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My Intellectual Territory

July 13, 2009

What is happiness? Is there a human nature? What is good government? At some point during their time in college, many students will ask and discuss questions for which there is no indisputable answer. The hope is that they will come out with a better understanding of the methods of inquiry and the processes of critical thought. The National Endowment for the Humanities rather likes this way of teaching, and has sought to encourage critical thought through its Enduring Questions grants, which it awards to professors to develop new courses. The program was initiated last June, and last month announced its first round of 20 grant-winners from a broad range of academic disciplines.

Now in its second round of seeking applicants, the grant program has found skeptics among philosophers, some of whom claim that by awarding grants across the humanities for traditionally philosophical questioning, the NEH is infringing on their domain. Six of the initial grant-winners, however, were philosophy professors.

Ben Bradley, a professor of philosophy at Syracuse University, said in a blog post last Tuesday that such enduring questions are by nature philosophical.

"The questions were pretty disciplinary, but it said that no one discipline has claim to them," Bradley told Inside Higher Ed. "All of the questions, or almost all of them, are ones we ask in philosophy -- questions like 'What is happiness?' are the subject matter."

While he said that some other disciplines -- such as psychology and other forms of medicine -- also seek to answer these questions by defining what makes a good life or leads people to report higher levels of happiness, philosophy is the only subject that does not presuppose a definition. "Psychology can tell us interesting things about happiness provided we already know what it is, and I think you could say similar things about most of the questions," he said, noting that he "doesn't want to suggest that only philosophers have important things to say about questions relevant to philosophical thought."

'Pre-Disciplinary'

One source of friction was the grant description's use of the world "pre-disciplinary," which it defined as, "questions to which no discipline or field can lay an exclusive claim. In many cases they predate the formation of the academic disciplines themselves." This remark, Bradley notes in his blog post, seems to ignore the very existence of philosophy. Though no subject can lay exclusive claim to these questions, he writes, the subject of ethics has long been focused on answering them.

William Craig Rice, director education programs at NEH, said that using the word "pre-disciplinary" was meant to show that, "the idea of disciplines as self-contained experts is a new phenomenon," that arose in Western cultures in the 19th century. He added that students in all realms of academe should have access to the study of enduring questions: "Whether it's in chemistry or anthropology or pre-law, we hope to see students, regardless of major or concentration, engaging as equally as others."

John Powell, professor of philosophy at Humboldt State University, stated in an e-mail that he sees the framing of the questions in the grant application as evidence that NEH is looking for professors to teach philosophy without the philosophical context.

"The questions are so clearly mostly old chestnut philosophy problems that they seem evidence that NEH staff don't know what philosophy is," he stated. "I take them as confirmation for my view that most people do philosophy without ever having it labeled as philosophy, so that one of my tasks in teaching is to let students know that philosophy is, in fact, familiar to them. We start with What is the Meaning of Life? which is probably a better version of [the application's example question,] what is the good life?"

R. Jay Wallace, chair of the department of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, expressed similar views, though he admitted to not following the controversy closely. He did not see an agenda behind the NEH grant, but saw it as a repetition of teaching that already goes on in philosophy departments across the country. "Anyone teaching a standard philosophy course would do something eligible for this kind of support," he said.

'Problem Discipline'

This grant, Wallace added, is further evidence of a sentiment common among philosophers that their work is not fully understood by fellow humanists. He said that philosophers, "tend to pursue humanistic questions in ways that don't always seem valuable or important to other humanities scholars. There's an estrangement of philosophy from other humanistic disciplines. These tendencies merge, particularly when interdisciplinary bodies have to decide which fellowship applications to support."

In a study of multidisciplinary peer review panels, Michèle Lamont, professor and senior adviser on faculty development and diversity at Harvard, found similar patterns. Lamont wrote a book called How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment (Harvard University Press), in which she identified philosophy as "problem discipline" because it did not mesh well with other academic subjects. She wrote: "Several panelists express at least one of the following views: (1) philosophers live in a world apart from other humanists, (2) non-philosophers have problems evaluating philosophical work, and they are often perceived by philosophers as not qualified to do so, (3) philosophers do not explain the significance of their work, and (4) increasingly, what philosophers do is irrelevant, sterile, and self-indulgent."

Bradley agreed that philosophers are often misunderstood by fellow academics, citing that as a possible reason for the creation of the grant. "I do worry sometimes that people have an impression of philosophy that leads to certain types of misunderstanding," he said. "In reading the grant, all I can do is speculate about what motivated them to write the grant in the way they did. One motivation could be that philosophy already covered what happened in the grant announcement, but maybe they think that we aren't teaching in the way they want."

Rice emphasized that the point of the grant was not to pit one discipline against any other, but rather to transcend typical divisions in academia. "We are cultivating philosophers among non-philosophers," he said.

Michael Dink is the dean of the Annapolis campus of Saint Johns College, which doesn't divide courses by department, but teaches the Great Books. He noted that too much focus on the methods of a particular discipline can be detrimental to teaching. "I think the problem is that sometimes the departments think that to be successful intellectually, they have to have methods, and those methods can sometimes get in the way of taking those questions seriously," Dink said. "Even depending on how you interpret philosophical methods, that too can get in the way. I think it's wonderful to encourage taking up these questions in any department, but I hope that in response the department would be less insistent on approaching them with some kind of method."

'Leaking Out of Its Ivory Tower'

Acknowledging that there is sometimes a separation between philosophers and other academics, Wallace said that the overlapping of philosophical questioning with the rest of academe did not present a threat to the subject. He noted that at Berkeley, for example, disciplines like comparative literature often tackle philosophical problems with different methodologies -- a perfectly fine course of study.

Powell agreed, stating: "I'm in favor of philosophy leaking out of its ivory tower. Though it seemed to be ignorance that NEH did not label the questions as philosophical, and this is what kept me from seriously considering making a proposal...."

Richard Peterson, chair of the department of philosophy at Michigan State University, said in an e-mail: "I would note that, while these are questions often used to frame introductory philosophy courses, they can function in interdisciplinary courses as well, and certainly reflect concerns that concern many spheres of cultural and scholarly work. I wouldn't want to endorse any claim to disciplinary monopoly on such sweeping questions."

Rice noted that, "some of the questions we offered as examples of enduring questions could be philosophy," which is why there was a large number of grant applications from philosophers, and the discipline was well represented in the awarding of grants. He said that the philosophers who apply for the grants "seem happy to accommodate the other perspectives and welcome the sheer variety of intellectual interests. I know there may well be critics of what we do and that's well and good, but we certainly haven't slighted philosophy in any way."

 

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