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


No, you were parsing my posts for grammar and diction rather than meaning.
posted by karmiolz at 5:26 PM on April 7, 2011


No, you were parsing my posts for grammar and diction rather than meaning.
karmiolz, are you responding to me here?

If so, please be aware that I have never responded to any of your posts before this one. I had responded to those of LogicalDash.
posted by Flunkie at 5:29 PM on April 7, 2011


Philosophy is so broad that it hardly even qualifies as a field.

Historically this has been both the strength and weakness of philosophy as such, and it is just this ambiguity that makes philosophy susceptible to the familiar criticism of irrelevance it often receives. More importantly, it helps to situate the historical reality of how philosophy, in seeking integration of knowledge (that is, before that hyper-specialization of knowledge one associates with contemporary life), functioned through the development of "western" culture. More specifically, philosophy (especially early modern "natural philosophy") arose both as a proto-science (with close ties, via logic, to mathematics) concerned with many of the same questions science itself asks, as well as a metaphysics (with close ties, via theology, to religion) concerned with many of the same questions religion itself asks.

Given how we now tend to view religion and science as diametrically opposed (a simplification that history does not always support), this "midway" status of philosophy as "handmaiden to theology" and "Queen of the sciences," means that philosophy's very existence as a discipline flies in the face of some cherished ideological fixations of our age. My point here is that one potential strength of studying philosophy is to engage with the complicated reality of how our present culture developed. And I have gone to the trouble of writing this in order to say that philosophy's necessarily ambiguous status (even among its practitioners, some of who agree on very little and can seem to be writing entirely different languages) makes it vulnerable when budgetary axes are sharpened. Philosophy's legacy resists easy reduction, and this makes it suspicious to many.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 5:29 PM on April 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


I wish we could do that experiment Penguin ha. I still say that Universities are better suited to funding sciences than arts, given the nature of the two. The days of the table-top experiment are long over, access to the tools necessary to train in the sciences are simply prohibitive.
posted by karmiolz at 5:30 PM on April 7, 2011


Sorry about that Flunkie, aiming at juggling discussion here. You are correct and have been calling foul on people nitpicking and ignoring substance.
posted by karmiolz at 5:32 PM on April 7, 2011


Gotta say that I don't see the point of university philosophy departments.

Lovecraft, this entire thread is about the importance of university philosophy departments. If you plan to be the contrarian in the crowd, doesn't it behoove you to elucidate a bit?
posted by steambadger at 5:38 PM on April 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


Judging by the logic employed by its politicians, people and pundits, the US looks from the outside like a country in need of more philosophy departments, not less.
posted by unSane at 5:41 PM on April 7, 2011 [8 favorites]


karmiolz, I think you're underestimating the costs of the tools necessary for producing new knowledge in the humanities: Giant libraries and archives are hugely expensive, for example. Experiments (and yeah, even philosophers do experiments) require space and sometimes equipment. Journal access is crazy expensive.

Some of these costs are obviously different structures of funding, since they're used collectively rather than owned individually by different labs, which is why grants are less common and smaller in the humanities. But if anything this collectivized nature of research resources makes it even harder to do humanities research independent of an institution -- I can imagine giving a grant to a loan scientist to hire apprentices and assistants and buy giant machines to put in whatever space they choose to rent with their grant money. But how could you give each researcher a grant to build an archive or library?

I don't think it makes sense to conflate what an undergrad does in intro to philosopy or English Literature 102 with what english, philosophy, history etc. departments do.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:41 PM on April 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


If it's valuable to study philosophy because modern science grew from it, does that mean that chemistry students should be taught the tenets of alchemy?

I'm on the fence about philosophy. There's value in learning to properly support an argument and in learning how to know what you know and what you don't know and what you know you don't know and what you don't know you don't know, but it seems to me that most of that stuff could be addressed in freshman-level writing classes rather than an entire degree track.
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:51 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Tell me why the arts matter more than the sciences.

"Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should!"

Dr. Ian Malcolm's words are as true today as they were in his time. Take an ethics class, else risk accidentally devastating a small island with revived megapredators. There's a lesson here for all of us, I think.
posted by Errant at 5:51 PM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


I mean, a university that offers a degree in Hotel Management?

