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In a recent interview over at The Philosopher’s Magazine, Nigel Warburton, co-presenter of Philosophy Bites, the wildly successful philosophy podcast, riffs on his experiments in public philosophy, the problems plaguing philosophical research, and his recent decision to leave academia.  The success of his podcast is proof positive that there is a hunger for philosophy in the publicyber space.  Excerpts below.

The surprising success of the podcast:

The initial thought was that mainly philosophy students and lecturers might take an interest, but he’s heard from American listeners with time to kill on long drives, people waiting out wildfires in Australia, and soldiers in Afghanistan concerned about ethics. When I ask for details over email, Warburton sends me a list of 40 countries, all with more than 10,000 downloads each, some with vastly many more, millions more in some cases. Just after the usual English-speaking suspects, China checks in at number five. The United Arab Emirates, Argentina, Taiwan, Iran and Indonesia make the list. Several spin off series, two books (and a third in the pipeline), more than 250 interviews and an alarming 16.7 million downloads later, and Philosophy Bites is an international philosophy phenomenon.

Warburton explains that he is leaving his secure position at Open University largely because of the dominance in academia of what he calls “crossword puzzle philosophy” (essentially, what Daniel Dennett has deemed “chmess“):

“Philosophers today have mostly got their heads down. They’re concerned with writing for a journal which will publish work that takes them two or three years, and only five people will read it. These are people who could be contributing to something that’s incredibly important. Gay marriage is just one example of many. I don’t think philosophers responded particularly well to 9/11. Issues about free expression, all over the world, are not just academic. They’re matters of life and death. There are exceptions, but philosophers are by and large more interested in getting a paper in Mind or Analysis than they are in commenting on the major political events of our time.”

On philosophical “research”:

I’m not even sure what research means in philosophy. Philosophers are struggling to find ways of describing what they do as having impact as defined by people who don’t seem to appreciate what sort of things they do. This is absurd. Why are you wasting your time? Why aren’t you standing up and saying philosophy’s not like that?…  It’s not the kind of thing that Socrates did or that Hume did or that John Locke did…  Why are you doing this? I’m getting out. For those of you left in, how can you call yourselves philosophers? This isn’t what philosophy’s about.”

One is hard-pressed to disagree with a straight face.  As someone who has been on the job market for a couple of years, I always inwardly cringe when I am asked to explain my “research” to a search committee or a dean.  In a formal sense, research is something that a scientist does in a lab or in the field:  designing and conducting experiments, collecting and interpreting data, and the like.  In an informal sense, it means doing your homework–gathering relevant information–before a meeting, an interview, etc.  Philosophical writing, for the most part, is not research:  it is reading articles and books, thinking about them and the subjects concerned, and then writing what one thinks about them.  Exceptions could arguably be made for “experimental philosophy” and branches of philosophy in dialogue with the sciences, such as philosophy of mind or biology, but for the most part, I think it’s a category mistake to think of the reading and writing of philosophy as “research.”  We might view today’s philosophical “research,” largely a consequence of the rise of analytic philosophy and “science envy,” as a new form of scholasticism, a defensive, conservative crouch destined to be consumed by the coming Avalanche (more on this, Higher Education’s equivalent of the Singularity, later…) (I hasten to add, however, that analytic thought, at its best, provides a needed check against the scholastic excesses, verbosity, and sheer fictioneering of much Continental thought.).

Despite the coming storm, Warburton is ultimately optimistic about the fate of philosophy:

“Because of changes in online teaching, in the next ten years, the university system will be turned on its head. If Philosophy Bites can make such an impact with two guys with a hard disk recorder and a couple of laptops, think what people who fully understand the new technology, who can write code, who can employ the best philosophical communicators around, think what they could produce. It’s only just starting. We’re going to see dramatic changes to how we learn, teach, do research and share ideas. I think philosophy’s future’s very bright.”

I asked two days ago what, in light of Leon Wieseltier’s view that philosophy these days only “tweaks and tinkers,” an alternative might look like.  Philosophy Bites seems to be a solid step in the right direction.

(image courtesy of Philosophy Bites)