7.13.2009

Does anyone know or care what philosophers actually do?

If one is a philosopher by trade, as I am, one comes to dread telling strangers what one does for a living. Most people appear to conceive of the job requirements of a philosopher as including vague, dreamy, meaningless pronouncements (such as "Everything is a part of a great Oneness and Circularity" or some such nonsense - I blame the lame-ass "Philosophy" sections in most major bookstores); worrying about completely useless BS (there is something to this accusation, although our worries are occasionally applicable to actual real-world situations); constantly going around proving such non-intuitive propositions as the non-existence of chairs; feeling superior to all non-philosophers; wearing a toga; etc. (For the record, we're actually rather fond of clarity and meaningfulness, where possible -- and remember, we're the logic people!)

It remains a little shocking to me, however, how little people in other humanities departments understand what we do, know what we do, have any confidence that we can do what we're setting out to do, or believe can have any valuable contributions to what we set out to do. I got a BA and an MA in a humanities field (film), and much of the course material was actually covering philosophical topics. However, now that I am a philosopher, I am fully aware of how the philosophical topics covered in film studies (similar to Eng. depts) was covered in complete ignorance of the often extensive and usually more sophisticated literature on the same topics in philosophy journals.

Still, I expected the NEH, of all organizations, to have some clue about what philosophers do. Apparently, they do not. They are offering a grant to humanities professors who can teach "Enduring Questions":
What is an enduring question? The following list is neither prescriptive nor exhaustive but serves to illustrate.

* What is the good life?
* What is happiness?
* What is friendship?
* What is beauty?
* Is there a human nature, and, if so, what is it?
* What is the relationship between humans and the natural world?
* How do science and ethics relate to one another?
* Is there such a thing as right and wrong? Good and evil?
* What is good government?

Enduring questions are, to an overarching degree, predisciplinary. They are questions to which no discipline or field or profession can lay an exclusive claim.

Ahem. To a philosopher, those questions are not "predisciplinary" (whatever that means). Indeed, they are rather disciplinary, since we teach these questions in class all the time, and attempt to answer them in our journals. They are indeed firmly in the center of our discipline.

So philosophers are a bit up in arms about this. In a relatively neutral article in Inside Higher Ed, the apparent ignorance of philosophy by the NEH is smoothed away. But this response to a query by a philosophy professor suggests that even the NEH has little knowledge of what philosophers actually do.

So here is a plea to grant-makers and faculty in the other humanities: if a question seems to be philosophical, or "enduring," come and check out our literature and syllabi! We might have attempted to answer it, and with some expertise!

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