How can you have a university without a philosophy department?

It's no secret to readers of this blog (or residents of these United States who have been paying attention to the world that exists more than six inches from their faces) that the last few years have been rough for state budgets, and that the budget woes are especially noticeable for state university systems.

A recent case in point: owing to budget shortfalls in Nevada, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is poised to eliminate its Philosophy Department entirely. The current chair of that department, Todd Edwin Jones, has an eloquent piece in the Boston Review that explains some of the reasons that this budgetary strategy is likely to impoverish the UNLV educational experience. He writes:

Philosophy has prompted confusion and anger ever since Socrates, one of the first practitioners of the discipline, was sentenced to death in 399 B.C.E. for “corrupting the youth.” Puzzlement over why people study philosophy has only grown since Socrates’ era. It is not surprising that in hard economic times, when young people are figuring out how best to prepare themselves for the world, many state college administrators and the taxpayers they serve believe that offering classes in philosophy is a luxury they can’t afford.

Yet people think of philosophy as a luxury only if they don’t really understand what philosophy departments do. I teach one of the core areas of philosophy, epistemology: what knowledge is and how we obtain it. People from all walks of life—physicists, physicians, detectives, politicians—can only come to good conclusions on the basis of thoroughly examining the appropriate evidence. And the whole idea of what constitutes good evidence and how certain kinds of evidence can and can’t justify certain conclusions is a central part of what philosophers study. Philosophers look at what can and can’t be inferred from prior claims. They examine what makes analogies strong or weak, the conditions under which we should and shouldn’t defer to experts, and what kinds of things (e.g., inflammatory rhetoric, wishful thinking, inadequate sample size) lead us to reason poorly.

This is not to say that doctors, district attorneys, or drain manufactures cannot make decent assessments without ever taking a philosophy class. It’s also possible for someone to diagnose a case of measles without having gone to medical school. The point is that people will tend to do better if, as part of their education, they’ve studied some philosophy. (This is one of the reasons why undergraduate philosophy majors have the highest average scores on the standard tests used for admission to post-graduate study.) No matter what goals someone has, she can better achieve them through assessing evidence more effectively, which philosophy can teach her. Questions about whether this or that goal is one that is good to have or whether certain goals are consistent with other goals, in turn, concern ethics and values—other subjects that philosophers have long pursued.

Philosophy is sometimes described as revolving around "the big questions" -- what can we know, how sure can we be, what do we value, how can we get along in a world where others have very different values than our own. etc. They aren't big because they are insurmountable (although some of them are wicked-hard). Rather, they are big because they keep coming up in all sorts of contexts, and because getting them right (or more right than not) is important.

Philosophy classes make students grapple with these questions. In the process, they help students develop strategies for dealing with other questions in other context. In the process, philosophy students learn to think carefully, to argue clearly, to evaluate evidence, and to think through sensible objections to their own views. Philosophy students have to become proficient with language, both oral and written. They have to think analytically -- and often, abstractly. Philosophy is a discipline that pushes book nerds to be more math-y (what with the formal logic most philosophy degrees require) and math geeks to be more verbal (with all those essays and class discussions).

Philosophy classes leave students with skills more broadly applicable than dissecting individual axons out of a fruit fly embryo.

Not, of course, that I want to argue that the value of a college education or its component parts lies solely in the delivery of practical jobs skills. (Indeed, I've argued against this view.) But if we want to rank the value of academic departments in terms of the valuable and/or widely transferable job skills they impart to their students, I reckon philosophy will hold its own against the more "practical" disciplines one might name.

These are skills we try just as hard to impart in "service" courses (i.e., those taken largely by students in other majors to fulfill general education or distribution requirements) as in courses aimed at our majors. Moreover, they are skills that our peers in other departments and college recognize that we have some skill in imparting, given that they call upon our expertise to do things like develop ethics curricula for their majors. (It is true that these ethics curricula are often spurred into existence by an outside accreditation agency for a discipline, or by funding agency strings attached to a training grant. This strikes me as more evidence that organizations beyond the ivory tower -- including science and engineering organizations -- identify a central strand of philosophy as important in the training of people entering these non-philosophy disciplines.)

