Puff-Piece Features about Philosophy Do the World No Good: Isn’t Philosophy about asking Tough Questions?

I’m happy the Professor is getting some recognition, but the interesting issues this piece raises are dropped as soon as they come up.

1. The first issue that this article raises regards the status of public universities:

Auburn is a land-grant university: it became one in 1872 under a federal program geared toward helping the working class obtain practical college educations. That mission continues largely to this day. A public university with an annual tuition of less than $6,000 for Alabama residents, it accepts roughly 70 percent of those who apply. Among its 20,000 undergraduates, business and engineering are the most popular majors. When students choose liberal-arts majors, they tend to be the more practical ones — communications, criminology, psychology, prelaw….

….As he [Jolley, Professor of Philosophy] points out, the opening stanza of Auburn University’s creed — “I believe that this is a practical world and that I can count only on what I earn” — conveys a certain kind of hostility to the world of ideas in which philosophy and for that matter the rest of the humanities plainly reside. “The creed is a fine document in many ways,” he told me, “but it reinforces a certain picture of what you’re here for, and it can be very hard to break the grip of that with students.” [boldface added by me]

Alright. First question – if a university is devoted to things that are entirely practical, should it exist? “I can count only on what I earn?” That’s openly anti-moral and unpatriotic in the extreme: it’s Jack Nicholson’s character’s credo in The Departed. If actually acted on, it promises to destroy civic life in this country once and for all for the sake of an individual’s paranoia, much less his greed. The entire Auburn creed can be seen as refuted by Plato’s Hipparchus, where the basic requirements needed for commercial transactions – honesty, explicit law-abidingness, wisdom defined in terms of “skills” that can be bought – mark not only the acquirer of wealth but tyrannical rule.

Btw, I should say this: I do like Auburn, it has an awesome swimming program and if they can keep tuition that low, heck, I would have gone there. But some traditions really are this thoughtless and need to be shown the door fast. There is no way American life can continue if this is taken literally: either the contradictions in the creed will show the entire enterprise to be futile, and thus education to be worthless, or the parts that destroy morality will prove themselves supreme as they are held on an equal level with the parts that are simply empty moral rhetoric.

As we have discussed numerous times, education is anything but practical. Real education approaches the useless even as it articulates a good – you don’t “use” the highest good, after all.

2. Of course, what’s funny about practical endeavors is just how short-term they are. You want a lasting good? You need people willing to work for it full-time, accept no pay, and search out other talent actively and unselfishly:

Jolley’s early efforts to change the culture of the philosophy department at Auburn met with quite a bit of resistance from the university’s administration. Among other things, they rejected his requests for money for more upper-level philosophy classes. Determined to build up Auburn’s philosophy major, Jolley simply taught the courses himself, free of charge.

Many of Jolley’s colleagues were similarly skeptical of what he was trying to do. Several of them urged him to “tone it down,” he recalls, when they noticed the intimidating syllabus for his first class, the history of ancient philosophy, taped to the door of his office. They advised Jolley against wasting his time trying to start a philosophy club at Auburn — the club now has about 30 members — and called his approach to teaching “aristocratic.” In particular, they objected to the fact that he was grading students not on how well they learned philosophical terminology and definitions but on their ability to think philosophically.

Jolley gradually built allies within the department while at the same time looking to bring in like-minded professors. He didn’t expect Auburn to be able to land top candidates, but he was convinced that a lot of talented young philosophers were slipping through the cracks, often because they had the misfortune of specializing in an especially popular area, or because they had been stigmatized for taking too long to finish their degrees. (Jolley’s latest hire, Arata Hamawaki, spent 18 years finishing his Ph.D. at Harvard.) Auburn’s philosophy department is now dominated by graduates of some of the nation’s top philosophy programs.

The result you can already guess:

…it came as something of a surprise when, in the late ’90s, Auburn’s college of liberal arts undertook an internal ranking of its dozen academic departments and philosophy came out on top. The administration figured that there must have been a problem with the criteria it used, and a new formula was drawn up. Once again, philosophy came in first. This time, the administration decided to give up on the rankings altogether.

Why are practical endeavors trumped by theoretical ones this soundly? Part of me has always suspected Socrates’ seeming knowledge of everything is some sort of joke – since he has knowledge of ignorance, and all men are ignorant in some way, he knows all men’s natures and thus can comment on whatever they do rightfully. When I’m done the dissertation, I should have a more definite answer for you, but I suspect that Heidegger gets at the truth more directly when asserting that there are arts that a philosopher requires. A good example of this is seen if we move one degree away from the philosopher, to the epic poet: Homer knowing everything is a major theme of several Socratic dialogues. We know someone like Milton had his hands on multiple languages, mastery of diverse verse forms common to English and those languages, a working knowledge of the science of his day, was active politically and had read and understood Machiavelli. All of that and more was required to make Paradise Lost, parts of which I think he dictated because he was literally blind then.

Practical endeavors have a definite end. Theoretic ones probably demand more than any one person is capable of.

3. I’m making this article to be better than it is. What set me off was this crap:

By any measure, Jolley has accomplished a great deal. But in the service of what, exactly? During my stay at Auburn — and in our e-mail exchanges afterward — Jolley and I returned again and again to that very question. Why does philosophy matter?

Jolley could never seem to come up with a clear, settled explanation, and since clarity is a philosophical virtue, on one level this obviously bothered him. Yet his failure to give a simple answer was, in a way, the best answer he could have given. Philosophy is so much a part of how Jolley thinks, talks and writes that his attempts at an answer were themselves invariably philosophical, which is to say, aimed as much at exploring the assumptions behind the question as at answering it. “One reason it can seem so hard to see how philosophy relates to life is that we have often already decided that philosophy is thinking, not living,” he once wrote me. Explaining why philosophy matters, in other words, requires doing philosophy — the very thing the questioner wants explained.

I felt dumber after reading that, esp. when this was said above:

[Jolley:] “I am convinced that philosophy is not just about theory,” he told me. “It’s about a life well lived and thoughts truly thought.”


  1. Good article. The part that set you off though is a valid concern of most people. Also, looking in the past for answers is futile as they would have been found by now if the past had any answers. Philosophy will have to change. It will have to start providing real answers, not just questions. By using recent scientific research that can happen.

  2. I hate to think we might reach the point where philosophy merely becomes the mental version of stretching before practice in terms of education.

    Yes, it would do wonders for the open minded student first coming into academic life – but there must be more to it than that.

    I’m looking at the increasingly hostile atmosphere of American culture – we seem to be getting more arrogant and ignorant as time goes by and this behavior is catching up to us very quickly. At its most simple and basic – couldn’t philosophy end up saving as all if thought before action became a trend?

    Just a thought.

  3. I think in a way looking at it from the practical to the philosophical is the wrong way to see this- it mistakes two things.

    1. Externalities: the main skills in philosophy are understanding texts, reasoning logically, thinking analytically and being familiar and confident with concepts- those are skills that you need say to write a policy paper or even advertise a product. The harder the philosophy you do, the more advanced your gain in these externalities is and hence the better you would do outside.

    2. Philosophy is in itself good. In my view there is aesthetic judgement involved in the arts and sciences- that truth has a beauty- in that sense Keats was right. In a sense I’d agree with Mill not that philosophy makes you happier but that it reveals beauties to you that you hardly knew before.

    Lastly as we are all citizens first and subjects to firms second, the arts have their value in training people how to analyse and think deeply when they come to be citizens. How to evaluate candidates for example- or more prosaically I found my history degrees very helpful when I did jury service where I was required to evaluate evidence.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.