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July 16, 2009


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Hi Ben, thanks so much for pursuing this issue. I don't have much to contribute here, except to record a conversation I once had with Keith Lehrer on the subject of the reception of philosophy by non-philosophers and the lack of appreciation of what it takes to be competent at it. Keith reported that he simply doesn't tolerate that attitude on committees and in university discussions, noting it and commenting on the idiocy of it when it appears in any public setting. Part of the problem then, though certainly not all of it, is a lack of intellectual courage, where philosophers allow such things to happen unchallenged. Keith's attitude takes courage and moxy, and also has its costs to one as an individual working in a university. But it is, to my mind, one of the most effective things we can do as individual philosophers: stand up to the bullshit and call it what it is when we see it. Some can do this more graciously than others, and Keith is exceptionally good at it, but I know that failure of courage is too common a human foible to ignore here.

"I only had a small sample size to work with, but the impression I got was that the view that 'anyone can do philosophy well' is common in academia."

Just a small point: I'd be wary of taking too much directly from this, since there's also bound to be a selection effect at work here. Non-philosophers who think that philosophy is worthwhile and does a good job of answering enduring questions are presumably unlikely to be applying for these NEH grants.

Thanks for posting again. There are a number of different questions buried below the surface here, or so it seems to me. One that is worth paying attention to in fact has little to do with which discipline should address which topic, and so on. It is, bluntly, what I call the 'show biz' question, viz., 'How do I make my course sexier?' This is a question worth asking oneself if one can see one's students snoozing, playing video games, reading papers, etc. It is also a question I myself like to hear the answer to from others, not necessarily in my own discipline. 'Hey, throw a novel or play in there!' 'Go interdisciplinary!' and so on. And I'm happy if the NEH supports just this sort of pursuit, if for no other reason than that it gets more ideas out there in the mix about how to spice up a course.
Such issues about teaching effectiveness, however, need not be very closely related to research in our fields, though many often mistakenly think they must be. Getting students enthused, infusing them with warm, runny feelings, is a lot of fun, as an instructor, and it can be a very effective way of getting students to take the next steps in a discipline. But actual understanding and knowledge in a discipline may have little if any of this academic exuberance associated with it. Or at least a different sort of satisfaction.

I'd be interested to hear more about the ways in which those at the NEH are "dismissive of the idea of philosophical expertise." Do they dismiss the idea that one solution to a philosophical puzzle can be better than another (and, implicitly, deny that there are varying levels of expertise at solving philosophical problems)? Do they dismiss the value of the analytic approach (and, implicitly, deny that any analytic philosopher could have expertise at dealing with philosophical problems)? Do they dismiss the difficulty of philosophical problems (or that they are, actually, problems, as opposed to e.g. linguistic confusions)? The cluster of attitudes analytic philosophers typically take towards their subject (a dislike of rhetoric, a tolerance for myriad fine distinctions, guarded optimism towards the prospect of real philosophical progress, etc.)?

In large part, the right strategy for trying to persuade non-philosophers to take philosophy seriously depends on in what way(s) the typical non-philosopher is dismissive of philosophical expertise. Different arguments are appropriate to different types of skeptic. Likewise, which is the appropriate mode of presenting an argument depends on whether or not the skeptic has a beef with the analytic approach. (So chisholming is probably not the best way to persuade someone, already inclined to think analytic philosophy a bunch of useless pedantry, of the value of our field. Similarly, someone who regards philosophers as inexpert "because, as their earnest disputes about arcana show, they're just a bunch of impractical (and vaguely priggish) idealists" likely won't be persuaded to take philosophy seriously by someone who...takes philosophy quite seriously.)

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