On the dangers of being too philosophical...

Sunday May 9, 2010


As many visitors to thinkBuddha.org may know, Middlesex University has decided to phase out its philosophy programme on the grounds that it is of no financial value. This, despite the fact that philosophy was the highest rated research subject at Middlesex – for what it is worth – in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (which, to those of you who are uninitiated, was the name given to the mildly demented bureaucratic procedure for judging the quality of university research outputs, now superseded by the arguably rather more demented Research Excellence Framework. But I digress…)

This is, perhaps, only the beginning. Now that the election here in the UK has come and gone, there is much talk of public spending cuts, and higher education will be in the firing line. The message, increasingly, is only those courses that can serve the interests of the business world will be the ones to survive. The tender-hearted amongst us (and, alas, I am one such sensitive soul) might protest that surely there is more to education than serving the interests of the business world. But this seems not to be the common view. Just over a year ago, I put this very question to a high-ranking university official who I chanced to meet. “I understand,” I said, “that universities are keen on forging links with business, but what happens when there are conflicts of interest, when pedagogical and intellectual demands conflict with the interests of the business concerned?”

He hesitated. “Well…” he said, “I think possible to get too philosophical about these kinds of questions.” Then he went on to explain that there never had been any such conflicts of interest at the institution with which he was involved. This, I suggested, struck me as more than a little odd. Surely there should be conflicts of interest in any such collaborations, and surely these conflicts were the kinds of things that demanded that we should get just a little bit philosophical about some of the issues involved.

But the moment had passed and the conversation moved on. One cannot, apparently, be too philosophical in the world of higher education. This is something that the philosophers at Middlesex have found out to their cost. And they will not be the last. All of which is bad for higher education. But philosophy itself has not – after all – always lived in the academy; and it may not necessarily flourish best in these circumstances. When I lived in Durham about a decade ago, there was a curious individual who two or three times a week used to set up a table and a couple of chairs on a bridge over the river Wear. On the table he placed a sign reading something like “Philosopher: Please talk to me (free of charge)”. I now regret that I never took him up on his offer. Who knows what I may have learned, what wisdom he may have been able to impart?

This is hardly a utopian vision; but perhaps in the coming years, on the bridges of our cities, we can look forward to a flowering of philosophers and sages, each setting up their stall, where those seeking genuine wisdom might come to debate the deeper questions of life’s mysteries and problems. At the very least, those who want to ask these kinds of questions might save on spiralling tuition fees, leaving the universities to go about their serenely unphilosophical work of serving the interests of the world of business whilst they themselves get on with asking the serious questions presented by human life.

For a petition to save philosophy at Middlesex go here.

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#1 · Maria de Fatima Machado

10 May 2010

The Buddha is the perfection of enlightened wisdom.

In the Vinaya Pitaka of the Pali Canon, it is historically recorded the following:

“Now, at that time the Buddha was teaching, surrounded by a great company which contained the Rajah (King), and his Court.

Then Devadatta, rising from his seat and throwing his upper robe over one shoulder, bowed towards the Buddha with folded palms and said: ‘My Lord, the Buddha is now grown old, is aged, far gone in years, He has come to life’s end. Let now my Lord Buddha live without worry. Let Him dwell, given to such happiness as this life contains. Let Him hand over the care of the Buddha Sangha unto me, and I will take charge of the Buddha Sangha.’

The Buddha replied:

‘Enough, Devadatta! Seek not to take charge of the Buddha Sangha!’

Then a second time and yet a third time did Devadatta make the same request and get the same reply. Then said the Buddha:

‘Not even to Sariputta and Moggallana, the Great, would I hand over the care of the Buddha Sangha; much less to one like thee, a vile lick-spittle!’

Devadatta consumed with the ambition to lead, devoured by the ambition of gain and fame, made a schism in the Buddha Sangha, and formed a sect of his own.


