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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 10, No. 9. June 25, 1947

"Abolish Philosophy Department" says Education Graduate

"Abolish Philosophy Department" says Education Graduate

First I would like to make it quite clear that the purpose of this article is primarily provocative. It is addressed especially to students in the social science departments. It rests on two propositions:—
(1)That there is an evident lack of a general orientation in our various university courses, i.e., the various disciplines proceed their own segmented and esoteric ways irrespective of the need for a broader outlook on the part of students. (This more comprehensive viewpoint is little aided by the chance sampling of a few other Stage I subjects.)
(2)That most of our social science disciplines are insufficiently related to contemporary problems, but rather savour too much of "inert and lifeless facts." They are traditional bodies of knowledge rather than vehicles of content directed to the solution of pressing contemporary problems.

This far many readers will agree, though, of course, there will be a number still bound to those scholastic traditions, alternatively termed the "Arm-chair" or "Ivory Castle" modes of thought. With these I am not here concerned. In time the attenuated stench of that corpse will blow by completely. Meanwhile, however, the two accepted propositions await solution. It is my purpose in the rest of this article to suggest such a solution in the hope that it will arouse others, especially from the Philosophy Department, which I propose should be abolished.


Generally, proposals to meet the first need outlined above centre round some sort of "common-core" suggestion, i.e., that all students entering the university should be required for a year or two to follow some prescribed course of study which traverses the major fields of human knowledge, i.e., the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities. In an elementary way the recent changes in New Zealand secondary schools follow such a pattern. The defect with such a procedure, as I see it, is that as far as the University is concerned, such a wide coverage of subjects may lend itself to superficiality. Imagine, for example, the knowledge one would gain by taking all the Stage I options at Victoria; nothing but an inadequate idea of a whole series of subject matters would result Still worse, the orientation courses in the various fields would not be planned as a preparation for further study so much as surveys complete in themselves. Gross oversimplification may well result. (It is, however, a debatable point whether or not such simplified knowledge might possibly be better than the vacuum that exists at present.) In any case it seems that the saving factor would arrive when the student, having carried on past the "orientation" course into his specialization, in the light of this, could look back and revise his previous elementary sketches of knowledge.

"Learned Ignoramus"

At this point we must consider our second proposition. What guarantee have we in any case that such an orientation course will be little more than another example of academic isolation? Even if our maturing graduate does look back to the broader sweeps of knowledge, will he be so conditioned as to create in them relevance to the concrete problems of his present living? Before answering these questions we will consider again the propositions above. These indicated two needs. First, orientation. From what has been said it will be apparent that I believe this can only be attained when it is approached through some specific angle. i.e., the economist must see the world as an economist, the historian as a historian, and so on. Without the special viewpoint there is no enduring frame of reference, yet on the other hand, without the general orientation we have that tragedy of the twentieth century, Ortega y Gasset's "learned ignoramus"—the specialist.

But, secondly, as the questions above suggest, such an orientation lifts us little above the mere "academic" unless it has some definite relation to life in the concrete, the urgent and the immediate.

The solution of these problems of orientation and relevance lead us quickly to the business of abolishing the Philosophy Department. A proposal guaranteed to shake its very foundations, from the minors fascinating themselves with that great new twentieth century science, "Psychology," to the more dignified elders communing with Berkeley. Kant and brother muses on the top floor.

This abolition of the Philosophy Department is calculated to help us as follows. From henceforth every other department will have to consider the philosophic implications of its study. Who else is more suited to do so? Any attempt to develop philosophy in this century has necessitated a study of some special, previously non-philosophic field, particularly one of the natural sciences. (Consider, for example, the cases of Russell and Whitehead.) It is my contention that by demanding that the various concrete bodies of knowledge make a sophisticated development of their own philosophic aspects, gradually the isolation between the various departments will be broken down. Thus will orientation be effected.

But this is not all. If there were a department of sociology it would also have to be abolished. Thus it is demanded of each sphere of knowledge that it develop its social aspects and implications as well as the philosophic. In this manner, besides the orientation, a more realistic connection with contemporary life would be established. At present, to my knowledge, the only department in the College admitting of a sociology course is the Education Department. But here, God forbid, it is treated as a somewhat mysterious and unrelated imposition involving little more than a set of arbitrary definitions imposed on a mass of common knowledge. The explanation is probably to be found in the fact that the philosophy section of that department most fittingly serves the sociological as well as the philosophical aspects of education in relation to contemporary problems.

Psychology Too

Psychology naturally is included under philosophy. Our historian could make his studies more relevant with a little dash of psychological insight; likewise the economists and political scientists. In actual fact, some of the best recent studies in these fields have come from the hands of psychologists who by happy accident, happened also to have the specialist knowledge.

If the sociologist, psychologists and philosophers protest, the recent history of their own subjects is the best evidence against them. Sociology began with the grandiose claims of Comte and Spencer, has degenerated under the formalistic leanings of such as Tonnies and Simmell, and been completely absorbed by a host of new studies that have grown up round delinquency, leisure the family, and so on. The traditional speculations of philosophy have been vitiated by the advance of modern science and it has retreated—like the bad women of Timothy Shy—into syntax. From there it may as well he taken over by the English Department. Psychology, after plaguing all the other social sciences by popping in and out of the instinct theory, is still largely a body of confusion rather than knowledge (though I hear that "molar behaviourism" is just the latest word). What is valuable in it can best be used by departments such as economics, in the light of whose practical concerns it takes on relevant meaning—in this case industrial psychology.


The orientation I am proposing, then, is that which arises when the various areas of specialization—and this applies equally well to the natural sciences and the humanities—realise that they have a common body of problems—the sociological, psychological and philosophical (Proposition 1). As each specialist study includes these as relevant and urgent points of consideration and bodies of information to be developed, so the studies themselves will be both brought into line with contemporary problems and themselves enlivened. Proposition 2.)

This, as I see it, is the only realistic way of bringing our Universities into line with the needs of today. To create just another subject, namely, the "Philosophy of the Social Sciences," to solve this problem, as the sociologist Huntington Cairns has suggested, is in my opinion to perpetrate an "Americanism." It creates more problems than it solves. To the philosophers I am apologetic, and suggest that they should not be misled by that certain nostalgia for the traditional ways of thought, but rather should accept their demise with philosophic resignation. After all, philosophy, often considered the most remote and unrelated of studies, is at last to be placed in the most important position of all—in the forefront of important everyday events (this by way of consolation).

B. Sutton-Smith.