Nigel Warburton’s negative vision of what philosophy isn’t

Philosopher Nigel Warburton, of philosophy bites fame, has just resigned his academic post at the Open University to pursue other opportunities. The Philosopher’s Magazine conducts an extended interview with Warburton here. Much of what he reveals in this interview is both entertaining and, in my opinion, true.

But one aspect of the interview especially caught my attention. After offering several criticisms of academic philosophy today with which I’m in total agreement (in particular the tendency of hiring committees to hire clones of themselves rather than enhancing the diversity of the department), Warburton offers what he seems to view as the ultimate take down of academic philosophy. I quote this section in full, below. If you’ve been paying any attention to this blog or our posts at CSID, you’ll understand why, immediately.

He reserves particular venom for the REF, the Research Excellence Framework, a system of expert review which assesses research undertaken in UK higher education, which is then used to allocate future rounds of funding. A lot of it turns on the importance of research having a social, economic or cultural impact. It’s not exactly the sort of thing that philosophical reflection on, say, the nature of being qua being is likely to have. He leans into my recorder to make sure I get every word:

“One of the most disturbing things about academic philosophy today is the way that so many supposed gadflies and rebels in philosophy have just rolled over in the face of the REF – particularly by going along with the idea of measuring and quantifying impact,” he says, making inverted commas with his fingers, “a technical notion which was constructed for completely different disciplines. I’m not even sure what research means in philosophy. Philosophers are struggling to find ways of describing what they do as having impact as defined by people who don’t seem to appreciate what sort of things they do. This is absurd. Why are you wasting your time? Why aren’t you standing up and saying philosophy’s not like that? To think that funding in higher education in philosophy is going to be determined partly by people’s creative writing about how they have impact with their work. Just by entering into this you’ve compromised yourself as a philosopher. It’s not the kind of thing that Socrates did or that Hume did or that John Locke did. Locke may have had patrons, but he seemed to write what he thought rather than kowtowing to forces which are pushing on to us a certain vision, a certain view of what philosophical activities should be. Why are you doing this? I’m getting out. For those of you left in, how can you call yourselves philosophers? This isn’t what philosophy’s about.”

Please tell us how you really feel, Dr. Warburton.

In the US, we are not subject to the REF. But we are subject to many, many managerial requirements, including, if we seek grant funding, the requirement that we account for the impact of our research. We are, of course, ‘free’ to opt out of this sort of requirement simply by not seeking grant funding. Universities in the UK, however, are not ‘free’ to opt out of the REF. So, are the only choices open to ‘real’ philosophers worthy of the name resistance or removing oneself from the university, as Warburton has chosen?

I think not. My colleagues and I recently published an article in which we present a positive vision of academic philosophy today. A key aspect of our position is that the question of impact is itself a philosophical, not merely a technical, problem. Philosophers, in particular, should own impact rather than allowing impact to be imposed on us by outside authorities. The question of impact is a case study in whether the sort of account of freedom as non-domination offered by Pettit can be instantiated in a policy context, in addition to posited in political philosophy.

Being able to see impact as a philosophical question rests on being able to question the idea that the only sort of freedom worth having is freedom from interference. If philosophy matters to more than isolated individuals — even if connected by social media — then we have to realize that any philosophically rich conception of liberty must also include responsibility to others. Our notion of autonomy need not be reduced to the sort of non-interference that can only be guaranteed by separation (of the university from society, as Humboldt advocated, or of the philosopher from the university, as Warburton now suggests). Autonomy must be linked to accountability — and we philosophers should be able to tackle this problem without being called out as non-philosophers by someone who has chosen to opt out of this struggle.

3 thoughts on “Nigel Warburton’s negative vision of what philosophy isn’t

  1. Pingback: Nigel Warburton’s negative vision of what philosophy isn’t | jbrittholbrook | csid

  2. Scientists, both in the US and the UK and no doubt elsewhere, have had to include impact statements in their grant proposals for many years.

    Initially, I intensely disliked this. After all, the whole point of pure research is that you don’t know what it’s going to find, or what it’s going to lead to. And at its worst, we have tenuous and insincere justifications; for example, people studying electron transfer getting funded by The National Institutes of Health, on the grounds that abnormalities in electron transfer processes could be relevant to the development of cancers. (I once attended a conference where half the papers had been funded in this way.)

    Now, like you in a very different context, I see things a little differently. The impact statement spells out why what we are doing should matter, to anyone outside our narrow circle of colleagues. I don’t know what the work I did on self-assembly might ultimately lead to, but it may have impacts both practical (new materials; controlled biomineralisation) and conceptual (was there a role for such self-assembly in the origins of life?) Indeed, asking ourselves about impact can itself be a source of creative insight.

    • Exactly! Impact requirements introduce a reflexive (dare I say, philosophical) element into research.

      I think one of the lingering conceptual confusions surrounding the idea of impact in the context of peer review is that impact criteria require one to be able to give an accurate prediction of future applications. Colleagues and I argue that, in the context of peer review, we should treat impact as another aspect of research. Much like we can plan — and we expect such a plan in a grant proposal — for expected results of research, so too can we plan for expected outcomes. Might we be wrong? Absolutely. But it’s a perfectionist fallacy to expect us to be able to render accurate predictions of impact. The argument is developed in detail here:

      Thanks for the comment, Paul!

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