#2 · Curt

10 May 2010

Has anyone who visits here not seen the reports that an Indian Yogi has not eaten or drank any water for 70 years?
I first saw the report a week or two ago. Today I saw that for the past 2 weeks he has been watched by 30 doctors for the past two weeks and has neither eaten, drank, nor had bowel movement or has peed.
I did not believe this story when I first saw it. I do not believe it now. I do think that he should be watched by 30 magicians. If he passes that test then he should be watched by me. If he passes that test then I do not care what other tests he takes.

#3 · Curt

11 May 2010

I just wanted to share an important developement today with your readers. Today I developed the first Koan of my own Buddhizt Cult. Now some people could say that my Koan is to long to be considered a Koan. In that is true then I will place it under the heading of a Sufi Joke. In either case it goes like this:
Islam is Kosher. Communism is Halal. Now it is time to burn down de mall.
Say it short of grew as I was writing it. Look it is my cult I can call it a Koan if I want to.
Would you dare to wear a teashirt like that outside of Amsterdam?
Will I get police protection after they put out a contract on my life?

#4 · william

12 May 2010

Philosophy died when people no longer lived according to their own philosophy, ie. a Stoic in stoicism. How can this be taught at universities? How can one be in possession of a diploma that does not accurately descibe the way in which one lives one’s life? Businessmen live philosophically, that is, they praise financial gain (at all costs) and act accordingly (at all costs), as shown by our present global dire straits. Merchants who are fair and honest are thus, not businessment. Great philanthropists are laughable and almost extinct. Likewise, men who live according to their philosophy are not philosophers, rather they might be called ‘teachers’?
On second thought, perhaps courses in morals, ethics, history, ect. might be more useful to the modern businessman and in turn, more helpful to the world as a whole. Does Middlesex U. offer these courses as electives?
with metta,

#5 · Will

14 May 2010

Thanks for the comments, folks, although do try to keep more or less on topic. Chunks of the Vinaya are all well and good, as are stories about yogis who go without food; but I’m not entirely sure of whether they belong in this thread…

#6 · Jayarava

14 May 2010

Hi Will

Was just at a colloquium with Prof. Sheldon Pollock who pointed out that Philology as a discipline is disappearing from our universities. Not just here but in the USA and in India. Knowledge of ancient scripts and languages is dying out. Ancient wisdom is going to be lost to us – another dark age? Richard Gombrich has referred to the state of Buddhist studies in the UK as the “murder of a subject”.

And yet I’m told that History and English are doing fine in the UK. So it’s not an across the board attack on non-business related subjects.

Having read Bryan Magee on the Linguistic Philosophy movement which dominated English philosophy for a few decades I can imagine why people see it as pointless. It will take a long time come back from that I expect.

I suppose the question is this: on what scale should the state fund philosophers? We’ve had it on a grand scale for what, about 50-60 years? Is there any evidence that the world is a better place for the huge expansion in philosophy places in universities? Might the current contraction be a rational return to sustainable levels of philosophers? Do we really need so many philosophy graduates? If the value of philosophy is not monetary can it be spelled out in other terms? It’s not that clear to me. I’d struggle to name a recent philosopher whose ideas I find captivating or inspiring, or who had changed my life, whereas a dozen scientists come to mind. Perhaps if was more clear to the general population what philosopher’s do these days they might be more sympathetic. When you say philosophers do “research” what does that entail? How is it different from other kinds of research?


#7 · Will

14 May 2010

I love the idea of a sustainable level of philosophers, Jayarava. How many might that be, I wonder…? However, part of what you are writing about is down to taste. The loss of philology as a field of study may be a loss of ancient wisdom, and the loss of philosophy may be a loss of folks many of whom spend time in pointless pursuits, but one could equally well argue the reverse. And all of us, of course, being human, tend to be keen on protecting our own patch.

