Friday, 1 May 2009

Module validation as philosophy?

Yesterday my colleague Gloria Ayob gave an excellent paper on the role of location in the sense of demonstrative thought. It had all the virtues of good philosophy: a clear and powerful argument with a nice final therapeutic flourish. It helped lift the low mood I’d had since earlier in the day.

These days university courses (or ‘modules’) are carefully vetted at the planning stage. The days of scribbling down a course outline on the back of an envelope are long gone. And thus, for example, the following could no longer happen. As a masters student I attended a course on the philosophy of the Einsteinian universe by Jeremy Butterfield (pictured). On the first week, and although it wasn’t on the reading list, he suggested that it would help if we began, by way of a contrast, with some thoughts about the Newtonian universe. We didn’t finish that in week one so carried that business onto week two but again time ran out. As is perhaps now obvious: we never reached Einstein but the impromptu course was excellent.

That was, no doubt, an exception. (Not every lecturer is a Jeremy Butterfield.) The process of validation helps make sure that the aims and planned outcomes of a whole course or programme do indeed supervene on those of individual modules etc. Such formal constraints are easy to violate in the rush of thinking through a teaching programme.

Because of problems with the timetable I needed an urgent validation for a philosophy based research methods module and I am very grateful to colleagues from both the administrative side and from other subject areas who were willing, inconveniently for themselves, to do this. But part way through, questions that had been to do with making sure that the stated aims and outcomes for the module matched that of the programme as a whole modulated instead into a question of how research in philosophy was possible. A bit surprised I asked: do you really want me to justify the application of ‘research’ to philosophy in general, to explain how it’s possible? ‘Yes, if you can do it briefly.’

Having already pressed the idea that philosophical research was a matter of framing good arguments I had then to explain why the question was tricky in a familiar way. Either the conclusions of arguments are contained in the premises in which case the arguments seem redundant or they are not in which case the arguments are invalid. But whilst this would have been an enjoyable discussion over a pint, in the contrasting situation where the implicit threat was that a course might not be validated, it seemed rather a depressing turn of events. (At the initial validation of my masters I was also challenged on just this point: philosophy, surely, cannot claim to do research!) I’m sure that if a philosopher challenged a chemistry research module by saying: ‘Chemistry purports to research the hidden micro-structures of substances but since these are under-determined by all humanly available evidence how is chemistry so much as possible?’ then that would be ruled out of court. But it is OK to ask philosophy this.

The irony of course is that philosophy is quintessentially the subject for whom its status as a subject is an issue (philosophy as Dasein). The problem it seems to me is a dilemma. On the one hand, one wants to characterise the outputs of philosophy as world involving. On the other, one wants to characterise its methods as within our conceptual sovereignty (to misuse Quine) without the need for favours from the world. But the latter don’t seem to be able to reach as far as the former. If guided by the latter, one has to rethink the outputs not as world involving but merely as limits on how we represent or think of the world (this is Stroud’s response to claims about transcendental philosophy made by Strawson).

That in effect, ironically enough, is how the module validation itself process works. There was no suggestion yesterday that any of the conditions to be applied in advance of agreeing my course would affect how it was to be taught (that’s the analogue of world-involving). All that I needed to change was how I represented how it is taught. The process of validation is a (strained, albeit) metaphor for the problems of philosophical research.