Should the Government fund Philosophy departments?

(image from Wikipedia)

The view from the hill of the Areopagus in Athens, a gathering of philosopher-type people, where, amongst other things, St Paul preached (Acts 17)

Yes. Yes it should.

Here are four closely related thoughts as to why this is the case. The humanities in general, and perhaps particularly the relatively ‘abstract’ subjects such philosophy, have many critics. I hope some of them read this post. I act on the assumption that the govt is in the business of funding tertiary education to some extent or other; given this, I argue that philosophy should be part of the mix that is funded.

1) Philosophy can make people uncomfortable. A central role of the university in the New Zealand context is to act as “the critic and conscience of society”. I don’t see many engineering departments striving to meet this requirement, but that doesn’t mean it’s not of value! Focussing purely on ‘practical’ and professional fields, for the sake of best promoting ‘success’, in terms of growing the economy and such is, I suggest, to assume that we already know what is ‘best’; i.e. we have particular goals, and just need to pump more resources into achieving them. A good philosophy department can train people who will help society to regularly re-evaluate where it is heading. It’s important to ensure that we don’t fall into the trap of simply assuming that we’re on the right path; taking into account the systematic thinking of previous eras and analysing what lies behind our own culture’s behaviours can be very helpful and will be necessary if we are to respond well to the challenges of a broken world.

2) Philosophy can complement other subjects. As well as the traditional focal points of philosophy such as ethics, logic, metaphysics and epistemology, there are a host of “philosophy of …” sub-disciplines. Law, science, and mind (basically psychology) were three that I was able to study at undergrad level at uni. In general, critical thought about the foundations of a subject can help to drive progress in it and to ensure consistency within the discipline and with other fields of study. Personally, studying economics while also developing my thinking through philosophy has given me a quite different view of the merits of certain economic theories in their wider social context than that taught or assumed by many staff in the economics department.

3) Philosophy has historically been a source of other disciplines. “Science progresses and improves constantly, and has contributed hugely to our quality of life – but what good has philosophy done?!” is a fairly common sentiment. But what we call science was once “natural philosophy”, and a similar story is true of a range of other subjects. If it wasn’t for philosophy, it is arguable that we wouldn’t have science, maths, economics, or ethics. Perhaps, though, philosophy has outlived its usefulness? For as long as our society needs people thinking deeply about the foundations of the disciplines and endeavours into which most of our energy is going, this will not be the case.

4) Philosophy can remind us of the transcendent. It’s a bold claim, but I think that human flourishing requires, at the least, some recognition of a transcendent facet of the universe; if the govt. aims to promote flourishing, it should avoid a minimalist public square which is materialist by default and promote vigorous dialogue around things like values, metaphysics, purpose and rights; in any case, it should be willing to support public institutions that facilitate such discussion.

So – philosophers may seem to be peripheral to a modern technological society governed by a compassionate democracy – but appearances can be deceiving; and sometimes it can take a philosopher to spot what’s really going on.

Potential conflict of interest:
I would like to one day teach philosophy in a research university (probably won’t happen, but it’s something I wouldn’t mind doing), or at least to study it further with the help of some government funding. :/


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