Monday, January 08, 2007

Would your department hire Socrates?

An exchange of emails yesterday has made me think more about a few questions, which I will probably come back to here over the next few days. For now, I want to start with what might seem an odd question: Would any philosophy department these days hire Socrates? Of course, in one sense this is an absurd question. For one thing, Socrates would have no need of paid employment. Like the majority of ancient philosophers, he was fortunate enough to have the economic means to spend his leisure thinking and talking. This is not a trivial point, however, because it is part of the general picture of the professionalisation of philosophy as an academic discipline -- something which has had important positive and negative consequences. I'll come back to that.

Just suppose that Socrates bothered to write an application. What then? (Let's just imagine we can form a reasonably clear picture of what Socrates was like and of his general intellectual standpoint. That too is not something without considerable difficulties but we can breezily set them aside for now.) Famously, he wrote nothing, so a UK philosophy department interested in retaining its funding would have to take a big chance in hiring someone they know will contribute nothing at all to the Research Assessment Exercise. Socrates' major contribution would have to be in the area of teaching. Here we might think he would score well -- he has some well-known students: both those who went on to continue philosophical work, this time with a rather better publication record (Plato) and those who saw their talents lying elsewhere (Alcibiades?) Perhaps this would be enough. Other considerations might also be worth taking into account. For example, although Socrates' attitude towards the sort of people he might engage in discussion seems to have been relatively liberal, his students would probably not be particularly interested in participating in any Access and Outreach initiatives to widen participation in higher education.

A more general question is whether what Socrates would understand as 'philosophy' is what a modern philosophy department would understand by the same term. Would he be eligible for employment? For Socrates, it seems, the principal aim of his philosophical discussions was the pursuit of some kind of self-knowledge, which essentially involves the pursuit of an understanding of how best we might live our lives. This might, along the way, involve the odd foray into the philosophy of language (What is it to give an account of 'what-it-is-to-be' e.g. virtue?) or epistemology (If we happen to discover what virtue is how can we know that we know what is virtue?) but the primary focus is ethics of a certain sort, done in a certain way.

This is where Socrates might be thought to score over modern professional academics, since Socrates is always focused on a form of philosophy directly relevant to our lives and attempts to pursue it in a public way. Professional academics, on the other hand, as well as lecturing to their students, spend their time in the main writing papers for academic journals or writing books that are read only be a very few people and are usually pretty obscure to the general reader. It is, all the same, worth remembering that Socrates' own conception of what 'philosophy' is was not at the time universally shared. It is instructive to think that Plato and his chums were themselves at loggerheads with others (e.g. Isocrates) about what philosophy is, what philosophers ought to do, and whether (and in what way) philosophers ought to be engaged with society more generally.

Given the remoteness of academic philosophy from most people's lives or thoughts, has something gone wrong? I'm not convinced it has. Certainly, no one coming to study for a philosophy degree is likely as a direct result of their academic study to leave with a clear idea of how to live the best life. University can change your mind in all sorts of ways, and dedicated study of a subject you love and which interests you is -- to my mind, at least -- part of a good life. But philosophy in particular does not have a monopoly on that. (Of course, you might, I suppose, broaden the understanding of philosophy so that it encompasses a vast range of pursuits. It is possible, I suppose, to 'love wisdom' is all sorts of ways that would make philosophy in this sense a better candidate for a route to a good life. In that case anyone engaged in serious reflection might somehow be said to be a philosopher.) It is also true that much professional academic philosophy is not a great read and will not win prizes for style or for engaging wider reflection. But that's OK too, I think, if we remember that philosophy in this vein is not intended to be a guide for us all to live by. It might, on occasion, have in view an audience with a particular interest in or responsibility for public policy, for example, but it no more is obliged to engage the public at large than a research paper by a leading economist. It isn't fair to say that academic philosophers are doing philosophy badly (and that Socrates did it well) because 'philosophy' is not a clear and definite practice in the first place.

It is, no doubt, true that the rise of philosophy as an academic profession has had numerous effects. The attendant criteria of assessment and of peer-review and appraisal, research funding and job tenure has affected the style of what philosophers write, how often they publish, and has pushed philosophical discussions in various particular directions. But there are benefits too. For one thing, you might make the case that it has opened up the subject to a much wider range of people. It is a mistake to think that every Athenian woke up in the morning, headed to the agora, and began discussing the nature of courage with the first person he met. Most of them would have got up, headed to the fields or the harbour and got on with the day to day needs. The smart Athenian farmer would in all likelihood not have had the opportunity to spend his time in philosophical reflection of any sort. Paying people to be work in philosophy departments (and history departments, English departments too), then, has in the modern age generated a professionalised discipline but it has also made it possible for more people from a wider section of the population to spend their time doing it and teaching others as they do so. That is something which I think is worth praising. (I would, wouldn't I?)

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