Philosophy has traditionally been considered and considered itself a part of the humanities, with a continuity in skills and attitudes, such as an emphasis on scholarship. In many universities philosophy departments are part of larger humanities faculties and thus fall under governance institutions designed for traditional humanities disciplines like literature, history, law, and religion. This association is bad for philosophy. Philosophy is a science of intellectual inquiry and it needs institutions, methods and attitudes suited to that task.
Sunday 5 June 2022
Monday 18 January 2021
It is very pleasant to entertain a new idea, a new notion or concept to think about and to look at the world with. Indeed, it can have the exciting and intoxicating feel of discovering hidden treasure.
Unfortunately, most ideas are bad - wrong, misleading, dangerous, or of very limited use or relevance. Even more unfortunately, that doesn't prevent them from gaining our interest and enthusiasm. The problem is that getting an idea is just a matter of understanding it (or thinking that you do) and this is just as easy in the case of bad ideas as it is for good ones. In contrast, checking the quality of ideas by interrogating the arguments for them is laborious and distinctly unrewarding - and so avoided as much as possible. The result is that the world is drowning in bad ideas and their dreadful consequences, from conspiracy theories to religions to academic bloopers like critical race theory.
Friday 11 January 2019
In a civilised society, academic scientists are granted a special epistemic authority. They deserve to be listened to, their claims believed, and their recommendations considered seriously. This is because what they say about their subject of expertise is more likely to be true than what anyone else has to say about it.
Unfortunately, some academics believe they have a right - or even a duty - to exploit this privileged status as a resource for influencing society to do what they think best. They lead organisations and political movements to campaign systematically for specific laws, policies, and political candidates. They join governments. They tell their students who to vote for and help them organise protest marches. They launch lawsuits and organise boycotts of companies and countries they disapprove of. Here are some high profile academic activists you might have heard of Catharine MacKinnon, Richard Dawkins, Jordan Peterson, Cornell West, Peter Navarro.
My argument is that activism is something different from merely communicating what you know about a pressing topic to the public or even advocating for specific policies that follow from that expertise. Those are right and proper things for academics to do. Activism goes further and crosses a line that separates virtue from vice. It is not only unethical in itself, but is also antithetical to objective empirical research, public trust in academia, and even the functioning of activist organisations. Because academic activism short-circuits the usual quality control systems, even if it succeeds in achieving its aims it is a matter of luck whether or not society benefits. But because of how it works it certainly degrades democracy.
Monday 26 November 2018
I said academia was conversational, but these are not normal conversations. First because the standard intervention is a 10,000 word long monologue. Second because journals curate what is good enough to be allowed into the conversation using peer-review. These journals are another layer in the academic status economy. They try to publish those monologues of most interest to most people and thus most likely to increase the status of their journal within those academic conversations. The higher the status of a journal the more able it is to bestow prestige upon those who publish in it, and so the more academics will send it their most exciting ideas. A virtuous circle of prestige appears around the journal, which translates into outsized profits for its multinational corporate owner - since every university needs to subscribe to it or risk missing out on the most exciting part of the conversation.
If we were building it from scratch, I don't think we would set up a system like this in which publicly funded research is privatised and commoditised, resulting in enormous profits for a handful of companies while systematically excluding ordinary citizens, journalists, and poorer country universities from access. There are many attempts to change things, from protests against price-gouging behaviours, to boycotts of the most loathed company, Elsevier, to outright defiance (pirate sites like scihub and libgen), to the creation of free Open Access alternatives. I wish them well.* Here I want to open up a new front that is not about access but how the product gets made: the treatment of peer reviewers
Sunday 16 September 2018
"[B]y directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention….By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good." (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, IV.2.9)
Doing right by others is difficult and time-consuming. Hence the attraction of what I call Invisible Hand Ethics, in which we mind our own business and the ethics takes care of itself.