Arguably, philosophy could also provide people with skills that are important to participating effectively -- heck, to participating rationally in the governance of our nation, our states, our communities. As Jones writes:

It’s long been recognized that some tasks are best coordinated by governments, and that to succeed in these efforts, governments have to raise revenue from citizens. Since colonial times, Americans have recognized that education is one of the things that taxpayers need to support (and those were some lean times!). Sadly, over the last several decades, Americans seem to have grown accustomed to thinking that they can have roads, schools, fire departments, and Medicare without fully paying for them. Now that such thinking has proven a fantasy, taxpayers should have responded with a sensible, “We should have been paying for these things, and perhaps we should start.” Instead they have clamored to cut spending—usually on things that don’t directly concern them or whose immediate benefits aren’t apparent. Such thinking leads new Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval to propose a budget with enormous cuts to education (including elementary school). And it leads college administrators to insist that these cuts require eliminating the Philosophy Department.

(Bold emphasis added.)

An attentive philosophy student has a toolbox with which to analyze this magical taxpayer thinking, whether in terms of ethics or political theory, in terms of our ability to think down the links of a causal chain or our difficulties with empathy.

Surely, more facility with critical thinking, not less, is what it will take to bring us through a difficult economic climate.

Of course, when there's not enough money in the budget (and when the populace and/or their elected representative have ruled out tax increases as a way to get enough money), stuff gets cut. Maybe some of that stuff really is of little value, but a lot of the things left to cut are going to hurt someone when they're gone.

Eliminating a philosophy department may not cause the same degree of immediate harm as would, say, cutting off medical aid to the indigent or eliminating free school lunches for poor elementary school kids. But it will cause harm. Maybe that harm will take longer to smack the people of Nevada in the face, but this doesn't mean that the impact won't be devastating.

25 responses so far

  • I find it fascinating that in an era where businesses and other employers are clamoring for critical thinking skills, and as critical thinking becomes a central tenet of what universities strive to measure (including my own employer, Univ. of TN at Chattanooga, in our QEP for our SACS reaffirmation) - the very department that can provide the most input into critical thinking is being slashed. A pitiful statement about our priorities. It is also a demonstration that stereotypes that go unchallenged - of the philosopher thinking about big questions unremoved from real life - can and will hurt us if we're not more careful about marketing. And yes, marketing tends to be a dirty word to the professoriate, who believe that education should stand as its own value without marketing, but that becomes moot in an era of budget cuts like these.

    • Greg Sadler says:

      Well, you can do a Critical Thinking oriented QEP without having a philosophy department -- we've done it here at Fayetteville State University:

      I will say that it has taken a lot of work to get some of the disciplines to realize that there are experts on Critical Thinking -- mainly through not exclusively philosophers -- and that the APA Delphi report on CT is the starting place for any meaningful and well-informed discussions.

  • Physicalist says:

    "How can you have a university without a philosophy department?"

    You can't. But you can have a trade school . . .

    • Pluralist says:

      William James and I are right there with you, from 'A Pluralistic Universe:'

      To know the chief rival attitudes towards life, as the history of human thinking has developed them, and to have heard some of the reasons they can give for themselves, ought to be considered an essential part of liberal education. Philosophy, indeed, in one sense of the term is only a compendious name for the spirit in education which the word 'college' stands for in America. Things can be taught in dry dogmatic ways or in a philosophic way. At a technical school a man may grow into a first-rate instrument for doing a certain job, but he may miss all the graciousness of mind suggested by the term liberal culture. He may remain a cad, and not a gentleman, intellectually pinned down to his one narrow subject, literal, unable to suppose anything different from what he has seen, without imagination, atmosphere, or mental perspective.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Maybe the thing to do is to disperse the philosophy faculty to a range of other departments, and then create an interdisciplinary critical thinking program taught by faculty from a number of different departments. Interdisciplinary is a good buzzword.

