Sunday, December 14, 2014

Does academic research have to be relevant? (Some thoughts on Hayek and the Virgin Mary.)



This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “Can A Philosopher Govern the United States? The Case of F.A. Hayek.” You can listen the whole episode online here.


There is a certain amount of faith required to advocate for philosophy. We tell our students (or our radio and blog audiences) that even the oldest ideas are still relevant. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about someone who lived two hundred or two thousand years ago, we continually promise that if we can get people to understand what they are saying, we can all learn something new and important about the world around us.

What’s funny about philosophers though, is that we spend most of our time arguing about what those ideas actually are. Instead of showing how historical thinkers are genuinely important to contemporary debate—instead of asking what Machiavelli or Jeremy Bentham might say about what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri, for example—we fight about the meaning of their texts. We undermine one another’s interpretations, we publish jargon-filled journal articles for tenure, and we focus on the most obscure terms and claims, and make them the center of our careers. Then, in the midst of it all, we wonder bitterly why cancer researchers get paid the big bucks and why we are still struggling to retain an audience.