This is modelled on Adam Smith's famous account of how the overall outcome of lots of self-interested actions in the economic sphere can be good for society as a whole. Bakers just want to make a buck, but their self-interest produces the bread that feeds the people. Their competition for sales keeps prices down. The customers in turn just want the cheapest best bread, but wind up helping the best bakers make a good living. You get the idea. Smith argued that in the economic domain this could be a far more reliable mechanism for achieving good outcomes than good intentions.
Friday 4 December 2015
The study of economics does not seem to require any specialized gifts of an unusually high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with the higher branches of philosophy or pure science? An easy subject at which few excel! The paradox finds its explanation, perhaps, in that the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man's nature of his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near to earth as a politician. (J. M. Keynes. 1924. "Alfred Marshall, 1842-1924" in The Economic Journal)
Tuesday 10 November 2015
These essays tend to circle around the same handful of arguments. An especially prominent theme, most frequently associated with Martha Nussbaum's defence of the humanities, is that literature is good for us because it promotes empathy, and the practice of empathy is the heart of liberal ethics and the functioning of civilised society.
Unfortunately, defending literature in this way multiplies rather than reduces philistinism. By mistaking means and ends it excludes the very heart of the matter from consideration. The joy of literature is transmuted into duty. This is in line with how professional academics understand literature - as their daily work, albeit work that they love. But if this is how the people who claim to love literature talk about it, no wonder reading is in decline.
Monday 13 January 2014
The debate about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is becoming increasingly polarised, as tends to happen with debates about educational reform. Education systems embody numerous and often contradictory goals and values - like equality and meritocracy, employability and virtuous citizenship. They also have millions of stake-holders and hundreds of organised interest groups, with different perspectives, material interests and beliefs. This is why education is so intensely political. The status quo represents a tenuous equilibrium - or grudging stalemate - between these competing values, groups, and interests. Certainly this is not an optimal equilibrium, but it is one that cannot be moved away from without harming values and interests that some people hold dear. No matter what kind of educational reform one proposes, at least some stake-holders will object vociferously.
In the case of MOOCs, the polarisation seems to be particularly between tech optimists (all the tech intellectuals seem to be optimists) and pessimistic academics, particularly in the humanities (e.g. this open letter to Michael Sandel). I appreciate that the glib rhetoric of the TED Talk Mafia about our shiny egalitarian digital future displays a singular shallowness of vision that is in need of critique. Yet so far I haven't seen much of that from the academics who are fighting back against this massively disruptive trend in higher education. Many of their complaints look like a rationalisation of their own unenlightened self-interest rather than following from any real consideration of the interests of students.
Tuesday 21 June 2011
Competition is all the rage. When properly set up it is supposed to channel the passions of self-interest via the mechanism of rivalry into increased performance that benefits everyone. The model was developed in sports and then applied to business (it is the essence of Adam Smith's invisible hand) and has now well and truly arrived in academia. Competition is usually evaluated in terms of efficiency or, if you're lucky, justice, but here I want to focus on the harms that intense competition may do to the ethical character of individuals. In particular, how do the characteristic academic virtues of industriousness, honesty, and curiosity fare under competition?
Monday 15 November 2010
I previously argued that universities fail at education, partly because academics are so committed to the life of a scholar: they want to learn, not teach (see part I). So perhaps the real contribution universities make to society comes from their research? On the one hand universities do produce a lot of it; on the other hand it is rarely useful to the rest of us. The struggle for real and important knowledge requires - surprise surprise - more than just setting up an academic bureaucracy and giving it money.
Saturday 6 November 2010
Universities have become an increasingly significant part of the economy and modern life, affecting the lives of millions of people. But what do they really do for us? The most important arguments for the social value of the contemporary university system are its contributions to education and research (see part II). Unfortunately universities currently fail at both.
Wednesday 23 September 2009
The humanities feel embattled, the world they were designed for swept away while other subjects - especially 'mathandscience' - expand at a phenomenal rate. They resemble a little 19th century house on a 21st century street with immense skyscrapers looming ever higher around and over them. Broadly speaking they have responded by turning outwards or retreating inwards.