  • becca says:

    "How can you have a university without a philosophy department?"
    Purely pedantically, you can pretty easily have a university with a combined humanities department in which philosophy is one discipline. Whether that would be wise would depend on your university and various details thereof.

    One thing I do wonder... if philosophy training is so useful to so many disciplines, wouldn't we be better off dissolving the philosophy departments and making them go be something like politicians? We'd surely end up with better policy. And I think the current politicians would make excellent amusement part critters.

    • Greg Sadler says:

      So, you'd pull a Plato on us philosophers, eh? Let us ascend to the joys of thought and then force us to come back down and make this run better?

      Actually, that's a bit of what some of us do in my present university anyway. Lacking a philosophy program, we've made a number of contributions to core development, administrative work (turns out we're quite good in assessment), and interdisciplinary projects.

      I do have to say that, as a philosopher and a philosophy prof, looking at many of my colleagues, neither I nor you -- if you knew them as I do -- would want them muddling around with politics! Some, yes, but certainly not all of them

  • SteveWH says:

    @Becca - That idea, having philosophers run the country, is as old as Plato. It is one of his major claims in 'Republic'.

  • K says:

    My experience with philosophy comes mostly in the form of a number of books, one class, and being massively irritated by most of the philosophy majors I've known.

    I particularly have problems with philosophy of mind; I'm planning to go into neuroscience and there is a significant amount of ear-plugging among a lot of philosophers of mind that I've seen in response to neuroscientific evidence. (Dennett is an exception; he listens to science.) Property and even substance dualism still persist in some parts of that field.

    It cannot be denied that there are areas of philosophy which appear to be at odds with empirically-ascertained reality.

    I think Jim Thomerson's idea is on the right track, but I would go one step further: in addition to incorporating a general critical thinking base, drastically change philosophy by, instead of maintaining one consolidated field, thinking of philosophies in certain areas as facets of their related discipline, such as philosophy of science (and metaphysics, normally considered separate, has always struck me as very related to philosophy of science) or philosophy of math or philosophy of whatever else you can think of.

    • MT says:

      I am a philosophy student attending graduate school in the fall with the intent of studying empirically-informed philosophy of mind. I disagree with your assessment of philosophy of mind as a whole despite the fact that I ultimately agree that philosophy of mind should take into account current neuroscience.

      The reason that property and substance dualism persist in philosophy of mind is not merely that they engage in "ear-plugging" when anyone so much as mentions neuroscience, but rather those inclined toward dualism disagree that anything physical can account for the mental (e.g., consciousness, qualia (the "what-it's-like")). They don't refuse to listen to neuroscience, and indeed, they may find neuroscience to be a very worthy endeavor. Instead, they think that neuroscience can never give us a *full* account of our mental life. This can be illustrated by Jackson's Mary argument. Suppose that a neuroscientist named Mary, who happens to have grown up in a black and white room seeing only black and white, can learn everything physical there is to know about the color red. However, when Mary first steps outside the room and sees a red rose, she will think something like "Ah! So that is what red looks like." Dualists believe she learns something new when she first sees the color red, namely "what-it's-like-to-see-red." Dennett would reject that she learns anything new because he denies qualia. He agrees that neuroscience can give us a full account of mental life. It is a matter of disagreement, not "ear-plugging."

      • jrshipley says:

        Yep. While I'm not sure what to make of the Mary argument the "ear plugging" certainly seems to be on the end of those who, rather than responding to the argument and showing why property dualism is not entailed, tell us that philosophers are not duly bowing before empirical science. It *might* be true that the Mary argument and similar philosophical arguments are properly to dismissed in favor of looking at MRIs and study neurochemical interactions, but that they are to be dismissed is a philosophical position itself which requires an argument beyond an appeal to presumed scientific authority.

  • mhilm says:

    I've long felt the methods of philosophic enquiry to be essential training in critical thinking. As a cross-disciplinary tool it could be invaluable. The lack of trained thinking hampers our society, and most people are never exposed to that training.
    Teaching how to define a problem clearly, identify possible solutions, research past ideas, systematically explore new directions, and then evaluate your conclusions; combined with work in statistics and probability - a course like that should be required every year from grade one through college

  • J says:

    Eliminating departments doesn't eliminate undergraduate teaching of a subject so much as it provides an opportunity to lay off the tenured faculty who teach it. Perhaps professors need to rethink the way that they frame their contracts to eliminate this loophole.

