Monday 6 May 2013

One Hundred Years of Philosophy (2013)

Centenary Special 1913-2012

From Volume 101 No. 1 Spring 2013

One Hundred Years of Philosophy

By George MacDonald Ross

It is a great honour to be invited to address The Philosophical Society of England on the occasion of its centenary. By coincidence, it is exactly half a century since I myself started studying philosophy at university. It is also just over half a century since the publication of John Passmore's lengthy and magisterial A Hundred Years of Philosophy, in 1957. Now, I shall not attempt to emulate Passmore's achievement by covering a hundred years of philosophical development in detail, but nevertheless it is possible to make a number of broad generalisations  about major changes in the philosophical scene since 1912.

A useful starting point is a famous little book first published in the year the society was founded. This is Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy. The work has a number of significant features. One is that, along with most of the many other books published by him and other leading philosophers at the time, it was written in a way that would be comprehensible and interesting to the intelligent lay public. Works directed solely towards fellow academics, such as Whitehead and Russell's Principia Mathematica, were the exception rather than the rule. Recall that in 1912, the number of professional philosophers was minute in comparison with today, and most of the readers of philosophical books were outside the university system.

Nowadays, we are used to the idea that, from the Renaissance onwards, most philosophical debate and innovative thinking took place outside the academy. Most of us would be hard-pressed to name any significant European philosopher before Kant who held a university post. It was really only towards the end of the 19th century that reformed universities took over from the coffee houses and voluntary clubs as the centres of gravity of philosophical and scientific activity. The evolution was very gradual, and even after the beginning of the twentieth century, at least outside Oxford and Cambridge, there were still flourishing clubs and societies which eclipsed what was happening in the struggling new universities.

Consider the example of the Philosophy Department at the University of Leeds. It celebrated its centenary in 1991, while I was Head of Department, and I did some research into how it had changed over the past century. In its early years, it had only one professor and then an assistant, and most of its few students were destined to become either school teachers or vicars. The syllabus was narrow, consisting mainly of some history of philosophy, logic and scientific method, and psychology (which had not yet established itself as a separate discipline). It seems that over the years, the Leeds Department did not provide a fertile environment for philosophical innovation, and I was unable to unearth any significant product of philosophical research by any member of staff in the first half century of its existence. The earliest figure of any note was Stephen Toulmin in the 1950s.

By contrast, the City of Leeds had a flourishing subscription library, with a more extensive collection of books than the university. It had a Philosophical and Literary Society with its own premises (though we should bear in mind that in those days the term 'philosophical' embraced science as much as philosophy as we now know it). And most significantly, there was an organisation called the Leeds Arts Club, which was as much concerned with philosophy as with the arts. One of its leading lights, Alfred Orage, was primarily responsible for bringing Nietzsche's philosophy to the attention of the British public at the beginning of the twentieth century. This was a far greater achievement than anything produced by the academic philosophers.

During the twentieth century, the academy grew and grew, and virtually monopolised intellectual life. Philosophical clubs were increasingly marginalised, and non-academics were effectively barred from publishing in academic journals or presses. My own father was a product of the free intellectual world of the early twentieth century. Although he was a civil servant by profession, he had the mind-set of an academic both in classics (which he studied at Oxford) and in theology. In his later years he encountered many obstacles to participating in scholarly debate, simply because he was not a card-carrying academic. He was eventually prevented from attending international theological conferences which were for academics only, and he had great difficulty publishing a well-argued article on the myth of Atlantis (eventually accepted, to its credit, by a journal run from the University of Durham). It is, of course, perfectly reasonable for journals to have procedures to protect themselves from the effusions of lunatic amateurs; but peer reviewing already does this. It is a shame that insistence on university affiliation reinforces an intellectual apartheid between academics and the scholarly public.

However, this intellectual apartheid does not mean that the universities constitute a complete philosophical monopoly; but rather that there are two separate philosophical cultures, with relatively little interaction. The Philosophical Society of England is a shining example of an organisation dedicated to promoting the study of philosophy among the general public, without letting itself become dominated by academic philosophers (unlike the Royal Institute of Philosophy, for instance).

