Future of Philosophy

I read two things today that show in stark relief how things have changed in academia.

The first is autobiographical reflections of Hans Sluga, a philosophy professor at Berkeley. Sluga writes of how he went from post WWII Germany to Oxford to study philosophy, and from there to teach philosophy at London and Berkeley. Around 1960, when he is studying philosophy at Oxford and embarking on his academic career, it must have looked like academia was going to keep expanding as higher education opened up to the masses (to people from lower economic classes, women, minorities, etc.)

The implicit assumption being of course that the expansion of higher education means the expansion of brick and morter colleges. That is, more and more spaces in the world would try to emulate Oxford, Harvard and so on, or emulate anyway less pretiguous physical colleges. That, looking 100 years down the line from 1960, one would see a blossoming of residential or at any rate physical universities and colleges. Certainly the expansion of colleges in America in the 50s and 60s probably gave this impression.

The other thing I read is an interview with Scott Galloway, in which he predicts: “In ten years, it’s feasible to think that MIT doesn’t welcome 1,000 freshmen to campus; it welcomes 10,000. What that means is the top-20 universities globally are going to become even stronger. What it also means is that universities Nos. 20 to 50 are fine. But Nos. 50 to 1,000 go out of business or become a shadow of themselves. “

Galloway’s prediction is that there is going to be an confluence between big tech companies and the elite universities, resulting in MIT@Google or iStandford, or some such. These big tech-pretiguous college accrediting behemoths will dominate higher education, as through online teaching the pretiguous schools will have enrollments in the tens and hundreds of thousands. Tier 1 colleges will thrive and get richer in the long run and tier 2 schools will adjust and survive. But most brick and morter colleges will disappear, or be doing something very different from liberal arts education.

If Galloway is right – and I suspect he is – then the expansion of higher education will not only not mean the expansion of brick and morter colleges, but actually mean the significant closing of most such colleges. This is something most people could not have forseen in 1960. Or in 2000.

What does this mean for philosophy in academia, and also for philosophy in the broader society?

Right now some of the big issues in academic philosophy are seen to be broadly issues of diversity and global philosophy. That is, how to do philosophy that is more diverse and also open to the world’s traditions?

These important issues recently have been raised (say, in the last thirty years from 1990 – 2020) broadly under the old assumption of the brick and morter future. That is, the framing of the issue has been roughly: “Philosophy done in departments in 1900 or 1950 or 1980 were eurocentric, patriarchial, etc. How can we change the departments so they are more pluralistic?” Implicit in this framing is a kind of reimagining what could have happened in, say, the Harvard philosophy department in 1960. As if we were accepting the material conditions of the 1960 department, but thinking how it could be better intellectually, socially and morally.

But this way of framing the issue is soon to become moot. It’s like trying to think what diversifying the work place would look like while assuming a Feudal framework.

My sense is that a lot of the diversity philosophy stuff has hit a kind of intellectual dead end. Because they are trying to fit the diversity questions into the outdated model of academia.

Many of these questions are going to have to be reframed into the kind of academic world that Galloway is predicting. So the questions of diversity and opening of horizons into world philosophy will have be analyzed along side questions of how academia is entering a wholly new stage. The two sets of questions can’t be dealt with on their own, but have to be tackled together. I suspect that will open up a new exciting logical space of views.

And these two sets of questions – of diversifying philosophy and digitalizing academia – will have to go hand in hand with a third set of questions about philosophy outside academia.

When the expansion of mass education was assumed to go along with the expansion of brick and morter colleges, there was a natural link between the professor and the graduate students: the hope that the graduate students in turn will become professors at the one newly built physical colleges.

But if it turns out that in the near future (10 or 20 or 50 years) philosophy – like most of the humanities – will mainly be taught in the top 50 universities in the world, that means there is no hope even that most graduate students can live a life like their professors. Which in turn means that in the future the expansion of philosophy can’t mean the expansion of academic philosophy.

Academic philosophy as a job is going to become an extremely niche profession, available only to a very select few people. Those few people (say, 1000 around the world) might reach and teach millions of people.

The teaching philosophy to the millions is great. I love it. What are those millions going to do with the knowledge they gained in the classes? Less than 1% of them can hope to be a professor with a similar reach as their professor.

This sets up the future I am looking forward to: philosophy is going to be awakened at a vast rate through mass education, and there won’t be even a fantasy that the creative juices unleased in that way can be absorbed back into academia.

Which means: there are going to be new creative non-academic avenues for engaging in philosophy in the broader society. The end of most brick and morter philosophy departments will mean the flowering of a new era of philosophical salons, or other grass roots modes of doing philosophy. And since these modes could tap into the same kind of reach to the masses through online activity, it can be a real counterpoint to the work within academic philosophy.

In this future, philosophers who are not academics can push the future of philosophy in a way that academics might not be able to, and vice versa.

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