home | archives

Philosophy Blog

Life at the thought-face.

Friday, February 21, 2003

What is research in philosophy?

How can one distinguish between the activities of making up your mind on the deep questions of life, doing philosophy, and engaging in philosophical research? We can extract a fairly standard and pat answer from the way academic philosophy operates in this country. Making up your mind is something personal and not really an academic activity at all, though it may be informed by academic knowledge and skills where those are available. Doing philosophy is very similar to making up your mind, except that it is more structured and better informed by what other people have thought on the question, and it places greater value in how the activity is conducted and slightly less in whether it comes to a stable conclusion. Philosophical research, however, is what researchers do, that is it is what people are paid by Universities and research boards to do, and it is a process with a public, measurable product: articles and books.

I have recently come to the conclusion that not only are these distinctions wrong, but by acquiescing in a system which presupposes them, we are destroying the very heart of philosophy.

Let me start with an example. Suppose I read a book on some area of philosophy in which I am interested. I find the book interesting and troubling, so I decide to devote my ‘research time’ to thinking very very hard about it. I go through it sentence by sentence, I follow up references, I talk to lots of people about the ideas in it. At the end of say two or three months, I come to the conclusion that the author is right, and that the arguments she gives are the best arguments for the position. I have tried this example out on a few colleagues, and all agree with me that this would be a good use of my time. But what could I publish as a result of it? The simple statement: I, Tom Stoneham, agree with everything written in such-and-such book. And that is not worth sharing with the world.

Every activity must have an internal goal which defines success, and it seems that the internal goal of anything worth calling 'philosophy' is a state of mind of the person who is doing it. There can be other goals, of course, such as publication or fame, but these can only be achieved by a philosophical activity if the internal goal of that activity is to achieve a state of mind. This is not to deny that philosophy is truth-directed, for the state of mind might well be knowledge, it is just that the value of this knowledge is not what is known, but the state of knowing. Compare this with, say, chemistry. Chemists want to end a research project by knowing something they did not know before, but the value of achieving that knowledge is precisely the value of what they know. If what they thereby know is something which others can take on board and make use of, then the research was valuable. But when a philosopher ends up knowing something philosophical, the value of that is not what he knows, for his knowledge has no use for anyone else except in so far as they too go through the process he went through in order to achieve it. Rather, the value is the state of knowing, of having made up his mind correctly.

What I am suggesting is that philosophical research is just a highly sophisticated version of making up one’s mind on the deep questions in life. That is a personal activity, the internal goal of which is a state of mind of the person who engages in it. Sometimes it has by-products which are of value, such as books and papers which are essential reading for anyone else trying to do the same thing, but the success of the activity is independent of these by-products.

If I am right about this, the consequences are very far reaching. One consequence is that it undermines any reason that might be given for paying academics to do philosophical research.

I hope no one ever quotes that last sentence out of context, because I need to make VERY clear exactly what I mean. If A pays B to do something, that is in nearly all cases because B’s activity produces something of value to A. But if I am right about the nature of philosophical research there is little or no reason to expect that, if you pay me to do it, I will produce something of value to you. In so far as the activity has a product, it is a product which is only of value to me. It may have by-products which are of value to others, but the success of the activity cannot be measured by those by-products, and if A is paying B to produce those by-products, he is actually paying B to do something other than philosophy.

Now the caveats. It DOES NOT FOLLOW that academic philosophers should not be given time to do research by their employers. Let me repeat that: I think that philosophers should not be paid to do research, but that their employers should give them time to do research. For example, my employer does not pay me to be a School Governor, but it does give me time to do that. The point of this fine distinction is control: whose time is it? Who says what you should be doing in that time? If Universities and research councils are not paying philosophers to do research, then they cannot say what philosophers should spend their research time doing, nor can they assess whether that time has been used well or not. Their attitude, if they are merely giving time rather than paying for research, should be ‘Here is your research day – off you go and do whatever it is you do with your research time’.

Nor does it follow that philosophers should not accept money for the by-products of their research, for the books and papers they write as part of the activity of making up their minds. In fact, we currently have the slightly absurd situation that so much philosophy is published, but so few read it, that the publishers cannot afford to pay the authors enough to cover their time in writing. So the authors ask to be paid by the tax payers to write books and articles which next to no one reads. How did this arise? Well, the philosophers insisted that they must be allowed to do research, but the managers insisted that if they were paying for something there must be a public, measurable product, so the publishers grinned as they realized that they had a huge resource of authors who they did not need to pay, and agreed to publish vast quantities of not very interesting philosophy. If the managers could be persuaded that they were not paying philosophers to do research (merely allowing them to), then they would not insist on published product, and publishers would make more money by publishing just the very good philosophy, that is just the pieces which are essential reading.