One of the differences between modern British culture and that of much of Europe is that philosophy is not a compulsory school subject. Cynics may say that making a subject compulsory at school is the surest way of putting people off it for life. Yet for many it does have a lasting positive influence, and it makes for a critical mass of people wishing to continue reading and discussing philosophy. The nearest it ever came to being compulsory (in England) was during the lifetime of the Higher School Certificate (from 1918 to 1951), usually taken at 18, which included a compulsory exam in logic, taken in a reasonably broad sense. In Scotland, by comparison, philosophy was a compulsory subject in all the universities, if not in schools, until the latter part of the twentieth century. In the same spirit as the Higher School Certificate, the International Baccalaureate includes a compulsory course on Theory of Knowledge, as well as having an option of Philosophy as one of the main subjects of study.

It is true that for a number of decades now it has been possible to study philosophy at A level (examinations usually studied between the ages of 16 and 18); but the number of students has always been too small to have a significant cultural impact. The syllabus has tended to be very similar to that of first-year university courses, which may explain why many academic philosophers have been hostile to it — indeed at some universities admissions tutors even refused to accept it as a valid qualification at all. Interestingly, there was a lively debate about philosophy teaching in the press at the time of the World Congress of Philosophy at Brighton in 1988. Some philosophers, such as Roger Scruton, argued that 16 was too young an age to start studying philosophy — even though this was perhaps the age at which Theaetetus started discussing philosophy with Socrates, but far younger than Plato's extreme view that one should not start philosophy until the age of fifty. In my opinion, you are never too young to be encouraged to think philosophically, and it is arguable that you shouldn't start later than the age of entry to secondary school, when students begin to become less creative, and more inflexible in their thinking styles.

Doubtless this is part of the thinking behind  a growing movement called Philosophy for Children. It was originally set up in the 1980s in the USA by Matthew Lipman (1922-2010), and it has inspired similar organisations in other countries, including the UK. Its approach could hardly be more different from that of the A level. The A level is quite didactic, with approved texts specifying a defined range of possible answers to an equally defined range of traditional philosophical issues. It is a back-handed compliment to the authors of such texts that it is perfectly possible for candidates to get high grades in the exams simply by memorising their contents. That said, I hasten to add that there are innumerable examples of excellent philosophy teaching in sixth forms, despite the structural rigidities of the A level syllabus and marking schemes.

By contrast, Philosophy for Children is dialogic, open-ended, and non-assessed, encouraging students to think independently and imaginatively, and to discuss issues co-operatively. Lipman's method involves the students reading novelettes about philosophical issues targeted at different age groups from early primary upwards. The students themselves raise questions about what they have read, and there are strict rules as to how they conduct philosophical debate — such as always taking on board what the previous speaker has said, giving reasons in support of any assertion, being courteous and not interrupting, and so on. I once observed a discussion among young schoolchildren at a comprehensive school in a deprived area which was far more civilised, co-operative, reasoned, and imaginative than the typical discussion among university students of philosophy with high A level scores. Proponents of philosophy for children do not always use Lipman's materials as such, but all agree that the aim is to stimulate philosophical enquiry and debate by one means or another, rather than lecturing students about what professional philosophers have achieved.

In recent times, the methods of philosophy for children have been extended to adults through the community philosophy initiative, which holds that many of society's problems can be solved, or at least mitigated, if adults causing these problems can be helped to conceptualise their situation philosophically, and to engage in rational debate with others. This is closely related to cognitive behaviour therapy, which is a modern version of the ancient belief in philosophy as a method for helping people to overcome psychological problems and achieve a good life.

If we add into the picture the recent growth of caf├ęs philosophiques and pub philosophy, and of philosophical magazines directed towards the general public, I believe that lay philosophy is in a far healthier state than it was a few decades ago. Nevertheless, there is still a serious divide between the philosophy of the people and the philosophy of the academics, with very little crossover between the two.

