There’s a very interesting conversation going on at Leiter’s site (post by Jason Stanley) about the purpose of the academic discipline of Philosophy. The title is a giveaway (In Defence of Baroque Specialization). Jason says:
a university’s primary mission should be to advance the disciplines it represents. In short, a university should seek to promote work that will give that university prestige in the future and not in the present. So, a university’s mission with regard to its philosophy department should be to support those who are attempting to formulate new positions and arguments, rather than those who seek contemporary relevance.
I agree that this is part of the university’s mission. A good university wants to promote work of lasting importance. But that is only part of what it does, or should do. Very few scholars are going to contribute in a discernable way to that part of the mission (not me, not most of the people who think of themselves as at or somewhere near the top of their disciplines at any given time), and in the long run we’re all dead anyway. Furthermore, we have no reason at all to want Universities to promote their own, individual, reputations, except in so far as some sort of reputational competition helps to advance the other fundamental goals of the institution of academia.
Another part of the University’s mission is to contribute, right now and in the near future, to the intellectual life of the larger community; if universities don’t do that, who will?
It does this by fostering good teaching and by contributing to conversations in the wider culture. Now, in order to do this, the scholars and teachers involved have to be connected in the right way to work of lasting importance and the people producing it. Personally, I do a mix of quite abstract work in political philosophy, and much more widely accessible work concerning education which I hope will have some influence on education scholars, teachers, and sometimes policymakers in the world of K-12 education; I don’t think I would have learned how to do the latter as well as I do it (however well that is) if I hadn’t done the former, and I don’t think I’d continue to do it that well if I didn’t continue to do the former. Careful and thoughtful reflection on the work of lastingly important philosophers is really valuable in the here and now, because it contributes (or would contribute if people did it) to producing better, more thoughtful, contemporary public conversations.
So administrators who have the richer vision of the mission of the university in mind (as including, but not being limited to, the wider public and contemporary mission) are right to seek philosophers (and historians, and sociologists, etc) who act as mediums between a wider public and the core of their discipline, seeking “contemporary relevance”. Not to the exclusion of baroque specialists, but certainly a good mix.
Perhaps this is not the place to say this, and I don’t mean to attack Jason’s post in particular (despite the inflammatory title), but I have long been uneasy about the behaviour of analytical philosophers in the 1980’s and 1990’s, during which time the kind of ideas associated with Judith Butler and Jacques Derrida (names he mentions) had enormous influence within the humanities and social sciences. With some very honorable exceptions, my sense was that we kept our heads down, identified ourselves in some way with the hard sciences and mathematics, and allowed those ideas to do their worst; all the time maintaining a sense of our own superiority because we weren’t fooled by that nonsense. I think that was, frankly, irresponsible, and that part of our mission as a discipline should have been to attempt to counter that influence. To do so required some people to divert their time from the “baroque” work they were doing and to train themselves up in the disciplines that were being influenced sufficiently well to be able to debate those ideas in ways that were meaningful to those potential audiences. That’s hard work, and I personally admire those unusual people who bothered to do it. I think the rest of us, as a discipline (or, since it is analytical philosophers in particular I am accusing, as a faction within a discipline (just to make it clear, a faction to which I belong if it’ll have me, and with which I identify strongly)) we could at least have acted better.