Are philosophers still relevant?

(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.

academic philosophers

Drawing by Austin Briggs, from Illustration Art

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.

are logical arguments any more coherent than fishmarket gossip?

Apparently “herring wives” were known for their gabbling in Montaigne’s day. (Image credit).

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?1

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?

ivory tower

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?

tools for philosophers

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.

should philosophy be socially relevant?

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.



2 responses to “Are philosophers still relevant?

  1. Thanks for this post, Michelle. What follows is a bit jumbled up and cobbled together on the go, but here go some thoughts:

    I do have a bit of a problem with the concept of relevance in an academic context and even more so when it comes to funding. It runs the risk of being reduced to “relevant” for people’s everyday life (whatever that may mean) or “applicable” in some way. Whether in philosophy or science, I feel this is a dangerous path for education or academia to go down, simply because relevance –let alone applicability -is not always immediately obvious or immediate in time. “Irrelevant research” can lead to relevant changes in society further down the line. Apparently inapplicable findings or discussions can lead to highly applicable ideas or discoveries in the future. Also, who is to judge what is relevant and what isn’t relevant? If an outside(non-specialist) view of relevance had governed some of the best scientists and philosophers’ work throughout history, how many discoveries and breakthroughs would we have missed? I’d bet quite a few. Also, it ties in with a general prejudice towards philosophy in principle: “it’s not practical”. In one of my more recent workshops of philosophy with children, there was a boy who was very much interested in attending the workshop, with a mother who was also very keen. The father, however, thought it was highly “impractical”. He thought that time would be better spent doing something more “relevant” to his life, to his future career, to whatever. I think if even those who are interested in taking philosophy to a broader audience and practicing philosophy in other arenas, pander to the idea of relevance in this sense, we are in a way perpetuating the prejudice that thinking for the sake of thinking is a waste of time, when it is, or can be, should be? the salt of life.
    I think there are two separate questions here in any case. One the one hand there is the issue of how academic philosophers communicate their ideas and their research to a broader audience. Generally speaking the answer is badly. Even very badly. Should they do more to improve communication of what they do? Yes, among other reasons, because I’m sure the “social relevance” of their work would soon become far more evident with greater clarity and further explanation.
    The other question is whether society should restrict funded research and thinking in general to what is deemed “socially relevant” or “beneficial”. Here, I have to say, absolutely NO! My brother is a Japanese literature scholar at UCLA and has just published a book that examines the literary representation of the late seventh-century Japanese Yamato court as a realm of “all under heaven”, showing how competing political interests and different styles of representation produced not a unified ideology, but rather a “bundle” of disparate imperial imaginaries collected around the figure of the imperial sovereign. How is this socially relevant or beneficial? It’s hard to argue for it being so. Did he get any government funding? No. But do I believe passionately that there should be people in the world thinking about anything thinkable they are passionate about and analyzing it in detail, comparing it, turning it around and looking at it from all perspectives possible? Yes. If you remove all government funding from “esoteric” research, “esoteric” research is reserved for the rich. Also, again, who decides what is “esoteric” or “relevant”. It is necessarily a politically charged idea and in many areas can very easily lead to censorship.
    When academics say “philosophy is good in itself” is it not just a version of “learning is good in itself”? I believe in an education system that rests on that principle, for children, and for adults, in academia and in life. I would also want a government who defends this principle as the basis of an education system arrived at by consensus of all agents involved.

    A metaphor that comes to mind is “play”. Taking away the “esoteric” from scientific and philosophical academic research is like taking away the play time from children at school. And we all know how important playing is in the learning process, at all ages and in all contexts.

  2. Thanks for your very insightful comments, Ellen. You’re right to distinguish the three questions: whether philosophers have a responsibility to communicate better with the public; whether philosophical research should be relevant to everyday life; and whether research that’s not deemed ‘relevant’ in this way should still be eligible for government funding. On the first and second points we agree. I like your suggestion that we shouldn’t demand relevance (even if we recognise it as something valuable), since this would compromise freedom of thought and expression, as well as suppressing the pursuit of curiosity for its own sake. Still, I think we need to be able to explain why we believe that learning is a good in itself. I’ve made some speculations about this in my recent post A professional human being.

    On your third point (about the value of ‘pure interest’ research), I take your point that seemingly ‘irrelevant’ research has the potential to lead to unanticipated social benefits. But I’m still not convinced that this potential alone is sufficient to justify the allocation of government funds. Let’s assume that novel philosophical research should provide at least some social benefit. Given the limited funds available, in order to justify funding for seemingly irrelevant research projects, we’d need reason to believe that this kind of research is likely to be as effective (or more effective) in providing social benefit as seemingly relevant research.

    As to your concern that removing government funding would make esoteric research accessible only to the wealthy, I see this as a reflection of underlying social inequalities that I don’t believe can be remedied by funding this or that research project. To address the underlying inequalities and create a fairer society is a more pressing requirement (and the real business of government, in my view).

    This leaves the legitimate question of ‘Who decides what’s relevant?’ which goes along with the question ‘How is the quality of a research proposal evaluated?’ – questions that perhaps have a different answer in practice than we might wish.

    I like your point about academic research and play. You might enjoy Michael Cholbi’s post If students can’t play, can they learn to philosophize?.

    Thanks again for sharing your well-considered thoughts!

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