Like that Ivy League trade school in Ithaca.
posted by Jahaza at 5:52 PM on April 7, 2011


Darn you BitterOldPunk!
posted by Jahaza at 5:53 PM on April 7, 2011


Yes, seriously. Tell me why that is not the case. Why medicine, science, and technology do not rank above the arts in importance.

The disciplines aren't right fielders; you can't add their on base percentage to their slugging percentage and compare. I'm very happy that medicine has advanced as far as it has; if it hadn't, I'd probably be dead, and I wouldn't be able to write or play music or take pictures. I'm grateful for the technology that let me fly across the Atlantic Ocean and see the pictures in the Prado. But if there were no arts and no philosophy, I wouldn't really give a shit about medicine or technology.

I'm not arguing that philosophy is more important than physics; I don't think they're neatly separable, and I certainly don't think they lend themselves to hierarchical ordering. Couldn't we keep them both, and instead give up corporate tax breaks and corrupt Department of Transportation boondoggles?
posted by steambadger at 5:56 PM on April 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'm on the fence about philosophy.

Sounds perilous. When you reach a conclusion, be sure to let us know how you got there.
posted by steambadger at 6:00 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


If it's valuable to study philosophy because modern science grew from it, does that mean that chemistry students should be taught the tenets of alchemy?

Nobody is suggesting that scientists learn philosophy, just that philosophy is a worthwhile thing to do (though it's ok to have a division of labour so scientists do science and philosophers do philosophy), and that it's silly to say science is more important than philosophy when science is basically the application of a philosophical theory.

Further, alchemy may have been an early form of chemistry, but as far as I know, no principle of alchemy is considered the defining foundation of chemistry.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:12 PM on April 7, 2011


Boy, I suck at homonyms and spelling more generally, today. I wish I'd taken an English class in undergrad.

Yes, I'm fully aware that I would not have learned grammar or spelling in a university English class. It was a joke. Please don't shoot me.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:15 PM on April 7, 2011


"Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should!"


As a physicist who has studied philosophy a fair bit, and who quite frankly thinks that a course of study that does not start with philosophy to be useless as a comprehensive education, this stereotype bugs the hell out of me.

Apart from issues relating to biology/sociology and native cultures, the ethical issues surrounding science experiments tend to boil down to "is this a danger to someone?" at which point it's an engineering question, not an ethical one. Because most human beings hold the view that hurting people is bad.

As for weapons research, things of that sort, the people who need to be taught ethics are the politicians and not the scientists. I'd wager that very few people employed by defense contracts would be terribly unhappy to get paid for working on things that help humans rather than kill them.
posted by Zalzidrax at 6:23 PM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't care much for or about the study of philosophy, but I do think this might be a symptom of antiintellectualism and obsession with quantifiable results in government, which I don't much care for either. Used to be there was such a thing as the public interest, that government could act in, but we seem to have become too cynical to believe in that these days. On the other hand, it might also be a sign that we're too pluralistic a society in the 21st century to spend public money on something that benefits such a limited subset of the population. And that would be kind of a neat idea if it was applied with any consistency.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 6:23 PM on April 7, 2011


This is as close to a zombie movie as we've been in a long time.
posted by Brian B. at 6:29 PM on April 7, 2011


This is as close to a zombie movie as we've been in a long time.

Real zombie or p-zombie?
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 6:33 PM on April 7, 2011


that benefits such a limited subset of the population.

While the argument might be made that philosophy has limited utility, the utility it does have applies very broadly, to everyone.
posted by Zalzidrax at 6:33 PM on April 7, 2011


Lovecraft, this entire thread is about the importance of university philosophy departments. If you plan to be the contrarian in the crowd, doesn't it behoove you to elucidate a bit?

It's less useful than the hard sciences, since it doesn't have any immediate practical value. It's less useful than most of the soft sciences - we need sociology, anthropology, history, etc to teach us about the world. We need arts and media departments to help us decode and understand the work of other people and society. Philosophy seems too esoteric and abstract. It's important to have people doing philosophy but if you're going to drop an academic department you might as well drop philosophy.

Obviously I'm in favor of cutting sports funding first, but that's not going to happen.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:36 PM on April 7, 2011


It's less useful than the hard sciences, since it doesn't have any immediate practical value.

