Philosophy Matters – Annual Institute of Philosophy Event – March 2011

Why study philosophy? Is philosophy valuable to those in society who don’t engage with it directly? Is a degree in philosophy a good preparation for employment? How does philosophy contribute to culture and can it help us be happy?

This event, organised by the philosophy departments of the University of Bristol and UWE, was a rebuff to current political thinking which questions the value of the humanities and other non-vocational subjects, reducing them to their economic and social impact. It challenged the view of the Brown report that higher education is a private good aimed solely at increasing the earning power of the individual, providing concrete examples of ways in which philosophical and critical thinking contribute to our society. The panel of experts were Professor A.C. Grayling (Birkbeck College, University of London); Baroness Professor Onora O’Neill (House of Lords & Cambridge); Professor James Ladyman (University of Bristol); Dr Havi Carel (UWE, Bristol). The discussion was chaired by Dr Julian Baggini (editor-in-chief, The Philosophers’ Magazine).

Opening Speeches

Professor A.C. Grayling

“Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same” – George Bernard Shaw
Grayling opened the proceedings by describing how philosophy is one of the few disciplines that can be self-critical and assess its own worth. Philosophy matters because it’s about what else matters and why because, as Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. It is important that philosophy targets an audience of educated peers, like the great works of the 17th and 18th Centuries by such luminaries as Locke, Descartes and Hume. Philosophy is something that belongs to the whole of society, “a part of the conversation society has had with itself”. Grayling warns that failure to engage an educated public in philosophy could return the subject to the osbscurism it suffered in the decades after WW2 or even the scholasticism of the Middle Ages.

Baroness Professor Onara O’Neill

“At age four, we ask “why?” again and again. Why stop now?” – Onara O’Neill
O’Neill gave a passionate defense of the humanities, especially in the face of the supposed superiority of science. Philosophy is the habit of questioning rather than answering and we do little bits of philosophy every day like “what makes a good film / book / person?”. Studying philosophy, formally or informally, changes a person for the better. Only truly open and informed discussion can avoid what Karl Popper described as the “reinforced dogmatism,” and we must reject the Verificationalism of the post-WW2 years which stated that “only statements which can be tested have meaning”. Indeed, she asserts that this attitude fails its own test.

Dr Havi Carel

“I stood on the shoulders of giants . . . and was able to smile again” – Havi Carel
Carel opened by telling the story of how her own personal story affirmed her belief in philosophy to provide practical help. Having been diagnosed with terminal illness, she used her philosophical training in Phenomenology, the lived experience, to reassess how she should live her life. She has since worked with health professionals and others in the medical profession to help their patients through understanding well-being in illness and conceptions of the illusion of mind-body dualism. “Philosophy helps us, teaches us, allows us to see the world anew”. Baggini pointed out that this demonstrated how limiting research to a quest for straightforward outcomes could lead to opportunities being missed.

Professor James Ladyman

“There is no such thing as fact-free thought” – James Ladyman
Ladyman takes us back to Socrates for the basis of philosophy, stating that “those who profess knowledge have none” and that it is and inherently pragmatic discipline, the study of virtue being the study of how one should live. Philosophy does not act solely as an abstract thing and is involved in all other disciplines. Nevertheless, attempting to measure the worth of any work by its “immediate impact” fails to appreciate the true value of research. As a country, we underestimate our philosophical heritage, and our contemporary philosophers’ standing on the world stage. Higher education has fared worse of all public services, and yet is one of the best things we have in international circles. John Locke is paraphrased in the opening statement of the American Constitution and Einstein quotes Hume in his Special Theory of Relativity. Ladyman cites Russell’s language experiment “the present King of France is bald”. Many might reject this as a meaningless statement, but it clearly does have a meaning that we can understand. Once analysed, it consists of a number of logical sub-statements which can be individually addressed. Philosophers must be specialists to engage with the complexity of their chosen discipline; it is almost impossible to be a serious generalist. Sometimes the bigger picture can only be revealed by studying the details. Indeed, “Civilisation needs people whose interest in 17th century French monastic life, or snail morphology goes well past normal, into the realm of the obsessive-compulsive”.

Questions from the Floor

Q:                Does a wide appreciate of philosophy lead to a “herd immunity” towards irrational or immoral ideas?
O’Neill:       Education did not protect Weimar Germany. Modern communications could act as an echo box, reinforcing peoples views rather than challenging them.
Grayling:     A lot more positive about the influence of philosophy permeating public discourse.

Jenny Q!:    What is your favourite book?
O’Neill:       Critique of Pure Reason – Kant
Ladyman:    The Road to Reality – Penrose
Carel:          Being and Time – Heidegger
Grayling:     Refused to be drawn into such a “beauty contest”! He believes in a diversity of sources.
Baggini:      Similarly refused, citing the books of his panel members!

Q:                In philosophy, are there no right or wrong answers?
Ladyman:    You have to believe that there are, in order to believe that arguments will advance understanding.

Q:                At what age should philosophy be introduced in schools?
Grayling:     Philosophy should be introduced as soon as possible! It is possible to study Philosophy at A level, but beware “Philosophy and Ethics” – this is a theology course.

Q:                What are the employability prospects for graduate philosophers?
Grayling:    Technical students have recently been less employable than humanities students. Computer Scientists are one of the worst hit groups.
O’Neill:       Technical subjects risk obsolescence.

Written by: Michael Paynter (AHS South-West Regional Development Officer) Caitlin Greenwood (UoB AASS Academic Secretary)