The PhD and the Point of Philosophy

Mary Midgley’s Proud not to be a doctor (hat tip to Jason), is a good reminder of what the heck I’m doing at Loyola anyway.

I am not saying that the PhD training isn’t useful. It provides the indispensable skills of the lawyer. It shows you how to deal with difficult arguments, which is necessary in dealing with hard subjects. But that close work doesn’t help you to grasp the big questions that provide its context – the background issues out of which the small problems arose. I think there ought to be a corrective course after the PhD – a course in bypassing details to look at the whole landscape. It’s hard to do this on your own. Today’s academic system, which forces people to write articles without having time to think properly about them, makes this harder. . . .

Institutions which have to examine people train their students in fighting mock battles, and that emphasis on competition has increased out of all measure. No doubt it produces good lawyers. But the philosophers of the past were not just lawyers. They were volcanic phenomena, eccentric thinkers who located new problems and grappled with the issues of their age. Many worked outside universities. Indeed, a number – Hobbes, Berkeley, Mill, Nietzsche – growled explosively about the bad influence that universities have on thought. Today, as more people are being channelled into higher education, is it perhaps time that we looked into this?