(Or, Earning Your Keep in the Ivory Tower)
In a memorable passage from his Essays (published in 1580), Michel de Montaigne describes philosophers as one-eyed ranters who do nothing but split hairs, digress, obfuscate, quarrel, brawl and “use the advantage of their lungs”1. His diatribe is brilliantly entertaining to read, but it paints a dismal picture. And as a friend recently reminded me, many introductory philosophy classes today do little to dispel these stereotypes of philosophers.
With superb rhetorical flourish, Montaigne considers the various inept and foolish ways in which scholars use logical argument. They only argue in order to contradict one another, he says, and amid all the contradictions they lose track of the truth. They collapse under the weight of their own learning, lacking the skill and understanding to deploy what they’ve learned. They waffle on in the schools even more than they do in the taverns. And even when professional logicians meet formally, their solemn debates are no more meaningful than the gossip among fishmongers.
In light of all this, Montaigne asks, who wouldn’t doubt the value of philosophy? Why should we expect logical arguments to bear “any solid fruit for the service of life”? And later, in a wonderfully mischievous passage, he writes:
Take a Master of Arts, and converse with him: Why does he not make us feel the excellence of his training? Why does he not captivate…ignorant people like ourselves with admiration for the soundness of his reasoning, and the beauty of his ordered argument? Why does he not persuade us at will? Why does a man with such advantages mix insults, recklessness and fury with his fencing?
I wonder whether these questions are still pertinent today. How often – and how satisfactorily – do contemporary philosophers express their ideas clearly, rationally and persuasively to the general public? Have philosophers managed to shrug off their reputation as semantic nitpickers, quibbling amongst themselves over arcane distinctions? How many of them fit the whimsical description of ivy-covered professors in ivy-covered halls, permanently sequestered in university or college departments?
Last year, as the only visitor among a tweed of academic philosophers, I was invited along to a university seminar presented by an ethicist. There we were, gathered beneath tall leadlight windows in the rarefied atmosphere of the Old Arts building, debating whether Philosophy should be socially relevant.
The contentious issue was whether government funding bodies should fund philosophical research only if it benefits the broader public in some explicit way. Across Europe, this is routine: public funding is only available to philosophers who can demonstrate the social impact of their work. In Australia, though, academic philosophers need only demonstrate the potential for impact within their discipline (for instance, the potential to inspire future research) – and abracadabra! The public purse opens, and the philosophers have at it.
So, the ethicist staked her claim: esoteric research should still be allowed – and researchers entitled to their salaries – but grant money from government sources should be reserved for projects with wider social benefit. Research in philosophy doesn’t cost that much anyway, does it? What do you need? A library, a pencil, a notebook, some time to think?
The academics wouldn’t have a bar of it. They were indignant about this idea of needing to make themselves useful. I wanted to hear their rebuttals, but none of the tweed delivered. The best they could come up with was that research in philosophy is just good in itself. “Well, that requires justification,” replied the ethicist. No-one replied.
I left disheartened. A philosopher saying “It’s just good in itself” is like a six year old saying “Just because.” Or like an engineer saying “Subsidise my factory, because I make widgets!”
Thinking back on it now, I reckon the tweeds could have done better. They could have said that in the current economic environment, researchers still have their pencils and paper, but they no longer have much time to think. They could have argued that the only way to pursue research systematically is to secure time-release from teaching and administrative responsibilities – and that this requires government funding. Still, I think they’d be hard pressed to explain why socially relevant research shouldn’t take priority over other philosophical investigations.
In any case, I think it’s fortunate that we have at least a few philosophers who are passionate about communicating the relevance of their ideas to the community at large. “The best philosophers convey such an enthusiasm for thinking,” says Nigel Warburton (who, having left academia, is now a ethicist-at-large). “It’s difficult to emerge unchanged from a conversation with someone who cares so much about the subject. It’s genuinely important to them. You catch philosophy from these people.”
Bring on the pandemic, I say.
1 From Montaigne’s ‘Of the Art of Conferring’, Essays, Book 3, Chapter 8.
The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children in Australia.