Stepping back from this, however, the question of spelling out value is a difficult one, as is the question of what the state should fund. There is much that goes on in universities that may, from certain perspectives, seem odd or irrelevant – studying Sanskrit or later Wittgenstein or the hermeneutics of Homer Simpson, or the thrilling sex lives of toads from Borneo. Nevertheless, I’m far more worried about the university-based research that, although it ticks all the boxes for friendliness to the world of commerce, is arguably morally questionable – think of how much of scientific research is tied up with military applications.

So I am not arguing that the nation needs university-trained philosophers. Perhaps casting philosophy out of the academy would be the best thing ever to happen to it. Who knows? I certainly don’t. But what I am arguing is that education in general needs a degree of autonomy from commercial and governmental agendas, so that it can consider the broader questions about what it is that makes for meaningful – and ethical – human existence. And this is where I think that we really do need to get more philosophical about education – with a small “p” – whether we are philosophers are not.

But it’s Friday evening, and there’s only so much wittering on about philosophy that I can cope with at the end of a long week. I’m off home!

Best wishes,

#8 · David Chapman

19 May 2010

Hi Jayarava,

A most interesting post.

I must say I thought philology had mostly died out 50 years ago. (I am a philo-philologist — one who loves philology — so I consider this a disaster. But…)

I recall reading an analysis — I am afraid I do not recall where — of how this happened. The Second World War was believed by the US Government to have been won largely by physicists. Science brought us anti-aircraft radar and the atomic bomb; and so the USG increased, unprecedentedly, the level of financial support to universities in the 1950s.

The hitch was that, to qualify for funding, you had to make a case that what you were doing was Science. Together with the dramatic increase in the level of funding, this radically transformed — distorted, some say — the structure and function of academia.

Various disciplines that had obviously never been Science had to change their rhetoric to pretend to be Science. This was easier for some than others.

In the case of philology, the discipline split. Half turned into Linguistics, which pretended to be Science. Chomsky’s brilliant, but totally irrelevant, mathematics made that possible. Unfortunately, it also completely detached the field from the actual phenomena of language, and mainstream linguistics has been in outer space ever since. (IMNSHO.)

The other nearly-half of philology turned into Literature. Literature couldn’t pretend to be Science, but it eked out a poor existence as a stolid necessity for a couple of decades. (Then Literature turned into Deconstructive Critical Theory, whose darkling hegemonic aspirations (not only over non-Science, but — during the Science Wars — over Science as well) were nearly achieved. But that is another story.)

I have to admit that my philo-philology was significantly inspired by JRR Tolkien. It is perhaps not well-known that Tolkien played a major, failing, role in the effort to preserve philology as a discipline, as (under the influence of Mammon) it was dismembered into linguistics and literature. He argued passionately that these could not be separated; against the “professionalization” of the discipline; and for its grounding in basic human questions of meaningness. (This is recounted in his splendid biography by Tom Shippey, who was his principal disciple in the field of Old English philology.)

Regrettably, I was not sufficiently philo-philological to make a career of it. I did learn the Anglo-Saxon language, and read Beowulf — Tolkien’s foremost inspiration — under William Alfred (http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/poets/alfred.php), who was the principal disciple of Albert Lord (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Lord), who was the principal disciple of Milman Parry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milman_Parry). None of their greatness rubbed off on me, but I remain inspired by the lineage; never let it be said that only in Buddhism can the blessings of the lineage be visited on the disciples.

I am making a feeble attempt at following in Tolkien’s footsteps. He synthesized a mass of ancient European swords-and-sorcery literature into a coherent mythos that, many feel, better addresses the 20th Century human condition than any other work. I’m trying to synthesize a mass of ancient Indian swords-and-sorcery literature into a coherent mythos that will address aspects of the 21st Century human condition (in a serial tantric Buddhist vampire romance entitled The Vetali’s Gift).

Addressing your second point…

The historically vast influx of state money into the university system led not only to Scientism, but also to institutionalization. The function of modern research academics, all too often, is the observances of meticulous rituals specific to their sub-sub-sub-disciplines, whose only function is to demonstrate that one is a member in good standing of the sub-sub-sub-discipline. This was not so true before WWII.

