From that fount of useful knowledge, the Internet, we find an authoritative list of the “Most Useless Degree Subjects” (toptenz.net/to-10-useless-college-classes-degrees.php). At ten we find David Beckham Studies – Staffordshire University. At eight we find the Doctorate in UFOlogy – Melbourne. In fifth place, admittedly behind Queer Musicology (fourth, UCLA) and Star Trek Studies (third, Georgetown) we find philosophy – at various institutions. What are we to make of this?
The first thing of note is that you, Gentle Reader, are not surprised. British culture and the culture of les Anglo-Saxons generally, has always had a vicious, and, when you scratch it, decidedly chippy streak of anti-intellectualism running through it. The existence of these ludicrous degree subjects as much reflects this streak as does the act of juxtaposing them with philosophy on this list. As Bertrand Russell put it in his wonderful lecture “Philosophy and Politics” in 1946: “The British are distinguished among the nations of modern Europe, on the one hand by the excellence of their philosophers, and on the other hand by their contempt for philosophy.”
Dryly, he remarked, “In both respects they show their wisdom.”
Russell’s guarded and partial approval of our culture’s hostility to his calling is that thereby we are spared the excesses of the French philosophes, with their posturing obscurantism, false brilliance and popinjay self-adoration. We are spared also the darker, Germanic, version of the same. Our culture has produced a Hume, a Locke, a Wittgenstein (well, we’ll claim him). It has not, thankfully, produced a Baudrillard, a Derrida, a Foucault – or a Heidegger. It blows a collective raspberry at these types. But the raspberry can be a worryingly inclusive one.
Let’s not start with either the anti-intellectualism of our internet source or our philistine culture; but with the tacit, framework argument the former employs and the latter embraces you have encountered some form of this pervasive argument before, have you not? The hidden premise in this argument is that to be valuable is specifically to be “useful”. Philosophy is valueless because it is useless.
The first, most obvious response to this argument, would be to accept its tacit premise yet deny that philosophy is useless. Surely this would be easily done. One could point to philosophy’s role since antiquity in developing pretty much every other (presumably “useful”) discipline out of it: from physics to physiology, from linguistics to computer science; from calculus to number theory; from psychology to cognitive science; from economics to art history (er, number one in the aforementioned internet list). One could point to philosophy’s ongoing role in developing and criticising the political principles, laws and constitutions of the modern liberal democratic state – and every other state, including the most illiberal.
Arguing that philosophy is useful, hence valuable, would then proceed easily enough. Yet surely to take this line would also be servile: for why should we defer to the tacit premise that to be valuable is to be useful?
Many values are in no obvious way related to utility. Consider artistic value. Duchamp’s urinal is (when suitably plumbed-in) much more useful, in any independently specifiable sense of “useful”, than the great works of representative art it pillories. Yet one hopes our anti-philosophical Philistine would not be so inclusively philistine as to endorse the claim that a working urinal is aesthetically more valuable than a great work of art. Thus, pissing on the former is Good, pissing on the latter, Bad. (Gentle Reader: attempting to block this objection by redefining, say, Botticelli’s Primavera as actually “more useful” than the urinal in some aesthetically-specific sense of “usefulness” is known to Useless Philosophers as a circular or “question begging” argument).
As another example, consider ethical value. Is this to reduce to usefulness? Claiming it does for the case where ‘usefulness’ is used in its everyday sense (i.e. not as a term of art) has been a hallmark of some of the most vicious political systems known to history. Useless Philosophers were in forefront of undermining said systems – through the discipline’s fundamental commitment to rational and radical scrutiny of the sources of value-claims. “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means” sayeth Kant. Where though, the claim that ethical value reduces to utility is made with ‘utility’ employed as a term of art, this becomes a specific philosophical view: one some philosophers argue for (Bentham, Mill) and others argue against (Kant). Your eligibility for a given medical intervention will be argued for by health economists, civil servants, insurers and lawyers on the basis of a dim, inchoate, understanding of those arguments – as developed by Useless Philosophers over the past 300 years. Should we abandon these arguments as philosophical, hence useless, yet retain one side’s contention sans argument that ethical value is utility? One hopes not.
Presumably then, we must concede that not all value is use, but to regard specifically educational value as reducing to utility (a view of Other People’s Education that is wonderfully popular among our political elite). Concluded from this Gradgrind assumption is that philosophy is valueless because useless; despite the fact that many other, non-educational things possess value that does not reduce to utility – amongst them certain things of which philosophy treats (art, ethics). Hardly an easy position to defend one would think. Firstly: Why should we see specifically educational value as reducing to utility? Secondly: What sense of ‘utility’?
What many versions of our Philistine’s argument tacitly embrace is the assumption that some non-degree subjects have “real” value – plumbing, say, because useful things get done (urinals are plumbed in). Other, degree subjects, have real value also – engineering, or law, say, because useful things get done (bridges are built, people are sued). Some disciplines stray far from any obvious utility outcome (philosophy say) and are thereby valueless. Other disciplines also stray far from any obvious utility outcome (being very abstract, say); yet are so widely feared and respected that the Philistines do not wish to lock horns with them (though they’re not averse to chronically underfunding them): theoretical physics say, or pure mathematics. For these latter, the Philistine tacitly assumes a reduction will be possible: they are of value inasmuch as the plumbers and engineers and bomb-builders will ultimately need to rely upon them. That this reductive cash value is far from the value their own practitioners accord them; and moreover highly hostage to fortune, is not to be scrutinised too closely.