To return to Russell's Problems of Philosophy, there is another characteristic feature that distinguishes the practice of philosophy in the early twentieth century from current practice. This is that Russell confronts significant philosophical issues directly, and refers to major figures of the past only indirectly when relevant. Along with other British philosophers of the early and middle twentieth century, such as A. J. Ayer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Gilbert Ryle, he writes without footnotes or a bibliography. A hundred years later, this would be quite unacceptable in academic writing, and we need to consider why.

Comparing an early twentieth-century philosophical text with an early twenty-first century one, the most obvious difference is that the latter is full of references to what other writers have written about a problem, at the expense of addressing the problem itself. Every claim has to be supported by a reference, even if it is totally unclear what the reader should do about the reference. Reading all the works referred to in a single article could take years, and the further references in these works a whole lifetime. But if you are not expected to read the references, what are they there for? Their sole function seems to be as an authority for the statement made.

When I was a student, I was taught that the argument from authority was one of the great fallacies in human reasoning. To appeal to an authority was an abandonment of empirical experience and logic as the criteria of truth. Of course we have to trust others a lot of the time; but when we are doing philosophy, we need to rationally evaluate what others have said on the matter in hand.

There is a widely held myth that scholastic philosophers were especially prone to the argument from authority — that they clinched every argument with 'The philosopher saith . . .', i.e. an appeal to the authority of Aristotle. But this is quite misleading. If you look at a classic work of scholastic philosophy, such as Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae, you will see that his method is first to define a problem, then to list the solutions to it proposed by different authors, and finally, and most importantly, to give reasons for preferring one solution to the others, or opting for some compromise position. This seems to me an excellent model for how references should be used.

Nonetheless, perhaps it was a fear of appearing to be like a scholastic philosopher that led to a modern philosophical culture, from Descartes and Hobbes to the middle of the twentieth century, with authors such as Russell, Wittgenstein, Ryle and others, which erred on the side of failure to give adequate acknowledgment of the views of others. So why was there a marked shift from giving too few references to giving too many? One possible factor is that, until quite late in the century, it was common for people to be appointed to academic posts in philosophy without having produced a doctoral (PhD) thesis. When I was a student, only a minority of my teachers had a PhD, and most of those were from abroad. I was firmly told that an Oxbridge BA was a licentia docendi, or a licence to teach, and that the reason why Oxford introduced the postgraduate BPhil (and not, note, the DPhil) as a teaching qualification was because philosophy was only a small proportion of what was studied there at undergraduate level (whereas the Cambridge Moral Sciences Tripos was a single-honours programme).

The reason why this is relevant is because the PhD thesis is now an academic's first and most formative experience of extensive philosophical writing. The requirement that the thesis must be original means that the author must give evidence that no one else has published the views contained in the thesis. The only way of providing this evidence is to trawl all the relevant literature, and to show that nothing is the same as the substance of the thesis. Journal editors and publishers have a similar interest in originality and avoidance of plagiarism, so it is in effect a necessary condition of publication that books and articles have copious bibliographies and footnotes. The requirements for a PhD thus become a lifetime habit.

Another reason for the change is the pressure to publish. Until the early twentieth century, the idea of a university was of an institution of which the primary purpose was to teach undergraduates. For example, one of the central themes of Cardinal Newman's much mentioned but little read The Idea of a University is that teaching and research are distinct and incompatible activities, and that they should be carried out in separate institutions. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, at the University of Leeds, for example, even the scientists and engineers amongst the academics had to obtain special permission to undertake research projects, in case they detracted from the teaching for which they were paid. Research and writing for publication were regarded as spare-time activities or even hobbies, and philosophy teachers published only if they felt they had something important to say. It was not really until after the First World War that research began to be seen as part of the duties of an academic, and not until much later that it began to be monitored.

The really big change in the UK took place in 1986, with the first Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), now rebranded as the Research Excellence Framework (REF). This came about because the then polytechnics complained that they received less funding per student than the universities. The universities responded by saying that part of their mission was to conduct blue-skies research (i.e. not just particular projects funded by sponsors), and that the difference in income was accounted for by the time academics spent on research rather than just teaching. The Treasury then called their bluff by insisting that they should account for the research activity of every member of academic staff — and hence the RAE came about. It initially measured the quantity of publications, but later became more qualitative. Certainly, the amount of money involved put immense pressure on universities to ensure that everyone produced as much as possible and within a short timescale.

