Philosophy is not a 'ridiculous' pursuit. It is worth funding

18 September 2013

"Who would question that the activity of finding and attempting to fix problems in our collective thinking was a relevant thing to do?" asks Professor Paul Redding.
"Who would question that the activity of finding and attempting to fix problems in our collective thinking was a relevant thing to do?" asks Professor Paul Redding.

I remember a cartoon from the 1960s: a man in an office is leaning back in his chair, feet crossed on the desk, staring at the ceiling. The sign on the half-open door reads "philosophy department". A passing colleague asks: "Dan, don't you ever stop working?" A nice joke, having the right combination of absurdity and half-truth. Philosophy is an activity that can look like inactivity. But let's not get carried away. Philosophising is, like all intellectual work, work.

Perhaps Jamie Briggs MP had something like this picture in mind when he recently ridiculed a project - which I'll describe shortly - for which a colleague and I had received a research grant. Given the ominous signs this sends regarding what may be in store for philosophy, humanities and areas of "pure" research, one should understand the nature of the activities that may be at risk.

As a first, crude attempt, I'll describe philosophical work as work with and on "concepts". Philosophers are concerned with concepts in the same rigorous sort of way that, say, a pathologist is concerned with diseases, or a mathematician with numbers. This may look like philosophers apply their energies to other-worldly things ("staring at the ceiling", "head in the clouds") or to the contents of their own imaginations, but this is based on a misleading account of concepts.

Concepts are not the contents of so-called thought-bubbles. They are the hinges or links of reasoning processes. They describe those aspects of thought that enables it to make the right connections: connections with the rest of the world; with other thoughts; and with actions. I use the word "right" here to indicate the possibility of getting these connections wrong.

Looked at this way, a concern with concepts can seem important indeed. To recycle an idea from Aristotle, it's the capacity for conceptual thought that allows us to reason and act on the basis of reasons, and not just react to environmental stimuli. That we all work with concepts at some level allows us to exercise reason and act freely—to be more than mere bundles of conditioned responses. Concepts are what make us distinctively us.

In the division of intellectual labour, philosophers work mainly at the level of the hinges between thoughts, on those concepts deeply embedded within the argumentative threads weaving through our culture. But these are threads that have started somewhere with the formation of beliefs, and end somewhere in actions. As the concepts on which philosophers work are typically located a long way from where these threads start or terminate, philosophical research is generally described as "pure" rather than "applied". But "pure" does not mean "irrelevant". Who would question that the activity of finding and attempting to fix problems in our collective thinking was a relevant thing to do?

The project that my colleagues and I developed examined the function played in rational thought by one particular concept - "God"- a concept that the vast majority of people through history have entertained and employed in their thinking and acting. In medieval Europe, this concept played an overarching and controlling role in, perhaps, all systematic thought, but by the early modern period new ways of accounting for the world and our place in it started to emerge. The contemporary debate between believers and "new atheists" started in earnest in the 18th century. For many people, the notion of God still plays a central role in their thought and life: they feel that morality and meaning in life would disappear without it. Others believe that the concept is groundless, and point to the blight of religious conflict, ostensibly generated by the hatred of those entertaining different conceptions of God.

We sought ways around the gridlock of current debates over the role of religion in public life by examining the way an early 18th century philosopher and theologian had responded to similar circumstances by refashioning the concept of God to accommodate modern ways of thought. The Australian Research Council's panel of experts, acting on the advice of independent specialist assessors, deemed it worth pursuing. On the basis of its title alone, however, Briggs deems it "ridiculous".

The discipline of philosophy developed in ancient Greece in opposition to a rival discipline popular, then and now, with politicians: rhetoric. The philosophers saw as mere rhetoric language used just to achieve a desired result - to trigger an immediate response rather than a reasoned one. A contemporary term for this, "dog-whistling", captures the picture well. Dogs react to mere sounds, they don't act on the basis of concepts expressed in words. The word "ridiculous", unaccompanied by reasons, is really just a whistle.

Paul Redding is a professor of philosophy in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sydney. In 2004 he was elected as a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in recognition of his contributions to the history of the tradition of continental idealist philosophy. He is the author of over 50 journal articles and book chapters and four books including Analytic Philosophy and the Return of Hegelian Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and Continental Idealism: Leibniz to Nietzsche (Routledge, 2009)

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