Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Market Values

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Market Values

Article excerpt

In the age of the bottom line, it is time for philosophy to refocus on what actually matters, argue John Kaag and David O'Hara.

In some of its earliest and most famous incarnations, philosophy was something practised in public, and for the public good. Socrates spent so much time engaged in conversation with his fellow citizens that when Aristophanes ridiculed him in his play The Clouds, everyone knew who Socrates was. The Stoic philosophers got their name from the stoa, the public porches that covered the ancient marketplaces of Athens. Today we might well have called them shopping-mall philosophers.

But today's philosophers are not in the malls, and this impoverishes both the malls and philosophy. Philosophers once had wide-ranging interests, including politics, education, natural science, God, the soul, drama and poetry. But during the last century or so in particular, the subject has largely come to ignore this public, wide-ranging calling as it has migrated to the ivory towers of the academy.

Some of this has happened quite organically: as philosophy has given birth to specialised disciplines covering many of its former concerns, philosophers have found themselves tilling smaller and smaller intellectual plots. Aristotle would probably not recognise what we philosophers do if he were alive today, such is its narrowness and technicality.

Another reason for philosophers' move away from the public sphere is the professionalisation of the discipline. More than a century ago, William James complained, in an essay titled "The Ph.D. Octopus", that universities were so interested in prestige that they were unwilling to hire brilliant teachers who lacked a PhD. These days, nearly every academic has earned a doctorate of some kind, which has made it necessary for universities to invent new standards for assessing how good their faculty is. So today's philosophers are preoccupied with the need to gain peer-reviewed publications.

For the record, we both hold tenured positions at US institutions - otherwise it is extremely unlikely that we would be writing an article like this one. (It is also rather unlikely that we would have chosen to write this together, since co-authoring is frowned upon in modern humanities.) But we are grateful, in a sense, that we have not since moved to more prestigious institutions, because that might require us to devote ourselves to ever-greater specialisation, which would make reaching out beyond our academic discipline even more difficult. …

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