In the Gradgrind world of spending cuts, what is the value of philosophy?by Nigel Warburton / November 17, 2010 / Leave a comment
The news for the humanities in the Gradgrind world of spending cuts is grim. British university teaching subsidies are to be slashed. We’re on the brink of a cost-benefit world in which favoured subjects, especially the sciences, can expect a degree of protection thanks to demonstrable “usefulness.” Others will have to pay their way. So how does philosophy measure up in this new economy?
If true value is indicated by people’s willingness to pay, philosophy has a reputable history. Thinkers belonging to the Peripatetic school in ancient Greece ran private tutorials at high market rates—despite one of the greatest philosophers of all time, Socrates, declining to charge and mocking those who did. Aristotle was private tutor to Alexander the Great, René Descartes to Queen Cristina of Sweden (though the early morning lessons were the death of him). Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were typical recipients of Enlightenment beneficence in being subsidised by wealthy aristocratic patrons.
A hard-nosed advocate of today’s coalition cuts would no doubt point to the lack of an obvious connection between the ability to interpret Wittgenstein’s private language argument and being an economically productive member of society. If you are forced to do the outcome analysis, though, philosophy should fare pretty well: it imparts transferable skills of analysis, critical thinking, values, rigour, encourages independence of thought, and may even teach humility. All of which are marketable assets in a fast-changing economy.
But the market case is unlikely to be made. For most philosophers don’t believe their subject’s worth resides in its side effects. Its real value is inherent in thinking hard about deep questions. As Bertrand Russell noted, philosophy enlarges our conception of what is possible and enriches our intellectual imaginations. Without philosophy, we would be ill-equipped to answer, appreciate or even ask many questions about how we should live. Questions such as: “Do we want a society which is only prepared to subsidise teaching economically effective subjects?”