Posted tagged ‘philosophy’

The philosopher’s stone

October 9, 2017

Outside of the world of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, little attention is probably paid these days to the philosopher’s stone, or indeed the study of alchemy from which it derived. Even if we don’t now want to focus on the ostensible chemical transformation suggested by the concept (of base metals into gold or silver), alchemy provided an interesting framework for the study of life, enlightenment and perfection. Studies of alchemy provided early insights into both science and philosophy, as well as what we might now regard as more doubtful journeys into the esoteric and the occult.

What is interesting about all this is that in earlier periods of history scholars often had a much greater desire to understand more of the totality of knowledge than many would aspire to today, or indeed would be encouraged to pursue. The philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz for example, who also wrote learned works on physics, political science, law and theology in the 17th and 18th centuries, did not accept the constraints of single-subject expertise. He even developed some of the foundations of modern computing.

The challenges of interdisciplinarity have been the subject of attention in this blog before. But perhaps a starting point for us now might be to give more space to philosophical reflection in all areas of learning, to create a sense of understanding of how different areas of knowledge connect and how they can either underpin or endanger our sense of values. It is perhaps time to ensure that all people, at key stages of their educational formation, are exposed to the major strands of philosophy. In this way education can be what it needs to be, the alchemy that turns knowledge into wisdom.


Not just a philosophical question

March 28, 2011

Over the past year campaigns have been fought over the survival of small philosophy departments in at least two British universities: Middlesex and Keele. In both cases the university concerned had decided to discontinue the subject, where philosophy was not part of what many might have considered the more visible public identity of the institution; but equally in both cases the philosophers had built up significant standing in the wider academic community. In the second of these, the case of Keele, the university has now reversed its decision and the subject will survive (and of course the inevitable Facebook campaign helped).

I have always believed that philosophy has a vital role to play in the academy, and so when Keele announced its change of heart I was really rather pleased. But there are difficult issues here from which we cannot so easily escape. The idea of a university as an institution that contains all the key elements of classical scholarship is not one that can still survive. Fifty years ago you could imagine a perfectly good university with 60 departments covering all the traditional subjects, and with the average number of academics in each department being perhaps eight or nine. That model is no longer viable. We now have a knowledge framework that requires much bigger academic units to provide critical mass. There is still scope for some smaller, boutique departments, but these cannot provide the backbone of an entire university.

So universities will have to make difficult choices, and we cannot all rise up in arms every time an institution decides that it must drop something. One would hope that any such decisions, if they are made, will involve a transfer of staff, and will involve good communications and dialogue with staff; in other words, this needs to be done well. But the search for a viable model of a university will still need to go on. Furthermore as it does, the idea that you cannot have a university without, say, history, or chemistry, or philosophy cannot be sustained any longer either. Some universities will become much more specialised in a smaller range of subject areas; or maybe a different kind of interdisciplinary range.

I am still pleased for the Keele philosophers, and I hope they thrive. Actually, I somehow think that however they are configured all universities should have at least a philosopher or two. But I wouldn’t like to think that the lesson from all this is that difficult decisions of this kind should never be taken. That would be unrealistic.

Philosophical questions

May 9, 2010

Over the past week or two a lot of attention in the academic world has focused on Middlesex University in the UK. The issue that has attracted all this is the university’s decision to close its philosophy department. While the university has stated that the reason for the closure is the department’s inability to attract a sufficient number of students, critics have suggested that the real reason is that the funding formula used in England discourages universities from maintaining humanities subjects and encourages them to switch student places to the sciences and engineering.

It is not my intention here to debate the rights and wrongs of the Middlesex decision – which would not be an easy task anyway, as the university has not revealed too much about its strategy in this matter, with not even a press release to explain its decision. Rather, this particular development raises questions about what we might expect from universities in terms of the distribution of students and resources between different subject areas, and more particularly, whether as some suggest the humanities will come under threat in all but the biggest and most cash-rich institutions.

