Much comment has been made about the closure of Middlesex University’s Philosophy Department – the full story can be read here, and a deeply sorry story it is too. The breadth of the outrage this decision has caused is striking and in some senses heartening – people from all disciplines and all backgrounds realising that this is a real disgrace.
But there’s something more here of course. It’s not just the view that Universities should be run as businesses – it seems to me that it is an attack on the very idea of intellectual inquiry. Not just philosophy at Middlesex, but the humanities at universities across the country are under attack, in particular from people who want universities to teach “relevant” or economically useful subjects.
In my view, not only does this view show a breathtakingly ignorant view of what universities are for, and why they are valuable. The reason why philosophy matters – put at its simplest – is because it forces us to think about the world; to get past ideology and obfuscation and to understand what we know and what we don’t. At one level anyone who is doing any serious academic study is doing philosophy; at another, anyone who is reflecting and asking questions about the values and conventions of society is thinking philosophically. In a world that is dominated by grand ideological narratives – Christianity, Marxism, the free market, liberal democracy – it’s a desperately important thing to do.
It’s also deeply inconvenient for those in power and who want to keep it; philosophy, done rigorously and properly, is always a subversive activity, because it is about asking uncomfortable questions. But it is also an essential subject in a free society; such a society needs critical thinking in order to function.
No wonder the establishment is so frightened of it.