More NEH

The following comment, from an anonymous NEH reviewer, was posted over at IHE due to some (length-related?) problem with posting it here.  It is worth reading. 


Sorry for joining the conversation so late. I am an assistant professor of
philosophy in a PhD-granting department and was a reviewer for the NEH Enduring
Questions grant this past year. I hope you will excuse this message's anonymity
— and its length.

I reviewed about 20 or so of the applications, and recently received a list
of the 20 award recipients, so I might be able to make some informative remarks
about this program.

I think the program gives philosophers two reasons to be worried. These
reasons have been mentioned here and there throughout the preceding comments but
it may be helpful to draw them out explicitly. The first reason concerns
philosophers' views about what constitutes legitimate inquiry into these
"enduring questions." The second concerns how the NEH and other humanities
fields view philosophy. I'll elaborate on these.

When I first heard of this program, I, like many of the above commenters, had
what I'll dub the "proprietary response." The proprietary response is that the
enduring questions (such as "What is a good life?") are distinctly philosophical
questions and that it is absurd and insulting to set up a grant program to
induce non-philosophers to teach philosophy courses. However, many of the grant
proposals from non-philosophers impressed me as speaking to these questions in
valuable and pedagogically effective ways. Some of the proposals centered around
the ethical dimensions of literary or historical figures. Studying these lives
is a way of gaining experience by proxy, such that students have a range of
experiences to draw upon once they start doing philosophy more seriously. So one
defense of non-philosophical courses on the enduring questions can be put in
terms of remedying one of Aristotle's reasons for not doing moral philosophy
with the young: they lack experience. If the question is "what is the good
life?" one way to start answering that question, even if it isn't Socrates'
preferred way, is with a list.

Now of course one could include the study of historical and literary figures
in a philosophical ethics course, but that is not very common. One applicant
(unfortunately not a winner) proposed having her students spend the semester
studying a single play (along with other texts) and then learning more details
about the characters and their motivations and interactions by having the class
culminate with their own performance of the play. Maybe this sounds gimmicky to
some of you, but plenty of serious moral philosophers are worried about the
dominance of abstraction and general moral theories in philosophical ethics, and
counsel engagement with the particulars. This is one interesting way to grapple
with the particulars. In any event, I don't remember hearing much about this
kind of activity in the typical philosophy course. And if this doesn't appeal to
you, there were other good ideas, such as in the truly excellent (yet, alas,
non-winning) proposal for a course team-taught by an English professor and a
biology professor on the question of what is human nature.

Some of the proposals whose content fit the more traditional introductory
ethics or philosophy course seemed detached and sterile by comparison.

To sum up this first point, many of the enduring questions concern how to
make sense of some aspect of life. One way to start this inquiry is to become
familiar with said aspect. This stage of the inquiry need not be philosophically
sophisticated to be valuable. To the extent that philosophers hold fast to the
view that only they are qualified to teach courses centered around fundamental
questions about good lives, wisdom, human nature, war, religion, freedom,
happiness, etc., I am concerned that we do not understand how ignorance about
life and its varieties and elements can render philosophical inquiry empty or
baffling to the typical undergraduate, nor how other disciplines might
contribute to philosophical learning.

That said–and this takes us to the second point–there is a limit to how
much progress one can make on these questions without some kind of philosophical
expertise. And while I reviewed some excellent proposals by philosophers who
were grant winners (such as Mike Austin's, mentioned upthread), some good
philosophical applications were overlooked. Even worse, there are signs that
people at the NEH are indeed ignorant of what philosophers do, and dismissive of
the idea of philosophical expertise. One application listed several of the
classic questions of moral philosophy and then proceeded to complain that too
few philosophers address these questions. The applicant is obviously highly
ignorant of contemporary moral philosophy, he flaunted this on his application,
and yet he is one of the award winners. Seeing something like that is

Even more worrisome than the NEH's carelessness about philosophy is the
ignorance displayed by some of our colleagues in other departments. Many of the
proposals by non-philosophers took up the more philosophical questions. Yet in
aspects of their applications, from the stating of the course's core questions
and assumptions to the listing of the bibliographies, often I found myself
frustrated at the absence of basic and helpful philosophical distinctions and
the absence of classic and directly relevant philosophical texts. I only had a
small sample size to work with, but the impression I got was that the view that
"anyone can do philosophy well" is common in academia.  This worries me. If our
colleagues in other departments do not understand professional philosophy as
requiring some kind of valuable expertise, that does not bode well for
philosophy as a discipline.