This claim alone is rife with epistemological, ethical and axiological presuppositions. I swore I was not going to wade into the muck of this thread, so I will bow out but, really? Really?!
posted by joe lisboa at 6:46 PM on April 7, 2011 [7 favorites]


Philosophy helps one get a better idea of how to judge and weight "practical value."
posted by Zalzidrax at 6:47 PM on April 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


In the "why humanities" vein, the president of SUNY Albany was looking at cutting humanities departments and taken to task by one Dr. Gregory Petsko, a professor of biochemistry and chemistry: "Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn't just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that."
posted by lillygog at 6:53 PM on April 7, 2011 [5 favorites]


less useful than the hard sciences, since it doesn't have any immediate practical value

I think people tend to forget how much academic (and corporate R&D) work done in theoretical physics, mathematics, biochemistry, etc. never gets used or applied to anything real-world. For every experiment that ends up having a direct pay-off in the "real world," there are dozens that never make it off the blackboard.

we need sociology, anthropology, history, etc to teach us about the world

Until the late 19th/early 20th century, these disciplines (along with psychology, linguistics, etc) were not yet disciplines and were in fact very closely linked to philosophy. Even today there is a larger set of conceptual frameworks that inform these disciplines, and these frameworks very often originate in or near the philosophy department. So philosophy is still informing the social sciences in ways that most people are not aware of, and furthermore if there is a slower rate of development in philosophy proper that seems (to me at least) like a good thing in many ways (since academia is prone to fashions just like everything else, and since philosophy often still bears intellectual fruit when one least expects it to).

Philosophy seems too esoteric and abstract.

Well one could say the same thing about math, but it's just a prejudice that philosophy gets singled out for this. No offense, but how much do you really know about it in the end anyway: enough to make decisions about just based on your loose impressions as an outsider? Furthermore, there are cognitive scientists and mathematicians still working with philosophers (not as common as one might like, perhaps, but there are a few genuinely interdisciplinary programs like this one and this one, etc).
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 6:54 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Philosophy seems too esoteric and abstract. It's important to have people doing philosophy but if you're going to drop an academic department you might as well drop philosophy.

It resembles an academic lobotomy because philosophy bridges the sciences with the humanities, and teaching people how to think is only absurd to those that claim to have it all figured out.
posted by Brian B. at 6:55 PM on April 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Philosophy seems too esoteric and abstract.

"Seems"? That's a mighty weaselsome word. Is it or isn't it, and why? I might as well argue that law is abstract because it seems it's just stuff people believe in for their own convenience.

I'm currently adjudicating over a matter over which somebody might very well lose their job. Believe me, philosophy - in this case, ethics - will not be an 'abstract' consideration, and nobody will describe the outcome as 'esoteric'.

It's less useful than the hard sciences, since it doesn't have any immediate practical value.

Except for, you know, minor stuff like telling you what you should and shouldn't do with hard sciences.

Actually, you're right. Forget philosophy. Bring me a baby and some electrodes. I want to do something with immediate practical value.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 7:03 PM on April 7, 2011


I think people tend to forget how much academic (and corporate R&D) work done in theoretical physics, mathematics, biochemistry, etc. never gets used or applied to anything real-world. For every experiment that ends up having a direct pay-off in the "real world," there are dozens that never make it off the blackboard.

this.

people talk about science and engineering as if they were monolithic and all terribly useful. Within anything in the sciences and even engineering their are pursuits which are immediately useful, applicable, will get you a good job if you study it, etc. and then there are specialties which have no conceivable application at all, mathematics is full of them.

In fact, you won't see this in headlines, but some public universities are already pushing pure math departments into a permanent 'service' role i.e. restrict hiring and raise teaching requirements for any research that doesn't self-support with grants.

Once you make utility the requirement for support within the university it doesn't just weed out "useless" disciplines like philosophy, but also disciplines like "Algebra" and "General Relativity."
posted by ennui.bz at 7:04 PM on April 7, 2011


I think people tend to forget how much academic (and corporate R&D) work done in theoretical physics, mathematics, biochemistry, etc. never gets used or applied to anything real-world. For every experiment that ends up having a direct pay-off in the "real world," there are dozens that never make it off the blackboard.

To quote Einstein "If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be research!"