In Ireland this issue takes on a particular significance as it has been made clear by the government that it does not particularly welcome the existence of small departments in individual universities teaching relatively few students in subjects that nationally are not attracting large numbers. In such circumstances, it is sometimes argued, that provision for such subjects should be concentrated in one university only, so that it can reach critical mass and be internationally competitive. If you go back to the Middlesex philosophy example, as far as I can work out the university has four lecturers in that subject, apparently teaching an annual intake of 12 students. While there is a good deal of evidence that the university has built up quite a reputation in the area, it may also argue that it is too small here to make a sustained impact; or it may argue (as may be the case) that it just doesn’t pay to work in this way.

Set against this is the question whether a university, in order to be a university, needs to teach certain disciplines. But who would decide what disciplines these must be, and on what basis? And if there is a ‘broad spread’ requirement for a university, where does that leave an institution like the London School of Economics, for example?

It seems to me that most universities – that is, all except those who are long established, have reasonable size and enjoy considerable financial reserves – nowadays will need to make some choices about what they will focus on and maintain; it cannot be absolutely everything. What choices a university makes will need in part to be informed by where it has expertise and what strategic direction it wishes to take. I doubt that we can require all institutions to maintain an even distribution across disciplinary areas. On the other hand, universities are intellectual organisations, and they need to be able to demonstrate that their choices are informed by and help to ensure critical debate and analysis.

The debate and protests around the Middlesex events should be harnessed to address some of these issues. And if it were found to be the case that the higher education funding formula is driving the humanities out of smaller universities, then perhaps that should be revisited. However, we should not be seduced by the thought that every university must teach and research every subject; or that once a subject portfolio is established, it can never be altered.

The question that remains, however, is how we can ensure that across the system as a whole the different subject areas are adequately distributed. This is the kind of role that governments or their agencies ten to think they ought to have. Most universities would disagree; but for their disagreement to persuasive, they need to show that they are alive to this and are tackling it.

Philosopher rulers

April 9, 2010

Here’s an interesting idea. Angie Hobbs, who is Professor in the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Warwick, and who writes a really good blog and some rather good tweets also, is running an alternative UK election. She is assuming that people are sick and tired of the politicians on offer, and so she suggests instead that people should vote for their favourite (dead) philosophers to be prime minister and indeed to occupy all cabinet posts. I suppose this is on the principle that a dead philosopher is better than most live politicians. If you follow her tweets, you’ll see how the voting is progressing.

When I saw what she was doing, I contemplated for a moment turning the idea into something broader, and suggesting academics from any discipline. You know, Einstein for Minister for Enterprise Trade and Innovation, John Henry Newman for Education (I don’t think he would accept ‘…and Skills’), that kind of thing. But as I was doodling with my own hyper-IQ cabinet, I did notice that I was always driven back to the philosophers. It’s not that there aren’t well know historical figures from other disciplines, but that the philosophers somehow seemed to be more obvious choices for this particular purpose.

Maybe this gets us back to a topic that arose in the comments on one of my recent posts, about the need for philosophers in universities. Certainly even DCU has always had a philosopher or two, though not a philosophy department.

But then again, we should celebrate the fundamental role that all academics play, or at least can play, in the growth of a society or nation. Maybe we should have a cabinet of all the disciplines. But perhaps led by a philosopher.

Ethics in business

July 24, 2008

I am constantly amazed at the low level of interest seen in Ireland in broader questions of ethics. We seem to equate making a judgement on ethical issues with calling for someone’s head, as if ethics is just a question of condemning what others do wrong, rather than what kind of society we feel we ought to have. This has produced some stunning lapses of morality in our business world.

It is time that we elevated discussions about ethics above the level of personal judgement and condemnation, and looked instead at what kind of society we want, and how we would expect to see that reflected in the actions and decisions of people at work – and not just in top management positions. My university has recently established a Institute for Ethics which will focus on such issues and which, I hope, will stimulate a national debate. The time for that has come.