The challenge remains as to what “use” is – the usefulness that philosophy is held to lack. Meeting this challenge cannot be done by offering us a list – one including the fixing of urinals and the litigation of defendants; but not including the answering of such questions as “how should one live?” For why – in virtue of what – should not philosophy petition to be on that list? Adding requirements, such as “to be useful is to satisfy [real?] needs” won’t be any better – for in virtue of what can it be said that fundamental inquiry into the roots of things for only its own sake doesn’t satisfy a real need? The need, that is, to fundamentally inquire into the roots of things, either for only its own sake … or, if you must: because the unexamined life is not worth living.
Ultimately, one suspects our utility Philistine will need to go to one of two positions: either a strong relativism of one kind or other; or a dogmatically prescriptive statement of values. The latter would be the way many of philosophy’s historic enemies (religious and political) have gone through the ages: to proscribe radical, unrestricted, rational inquiry because these, here, are the valuable things; and these others are to be prohibited on an authority that may not be critically scrutinised. However, I think it unlikely that this is the route our Philistine will take. Philosophy in the mainstream of our culture is not much at risk from a strong, fundamentalist adherence to values that fear rigorous critical scrutiny. It is at risk from our society’s widespread indifference to the results or activity of any critical scrutiny, its lack of any enthusiasm for intellectual rigour and its lack of much that passes for a set of values at all. Perhaps such a lack of values is the nearest thing our society has to a core value. Certainly relativism seems nearer to our culture’s axiological heart than anything else. “What is useful?” Philistine is asked. “Useful is as the market-place determines it” will be one answer. “Useful is as society finds it” will be another. Since our society tends to find what it values by shopping, or voting on reality TV phone lines, these two answers may become one. Where they are distinct, still we have a choice between either a social or an economic relativism.
Relativism of either kind is of course, one of the things a few Useless Philosophers (such as Protagoras) invented and a great number of other Useless Philosophers (such as Plato) eviscerated. One might wish that our Philistine would scrutinise their arguments. If he does not though, quite beside the philosopher’s stock responses to relativism per se, a social or market-place relativism looks specifically problematic for the Philistine here.
One of the things one notes about most of the other entrants on the Useless Internet List is their faddish, ephemeral and demand-driven nature (‘Star Trek Studies’) – and thereby the crude and gleeful slur by association through listing them with philosophy. One way of criticising these non-disciplines is that their justification is purely market-driven: they recruit. Their justification is thoroughly relativistic – for some, a sneering post-modern relativism of values (Shakespeare or Beckham Studies, it’s all the go!) But for all, an insecure relativism of the marketplace: if Beckham Studies recruits, it is self-justifying – heck, it might even save our jobs. (Though sometimes, market-relativists of a consistently libertarian streak restrict their endorsement of this argument to non-publicly funded universities). The philosopher can object that Beckham Studies is valueless because it is faddish, empty, gimmicky drivel. The market or social relativist has to make criticism contingent on it being unpopular.
In what sense is one discipline – say, plumbing, or macroeconomics – more “useful” than another – say, philosophy? Plumbing is more useful because of greater demand, the market relativists will partly contend – and partly entreaty. Market forces demand it more. Economics analyses these market forces, and is seen as useful, not because it does so, and thereby offers us insight into the nature of things; but because these market forces in turn value it – whether it gives us knowledge or the reading of entrails. It can become a “meme that survives”. Twelve years ago I knew an outstanding student who graduated with a first in philosophy from a very solid university, only then to do a masters in economics at an elite university. He didn’t make this switch because economics was easier (though it was, of course). He did it for the money. Immediately upon graduation he and his fellow graduates were all recruited by merchant banks (you can read of the results in the financial pages). Their Useful Education was more valued (in Pounds, Dollars and eventually Euros) so it was thereby deemed more valuable. One supposes this is pretty close to the heart of the matter.
Either philosophy is “useful” or it is not. It is, of course, but so what? One should scorn to use that in its defence. Either value (educational or otherwise) reduces to usefulness or it does not (it does not of course). Now, either Philistine successfully argues that value consists in usefulness (and that philosophy is useless) or he does not. If he doesn’t, his case is lost (and it is lost of course). But go to the other horn of this dilemma and take the subjunctive mood: Were he, per imposibile, to argue successfully that value consisted in usefulness (and that philosophy was useless) what then would be the case? Then he would be arguing about, and defending, a thesis about fundamental, higher order, reflexive questions of value. Admittedly, (to remove the subjunctive mood) he will lose his argument, for his position clearly f outs the facts and is crass, boorish and reflexively indefensible, but it is a radical, metaphilosophical, axiological position – and a set of [admittedly bad, tacit] arguments thereto. Philistine isn’t only criticising philosophy, he’s doing philosophy. Bad philosophy is still philosophy. Were he to win his case he would lose. Lucky for him he doesn’t win then – he only loses. And to some, guarded, extent it may be lucky for us (or at least morally improving for us) that we live in a society rich with Useful Philistines, for it is a society in which those who are not Philistines are not encouraged to take themselves too seriously, comme les Français. Now and again though, the Philistines get simply too rowdy and triumphalist even when judged by their own low standards; and we do need to send a few rounds over just to get them to keep their bloody silly heads down.