The point of much of science is to find out about things which we know nothing about, and nobody knows, nobody can know, whether those things are going to pay off down the road. Sure you can make guesses, but at the edge of human knowledge, they're apt to be pretty terrible.

Heck fields that were incredibly esoteric 80 years ago like quantum physics and general relativity today allow us to have incredible computational power and the ability to find our location anywhere on the planet to within a couple of feet. Who knows which seemingly useless and academic fields now will end up changing the world 80 years from now?
posted by Zalzidrax at 7:05 PM on April 7, 2011


Except for, you know, minor stuff like telling you what you should and shouldn't do with hard sciences.

Actually, you're right. Forget philosophy. Bring me a baby and some electrodes. I want to do something with immediate practical value.


Can't that be handled eternally by the ethics department? Or pretty much 'do what you can, just don't physically hurt a non-consenting subject'?
But I'm starting to see your point. I took a few philosophy and ethics classes. They've helped me in my life, but I don't think my personal growth should be the standard for society.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:08 PM on April 7, 2011


But it should be the standard for a "universal" education.
posted by Zalzidrax at 7:09 PM on April 7, 2011


Philosophy seems too esoteric and abstract.

...to people who can't be bothered to determine the validity of an argument?

If you think the project of philosophy is too esoteric, think about it in terms of learning a process. I don't care what someone thinks about Kant, really, but I really, really want them to be able to know if a politician is making a valid statement based on the evidence. In fact, I'd say that it's imperative to a democracy for the electorate to have a basic understanding of rhetoric and logic.

I don't really care if my fellow voters can tell me what "Truth" is, but I really hope that they know the difference between truth and lies.
posted by nicething at 7:09 PM on April 7, 2011


"The point of much of science is to find out about things which we know nothing about, and nobody knows, nobody can know, whether those things are going to pay off down the road. Sure you can make guesses, but at the edge of human knowledge, they're apt to be pretty terrible."

That sounds an awful lot like philosophy to me.

Here's a quip I throw out at cocktail parties. The ideas of philosophy do indeed bear concrete fruit, 100-300 years later. So, by all means drop philosophy now, the future doesn't really need innovation.
posted by oddman at 7:12 PM on April 7, 2011


Heck fields that were incredibly esoteric 80 years ago like quantum physics and general relativity today allow us to have incredible computational power and the ability to find our location anywhere on the planet to within a couple of feet.

The only thing that keeps general relativity afloat as a research discipline in the US is the big computational relativity grants attached to the gravity wave experiments.

There is so much pressure to produce useful and exciting research in science that it takes very little pressure to distort research focus away from what people personally think is important to what they think other people will reward (either financially or intellectual). I don't think it's clear just how fragile scientific culture is.
posted by ennui.bz at 7:12 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


We need classes that accommodate both the arts and the sciences. We need far more integrated studies.

Oh! and bitteroldpunk? that sounds like an argument for teaching critical thinking in elementary, middle, and high school - rather than teaching it out at those levels and then trying to bring it back in at the university levels.
posted by aniola at 7:13 PM on April 7, 2011


Wow, you guys are so overthinking this! Look, it's simple - science and engineering majors go on to makes lots of money. Don't you know that money equals happiness? I don't know how anyone could miss that, it's on TV all the time!
posted by AlsoMike at 7:16 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's less useful than the hard sciences, since it doesn't have any immediate practical value.
Except for, you know, minor stuff like telling you what you should and shouldn't do with hard sciences.

Actually, you're right. Forget philosophy. Bring me a baby and some electrodes. I want to do something with immediate practical value.
Arguments like this have been put forth several times in this thread. Could someone who believes that this argument is a good one please give me a few specific examples of things that they learned in philosophy classes that changed their mind on subjects such as whether or not babies shuld be hooked up to electrodes? Thank you.
posted by Flunkie at 7:24 PM on April 7, 2011


Who knows which seemingly useless and academic fields now will end up changing the world 80 years from now?

Precisely, and while no one is expecting professional philosophers to cure cancer, no one is expecting this of game theorists or avant garde sculptors either--yet everyone seems to agree mathematics and the arts are valuable.

Still, philosophy is singled out, despite the fact that the increasingly fragmented and environmentally perilous state of our crisis-ridden world suggests we (as a species) might benefit from the very broad-mindedness and inquisitiveness that philosophy seeks to foster.