  • Scott says:

    @ Colleen Harris: I wonder whether universities and community colleges are assuming that any department USES critical thinking, so they should let each department TEACH critical thinking to its own majors? Then we wouldn't need an entire department whose practical strength is teaching critical thinking to all majors. I've seen this kind of thinking already, but I suspect teaching critical thinking isn't comparable to merely using it.

    • Greg Sadler says:

      I can say, having both studied that problem and having been involved in improving critical thinking at my institution, that it is definitely not the case that CT can be safely left to those without some sort of disciplinary training in it -- and conversancy with the literature and best practices -- because everyone thinks they know what CT means and indeed embody it. Very few actually do, to the extent that this generation of students need it.

      It was a bit dismaying to find that out, but it also opened my eyes to the possibility for some great collaborative work, where philosophers can assist other disciplinary experts to infuse CT into their programs in more thoughtful -- and these days, very important, measurable and documentable ways.

      We've made it the centerpiece of our Quality Enhancement Plan at FSU:

      We've also used the CLA as a means for not only assessment of CT, but as a means for teaching it, and infusing it into non-CT courses:

  • Paul says:

    I am an advanced graduate student in philosophy, and I believe any good philosopher should be able rapidly to see through facile, self-serving arguments like the above. E.g. I've done substantial work in epistemology (though it's not my area of specialty) and taught it to undergrads, and the claim that the subfield is even remotely suited to or geared toward helping people to assess evidence strikes me as laughable.

    I want a job when I finish as much as the next guy, but let's not let that get in the way of our reasoning. Departments of philosophy do very little good in the world. It's a plain and simple fact. They're collections of men and a few women who like to do peculiar things with their time--at least well enough to prefer it to other ways of making money. This doesn't mean they ought to be shut down, but let's not lie.

    • jrshipley says:

      I am an advanced graduate student in philosophy and I see some of the work I'm doing in epistemology (though its not my specialty either) as directly related to how we ought to assess evidence. In particular, I've been trying to understand how the issue of pragmatic encroachment, which is currently widely discussed in the literature, plays in the context of imprecise probabilities. My work on this issue has lead me to study some of the mathematics behind things like monitoring systems for oil rigs (this is an example indicated in a paper of by the statistician Peter Walley in a paper developing his Imprecise Dirichlet Model) and to connect the choice of certain parameters in such models to the classical philosophical dispute between pragmatism and evidentialism. Other current hot topics in epistemology include the epistemology of testimony and disagreement, which immediately concern how we ought to update our beliefs in light of certain kinds of evidence. It is true that certain classical problems of epistemology can seem remote and largely of interest only to those of us with a taste for a certain sort of headache (e.g., refuting the skeptic, responding to the new evil demon, the Gettier problem, sleeping beauty). However, the philosophical articulation of our epistemic concepts achieved by reflection on these sorts of problems is a necessary condition for the more clearly relevant sorts of reflections. While you claim the argument in the post was "facile and self-serving" it seems to me that your response was facile and self-congratulatory. Instead of patting yourself on the back for how "honest" you're being maybe you should think more deeply about both the intrinsic and instrumental value of philosophy and about its place in the academy.

      • Paul says:

        Well, I certainly can't deny that my post was facile and self-congratulatory. That said, even if not evidenced above, I do believe I've thought deeply about the intrinsic and instrumental worth of philosophy. I've concluded I haven't good reason for thinking it has much of either--aside from making me and some of my friends money. Most of those friends, by the way, have argued with me on such points, and it goes something like this: 1) after a lot of argument (you know how philosophers are) we can agree that, while philosophy might do *a little* instrumental good here and there, it certainly doesn't do much, and most claims of the sort you find on some departmental websites do not hold up to critical scrutiny; 2) on the subject of intrinsic value, something goes a bit funny: they say they don't want to think about it too hard and we stop talking about it, or they insist philosophy has it but can give no reasons for thinking so, or things dry up pretty quickly in some other respect; in any case, I've never heard anything that would even begin to convince anyone (like myself) who doesn't already believe in philosophy's intrinsic value.

