Briefly Noted: Briggle and Frodeman on The Problem with Philosophy

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Now these two fellows have gone to meddlin’. In their recent article in The Chronicle Review, Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman argue American philosophy departments are out of touch with reality, and will soon be out of business, if they cannot foster an environment in which philosophers can be generalists instead of specialists, and public philosophers instead of isolated eggheads.[1] Those are my words, not theirs, but that’s the gist of it.

Briggle and Frodeman write, “We are saddled with early-20th-century modes of philosophy. In the 20th century, philosophy abandoned its Socratic heritage in favor of a disciplinary model of practice. Rather than engaging citizens in all walks of life on the issues they faced, philosophers spoke mainly to one another about problems of their own invention.” (B11) This recent development is problematic; it is irresponsible, and politically and economically unsustainable.

The ever-increasing specialization of philosophy is politically and economically unsustainable because such specialization comes at the cost of cultural insignificance. Public perception is that philosophy is a discipline for irrelevant egg-headed navel gazers who make no real contribution to society. “Of course, philosophy is secure at America’s elite universities. But what of the vast number of universities whose future is tied to the decisions of state legislatures or other financial considerations?” (B10) The authors imply that state legislatures and community college CFOs will not long put up with philosophy unless philosophers learn to “go public” which means that there must be a role for generalists.

Thus, “It is time to reclaim the public role of philosophy.” (B11) Rather than operating under a paradigm in which philosophers must focus narrowly on one or two of the philosophical subdisciplines, why not train some philosophers as generalists so that they can work in the public and private sectors?  (B11) “Why, for example, are philosophers housed in philosophy departments? Should groups of two or three philosophers be placed in departments across campus, to draw out the philosophic aspects of chemistry, economics, and business? Why is there no ‘lab’ or ‘field’ component for philosophy courses?” (B11)

In light of these critiques, they offer three areas of reform: “First, we need to reconsider what counts as expertise, rigor, and excellence–the single-model of specialization that keeps us writing philosophy papers for each other…. Second, a new philosophy calls for new types of philosophers trained with the skills necessary for being ‘interactional’ experts…. Third, the case for reform made here involves an appeal to prudential self-interest–devising ways to survive in a harried, impatient, and increasingly market-driven age.” (B12)

I could not agree more with Briggle and Frodeman, and I would expand their critique beyond philosophy to the other academic disciplines, including theological studies. As I see it, both generalists and specialists are needed for the health of academic disciplines such as philosophy and theology. When our universities and seminaries foster an environment in which one must be a specialist in order to be hired or promoted, they (unintentionally) also create a situation in which they are (or, at least are perceived to be) increasingly irrelevant to society and culture at large.

One of the reasons the French existentialists (e.g. Sartre and Camus) were so successful in their day is that they were able to write both for the academy and for the general public. They published not only academic tomes (e.g. Sartre’s Being and Nothingness), but also fiction and drama (e.g. Sartre’s Nausea and Camus’ The Plague), and public opinion pieces in newspapers, magazines, and so forth. Likewise, one of the reasons Abraham Kuyper was so successful in his day was the fact that he was a generalist able to articulate the significance of Christian theology for every dimension of human life and every sphere of culture.

Thank God for the generalists. May their tribe increase (though not at the expense of the specialists).

[1] “A New Philosophy for the 21st Century” by Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman in The Chronicle Review (December 16, 2011): B10–12.