Predicting the future is dangerous business, but I’m going on a limb and say that, yes, likely, academic philosophy will exist ten or twenty years down the road, just like academic literature, poetry, music, art history, and all the other humanistic disciplines. The real question is: should that be the case, or would society be better off without it, perhaps re-organising universities along the so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines? I think the answer depends on academic philosophers recalling exactly what bargain we struck with society and why it’s worth keeping it.
Historically, philosophy has largely existed, thrived even, outside of universities. (And the same is true for literature, poetry, music, etc.) Yes, Kant was a professor at the University of Königsberg, and he did most of his influential work there. But his contemporary, Hume, was twice denied a similar honour, and did very well nevertheless, thank you very much, becoming a bestselling author of history books, and welcomed in the Salons of the Enlightenment. Needless to say, Socrates, Aristotle, Boethius, Descartes, Marx, Camus, and many, many others over the course of the last two and a half millennia did not enjoy tenure either. Indeed, given the current awful treatment of so-called adjunct faculty in American universities, I would argue that the majority of professional philosophers today would not be in a much worse position if academic philosophy ceased to exist. (And yes, I am fully cognisant that I’m writing this from the privileged position of my endowed chair. The argument stands nevertheless.)
In fact, the rapidly evolving world of new media and social networks has made possible the emergence of the successful (!) freelance philosopher. My friend Nigel Warburton, who produces Philosophy Bites, a podcast with tens of millions of downloads, is one example. Julian Baggini, the founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, is another. And let’s not even mention Alain de Botton, love him or hate him as the case may be. Add to that the undeniable fact that a lot of academic publications in philosophy are probably never read by anyone, and that even the most successful papers are likely cited by a few dozen people at best, and one begins to seriously wonder if it isn’t time for philosophy to get over its dependence on the ivory tower.
(Incidentally, that statistic about most technical papers being ignored and never cited is true also for the sciences. I know because I was a research biologist for almost a quarter century. As geology professor John Platt wrote in the pages of Science magazine already in 1964: “[Scientists] speak piously of taking measurements and making small studies that will add another brick to the temple of science. [But] most such bricks just lie around the brickyard.”)
That said, I do think it would be a mistake to eliminate departments of philosophy (or of literature, music, art) from our colleges and universities. That, however, is because of the teaching that goes on there, not the scholarship. Some of my colleagues seem to forget that we are given certain privileges by society in exchange for a few duties. The privileges include job security (though less and less so, and for fewer and fewer people), a certain societal cachet to be used at cocktail parties or to impress potential mates (“What? You are a university professor? Wow!”), and the opportunity to spend a good number of hours per week – not to mention large chunks of the winter and the entire summer – just reading and writing about whatever the heck we happen to be interested in. We are not paid much to do so, compared to other professions requiring a postgraduate degree, and it takes a long time to get there, but it’s a nice gig if you can get it.
The duties, however, include first and foremost teaching fundamental ideas to the next generation of citizens, helping them to develop the critical tools to become not just competitive workers (hey, everyone needs a job), but more importantly informed members of a more or less democratic society, capable of reflecting on their choices in life and of living a fulfilling existence on this planet, ideally while making it a better place (or, at least, not a worse one) by the time we recycle ourselves into cosmic dust. That duty cannot be left to the STEM fields alone, because a huge, critical chunk would go missing, to the detriment of all. The problem is that far too often we forget the terms of the bargain, convincing ourselves that the really important thing we do is to write one more paper on the metaphysics of grounding, on the likelihood that we live in a simulation, on philosophical zombies, on trolley dilemmas, or you name it. In reality, those are pleasant cherries on the cake (well, depending on one’s taste, really). The cake itself is the privilege, and sacred duty, we have to help shape young minds for the difficult tasks that the next generation of human beings will have to face, largely as a result of the failures of the current and past generations. It’s a good bargain, society ought to keep it, and we ought to honour it.