In Defense Of The Philosophy Faculty

When I began studying philosophy in 1997 some people called it navel-gazing. It is no different in 2017, as calls for austerity affect everything that doesn’t generate a direct cash return. The reputation of philosophy, because it has no (and cannot have) direct practical value, is that of a complex game of words that refuses to surrender to the regime of utility.

If philosophy doesn’t demand absolute independence from cultural, economical or religious influences, it ceases to be the love of wisdom and becomes the worship of the power structure that embeds it. Of course it is always embedded in such a power structure (as a faculty with a budget, staffed by people with salaries and affinities); hence a philosophy faculty cannot exist without a permanent struggle to evade canonization as a useful, rational underpinning of the real thing: the worldly sciences.

The idea that such struggle is prima facie, and not only after its effects have been measured, beneficial (to avoid the word useful) with respect to something like truth, is difficult to accept, precisely because it evades the framework of economical usefulness in the most fundamental way: it indefinitely postpones the ‘cashing in’ on its usefulness, something that is anachronistic in an era that is obsessed with realizing the idea of future today.

Is this the cultural bias against the benefits of a strange discipline that appears to force itself to be contrarian? Every time a philosophical theory becomes ‘fixed’ as a useful tool for a particular science, it loses her philosophical essence. At their heart, the theories of Marx, Darwin, Freud and their twentieth-century successors are philosophical new ways of asking questions. Sure, these theories have been refined (or: overcome) but that is not the point. Such theories ask the foundational questions of disciplines. They might have a ‘return on investment’ only in useful applications, but the kind of thinking that gives rise to them can be organized in a properly philosophical environment.

So there are these two lines of argument in favor of the philosophy faculty:
1) The irreducible value of the unique ‘flight forward’ to ever new perspectives due to the proper intention of philosophy to ‘leave nothing unthought’ (which can be read as ‘thinking totality’, or not). The value of philosophy exists in opposition to the cultural context that embeds it. It always has to think this opposition and can therefor never be contained. This restless ‘spirit’ of philosophy is directed towards truth, with which it coincides at the end of days. In a certain way it is the secularized Jewish or Christian (idealist) eschatology.
Giving this philosophical drive a formal place in socity is an existential choice that is and should be presented to the sovereign (the electorate). Personal note: This ride (or rite, in a wink to Derrida’s différance) of truth is invaluable to me.
2) The ability of the philosophy faculty to nurture and disseminate theories that can later be borrowed by other sciences that can make them useful (if and only if they deprive these theories of their philosophical spirit).

The more practical issue is whether the creation and teaching of fundamental and foundational theories should be relegated to a faculty that specializes in them. Of course individual philosophers could be integrated in other faculties, such as physics, anthropology, or law and still be prolific researchers and great teachers. However, this misses one great opportunity of philosophy gives us: mingling between faculties. If students of law, economics, biology and architecture take the very same logic and ethics classes, there is the unique opportunity of cross-pollination, of interesting debates between the students (and who knows, their tutors) that will ultimately sharpen the intellectual contours of society.

I think such classes are best organized by a distinct faculty in order to avoid the possibility of bias. But more importantly, a philosophy faculty should be something like the dedicated and sacred ground of Reason.

In Defense Of The Philosophy Faculty was originally published on Meandering home


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Kamiel Choi

Dutch philosopher and poet, sometimes sharing thoughts on the internet.

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