Fwiw, part of the reason for my own interest in philosophy stems from the conviction that our environmental crisis has deep philosophical roots.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 7:25 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Philosophy students score the highest on the standardized test for law school.

That may be true, depending on which statistics you believe. But maybe they would have done better if they'd studied something else?

(correlation does not equal causation blah blah blah just so you know I'm playing devil's advocate here)
posted by madcaptenor at 7:25 PM on April 7, 2011


Some parts of philosophy can be taught in one or two high school classes. Other parts of philosophy are stupid and insular and wanky. Almost everything that's really interesting and worthwhile about philosophy belongs to the vast expanse between those two extremes.

Isn't this true of most academic disciplines?
posted by madcaptenor at 7:26 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


A university without a philosophy department is like an octopus without a unicycle.
posted by kozad at 7:28 PM on April 7, 2011


A university without a philosophy department is like an octopus without a unicycle.

Octopuses with unicycles are awesome.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:29 PM on April 7, 2011 [5 favorites]


Even community colleges can see the value in a philosophy department.
posted by roguewraith at 7:36 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Apart from issues relating to biology/sociology and native cultures, the ethical issues surrounding science experiments tend to boil down to "is this a danger to someone?" at which point it's an engineering question, not an ethical one.

But this itself is an ethical claim, and even if we agree for the sake of argument that it isn't a contentious one, it's only not contentious because you've bracketed off all the instances where you grant the significance of ethical issues in science. "Except for the cases where it is important, ethics isn't important" isn't a great claim to make.

That said, I share your skepticism about the difficulty of ethical questions practitioners face. I think a lot of the questions about applied ethics are really questions about some form of legality: is this prohibited by the relevant institution, e.g. the state, the university, the professional organization, etc., and how much do I really want to do it anyway? Better behavior can be gotten by having scientists and universities who are, say, lax about consent, sued more often and for more money.

Nevertheless, I am surprised at how readily things like epistemology and philosophy of science are dismissed the same way. They're abstract, certainly, but shouldn't scientists be reflective about what constitutes knowledge, especially given the elevated status we (rightfully) accord scientific knowledge? Shouldn't they be reflective about what they are doing? And if we answer yes to that, it's easy to bring ethics back in for scientists and everybody else. Even if we aren't going to produce a list of which experiments (or other actions) that are right and good, we still ought to think about what it is that we think right and good are, and why. That's a hard project, even if "Should I run this experiment?" is not.

You can do all of that without participating in academic philosophy of course, but you'd be handicapping yourself by avoiding it unless you think that no one else has thought insightfully about these matters or that no careful discussion of them would be helpful.
posted by Marty Marx at 7:38 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Does this mean there will be no more Doctors of Philosophy at UNLV?
posted by Tashtego at 7:41 PM on April 7, 2011


professional philosophers to cure cancer, no one is expecting this of game theorists

Funnily enough, there is overlap among contemporary game theorists and philosophers, especially if you consider game theory continuous with decision theory.

posted by Marty Marx at 7:43 PM on April 7, 2011


Possibly relevant to this discussion:

from a recent thread on "The Leiter Reports" philosophy blog about an article by philosopher Philip Kitcher in the journal Metaphilosophy entitled "Reconstruction in Philosophy," one finds the following from philosopher Ted Sider:

It's hard to deny that philosophy is best done with a broad intellectual perspective. And when done that way, philosophy is perhaps likelier to Matter, to have positive impact outside of philosophy. But trying to make philosophy Matter can lead to drawing connections that aren't there, and to overselling the significance of what one has done. Also, the demand for philosophy to Matter is reminiscent of the demand for philosophy to Pay. The flat-footed and high-minded response to each demand is the right one. Philosophy---from the synoptic to the puttering, from the "core" (a word to drop, I agree) to the periphery---has intrinsic intellectual value. If we need to say more to keep our jobs then perhaps we must; but the central thing is simply to figure out the truth. Obviously not all truths are on a par; we should avoid trivia and minutiae. But impact on other fields isn't the measure of importance in philosophy, any more than technological runoff is the measure of importance in physics.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 8:12 PM on April 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


As a physicist who has studied philosophy a fair bit, and who quite frankly thinks that a course of study that does not start with philosophy to be useless as a comprehensive education, this stereotype bugs the hell out of me.