Since the exercise covered all academic disciplines, considerations of equity meant that, as far as possible, the same general criteria would apply. Significantly, works intended for the general public or students simply did not count, and in some departments staff were explicitly forbidden to write such works. This is one reason why so many textbooks are written by American rather than British academics. Of course, there is a grey area where a book might be considered to be both for the lay and for the academic market, as usually used to be the case. But the tendency is to play safe, and make sure that anything published is unmistakably an academic research publication. This means that, in philosophy, the style of writing has become more like that of other disciplines, such as sociology, which is notorious for its excessive and uncritical reliance on references.

I was involved in discussions as to what would count as a research publication on teaching methods for RAE purposes, and whether it would be assessed by the Education Panel or the relevant subject panel, when I was Director of the Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies of the Higher Education Academy. The main criterion that emerged was that a work should be 'embedded in the literature' to count as research — i.e. that it should refer to lots of works on the same topic. Personal experience and reasoned arguments didn't count. This concerned me, because, until the Subject Centre started publishing its own journal, there was almost no published literature on the teaching of philosophy to refer to. No-one wanted to listen when I pointed out that anyone doing research in an entirely new field would be excluded from the RAE because of lack of references. To put it another way, publications that are heavily derivative from the work of others count as research, whereas entirely original research does not count at all!

It has been observed that academics in general have a tendency to discuss each others' writings rather than directly confronting issues themselves. Academics live off the oxygen of publicity, and like nothing better than being referred to, whether in agreement or not. So to outsiders academia looks like a closed club for mutual appreciation. Or perhaps I should say a collection of clubs, because the past century has seen a vast increase in the degree of specialisation as well as in the quantity of publications. So much is published that no-one can keep up with the literature in more than one sub-discipline. This is as true of philosophy as of any other subject, and philosophers tend to define themselves as metaphysicians, logicians, ethicists and so on. rather than just as philosophers.

Indeed, there is now also a host of 'philosophy ofs', such as philosophy of education, philosophy of science, and so on, which have relatively little commonality with mainstream philosophy. Noel Malcolm, a distinguished Hobbes scholar, left academia for a while to write a weekly political column for the Spectator (he told me that it gave him more time for research than being an academic). He once wrote a very amusing piece on the oversupply of academic writing, saying that he no longer had time to read all that was written about Hobbes, let alone the history of philosophy or philosophy itself in general. He concluded that instead of encouraging academics to produce more and more, the powers that be should take a leaf out of the book of the European Union, and pay academics set-aside money for books they refrained from writing.

Another factor which makes philosophy different from most other disciplines is that the very concept of research doesn't seem appropriate for what philosophers do. Research involves the discovery of something unknown, whereas what philosophers do is to reconceptualise and assess the significance of things that are already known. This may lie behind the slowness of philosophers to adopt the PhD as an essential qualification, or to come to see publication as part of the job, and not just a hobby. Now that the concept of philosophical research has been accepted, there is a tendency for it to become more like research in other disciplines. In particular, there is the scientistic expectation that effective research will lead to positive and objective results. Transferred to philosophy, this implies that there is objective philosophical truth which can be arrived at by research. In other words, it implies what a sceptic would call dogmatic philosophy.

In the history of philosophy, scepticism has come in and out of fashion. It was alive and well in the ancient world, with Socrates (arguably), Pyrrho, and Sextus Empiricus. It lay low in the middle ages, perhaps because of church control over the universities. After its revival in the Renaissance, especially under Montaigne, it was well represented in the modern period, with strong tendencies in Locke and Berkeley, and the overt scepticism of Hume and Kant. During the past hundred years, the logical positivists, while deferential to physical science, were dogmatically sceptical about metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and theology.

