Friday, September 06, 2013

Hegel's philosophy attacked by Australia's opposition parties, or "The Politics of What?!"

There is an election coming in Australia. The coalition parties, led by the right-wing "Liberal" Party, published a press release yesterday:

"A Coalition Government, if elected, will crack down on Labor’s addiction to waste by auditing increasingly ridiculous research grants and reprioritising funding through the Australian Research Council (ARC) to deliver funds to where they’re really needed.

Some of the grants issued by the ARC in recent years have been, frankly, completely over the top.
There will be no reduction in research funding. In fact, the Coalition has announced new research into dementia and diabetes.

The Coalition would look to targeting those ridiculous research grants that leave taxpayers scratching their heads wondering just what the Government was thinking.

Taxpayer dollars have been wasted on projects that do little, if anything, to advance Australians [sic] research needs. For example:
Australians can’t afford three more years of waste like the last six.[. . .]"

There is always a problem with credibility where the call to reduce public spending on education includes errors - such as "to advance Australians [sic] research needs" - that any decent schooling should have corrected before secondary school.

A problem also exists for philosophy - with two of four projects highlighted as "waste" are projects by philosophers. The Vice-Chancellor at one of the universities concerned readily came out in defence of one of the philosophers - and the coalition's press release has already come in for robust criticisms by philosophers more genuinely. I commented previously that:

"The Coalition targets a project on Hegel's philosophy as an example of waste. Of course, Hegel defends a theory of rights based upon the mutual recognition of persons as free and equal. Hegel defends education for all through school and work. Hegel also defends a state responsive to the convictions of its citizens. Perhaps the Coalition opposes rights and equality for all, mass education and the non-partisan state. Or did I miss something?"

There is something familiar about politically right-wing parties attacking academic research wherever it is found: if the research isn't pointless navel-gazing in the arts and humanities, then it might be denounced as immoral in pushing the boundaries of scientific research. But I digress.

It is time philosophers raised their game. Far more attention is paid to the many problems - even crises - in philosophy than its valuable prospects. The defence of philosophy often takes the form of either (a) philosophers are more employable - go read the statistics (but without substantive engagement to explain the numbers) or (b) philosophers contribute to the invaluable project of necessary "blue skies" thinking. Let me be clear: I accept both the employability argument and high importance for "blues skies" research.

Nonetheless, much more can and should be done to demonstrate the strong link between philosophical analysis and impact in ways that citizens (and not only funding bodies) might appreciate. There are several examples on hand - Bhikhu Parekh's work on multiculturalism, Martha Nussbaum's work on capabilities and rights, Jo Wolff's terrific new book on Ethics and Public Policy and I try to make some contribution in this area in my book Punishment, plus an article on political theory's impact in Political Studies Review as well as a forthcoming book on the relevance and impact of political science research (coming to a book store near you next year).

The perception remains of philosophy as an easy target for political point scoring that must be challenged far more effectively. This is a battle philosophers - and philosophy - can win. But there is much more work to be done - and this might involve different approaches. Otherwise, such negative perceptions can become transformed from misinformed prejudices to received "wisdom" - a move none of us can afford to witness.

UPDATE: The state broadcaster, ABC, has called the election for the opposition. Potentially very bad news for the arts and humanities generally and philosophy in particular. The time is now to secure the opposition's commitment to high quality, peer reviewed research! Further details on the election from the BBC can be found here.

UPDATE 2: It has come to my attention that Tony Abbott, the leader of the "Liberal" Party, originally grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne, England *and* he earned a MA in Politics and Philosophy from Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.


Richie said...

The problem is: philosophy is entrenched in the university system; and the university system, increasingly, is run on a corporatist model. Consider Plato's Republic: there are money lovers, honor lovers, and wisdom lovers. When philosophical funding comes under fire: philosophers have to defend their projects, undertaken from love of wisdom, to money lovers: the corporatists who seek to make a business of education.

Anonymous said...

Why does a tenured professor of philosophy who makes a very comfortable annual salary, need even more dollars in order to write a philosophy paper, say, on Hegel? Isn't that already part of the philosopher's job? What extraordinary expenses must additionally be covered in armchair philosophizing?

Thom Brooks said...

Anonymous - The answer is quite simple: research grants do not top up professorial salaries. Research funding can be mysterious to people who work outside the higher education sector - which is why I'm responding to this in order to provide answers. Suppose an academic wins a grant for AUS$100,000 or more. These grants are typically won - as the grants noted by the rightwing "Liberal" Party - in a highly competitive, peer-reviewed process where the overwhelming majority of people who apply are unsuccessful. What funding is approved usually goes to circumscribed projects that have been confirmed by a panel of experts to advance knowledge in important areas. How the funding does this is by providing teaching cover so that colleagues can conduct the research project in question. Funding also often typically goes to fund graduate students and post-docs to work on this project, too -- and often a real life line for individuals hoping to study for a PhD, but lacking the funds to do so.

So this is not about anyone - comfortable or not - receiving more money to write papers.

Now to the part about "isn't that already part of the philosopher's job?" stuff. Part of this job is to not simply publish, but lead debates - if you want Australian philosophy to remain world class, then this requires support so that academics have the time and resources to be the world leaders many already are.

Perhaps you think anyone who studies for a graduate philosophy degree through a funded programme is a fool. But then you'd condemn the new PM of Australia (yep, that "Liberal" Party guy): he received funding(!) to study for a MA in Politics...and Philosophy(!).

So if you agree with him, then you must not think highly of his qualifications (which might undermine your original agreement)....