As a sometime philosopher with a fondness for the sciences, I do not actually believe that scientists are, as a class, amoral tinkerers with no concept of ethics, and I apologize if I perpetuated a "Dr. Frankenstein" stereotype. It's just that I studied ethics somewhat heavily in college, and so when people started weighing the relative merits of humanities vs. science, well, that quote just popped into my head. I'm sorry the joke didn't really come off.

For what it's worth, I don't think you're likely to recreate the K-T event in your lab, so hopefully we're good. You do have round doorknobs in there though, right? I mean, just in case. No, never mind, I trust you.
posted by Errant at 9:03 PM on April 7, 2011


Could someone who believes that this argument is a good one please give me a few specific examples of things that they learned in philosophy classes that changed their mind on subjects such as whether or not babies shuld be hooked up to electrodes?

Personally, I never supported hooking babies up to electrodes; so I can't really address your question from that angle. But I have an undergraduate degree and most of a master's degree in philosophy; and I can say that Plato taught me how to ask questions about received wisdom, and Hume taught me how to doubt things that seemed fundamentally and obviously true. Kant taught me how to build worlds from scraps, Wittgenstein taught me the importance of thinking about language, and Nietzsche showed me how to laugh at God. I learned science from Leibniz and religion from Spinoza and math from Russell; the infinite complications of logic from Quine and the importance of science from Popper.

Philosophy is the free exercise of reason, unconstrained by the need to show return on investment. If we lose that, we lose everything that makes us human.
posted by steambadger at 9:05 PM on April 7, 2011 [11 favorites]


How is philosophy important to scientific study? Read the Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The issue of paradigms as related to scientific progress and breakthroughs is directly related to the study of epistemology, as well as the fundamental question of ethics. Philosophy in earnest requires scientists to question their research, question the means and question the ends scientists seek.
posted by jabberjaw at 10:13 PM on April 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


So universities are more well suited to supporting science than philosophy? Clearly someone needs to learn some more history, or they would know that universities were invented to give a place to philosophers, mostly theologians (at the time). Natural philosophy (aka the physical sciences) was just one more stream of philosophy.

As for whether an undergrad history degree is easier than undergrad engineering - you must have taken nothing but bird courses. I worked my butt off to get an A-, and that was at an "easy" school. I spent every spring break in the library.
posted by jb at 10:35 PM on April 7, 2011


we need sociology, anthropology, history, etc to teach us about the world. We need arts and media departments to help us decode and understand the work of other people and society. Philosophy seems too esoteric and abstract. It's important to have people doing philosophy but if you're going to drop an academic department you might as well drop philosophy.

This just makes me shake my head. You got a university education, majored in a humanities subject, and you think that philosophy has no discernible place in education, setting it apart from the arts (which you see as valuable) and apart from efforts to systematically study humans (which you also see as valuable)? That's just nuts. Philosophy includes logic, ethics, the study of the limits of human knowledge, the study of classical puzzles about existence in the broadest sense, the study of great works whose ideas are behind our political debates today, etc -- it also includes rhetoric, although many philosophy profs would demur on that point. At its best, a philosophy course is as rigorous as any math course you'll take, and it puts you in touch with history, with ideas that shaped literature and politics and the way we think of ourselves, and it gives you practical tools to use in your own intellectual development -- how to read and draw conclusions about complex texts, how to present your own complex arguments and assess arguments made by other people, how to think better and speak and write better.

But I guess this is what we're facing. As part of the budget cutting going on all over, as the western world settles into an era of decline or whatever it is we're heading toward -- university administrators and especially politicians are calling for this sort of thing all over. Sure, we need to cut budgets, and maybe it's the case that there are no "easy" cuts left to make. A cynic might say the budget cuts are conveniently lining up with an agenda to undercut free or affordable broad educations for the underclass, to undercut tenure and the structure of universities as bearers of prestige which often fund research that shines an unfavorable light on the doings of the powerful, and protect the jobs of academics who publish the work, etc. In the darker moments, it seems to me that these cuts (generally - the cutting of funding to academic work, including science; the curtailing of academic freedoms; the corporatizing and cutting and turning more to underpaid adjuncts and so on) will be enough to kill an amazing thing, the university system that was built up in the 20th century. I think we will miss it when it's gone. Anti-intellectualism of this stripe will have bad practical consequences.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:19 PM on April 7, 2011 [12 favorites]