        In response to you, I would immediately grant that much of epistemology is, in some sense, directly relevant for how we ought to assess evidence. We needn't even turn to current fads for that: classical epistemology concerns itself with those questions too. What I contend is only that studying epistemology is not, in general, going to help people assess evidence--and I think that's as true of the current literature on the epistemology of disagreement as classical literature on skepticism. If you want to teach an astronomer learn how to assess the evidence in astronomy, have her study astronomy. If you want to teach a manager how to assess the evidence for worker competence, have him take a course in management or whatever. Don't for God's sake give them a handful of papers on the epistemology of disagreement, even if I, like you, seem somehow to have been caught up in the fad and taken a fancy to it.

        • jrshipley says:

          Certainly specialists should study their areas of expertise. Who would suggest otherwise? I certainly didn't. I do think specialists who also take some philosophy may sometimes be able to think more deeply about the presuppositions of their field. Sometimes, most often, this questioning just leads to better understanding. Sometimes, more rarely, it may contribute to revolutionary ideas. I understand Einstein, for instance, had an interest in the operationalism of the positivists and that this contributed to his thinking about space-time. While it would have been bad for Einstein to get too hung up on positivism (and he was later a critic), reflection on fundamental epistemological issues contributed to his capacity for original scientific theorizing.

          Furthermore, it is instrumentally good for students who are citizens in a complex modern society to reflect generally on the nature of knowledge and evidence. Many if not most of the decisions we have to make, both personal and public, are not in our areas of expertise. The instrumental value of philosophical reflection is perhaps not direct or immediate, but I am constantly running into former students who tell me how much they loved my class and how often they think about the topics we discussed. I have a hard time believing that those reflective habits of mind won't serve the end of living well. I sort of feel sorry for you, and especially your students, that you can't see philosophy as anything but an ultimately trivial collection of puzzles that a certain class of intellectual masochists have somehow convinced the deans to pay us to torment ourselves with. Learning to love and pursue wisdom is of clear value, both intrinsic and instrumental, and I'll bet that's something you recognized at some point before an overdose of aporia made you cynical. I hope you rediscover the enthusiasm of a young lover.

          Finally, we have only been discussing epistemology. I think the value of logic and ethics courses for our students is even more obvious.

          • Paul says:

            I must say, I find myself wishing that every argument I had ended with hopes that I would rediscover the enthusiasm of a young lover. I hope so too. I'm even willing to overlook the possible implication "of philosophy"--which would make the hope rather too perverse for me to proverbially get behind.

            Less agreeably, your post forced me to recognize that my claim in (1) was false. I think I stand by (2) as being true--I'm pretty sure I've never yet found someone to offer a plausible defense of the frequently espoused notion that philosophy has intrinsic value. But when it comes to arguing about instrumental value, I'm afraid the outcome rests on my how my opponent's commitment to his/her position stacks up against my boredom with the competing nests of epicycles, which, as utilitarians know, emerge whenever one gets seriously to debating instrumental value...

            Presently, the task doesn't much catch my fancy, so I'll keep the comments brief. 1) The flattery of a self-selecting group of students hardly seems good evidence for philosophy's instrumental value--as my own glowing student reports readily attest. Give your students another couple decades, then poll all of them (in conditions where they've no motives to make false reports) about how much philosophy has influenced their lives. The results still wouldn't mean especially much, but I'd find them more interesting. In any case, I'm not sure you have supported the cause by proposing, as a relative expert in philosophy, a mode of evidence so clearly insufficient. 2) "I have a hard time believing that those reflective habits of mind won't serve the end of living well." Come now. I presume you've lived on this earth for a while now. "Reflective habits of mind" are not formed in college philosophy classrooms. When those kids are unleashed upon the world--the idealistic and illusioned ones especially--God knows what's going to become of them, but I don't flatter myself by thinking that the couple things I managed to impart to them about modus ponens and Kant's categorical imperative are going to be big players in how they deal with things. It's not that I'm opposed to flattering myself; it's only that I have so many better ways of doing so.

