Category: Case for Philosophy

Cleese, Confusion, and the Toolbox Project

As Daily Nous and Open Culture both reported, the great John Cleese (of Monty Python and Faulty Towers fame, and so much more) recently recorded a series of public service announcements proclaiming the value of philosophy.

Daily Nous also included this video of Cleese acting as a philosopher in terrific bit of comedy. While funny in its own right, the clip brought to mind one other way that philosophy can be of value. And it’s something we do at the Toolbox Project. But first,  watch the video:

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The myth of unified philosophy

maxresdefaultOf late, there has been an interest in our online community on the status of philosophy. Harry Frankfurt and Brian Leiter believe philosophy is in the doldrums, lacking any “agenda-setters” to unify the discipline and create significant movement or progress. I disagreed. Zachary Ernst, formerly an associate professor of philosophy, contends that philosophy lacks unity as a discipline; philosophy is a magpie collections of questions, methods, texts, topics, and thinkers. And he takes this to be a lamentable state for the field. Both of these views, I believe, are based on the myth of a unified philosophy. Ernst is right: philosophy is not unified. But it has not been, will not be, and should not be unified. This lack of unity is a virtue of philosophy, not a vice.

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Philosophy in the Doldrums? Hardly

Brian Leiter recently shared this excerpt from Harry Frankfurt’s contribution to Portraits of American Philosophy:

Harry FrankfurtI believe that there is, at least in this country, a more or less general agreement among philosophers and other scholars that our subject is currently in the doldrums. Until not very long ago, there were powerful creative impulses moving energetically through the field. There was the work in England of G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell and of Gilbert Ryle, Paul Grice, and Herbert Hart, as well as the work of various logicial positivsts.  In the United States, even after interest in William James and John Dewey had receded, there was lively attention to contributions by Willard Quine and Donald Davidson, John Rawls and Saul Kripke. In addition, some philosophers were powerfully moved by the gigantic speculative edifice of Whitehead. Heidegger was having a massive impact on European philosophy, as well as on other disciplines–and not only in Europe, but here as well. And, of course, there was everywhere a vigorously appreciative and productive response to the work of Wittgenstein.

The lively impact of these impressive figures has faded.  We are no longer busily preoccupied with responding to them. Except for a few contributors of somewhat less general scope, such as Habermas, no one has replaced the imposingly great figures of the recent past in providing  us with contagiously inspiring direction. Nowadays, there are really no conspicuously fresh, bold, and intellectually exciting new challenges or innovations. For the most part, the field is quiet.  We seem, more or less, to be marking time.  (pp. 125-126)

With respect, I think Frankfurt couldn’t be more wrong. Philosophy is hardly in the doldrums. This comment both misrepresents the contemporary status of our discipline and typifies an antiquated notion of what constitutes non-doldrum, energetic, thriving, and creative philosophy.

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Making the Case for Philosophy: #theDress edition

tumblr_nkcjuq8Tdr1tnacy1o1_500By now you’ve probably seen #theDress and have strong views on what color it is (white and gold).  Don’t worry, this post isn’t exactly about the dress. There’s already been enough discussion, including on the philosophical issues.

Instead, I want to draw your attention to something related, something that we can use to help explain to students what philosophy is and why it’s worthwhile. It has to do with the fact that most cultures in human history couldn’t see the color blue. Or to be more accurate, they did not recognize it. Naming and recognizing blue is relatively new.

imgresJules Davidoff (Goldsmith, University of London)
conducted experiments with the Himba tribe in Nambia. These people have no word for blue and do not distinguish it from green. So when presented with this image, Himba tribespeople typically couldn’t pick out which square was a different color.


However, they have a lot more words for green than we do in English. When shown this image, they could readily pick out the different square. Can you?

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 3.58.34 PMTo be honest, I had a hard time picking out which one was different. I had a guess, then after 30 seconds or so changed my mind. In the end, I got it right in the end, but wasn’t easy. I’d likely have missed it completely if not asked to find one that was different. (Follow the “most cultures…” link above to see the answer.)

I plan on using this example as part of my start-of-term lecture this fall. The point is that we already can see plenty of distinctions easily. But there are plenty that we miss too, simply because we don’t have the words or concepts at hand to notice them. Part of what philosophy does is (a) inform you  about important distinctions you’ve not seen before and (b) teach you how to make new distinction on your own.

Value of Philosophy in the News

We’ve been saying for some time now, but it is nice to see those outside Philosophy (or academia even) recognize the value of philosophy. Huffington Post just ran a piece on “The Unexpected Way Philosophy Majors Are Changing The World Of Business.” deptMuch of the news isn’t new. (Damon Horowitz, a PhD in philosophy, has been Google’s in-house philosopher for some time, for instance.) But the piece is a nice summary of many of the virtues of a philosophical educaiton. It can and readily should be shared with skeptical students (and family, if anyone still has some asking why you did get/are getting a philosophy degree).

For anyone interested, you can read my own three-part series on the case for philosophy.

Making the Case for Philosophy: Part 3 – Tweaking the Curriculum

In this series, I’ve been discussing how we can better make the case for philosophy in order to increase enrollment in philosophy courses and the number of majors. So far, the focus has been on how better to market philosophy and what the benefits of philosophy actually are. For the final entry in the series, I’d like to propose that we consider modifying the nature of the courses we offer to undergraduates to increase interest.  Continue reading

Making the Case for Philosophy: Part 2 – The Benefits of Philosophy

Of late, there has been a significant uptick in the attention people are paying to the decline of the humanities. (See the recent NY Times article summarizing much of what has already been reported elsewhere.) There are fewer and fewer students interested in majoring in the humanities, including philosophy. There are, justifiably, many who are worrying about who or what are to blame. Perhaps the Great Recession scarred many incoming students (and their parents) into the false belief that the humanities aren’t marketable and will lead to financial ruin. Lee McIntyre presents a compelling argument that, at least for philosophers, it our own fault. While there are likely to be a host of causes for the decline of the humanities in general and philosophy specifically (and not necessarily all of them bad), one of the biggest problems, I believe, is that for too long we haven’t done a very good job articulating the benefits of a philosophical education. If we’re to have any hope of improving our position in the modern academy (and ensure the continued existence of philosophy programs), we’d better fix this mistake and fast. Joblessness is no long just for philosophy majors. Useful people are starting to feel the pinch.

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Making the Case for Philosophy: Part 1 – Marketing

Don_Draper_WikiMany philosophy departments need a new marketing strategy. We need a new way to sell our product (a philosophical education). We need Don Draper. No, really we do. Continue reading

Making the Case for Philosophy: Series Preview

(Originally published Oct 25, 2012)

My earlier post on Philosophy majors GRE scores has gotten me thinking.  We need to do a better job of selling our product, i.e., an education in philosophy.  That may be a crass way of putting it, but hopefully helpful.  While the climate for philosophy certainly varies from one university to the next, the general trend nationwide has been troubling.

So I’ve been thinking about how to change things.  What can we do as philosophy departments to attract more major, as well to make the case to skeptical administrators or bureaucrats to keep and support philosophy departments.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll have a series of posts on this topic.  (Today is just the preview.)  Here are the three topics I’ll be discussing in the upcoming posts:

  1. Marketing – How can we better market the great stuff we do already and how to attract more students?
  2. Benefits of philosophy – What new arguments can we come up with to explain and emphasize the advantages that come with studying philosophy?
  3. Tweaking the curriculum – How could we adjust the courses we teach to attract more students?

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