The NEH program offers a small amount of financial support for faculty developing “predisciplinary” courses that deal with questions like, “What is the good life?”, “What are good and evil?”, “Is there a human nature” and so on.
The term predisciplinary is evidently the first provocation to philosophers critical of the program, as they (I think accurately) read it to say that courses taught by philosophers in philosophy departments which are part of the standard curriculum of disciplinary philosophy are not really what the grant aims to support. There’s nothing excluding philosophers from participation, but the clear implication is that to qualify for the grant, they’d need to teach the normal substance of their discipline in some kind of extended or extradisciplinary framework. Understandably, this is a puzzling request from their perspective, since they’re quite right that they really do address these questions day-in and day-out in their existing courses.
I’m sympathetic to the initial reaction of irritation. If the NEH set up a course development grant called “Time and the Past” aimed at supporting interdisciplinary courses that examined change over time but framed the grant so that ordinary history courses didn’t qualify, my first impulse would be to object. Why exclude the discipline that makes that question its central concern?
But hold on a moment. What might a grant solicitation written that way incentivize? Maybe attention to how thinking about change over time is a real problem for some disciplines: some forms of economics, for example. Maybe a course (by philosophers, even!) on whether history matters or is knowable, which history departments don’t tend to offer. Maybe a course in a natural science that asks how and when old science matters to contemporary science. The more I think about it, the more I can think of really interesting courses that respond to the prompt and aren’t likely to be taught by most historians. I can think of courses which might respond to the prompt that could be taught by a historian, but they’d be good additions to a curriculum in other departments as well.
The more I think about it, the more I also recognize that historicism or study of the past play roles in other disciplines, sometimes roles that intermingle with the way historians work and sometimes not. What skin off my nose is it if a literary critic is also an intellectual or cultural historian? That’s a good thing, not a bad thing. I might have some friendly nudging about methdology to make to a non-historian doing historical work, but no more.
Broadly speaking, I think anyone can study history, and that the methodology and theory of historical study are not highly technical. Academic historians certainly benefit from having studied history, e.g., from knowledge of particular places and time periods, knowledge of historiography, and actual experience of historical research. It does not require a lengthy apprenticeship to begin to think usefully about the past, and scholarly works of history can and should be read and savored and made use of by broad audiences with no special training.
The philosophers who object to the NEH grant largely argue that philosophy is a highly technical discipline with a history of progressively greater and more precise knowledge about its subject which cannot be understood without dedicated training. They also argue that the “enduring questions” the NEH proposes are by nature philosophical in this sense. They perceive no need to incentivize courses in “enduring questions” because they believe such courses already exist and are called “a philosophy major”.
Part of this reaction is just the enduring struggle within and around disciplinary philosophy over Rorty-like complaints that the discipline is too insular and technical. My long-term arguments against fastidious forms of disciplinarity, at least at small colleges, apply just as surely to philosophy as they do to my own discipline and most others. All disciplines, even the natural sciences, need some capacity to translate and disseminate their particular forms of knowledge outside of their discipline, without insisting that an outsider undergo some prior training in that discipline. However, I do think there’s something especially wrong-headed with saying, “Well, we have a pretty precise, well-resolved technical answer to the question, ‘What is the good life?’, but if you’re not trained in philosophy, I can’t explain it to you.” The question “What is the good life?” is really not the same thing as a difficult question in mathematics.
I also wonder, however, if the philosophical critics believe that there is no intellectually useful or legitimate response to many of the “enduring questions” outside of academic philosophy. For example, surely literature or art poses those questions and sometimes struggles to answer them in a manner quite distinctive from philosophy. This is not to say that philosophy, like literary criticism, cannot try to encompass or understand the way in which art or literature ask those questions: philosophers has done wonderful work along those lines. But interpreting how art asks enduring questions is not the same as the first-order posing of those questions by artists within their art.
Similarly, the empirical study of how human beings actually have been in past societies or presently are within contemporary societies tends to intrinsically generate some of those enduring questions. A comparative historian with an interest in political systems may not set out to answer the question, “What’s a good government?” as a political philosopher might, but I’d be surprised if by the end such a historian wouldn’t have some pretty interesting and wholly intellectual answers to that question which come from an accumulation of empirical cases.
If the NEH grant ended up drawing out some of those different ways of coming at big, deeply human questions and forging them into provocative courses, that’s a great outcome. Humanistic inquiry has a pressing obligation to legibility with wider publics, a need to pose its distinctive questions in broadly relevant terms. I can’t see why the federal government (or anyone, really) ought to subsidize humanistic study which is in some enduring or permanent fashion conceived as incommensurable with general intellectual discourse and incommunicable to anyone lacking highly specific training.
Don’t get me wrong: any study of “enduring questions” needs to enshrine philosophy, to acknowledge its central importance, both in its broadest and most specifically disciplinary forms. Anyone aspiring to teach to those questions who recognizes that importance and yet is not a philosopher is well-advised to be seek the counsel of philosophers with some degree of humility. This is where I understand and endorse with reservations some of the irritation expressed by philosophers at this grant program, insofar as it can be taken to endorse the idea that “enduring questions” can be asked wholly innocent of the long history of philosophers asking them.
Humility ought to work both ways, though: contemporary scholarly philosophy doesn’t own a comprehensive patent on those questions.