Similarly, linguistic philosophers rejected anything not expressible in ordinary language, and, in his later writings, Wittgenstein treated philosophy as a disease to be cured. But since then, scepticism seems to have gone out of fashion, and philosophy is largely conducted dogmatically, in the sense that practitioners of the sub-disciplines believe that they have arrived at objective truths, which they can then share with fellow-academics and students. One of the indications of this shift is the revival of sub-disciplines, in particular metaphysics, which were once considered taboo, but are now hailed as peaks of excellence in some departments. For some earlier twentieth-century philosophers, this would be the equivalent of a reversion to alchemy in a chemistry department, or to astrology in an astronomy department.

There has also been a change in attitude towards the applicability of philosophy. At the beginning of the last century, people like Russell and Joad believed passionately in the usefulness of philosophy for ordinary people, both as an approach to thinking, and in its applicability to morality and philosophy of life. Russell in particular wrote many books and made broadcasts on topics such as marriage, happiness, idleness, and politics; and I am sure he believed he could write them only by virtue of being a philosopher. It is thanks to Russell and his like that prominent philosophers had a much higher status and respect in British society than they have today.

In some respects, philosophy has tended to withdraw into itself, and some philosophers boast that their discipline is studied for its own sake without any practical application. At the World Congress in Brighton in 1988, which I mentioned earlier, Allen Phillips Griffiths was quoted in the press as saying that 'Philosophy butters no parsnips', by which he meant that it had no practical application. Shamelessly, the undergraduate handbook of the Philosophy Department of the University of Leeds once had a statement right at the beginning that studying philosophy was entirely irrelevant to a career. A number of university administrations are exasperated by the difficulty of getting philosophers to articulate the useful intellectual skills philosophy students develop in the course of their studies. In fact, When I did this for my own department, my colleagues complained that fostering these skills was not the aim of a philosophical education — which of course is true, but that doesn't mean that they aren't a useful by-product of studying philosophy.

The big exception to the denial of the usefulness of philosophy is applied ethics. Half a century ago, the general assumption was that ethicists studied the logic of moral discourse (what is now called 'meta-ethics'), but qua philosophers they had nothing to say about what is or is not moral. That was dubbed 'casuistry', or the resolving of particular moral issues, and it was the job of priests and politicians. Philosophy might help people think more clearly, but it was ultimately up to the individual to decide what was right or wrong.

In recent years, the sub-discipline of applied ethics has undergone spectacular growth. It has been helped in particular by the requirement of various professions, especially the medical profession, that trainees should study ethics. Non-philosophers probably expect the training to consisting in learning and applying a code of conduct. In fact what trainees get is help in thinking more effectively about issues in the practice of their profession, in the light of traditional theories about the nature of morality. Consistently with the assumptions of the previous century, applied ethicists do not see themselves as having a licence to preach to their students what their moral values should be.

Having devoted much of my professional career to trying to bring about improvements in the teaching of philosophy at UK universities, I would have liked to end my talk with an account of the ways in which the teaching of philosophy has got better . Unfortunately, apart from a few shining examples of improved practice, methods of teaching and assessment have remained largely unchanged over the past century. This is surprising, because one would expect teaching methods to reflect the prevailing fashion in views as to the nature of philosophy. In particular, a scepticism about the possibility of peculiarly philosophical knowledge might be sympathetic to a student-centred and dialogic approach, as practised by Socrates. On the other hand, a belief in the objectivity of metaphysics might favour the didactic lecture followed by an unseen sat examination testing the student's memory. But the latter method has largely prevailed over the past century and more, despite changes in belief about the nature of philosophy.

In all this I am reminded of the remark by an American university principal that scientists who are meticulous about doing nothing without the backing of experimental evidence in the practice of their research, completely ignore the empirical evidence about what is or is not effective when it comes to their teaching. I fear that much the same is true of university philosophers. You would have thought that philosophers of all people would be reflective about what they do, but I have seen no philosophical defence of the practice of teaching philosophy through lectures and assessing it through sat exams.

So my conclusion is that congratulations must be offered to organisations such as the Philosophical Society of England, but more generally, the world of academic philosophy needs to do much more to put its house in order.

Contact details: George MacDonald Ross, School of Philosophy, Religion and the History of Science, University of Leeds, UK
email <>

This is a revised version of the paper presented to the Malmesbury Conference of 2012, as part of the Philosophical Society of England's Centenary Celebrations.

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