            Lastly, and you may think it odd my including it here, I hope you rediscover the enthusiasm of a young lover.

  • BobbyG says:

    Here's what I wrote to my Regents and legislators:

    Good day,

    I first learned of the Nevada budget reduction proposal advocating the elimination of the UNLV Philosophy Department in the Las Vegas Sun on March 29th in an article by J. Patrick Coolican. I was aghast. I ask that you reconsider, and take this proposition off the table. It could not be more antithetical to the very purpose of an institution otherwise positioning itself as an "Up and Coming Urban Research University" with a goal of attracting excellent faculty and students via whom to help make this state and our world a better place. You have other viable alternatives at your disposal.

    Let me first cite a salient excerpt from the March 23rd, 2011 letter from David E. Schrader, Executive Director of the American Philosophical Association:

    "The AAC&U has done substantial work surveying the needs of America's businesses. AAC&U data indicate that 81% of employers want universities to place greater emphasis on Critical Thinking and Analytical Reasoning skills. 75% want universities to place greater emphasis on Ethical Decision Making. These are precisely the areas in which philosophy plays the most significant role."

    Indeed, and the irony here could not be more acute. That we are now find ourselves in this painful circumstance of acute economic travail, both nationally and in nearly every state, is in large measure the direct result of a political, legal, and economic culture run amuck in Gresham's Law fashion, where -- absent effective and rational regulation driven by ethical acuity -- the Bad inexorably drives out the Good. The examples are by now legion (and dispositive, in my view). I need not cite them, but I do need to emphatically add my voice here for the ongoing -- no, heightened -- importance of critical thinking and ethics coursework offerings at the university level. We have no shortage of trade schools and otherwise career-dollar focused curricula. This is absolutely not the time for retrenchment in the reasoning and ethical arts and sciences.

    I am a quantitative analyst and writer of long, broad, and deep experience spanning multiple domains (see I am also a mid-career 1998 graduate of the now-moribund UNLV Institute for Ethics & Policy Studies (comprised of faculty drawn mostly from Philosophy). I count the upshot of my experience there as an invaluable, cherished asset, and simply the best academic dollar value I ever received. It served to appreciably leaven my otherwise native polemical, iconoclastic tendencies with an indelible sensitivity to the continuing challenges posed by the inseparable attributes of both objective analytical reasoning and moral/ethical inquiry. I now try daily to bring these skills to my work in health care information technology as part of the national effort to improve our health care system. I blog about these topics here: (see health care post links in the upper right links column)

    I am also a Senior Member of the American Society for Quality (ASQ), a 22 year veteran of that organization, and a person long committed to the ideals, strategies, and tactics of continuous improvement. The organizational literature is by now fairly replete with solid evidence of the significant cost-saving opportunities available to organizations of every stripe, public and private. Systematic, carefully implemented process improvements have repeatedly been shown to result in operational cost savings of as much as 30% or more (and I would speculate that academic institutions in general are in the upper range of quantifiable process improvement opportunity). This is wherein lies your opportunity for sustainable improvement and subsequent institutional budgetary viability (and not just at UNLV).

    Let me be clear: I am by no means a reflexive apologist for the administrative or curricular status quo at the UNLV Department of Philosophy nor its parent institution. Nonetheless, what you are proposing will achieve little if anything of long-term benefit while introducing much of real short- and long-term harm. Please reconsider, and strike this proposal.

    Thank you for your time.


    Robert E. (Bobby) Gladd, MA/EPS

  • TomTjn says:

    Who cares about NV? My private university in LA won't be eliminating the philos department any time soon--hey, lots of the law school comes from there. All this does is make the playing field a little better for people like me, who actually attend a decent undergraduate college. Nice work!

  • [...] the bad business sense of closing university philosophy departments to make up for state budget [...]

  • sajad says:

    should be a philosopher to not be a philosopher.

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