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Kitcher on turning philosophy inside-out

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Philip Kitcher, a prominent philosopher at Columbia, recently published his own recommendation for philosophy to re-orient itself. You can get a pdf of his article here. The basic problem is that, like all disciplines, philosophers tend toward ever-increasing specialization, and so their audience shrinks and shrinks. When they try then to argue for the importance of what they’re doing, they face a difficult question: if what they are doing is so important, how come no one other than themselves is interested in it? They can shout, “It IS important!”, but the louder they have to shout, the less convincing their message is.

Instead, Kitcher takes a cue from John Dewey: ‘‘If we are willing to conceive education as the process of forming fundamental dispositions, intellectual and emotional, toward nature and fellow men, philosophy may even be defined as the general theory of education’’. Philosophy, he thinks, and even “academic” philosophy, needs to engage the real questions and problems not just of specialists, but of educated people across a wide bandwidth.

Here’s Kitcher’s own vision:

…[S]ocieties and individuals continue to need an integrated picture of nature that combines the contributions of different areas of inquiry, and different fields of investigation can be assisted by thinkers whose more synthetic perspective can alert them to missed opportunities and provide them with needed clarification. Along the value-axis, philosophy can offer an account of ethics as an evolving practice, one that has probably occupied our species for most of its history, and that has been variously distorted by claims to expertise that are based on alleged religious revelations or on supposed a priori reasoning. They can seek, as Dewey recommended, methods for advancing the ethical project more ‘‘intelligently.’’ In light of this account, using whatever methodological advice can be garnered from it, they can identify the points in current ethical, social, and political practice where tensions and difficulties arise, attempting to facilitate discussions that will lead to progressive shifts.

So I think what this means is that philosophers should attempt to both clarify and question the developments in the sciences, business, politics, and arts, from the vantage-point of a broadly educated person. They should be the ones taking the long view, as it were.

Kitcher’s short article is well worth reading and reflecting on, I think.

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8 Comments

  1. The obvious comment might be that general education IS valued, just not in the academy.

    I don’t know where to look for this (since I am in the academy myself) but the discipline of scholarship no longer requires access to a great library (there is the internet) the access to other bright people (again, the internet), and the many other resources like secretaries that used to make the academy so special (word processors do most of that work now).

    It seems that quite a few people are living a life of the mind and the academy might have responded by focusing on extreme specialization. I am not quite sure what this means for the average state university student. I still want to believe that a non-wealthy student can find a public education that satisfies, or better, challenges her intellectual curiosity. I hope that is the case anyhow. It would be horrible if education is purely a trade school experience with latent academic pretense.

    One thing I have worried about, particularly in economics, is that a translator is needed for any of the stuff that specialist say to contribute to the discussion. This could be bad if the specialists are creating nothing which helps common knowledge advance. Often, a professor specializes in what his dissertation advisor did and never updates. There is no outside check on this. This means that he could be teaching outdated methodology for 30 years. In macroeconomics this is the case. You show me a macro professor’s lecture notes and I can tell you when he received his PhD. A very sad statement on the econ profession for sure.

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  2. Huenemann says:

    I agree we need translators. One innovation I have been contemplating, at least for academic philosophy, is that grad students perhaps should have two paths open to them – the specialist and the generalist. I think many advanced students of philosophy really want to be generalists – they want to teach, and write books/essays on topics appealing to broader audiences. These could be our translators. Let the specialists continue to do their work – they love it, they’re good at it, and they’re usually bad at translating.

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  3. I think that is a great idea. Matt Ridley and Richard Dawkins have done wonders for biology.

    Is there any way to get a very wealthy person to donate money toward chaired positions for popularizing good humanities work?

    Like the one for Dawkins:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Simonyi#Philanthropy

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  4. Kleiner says:

    An important point was raised in the recent discussion with Menand and Simmons (professors at Harvard who spoke about their experience transforming gen ed there). There may not be a need for big structural changes in the academy or even changes in the content of the courses as we try to provide more of this broad audience translation of what we do. Rather, much of it boils down to HOW the courses are taught. This is a low cost solution to the problem. As a lecturer, I have been made / made myself into a generalist over the years. I am quite happy about this development. So most of my courses (most of which are breadth courses for non-majors) are already taught with this “translation to a broad audience” end in mind – take philosophy out of the department and show how it informs our lives, our politics, our culture, etc.