The budget for defense is more that all the other countries put together (500 billion$).
A thin slice of that should be enough for departments of all sorts
posted by noirnoir at 11:26 PM on April 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I can't think of any better use for their money than keeping the philosophy department. One should cut out the extra amenities before you cut out the very thing that makes a university a university in the first place, unprofitable decision or no. Maybe I'm just being overly traditional here, but philosophy is the basis for every other academic discipline ever. When someone asks questions like, "How do I know what I know?" or "This does this when this is like this, why is that the case?", that's philosophy. Epistemology, at that, but philosophy nonetheless.

I mean, maybe we live in such a specialization-favoring world that studying such a cerebral and general subject isn't going to make you a lot of money, but a lot of the greatest ideas (and again, fundamental aspects of academic disciplines, i.e. math, science, psychology, economics, even language and literature...) came from philosophers, and if you believe in that whole 'history repeats itself' thing, it's going to change the world and the way we think about it many, many times over in the years to come.
posted by majonesing at 1:39 AM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Could someone who believes that this argument is a good one please give me a few specific examples of things that they learned in philosophy classes that changed their mind on subjects such as whether or not babies shuld be hooked up to electrodes?

Wow... The defenders of philosophy have made great points, but we still get questions like this...

What has philosophy done for society..? What do people learn about in philosophy classes that directly impacts their point of view?

How about religious freedom? Do you think that's a philosophical viewpoint?

How about civil rights? Do you think you have a right to privacy? Do you think you have a right against unreasonable search and seizure? Are those philosophical viewpoints? Can you defend them without philosophy?

How about women's rights? Should women have rights equal to men?

How about the rights of minorities?

Should a brain dead person be on life support?

Should a society spend money on medical care for those who don't have money themselves?

Should we eat animals? What is our responsibility to protect the environment?

This can go on and on and on... These are all philosophical questions and many of them were addressed in my philosophy classes.

By the way, once you understand that these are the questions that philosophy can try to address, maybe it becomes clear why philosophy is often the first target of the keepers of the status quo (the wealthy, the elite, the powerful). Why was Socrates put to death? Because he was making the youth of Athens "disrespectful."
posted by dirtmonster at 4:34 AM on April 8, 2011 [6 favorites]


I didn't ask "what has philosophy done for society". I did not ask about "civil rights", or "religious freedom", or any such thing.

I asked someone who was arguing that it is important that we have formal philosophy education because it teaches scientists that they should or should not hook babies up to electrodes for some specific examples of how formal philosophy education taught him or her whether scientists should or should not hook babies up to electrodes.
Wow
Indeed.
posted by Flunkie at 6:25 AM on April 8, 2011


Your original question was not formulated in nearly as specific a way as your follow-up question here... Do you want to know only whether or not philosophy teaches scientists to hook babies up to electrodes? That seems so specific as to be ridiculous, so I will assume you want to know whether a philosophy class addresses different things that scientists should or should not do... I can answer that just by sticking to the medical field...

Should doctors be allowed to experiment on prisoners? You might say that's a ridiculous question, but reports suggest that such a thing is done in China and, historically, by totalitarian regimes.

Should doctors be allowed to administer certain treatments (that may have adverse effects) to unconscious patients? I was on an Institutional Review Board that grappled with this exact question. It was real. Doctors wanted to be able to do it, and I was a lay philosopher trying to examine the impact of such a practice.

When does life begin? How do we use that understanding to regulate contraception and abortion?

When does life end? Dirtmonster had that example right there in their response, when they asked about whether brain dead patients should be kept on life support.

Should people be allowed to end their own lives when they are terminally ill? Should doctors be allowed to assist them?