Both of the reasons for worry that I discussed in this message have to do
with philosophy's isolation from other disciplines. The proprietary response is
a sign that we don't appreciate what they do, and their lack of humility in
regard to their philosophical ignorance is a sign that they do not appreciate
what we do.

In recent years in the profession there has been a fair amount of attention
paid to philosophy's "public relations." As far as I know, this has been
directed at getting those outside of academia interested in philosophy. But what
might be even more important is a public relations campaign directed at our
fellow academics.

Thanks for


4 Replies to “More NEH

  1. Hi Ben, thanks so much for pursuing this issue. I don’t have much to contribute here, except to record a conversation I once had with Keith Lehrer on the subject of the reception of philosophy by non-philosophers and the lack of appreciation of what it takes to be competent at it. Keith reported that he simply doesn’t tolerate that attitude on committees and in university discussions, noting it and commenting on the idiocy of it when it appears in any public setting. Part of the problem then, though certainly not all of it, is a lack of intellectual courage, where philosophers allow such things to happen unchallenged. Keith’s attitude takes courage and moxy, and also has its costs to one as an individual working in a university. But it is, to my mind, one of the most effective things we can do as individual philosophers: stand up to the bullshit and call it what it is when we see it. Some can do this more graciously than others, and Keith is exceptionally good at it, but I know that failure of courage is too common a human foible to ignore here.

  2. “I only had a small sample size to work with, but the impression I got was that the view that ‘anyone can do philosophy well’ is common in academia.”
    Just a small point: I’d be wary of taking too much directly from this, since there’s also bound to be a selection effect at work here. Non-philosophers who think that philosophy is worthwhile and does a good job of answering enduring questions are presumably unlikely to be applying for these NEH grants.

  3. Ben,
    Thanks for posting again. There are a number of different questions buried below the surface here, or so it seems to me. One that is worth paying attention to in fact has little to do with which discipline should address which topic, and so on. It is, bluntly, what I call the ‘show biz’ question, viz., ‘How do I make my course sexier?’ This is a question worth asking oneself if one can see one’s students snoozing, playing video games, reading papers, etc. It is also a question I myself like to hear the answer to from others, not necessarily in my own discipline. ‘Hey, throw a novel or play in there!’ ‘Go interdisciplinary!’ and so on. And I’m happy if the NEH supports just this sort of pursuit, if for no other reason than that it gets more ideas out there in the mix about how to spice up a course.
    Such issues about teaching effectiveness, however, need not be very closely related to research in our fields, though many often mistakenly think they must be. Getting students enthused, infusing them with warm, runny feelings, is a lot of fun, as an instructor, and it can be a very effective way of getting students to take the next steps in a discipline. But actual understanding and knowledge in a discipline may have little if any of this academic exuberance associated with it. Or at least a different sort of satisfaction.

  4. I’d be interested to hear more about the ways in which those at the NEH are “dismissive of the idea of philosophical expertise.” Do they dismiss the idea that one solution to a philosophical puzzle can be better than another (and, implicitly, deny that there are varying levels of expertise at solving philosophical problems)? Do they dismiss the value of the analytic approach (and, implicitly, deny that any analytic philosopher could have expertise at dealing with philosophical problems)? Do they dismiss the difficulty of philosophical problems (or that they are, actually, problems, as opposed to e.g. linguistic confusions)? The cluster of attitudes analytic philosophers typically take towards their subject (a dislike of rhetoric, a tolerance for myriad fine distinctions, guarded optimism towards the prospect of real philosophical progress, etc.)?
    In large part, the right strategy for trying to persuade non-philosophers to take philosophy seriously depends on in what way(s) the typical non-philosopher is dismissive of philosophical expertise. Different arguments are appropriate to different types of skeptic. Likewise, which is the appropriate mode of presenting an argument depends on whether or not the skeptic has a beef with the analytic approach. (So chisholming is probably not the best way to persuade someone, already inclined to think analytic philosophy a bunch of useless pedantry, of the value of our field. Similarly, someone who regards philosophers as inexpert “because, as their earnest disputes about arcana show, they’re just a bunch of impractical (and vaguely priggish) idealists” likely won’t be persuaded to take philosophy seriously by someone who…takes philosophy quite seriously.)

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