Wrestling with Philosophy: Improving Scholarship in Higher Education

Article excerpt

Knowing is inevitably practical; it changes the known.

Sartre

In the last several decades, one of the methodological issues facing the social sciences has been the re-emergence of philosophy. As the social sciences absorbed the assumptions of the physical/natural sciences in the 1800s, traditional philosophical questioning about the nature of existence and humankind (ontology), how we know and what constitutes knowledge (epistemology), and what is the best means for gaining knowledge (methodology), became marginalized. Instead, one set of assumptions--scientific paradigm--dominated the academy. During the later half of the twentieth century, some commentators argued that scholarship was deadened by stifling the debate of philosophical issue (Mills, 1959).

Philosophical debate related to the conduct of research re-emerged with the ascendance of hermeneutics and phenomenological approaches to research, the development of critical theory (in particular the Frank-furt school of Adorno and Habermas) and postmodernism. Although each of these traditions developed and was absorbed into the social sciences at different time periods (phenomenology earliest, at around the turn of the last century, and postmodernism not until the 1960s), all were actively part of the social science dialogue by the 1970s. These three distinctive sets of philosophical assumptions were described separately and discussed as paradigms of research, and they dramatically changed the dialogue about appropriate research methods across a host of fields and disciplines (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). A paradigm is basic sets of beliefs and feelings about the world and how it should be understood and studied (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000). It contains the researcher's epistemological, ontological, ethical and methodological premises.

The field of higher education emerged in the 1930s and became formalized with the development of the Association for the Study of Higher Education in the late 1960s, at the same time as the social sciences were beginning to engage new research paradigms and recommit to the importance of philosophy. One might hypothesize that because the field emerged in the wake of these changes and was not invested in a particular dominant approach, it might have been open to engaging these philosophical debates as other fields that emerged at the time did, namely, ethnic and women's studies, social work, or urban planning. Yet, for the most part, higher education research did not embrace the philosophical debates and the three emerging research paradigms; it mostly followed the dominant scientific paradigm. Over the years, more scholars have begun to use interpretive and critical paradigms, but philosophy has remained marginalized. In this short review, I would like to suggest the value of engaging philosophical questions while developing scholarship and in teaching research.

A significant problem in research methodology courses is that students do not examine and align their assumptions about the conduct of research and maintain convoluted and conflicting premises that produce flawed studies. Had they intentionally engaged philosophical questions up front, written out their assumptions about the issue to be studied, investigated their role as researcher, considered the purpose of research from the tradition they are working in, and probed what they understood as the nature of reality and how knowledge is developed, then their study would proceed with a greater level of clarity and focus. Instead, as many readers will have experienced, the students proceed muddled and confused. And truth be told, seasoned scholars could also benefit from wrestling with philosophical issues. Even those who have engaged philosophy need to revisit from time to time as new experiences or ideas shape our view. Sartre (1962) began his career as an existentialist but ended it more closely aligned with Marxism, blending the two and enriching both traditions. …