But …

This is not an argument for teaching only philosophy departments. But if we are to avoid the unpleasant situation we have arrived at by pretending that philosophical research, like scientific research, has a public, shareable product, we must be quite clear what the reasons are for Universities to give philosophers time to do research, that is to sit around and think about philosophy.

One reason, which is often repeated but often betrayed in practice, is that research informs teaching. To put it bluntly, the idea is that people who are engaged in the thinking about philosophical problems with the sophistication expected of researchers will be better teachers. Not all of them will be organized, efficient and charismatic, and it is perfectly reasonable for an employer to seek these virtues as well. The point is that they are not sufficient. At primary school we think that if you are a good teacher, you can teach anything. At secondary, we restrict the scope of ‘anything’, but we do not have any problem with one teacher teaching ‘science’ or ‘humanities’. At University, however, the level of knowledge and fluency with the material required is so much higher, that it is not possible to teach well unless one is also operating on, or near to, the level of those philosophers whose work one teaches. A University lecturer in philosophy will not be content with telling her students that X said Y is wrong because of R. Learning that does not improve their minds. Rather we will say ‘Y is wrong because of R’, and to do with any credibility, that the lecturer needs to have the knowledge and skills to be able to stand up to Y and put the objection and be treated as an intellectual peer. Only a person whose own philosophical opinions are as sophisticated as those of the writers they encourage their students to discuss and criticize can be a good teacher of philosophy at University level.

The other reason is more straightforward, and may be easier to use on the managers. I spent 9 years as a student to get the qualifications I need for my current job. That is almost twice as long as your GP, and yet I get paid less than half as much as an average GP (according to a BBC report the average salary of GPs is £70k). And don’t get me making comparisons with lawyers! So why do I do the job? Because it is the only job which pays me a reasonable amount and still gives me time to spend thinking about philosophy. If I wanted to earn as much in a different job, I would not get the time to do the philosophy. Now, I think it is true of most academic philosophers that the reason they do the job is exactly that: they want to spend time thinking hard about philosophy, but they do not want their kids to go without. Having research time is like having a company car – it is a perk, something to attract and retain the best people to the job. If any University did not give its philosophers research time, then they would simply leave and take jobs elsewhere, either in other more generous institutions or doing something else altogether.

These two arguments cohere nicely. The best teachers are those who are ‘research active’ and you will not attract the best to your University unless you give them the time to do the research. And if those are the reasons for giving philosophers the time to sit around thinking, then University managers should not have any interest in whether that time is used ‘productively’, and should certainly not care one jot about whether the philosophers they employ publish anything. Of course, they have a right to ensure that those people they have employed on these generous terms really are as good as they claimed to be, but there are plenty of ways of checking that other than by counting publications.

.: posted by Tom Stoneham 10:39 AM

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

Time and Consciousness

A guy I knew at graduate school in London, Dan Cotterill, has produced this interesting philosophical website: www.krasny.co.uk. Take a look at the video called 'Transience'.

A possible solution to the problem would go like this. Transience is an illusion created by the fact that the mind/brain is an information processor. Information can only enter such a system via causal channels and causation follows the direction of time. Consequently, for any given moment in time there is an asymmetry about the information that the mind/brain has available to process. It has no information about the exact present, nor about the future, but it does have information about the past. The information about the past includes information about the past states of the system. So at time t1, the system gets the impression that the past has already happened but the future is still to come. At t2, it still has that impression, but it also knows that at t1 it thought it was in the present, but that t1 is now in the past. So it gets the further impression that the present flows, that t1 was now, but t2 is now now.

Dan would not be happy with this as a response to the problem of transience, and I can see why, but trying to work out exactly what is wrong with it can only help us deepen our understanding of the problem.

And there is another aspect of the neurophysiological approach to consciousness that needs addressing: the binding problem. When the mind/brain processes information, that processing is distributed spatially over the brain, and as a consequence some parts of the brain complete their processing task a few milliseconds before the other parts. Yet, when reporting on conscious experience we speak as if there is a single moment of consciousness where it all comes together. This is also an illusion.

.: posted by Tom Stoneham 10:19 AM