    Perhaps the structural change required is that those generalists with a teaching emphasis have a place of worth in the academy that is reflected by academic structures like tenure and promotion.

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  5. If Kleiner is right, which I tend to believe, we have to change to accepting scholarship and research as two distinct categories useful for the department. I was told before being sent off to grad school that academics is about research (explicitly distinct from scholarship). This was defined as finding the marginal contribution and tweaking the literature enough to get a publication. This certainly has value over long periods (you want a collection of marginal experiments as a record of the discipline’s progress), but, increasingly we have lost the scholars who keep tabs on the work that has already been done and how it relates both internally and with other disciplines.

    In my own life, the history of economic thought, is something that doesn’t even have a real place in the economics profession. It is funded by special research groups (mostly because they like particular figures from history who they interpret as having seen the world from their particular ideological perspective). Scholarship becomes suspect because it is only seen to resurrect the history of ideological debates. An example of this approach: Keynes was evil because he changed the acceptability of debt financing at the national level from the classical Ricardian approach. It is no wonder that scholarship has become suspect. Why would someone study Jackson’s bank veto without some policy-relevant comment about ending the federal reserve? Answer: The nature of the veto has changed over time. The constraint for the president mandating an intellectual justification anything he vetos is a cool reminder to students that we can expect more from our government. We teach that different institutional and cultural changes have real effects even within the nominally similar legal structure. This scholarship point is not as sexy as an empirical conclusion: Policy A has been tried and it failed therefore policy A is a corrupt policy (for ever).

    I would love it if everyone receiving a bachelors knew the Duhem-Quine thesis, even if they couldn’t name the significance of the authors or place them in a historical context. Even better if they could discuss this context; but I would be overjoyed if I met one of our students who questioned the validity of a empirical hypothesis based on the likelihood that supporting evidence is a strong reason to update their beliefs, but is no the conclusive answer for the question.

    From where I sit we can’t do research without having scholars to teach these interpretations.

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  6. Huenemann says:

    That’s very interesting, Michael.I’m interested in finding incentives for providing what you’re describing as scholarship (as opposed to research). What Kleiner mentions – opening up paths for tenure/promotion – I think is key. Beyond that, the only thing I can think of is somehow (but how?) getting individual departments to place some real value in the broad education of their students instead of valuing only the production of “mini-me” researchers.

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  7. I think this ultimately goes back to the farm team mentality.

    We just found out that we have three Goldwater nominees and one runner up. Great return on investment in that the departments which can advertise tangible success here. Now to get these students accepted in grad programs at prestigious universities and eventually on the admissions committees there.

    It seems possible to say to a football recruit at USU — this coach took the star high school running back Curtis Marsh, and turned him into standout corner back NFL draft prospect Curtis Marsh by developing his talents. At least that position coach should have job stability. Why not do the same with those who have cultivated talent of the academic variety as well. (BTW he is an econ major).

    Diana just had her first mentee accepted and funded at Flordia State for the PhD program. Maybe it should be more than a nominal feather in a research cap.

    Even if individual departments couldn’t justify the reward, couldn’t the university respond (monetarily or with real resources) to those that end up contributing to home page worthy stories of academic success? Shouldn’t the honors department be given even more resources in return for this story?

    http://www.usu.edu/ust/index.cfm?article=49019

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    • Andrew Barnard says:

      I’m obviously not very familiar with the inner mechanics of professional academia, but I really like the suggestion, Micheal. One of the big things pushed by Teach For America (of which I am currently a member) is that it is best to judge academic success not by standardized test scores, but by eventual college completion.

      Your idea seems to me to be such a concept updated for college work. If the greatest professors are those who instill in their students a deeper understanding and ultimately a passionate curiosity, then such a suggestion would seem to fit, at least roughly.

      On a more personal note, the reason I felt comfortable coming to USU as an undergrad, was because I knew people with a Bachelors from USU who went on to do graduate studies at Cornell, Harvard, Stanford, Duke etc… That they were able to receive an education in Logan that prepared them for the elite grad programs, assured me that USU was indeed a place of higher learning.

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