These are all questions that are addressed in Philosophy courses, some of which I have had direct experience in trying to think about in my daily life. Dirtmonster also suggested that another poster Google the Tuskeegee Syphillis Experiment. That is a great example of how evolving conceptions, such as the civil rights that you dismissively put in quotes, directly impact our medical and scientific thinking. When we don't have a consensus on who counts as a full citizen we easily get gross applications of medicine and science, such as experimenting on prisoners, the mentally ill or other groups of "non-citizens" in the name of advancing medical practice for those who "do count."
posted by Slothrop at 6:44 AM on April 8, 2011


Your original question was not formulated in nearly as specific a way as your follow-up question here.
Yes, it was.
such as the civil rights that you dismissively put in quotes
You people have got to be fucking shitting me.

MAYBE I PUT THOSE WORDS IN QUOTES BECAUSE I WAS QUOTING THEM.

You're all attacking positions that I have not put forth. I have not once stated my opinion on the merits of philosophy, or even of formal philosophical education.

I am done in this thread.
posted by Flunkie at 6:51 AM on April 8, 2011


Well, I apologize then if I am attacking positions you are not taking. There has been a bit of an anti-philosophy, "I took philosophy courses and they were esoteric, egghead, meaningless classes" "Let's all take business or engineering classes" kind of attitude, and I may have read your questions as coming from that place. Also, when I see quotes around things that are basic concepts, I read them as air-quotes, which generally indicate irony or sarcasm. So if I write love, versus "love," it reads to me as being sarcastic on the second one. If that wasn't your intention then I retract my comment about you being dismissive of civil rights or religious freedom.

I still want to say though that if your question is what do scientists or doctors learn from philosophy, I stand by my examples and could offer many more.
posted by Slothrop at 7:03 AM on April 8, 2011


The history of rumor records that, after a particularly exasperating departmental conference, philosopher Keith Gunderson once said "Why don't we all go out and get honest jobs?"

A related rumor in the same city at the same time reported that it had one of the largest populations of PhD's driving cabs. Since our society keeps no actual records of such realities, this proposition survives only as an example of tacit knowledge. Which is also the subject of the most (and, possibly, only) illuminating philosophy book of the 20th century.

Polanyi claims that ends such as truth, goodness, and beauty, transcend our ability to wholly articulate them; and therefore communities of specialists, such as scientists, philosophers, and writers, require the freedom to pursue them.

There is no record to indicate that Polanyi was ever subjected to the indignity of a visit to Las Vegas.
posted by Twang at 3:25 PM on April 8, 2011


A related rumor in the same city at the same time reported that it had one of the largest populations of PhD's driving cabs.

Where on earth did you get the idea that there are no records of such things? Of course there are. The raw data necessary to calculate this is not publicly accessible because people in the data set would be identifiable given access to all the data (e.g. how many people in little town X do you suppose there are with masters degrees in library science and under grad degrees in biology and english who are male and 38 years old working as children's librarians?). However, the data absolutely exist. I know because I have access to them (thanks to my expertise in a discipline some would consider worthless).

That said, I will not be reporting back how many PhDs are cab drivers or how many people with philosophy degrees work in retail because my use of the data is governed by a contract and ethical codes to which I am bound that do not allow me to disclose data willy-nilly. I image at the foundations of this no-willy-nilly code is an understanding of what kinds of privacy people are entitled to, what kinds of things we need to understand about the way our world works and how to best balance those interests. Perhaps if you go digging down into the origin of these ideas, you will find a philosopher. I don't know.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:44 PM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Once, many years ago, I was talking to a web designer about philosophy.

The web designer said, "I just can't do philosophy. I'm far too logical for that."

...

The real problem faced by philosophy as a profession, society at large, and this very thread is this: far too many people don't understand what's so funny and sad about this anecdote. People in general just don't really know what philosophy does.
posted by meese at 9:41 PM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


My ex-roommate was a PhD student (now professor of) philosophy. She could outlogic my brain to bits. Even when she
was empirically questionable, her ability to command logic and rhetoric shattered mine. I learned not to argue with her.

expertise in a discipline some
would consider worthless


don't worry, penguin, smart people know the social sciences are worthwhile and important. They just aren't as cool as history.
posted by jb at 9:55 PM on April 8, 2011


Looks like they'll have to dump their Classics Minor too. Latin and Greek are probably next, and anything they don't already teach in public high school.
posted by Brian B. at 8:04 AM on April 10, 2011


Hundreds sign petition to save philosophy at Greenwich
posted by homunculus at 8:47 AM on April 10, 2011


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