This has been problematic for the sciences (in my opinion, as one who once had some claim to being a scientist); the main advances come from insights that cross disciplines, but institutional imperatives punish those who do that, and reward those who make routine progress in microscopic specialties.

But institutionalization has been catastrophic for philosophy. (In my opinion as an armchair philosopher with no credentials whatsoever.) Publish-or-perish generally implies working out minor technical details of abstruse arguments about abstractions that have no discernible connection with reality. I think this is widely understood as a problem by philosophers; but most are not in a position to do anything about it, being caught within the incentive structure of the institutional system.

Actual philosophical progress seems likely to come more often from outside the institution. Will, your work is exemplary (in my view) in ignoring discipline boundaries and “meticulous rituals”. But perhaps it is not coincidental that your teaching appointment is not currently in philosophy…

I don’t think I would want to see funding for philosophy reduced; but I do think Jayarava has a good point, that it is not obvious that the funding is leading to much of value by any standard. Even by the standard of philosophy as it is likely to be judged in a hundred years time. Doesn’t it seem likely that in 2110, historians of philosophy will regard the Anglophone philosophy of 1960-2010 as a wasted epoch in which the discipline got lost in technical minutiae? And Continental philosophy of the period as a wasted epoch too, lost in obscurantist political rhetoric?

(Goodness, I seem to be on a rant tonight…)


#9 · Robert Ellis

19 May 2010

We do need philosophy graduates – more of them than ever, but we don’t need the vast majority of the “research” done in university philosophy departments. My advice to governments needing to cut costs would be to cut philosophy research, but maintain philosophy teaching. These two activities have quite different effects.

Philosophy teaching has the effect of producing more people in the world who know how to think rigorously – more so than in other disciplines. These skills will be used and promoted, whether or not philosophy graduates then go on to use their knowledge of philosophy directly. At a lower level, philosophy and critical thinking in schools and colleges (which I teach) has a similar effect (on critical thinking see my webpage www.moralobjectivity.net/critical_thinking). Beyond this, philosophy shares with other humanities an exercise of the sympathetic imagination and a broadening of vision of a kind that should form a part of all education.

However, the open enquiry that I see sixth-formers (i.e. senior high-schoolers, for Americans) and first year undergraduates who study philosophy engaging in rapidly narrows in many cases as philosophy is pursued further, especially beyond Masters level. To pursue philosophy beyond this point, most people find themselves signing up to a set of conventions which restrict their thought rather than opening it up. In order to get any funding, or to publish in journals, it is necessary to follow a philosophical tradition and play the game established by that tradition – be it the game of analytic philosophy, that dominates in the UK and US, or the games of postmodernism and Heideggerianism. Of course it is possible to play that game, and, once established, to start stretching the rules and actually do some creative philosophy. There are some analytic philosophers whose attempts to do this I find to some extent inspiring: for example Thomas Nagel, Derek Parfit, Martha Nussbaum, Thomas Kuhn, or Peter Singer. However, even these thinkers are unnecessarily limited by the analytic tradition they’ve subscribed to, and seem incapable of really thinking beyond it, even if they can loosen its profile at the edges in some ways. The vast majority of philosophy researchers tend to produce work which is either pretentious twaddle too far removed from experience (in the continental tradition) or conventionally-bound narrow analysis in which more and more is said about less and less (in the analytic tradition). In neither tradition is the chief merit of philosophy widely practised: the facility to examine one’s own basic premises from the beginning.

So, I agree with Will that it would not necessarily be a bad thing if much of this was cut – but only provided the teaching of philosophy is unaffected. Basically I think philosophy lecturers should earn their living by teaching and then be left free to think in the time that remains to them, without pressure to publish prematurely and without the hierarchy of bureaucratised “research” achievement that afflicts academia.

#10 · Curt

19 May 2010

Here Here! Look here! That is the way they say it Parliament isn’t it?

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