PoW: Is academic philosophy in crisis?

You’d think philosophy was in quite a healthy state, considering the growing number of popular philosophy books, clubs, debating events, podcasts, evening schools and festivals in our culture. And yet, at the level of schools and universities, the picture is quite different. At A-Level in 2010, the subject attracted a mere 1.1% of students – and even that is an improvement on a few years ago.

Philosophy A-Level is completely outgunned by subjects that would once have been considered part of philosophy, such as sociology, politics and economics, and in particular psychology, which is now the second most popular A-Level, after mathematics, attracting 19% of all students. A quarter of all girls taking A-Levels took psychology in 2010 – we seem to be becoming a nation of therapists.

At undergraduate level, philosophy barely seems to exist. According to UCAS, only 1,500 students started philosophy degrees in the UK in 2010 (although UCAS doesn’t include joint courses like Oxford’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics course). The feedback I get from people who took philosophy degrees is mixed. Some say they loved it. Others were turned off by the narrow focus on Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophy, which they found dry and uninspiring.

There’s a move, now, to make philosophy a bigger part of the school curriculum. Yesterday, I attended a roundtable at the London School of Economics which sought to promote philosophy for children at the primary and secondary level. It was partly organized by Peter and Emma Worley of the Philosophy Shop, a charity that teaches philosophy in primary schools and beyond. They’re doing a great job at getting this issue more public attention: they’re presenting a White Paper to the government this month, as well as a petition. There was also an item on philosophy in schools on Radio 4 this week, and this month’s edition of the magazine Philosophy Now is devoted to that topic.

Here’s a video of Peter Worley in action at a primary school discussing epistemology with some year six kids. (I like the Raiders of the Lost Ark introductory music). As you can see in the clip, children are natural philosophers, and love to consider ideas of time, space, identity and knowledge. I remember my best friend and I tripping ourselves out when we were 11 by wondering what existed beyond the edge of the universe. This natural curiosity can perhaps be guided and trained by philosophy, making young people better able to think about their thinking, to formulate reasoned arguments, and also to dialogue with themselves and each other (the communal aspect of philosophical inquiry is a big part of Philosophy for Children, another school philosophy programme).

I hope the campaign succeeds. In the meantime, it might be useful to ask ourselves, why is philosophy so unpopular at A-Level and undergraduate level? What is it missing? And why is psychology doing so well?

One possible answer is that psychology speaks to our emotions and our daily concerns in a way that academic philosophy no longer does. In Greco-Roman philosophy, logic, ethics, epistemology and metaphysics were grounded in psychology, and in a deep understanding of our emotions. Academic philosophy went into decline, I would argue, when psychology split off from philosophy towards the beginning of the 20th century. From that point on, psychology grew in influence, while philosophy steadily declined.

If we want to increase the relevance of philosophy, not just in schools but in society in general, I would suggest we need to return to the ancients’ conception of it as an education of our emotions as well as our thoughts. It should teach us to be aware of how our beliefs lead to our emotions, and how we can manage and transform our emotions. It should also teach us, I believe, about the different conceptions of the Good Life which different philosophical schools offer (that’s actually what I’m trying to do in my book).

But why not simply study psychology, you might say. What has philosophy to offer that psychology can’t? First of all, a lot of modern psychology has its roots in ancient philosophy, so there is a historical awareness there that some psychologists lack. They don’t always realize where their ideas and techniques come from.
Secondly, ancient philosophy understood – in a way some modern psychology doesn’t – that therapy involves a critical engagement not just with an individual’s beliefs and values, but with their culture’s beliefs and values.
Thirdly, many psychologists and neuroscientists have a naive understanding of concepts like ‘meaning’, ‘happiness’, ‘well-being’ and so on. Their discipline is founded on these terms, yet very often, their use of these terms is unexamined, even by those at the top of their field.
I think some of the most interesting work in the next few decades will come from psychologists and philosophers working together, to combine the analytical rigour of the latter with the experimental rigour of the former. The subjects need each other, as I argued here.
On that note – it’s good to see experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe is teaming up with leading social psychologist Roy Baumeister to work on free will, thanks to a generous grant from the Templeton Foundation. For a great discussion of the relationship between philosophy and psychology, by the way, I recommend Experiments in Ethics (The Mary Flexner Lectures), by Knobe’s former supervisor, Kwame Anthony Appiah.
One psychologist who combines the analytical rigour of a philosopher with the fieldwork and experimental practice of a psychologist is Richard Bentall, arguing here that psychiatry’s definition of schizophrenia has as much scientific validity as astrology.
Here’s an inspiring story of a leading therapist for borderline personality disorder, who just came out with the news that she’s suffered from the disorder herself since she was 22. She says: “I was in hell. And I made a vow, that when I get out, I’m going to come back and get others out of here.”
Here’s a great video from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, about an important new report by the OCC on the well-being of children in our justice system.
The Economist reports here on a new study that suggests people who live in cities are more messed up than those who live in the countryside. Perhaps we should all take to the hills and pop magic mushrooms. A new study from John Hopkins University gave magic mushrooms to 18 volunteers, of whom 94% said it was one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. A third said it was the single most meaningful experience of their life. Far out!

Talking of which, I enjoyed seeing Angie Hobbes, the flame-haired siren of British philosophy, talk on ancient philosophy at the LSE roundtable. She remarked on the trippiness of the ancients – Plato and Heraclitus in particular – and suggested: “I do sometimes wonder what my favourite philosophers were on, and whether magic mushrooms form the basis of western culture.”

