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Should We Defend Philosophy?

Should we defend philosophy?

‘Fight the cuts~’ The slogan has obvious validity
when it is a matter of axing hospitals and nursery
schools, of increasing the sizes of school classes
and closing old people’s homes. And so the same
slogan comes easily to hand when the proposed cuts
are aimed at higher education. ‘Fighting the cuts’

then seems appropriate enough when we are faced
with possible redundancies, and the closing of
departments, in colleges, universities and polytechnics. But perhaps we should pause. Perhaps we
should first ask ourselves a few uncomfortable
questions. What are socialists doing, defending
these hallowed institutions? Not so long ago, many
of us were asserting them to be the guardians of
bourgeois culture and bourgeois ideology – do we
now want to rally to their defence?

For people in philosophy, the question can be put
even more pointedly. Rhodes Boyson has been
opining about the dispensibility of arts subje cts and
social studies. These presumably include philosophy.

Do we want to disagree with him? ‘Contemporary
British philosophy is at a dead end’, we claimed in
the first issue of Radical Philosophy. Do we then
want to stand guard over the corpse? Shouldn’t we
leave Boyson to give it an indecent burial?

A possible, though scarcely avowable, response is
that it’s simply a matter of political opportunism.

We, perhaps, have no genuine desire to preserve
academic departments or to maintain the teaching of
academic philosophy, but others – our orthodox
academic colleagues, maybe – do have an interest
in doing so. Therefore, it may be said, we should
emphasise how the government’s policies attack
their interests, and so recruit them as temporary
allies in the political struggle.

That is a coherent position, and not necessarily a
cynical one. But we suspect that many sOcialists,
including many readers of Radical Philosophy, will
be inclined to defend rather more wholeheartedly
the institutions of higher education, and the teaching
of philosophy in them. Why? and with any good
reason?

‘It’s a matter of jobs, ‘ it may be said. ‘The cuts
will mean redundancies, and must therefore be
resisted.’ And certainly those who work in higher
education are not going to accept unemployment
without a struggle. But again there should be more
to be said, for if the jobs one wants to preserve are
jobs which serve to maintain a socially pernicious
institution, one’s political line should at any rate be
sensitive to the ambiguity. You don’t defend jobs in
the arms industry without also pointing out that those
skills could be utilised to meet real social needs.

So, if we think that philosophy departments function
to perpetuate a ruling ideology, we should perhaps
follow the example of the Lucas Aerospace workers,
and fight redundancies on the basis of some alternative conception of the social function and value of
philosophy.

What would that be? Here we come to the heart of
the matter. And Radical Philosophy arguably stands
for some kind of answer. Not that all of us would
agree on a single formulation. Some would appeal to

the critical potentialities in the classical philosophical tradition. They would argue that though the great
philosophies of the past have regularly accommodated
themselves to their own sOciety, the historical
tradition has at the same time furnished the tools for
‘negative’ or ‘critical’ thinking which can stand in
judgment on the actualities of existing social life.

The practice of philosophy, on this view, can be a
liberating and a subversive one. Others would
profess less attachment to the idea of ‘philosophy’;
they would say merely that so long as the institutionalised discipline of philosophy exists, there is a need
to combat it and provide a way out of its ideological
mystifications. But common to both views is the
idea of an intellectual practice which, even in its
institutional embodiments, is capable of functioning
as social criticism; and it is in this that the value of
the activity would be seen to reside.

Now there are certainly many socialist philosophers
who would reject this whole way of talking. Their
perspective would, perhaps, be that of ‘class
struggle in philosophy’. Institutions of higher education’ they might say, primarily serve the needs of
the ruling class, but individual socialists who happen
to be involved in higher education as teachers or
students can, semi -surreptitiously, make use of
these opportunities in order to do theoretical work
which will be of service to the working-class movement; there are, however, no supra-class interests
which this work can serve. That is a possible position. Obviously it rules out the possibility of arguing
against the cuts, other than opportunistically and
disingenuously, but perhaps that implication should
simply be accepted.

Perhaps, again, all these contortions are unneces~
sary. Maybe we should simply say that philosophical
enquiry, and intellectual enquiry generally, is an
enjoyable activity; that the opportunity of engaging in
it should be available to all; and that in a socialist
society this ~ould be fully possible (the vision of
‘hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon,
rearing cattle in the evening, and criticising after
dinner’ ).

At any rate a coherent pOSition on these matters
doesn’t come ready-made, and there is work to be
done. This means engaging with the received philosophies of education: with the traditional antithesis
between ‘education for its own sake’ and a crudely
utilitarian ‘education for industry’ (on this, see Roy
Edgley’s article in RP19); with the currently orthodox notion of ‘worth -while activities’; and with nonsocialist versions of the idea that the value of higher
education resides in its fostering of critical intelligence (e. g. Leavis and Scrutiny). In the present
political situation we can learn, too, from similar
struggles elsewhere, such as the fight for philosophy
in the French educational system, reported in RP23.

The Editorial Subcommittee
(A new Editorial Subcommittee is elected by the
editorial collective at each editorial meeting. Its
views as expressed in editorials do not represent
an agreed Radical Philosophy policy. )
.1

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