Philosophy is the poor relation on many university campuses. The commandeering of physical and fiscal Lebensraum by the “STEM” subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) forces humanities departments into undignified competition for dwindling resources. And since intellectual pugilism doesn’t necessarily translate into the (more useful) political kind, the philosophers rarely come out on top, instead left to cringe apologetically in whichever dusty garret has already been rejected by History, Law or English.
But things are even worse outside the ivory tower. Tell a fellow dinner-party guest that you’re a philosopher and one of three things will happen. One: stares of blank incomprehension, accompanied by panicked glances in the direction of the host. Two: a request that you spout whatever fridge-magnet bromides you surely spend your days brewing in lotus position. Or three: “Psychology! How interesting.”
Gathered around their inferior coffee machines, the philosophers gnash their teeth. Philosophy is distinctive, they object. It makes a special kind of contribution to the world. But while many non-scientists think that science is valuable and worth supporting, the only people who seem to care about philosophy are the philosophers themselves – a precarious state of affairs, since philosophers constitute a tiny minority not just in wider society, but amongst the upper tiers of university administration, too.
I am one of the teeth-gnashers. I believe that philosophy is valuable and that its institutions are worthy of support. But it seems to me that many philosophers share an assumption with their extramural oppressors, and that is this: that philosophy is something other, something separate; that it stands apart not just from the rest of the academy, but also from the culture at large. This assumption engenders a certain fatalism among academic philosophers. “The value of philosophy is unfortunately just not something comprehensible by civilians,” goes the thought. “Any attempt to get ‘non-philosophers’ on board – be they members of the general public or university managers – is bound to fail. The gulf that exists between philosophy and ‘the culture’ is simply unbridgeable. We had better get on with the real intellectual work.”
I think that this assumption is false. Because on at least some conceptions of what the project of “culture” is, philosophy is not just closer to culture than many philosophers seem to think, but an integral part of it.
One of the first articulations of the meaning of the term “culture” appeared in 1869, with the publication of British critic Matthew Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy”. For Arnold, culture was not a set of intrinsically valuable but societally inert art-objects to be consumed, contemplated for idle amusement, or leveraged in order to appear sophisticated amongst one’s peers. Culture was best thought of not as something consumed, but as a kind of critical activity, directed both at the world and at the individual herself.
Engaging with culture, Arnold tells us, is a means of “turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.” But this critical activity isn’t just directed at making things better “out there”, as it were. Arnold tells us that culture is also matter of developing within oneself the resources required to live a more thoughtful and fulfilling life. It is the fostering of what he calls, rather splendidly, the “inward ripeness” of the individual: it is as much a matter of introspection as it is of outward-directed activity. Critical interrogation directed both at the world and at the thinker’s own inner resources – the task of culture, so described, sounds a lot like the task of philosophy.
Granted, much of what we term “culture” today doesn’t obviously see itself as engaged in some Victorian-era Serious Purpose. Nor is this necessarily a defect on its part. Still, there’s a recognisable strand in contemporary culture – across the humanities, but also in literature, art and music – that does, I think, see itself in Arnold’s terms: as being in the business of subjecting the world to critical scrutiny, on one hand, and enriching the inner life of the individual on the other. When one interprets the term “culture” in this more horticultural, “cultivating” sense, it starts to look inherently philosophical – or rather, philosophy starts to look inherently cultural. And the gap between philosophy and the rest of the world starts to look rather bridgeable.
To assert that philosophy and culture share a common project is neither to claim that philosophy is the same thing as literature, or visual art, or history, nor that it is reducible to those things. Far from it. Philosophy is a distinctive and powerful form of critical activity, and it offers the aspiring social horticulturalist a useful set of garden tools to deploy: the making of distinctions, the analysis of disputes not merely in terms of their content but also in terms of their structure, among many others. The challenge facing philosophers today is not to convince the rest of the world to get on board with its project. It’s to first of all acknowledge that much of the rest of the world is already committed to that very project, before making the case for philosophy as a distinctively valuable way to interrogate the world, and to strive for a more fulfilling life.
It’s not necessary to be in a philosophy department to engage in the kind of critical activity I’ve been describing. Nor is it sufficient: being a professional philosopher does not in itself constitute a guarantee that one’s activities will count as critical in the right sense, any more than daubing paint on a canvas necessarily makes one an artist. But the philosophy department is, I think, an institution that it is important to preserve. Many who share that intuition are making welcome attempts to render the discipline more inclusive – to make philosophy a more congenial and accessible intellectual environment for women, minorities and people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, for instance. This is part of the challenge that faces academic philosophy, certainly. But I don’t think philosophers should confine their efforts to attracting more people into “the discipline”.
As I see it, philosophers should be trying to equip the greatest number of people possible, within academia and without, to do philosophy to whatever extent possible: to have some grasp of what it’s about, how it’s done, and what the benefits of doing it are. Teaching philosophy in universities, even to (or perhaps especially to) those students who have no intention of becoming professional philosophers, is a key part of this endeavour. But so is public engagement, whether it’s in the form of making technical debates intelligible to non-specialist readers, or in deliberately orienting philosophical attention toward issues of obvious contemporary relevance: race, gender, the impact of digital technology. One sometimes gets the feeling these days that any labour not counted as “proper” philosophical work – writing not clearly germane to one’s progression through graduate school, or that won’t obviously make one more eligible for tenure, or that isn’t likely to get one published in one of the top-tier journals – is discouraged, tacitly if not actively. This attitude is not only stultifying to those who have a flair for communicating philosophical ideas (and thereby, understanding and enthusiasm for philosophy) to non-specialists, but ultimately damaging to the prospects of the discipline, as well.
I think that all professional philosophers should be actively incentivised to communicate their ideas to a general audience, however informally. The status quo, whereby to engage in public conversations is seen as a potentially distracting extra-curricular activity, ought to be reconsidered. And I think that professional philosophers would be well served to stop telling people how distinctive, special and unique their discipline is, and to start emphasising their commitment to a shared cultural project. I’d like to see a future where philosophers are encouraged to act as the contributors to culture that we in fact are, rather than as the disenfranchised exiles that we are not.