I’ve always thought psilocybin from yeast was an important part of the Eleusinian Mysteries, where many great ancient philosophers and artists were initiated (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius…) The psychedelic theory of Eleusis was first argued by R. Gordon Wasson, a former investment banker who got turned on to magic mushrooms by his Russian wife, and who played a key role in developing modern culture’s understanding of psychedelics in the 1950s. Check out this ground-breaking article he wrote for Life Magazine in 1957.

Finally, news that James Arthur Ray, one of the leading gurus promoted in Rhonda Byrne’s New Age bestseller, The Secret, has been convicted of negligent homicide. Three of his followers died when a sweat-lodge initiation went wrong in 2009. The Atlantic looks at all the mainstream media outlets who promoted his dumb Law of Attraction idea – that we can just wish for something, and lo, it will happen.

Wouldn’t it be great if I could get a column in which I explored and exposed the claims of psychics, shamans, faith healers and other oddballs? Let’s all wish for it. Close your eyes and repeat after me: ‘I wish that Jules will get his own column.’ Thanks! I’ll keep you posted.

See you next week,

Jules

Comments:

  • Olly says:

    Hi Jules,
    Psychology is indeed roaringly popular at the moment, and I'm sure its because there are lots of clear career paths – professional psychologists and counsellors abound. Also, its a lot more girls than boys who go for psychology at undergraduate level. Boys often come to it later. Philosophy perhaps is less girl-friendly than psychology, as its less obviously a helping profession. That could be changed, of course, so keep doing what you're doing.

    I like the idea of a psychobabble-debunking column. Hoorah. Would read it, um, religiously.

  • tom von logue newth says:

    this is good news to me only cos i had no idea one could even do a philosophy a-level. otherwise..

    the number one importance of philosophy for "younger" people (including myself at university) has always seemed to me that it teaches you how to think. in a sense it doesn't matter which philosophers you read – the, as it were, generality of the subject doesn't allow a student to be distracted by the trees as in other subjects (times tables, grammar, elements, whatever).
    my thumbs are up. and now i want some mushrooms

  • Kelsey says:

    Thanks for this, Jules. I'd like to see more border crossing between disciplines, and philosophy is a good place to start because it crosses over into just about every thing else. I absolutely loved the video of the kids doing philosophy. They seem so completely uninhibited in expressing their thoughts, and the way they work collaboratively is really inspiring. Looking forward to reading the article about the borderline personality disorder therapist.

    Cheers,
    Kelsey

  • Sara Northey says:

    Hi Jules,

    I found myself nodding all the way through that. I have often wondered why so many people are drawn to psychology rather than philosophy. I agree with you that it is likely that philosohpy (wrongly) has the image of focussing on the rational rather than emotional. I also agree with Olly's comment before mine that there are more obvious 'helping' career paths in psychology. Plus, I think there is something in our culture at this time that idealises the therapeutic relationship to some extent. Ironically, however, one of the key struggles in British clinical psychology at the moment is about our identity as a profession and the idea that we should be selling ourselves as more than 'just' therapists. The reason for this is that commissioners, quite rightly, look at us and say "So, you do CBT? I can get the same thing at half the price from someone else. See y later". I think we should be focussing on other skills as well as therapy: for instance, our skills in critically appraising and applying research and theory from multiple perspectives, in the attempt to solve human problems.. This is exactly what we would get from engaging more fully with our philosophical roots.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  • Jules Evans says:

    Thanks guys,

    You might enjoy the interview I just posted with Richard Heimberg – he's quite interesting on the interaction between a person's culture and their individual beliefs. The great Enlightenment pioneers of psychology, like Rousseau, Diderot, Adam Smith and others – were sociologists as much as psychologists, but CBT often seems to lose, or avoid, that cultural awareness.

    All best

    Jules

  • Great Post. Illuminating too.

    Best Regards,
    Philosophical Muse

    http://www.philosophicalmuse.com

  • Miss Clark says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Miss Clark says:

    I wonder the reasons for these low academic interest. It could be: a)the subject itself put young people off since can be very abstract b) future career prospects. I am not sure about the connection between gender and choices but in my view they are influenced by culture. Finally, the divisions between subjects are artificial. We are now moving towards a "transdisciplinarian" academic world where a bit of Philosophy, Philosophy & traditional Social Sciences (Sociology, Anthropology & Politic Sciences) are combined to better understand our world.
    Anyway, it is a very enlightening blog, congrats.

  • Jules Evans says:

    Thanks Miss Clark

    I agree – I think A Levels should move closer to Baccalaureat (where i believe philosophy is compulsory) and university move closer to the US model, where you can take several different subjects – i think everyone would want to at least briefly consider the meaning of life, ethics etc while at uni.

    All best

    Jules

  • Anonymous says:

    Not sure why Psychology is seen as a rival to philosophy – while it has ethical and social branches, it positions itself more clearly with the sciences than the humanities, and as such is no more a natural competitor than, say, biology. But the perceived lack of relevance of analytic philosophy is undoubtedly a turn-off for some students, as can be the ingrained misogyny revealed when they reach UG level

  • Your post was just what I needed to help me sort out the ideas I've been trying to express in my writing.
    I hadn't seen the connection between the rise of psychology and the 'fall' of philosophy before. I agree that the culture and the individual are equally important influences in our motivations, biases, and attempts to be reasonable.
    Philosophy should be part of every level of education, along with statistics and probabilities.

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