Monday, May 04, 2009

The State of the Nation

I've just finished helping do the shortlisting for the Analysis Studentship. Without inappropriately giving things away, what have I learnt about the state of the nation, philosophically speaking? (A reminder: the studentship is intended for those who are finishing or who have recently finished a PhD in the UK, to give them another year in which to have a second stab at applying for JRFs, post-docs, or other posts that will keep them in philosophy. So the applications give a partial snapshot of what finishing/recently completed UK-based grad students are up to.)

  • The good news is that there are some really rather impressive-looking young philosophers starting out, already publishing in good places.
  • The bad news is that there are a lot of good but not quite so impressive-looking philosophers starting out. Surely far too many to ever get permanent jobs in this country. To be sure, some of the applicants are of overseas origin and might eventually want to return home. But I can't help feeling that there are going to be an increasing number of people who have given (say) seven or eight years of their lives to postgraduate work in philosophy, doing a MA and a PhD followed by some temporary employment, and who are then faced at 30 with an unenviable and depressing choice between hanging on in a sequence of very temporary jobs or starting over in some other career. (That would still be the situation even if everything were rosy in the economy, given the numbers now coming out of UK grad schools: but things are only going to be made worse by the financial plight of universities here and in the USA.)
  • I would have predicted that one effect of the drive for early publications would be a kind of scholasticism. There were some signs of this -- philosophers who seemed to know a lot about rather little (Professor X's views about Y) and coming at it from a narrow angle too. But in the event, this happily wasn't too much in evidence.
  • Some topics were over-represented. Predictably, issues to do with consciousness and knowledge of one's own mental states loomed large (the hottest topics of a decade ago evidently became the routine topics of starting graduate students four or five years back). Other topics were rather unpredictably under-represented. For example, mainstream philosophical logic or indeed straight philosophy of language surprisingly featured hardly at all.
Overall, though, the future of UK philosophy looks cheeringly bright.


Brunellus said...

It's painful to see a professional philosopher using the term ‘scholasticism’ to refer to intellectual narrowness.  The usage is well attested, certainly, but it rests on and contributes to ignorant prejudice, and there are several alternatives (e.g. ‘narrowness’, ‘parochialism’, ‘sectionalism’, and the singularly ugly ‘compartmentalization’).

Peter Smith said...

I stand suitably chastened -- especially as I'm an admirer of some scholastic logicians!