Brandom on Philosophy and the University

Robert Brandom recently addressed the trustees at the University of Pittsburgh (where he works). His talk addressed different issues, including the history of the Pitt philosophy department, the role of a research university, and how we ought to conceive of the relationship between the university and its students. Go read this extract of the speech and then come back here.

You’re back? Good. Here are some thoughts of mine. Use the comments section to add thoughts of your own (or to express disagreement with mine).

  • Does anyone have any idea how I could go about convincing my university that every undergraduate student should take at least one philosophy subject? That would certainly change things here to a considerable degree. We teach nowhere near that fraction of the undergraduate student body, despite having a very wide range of introductory subjects. Melbourne prides itself on giving its students a liberal education, but we don’t do that well at it.

  • It’s interesting to note Brandom’s claim that the fact that each senior academic teaches one intro course each year (of two hours contact a week) gives these senior philosophers the heaviest load among cognate disciplines in the university. Here, our undergraduate (including honours) teaching load has been 2+2 (two courses a semester, both semesters). Typically it’s one first year subject, two second-third year subjects, and one honours subject. This is pretty good for the discipline Australia-wide, I think, but it’s high when we compare ourselves to our colleagues in the rest of the Arts Faculty. We are attempting a restructure of our anarchic course offerings which will give us (if all goes well) very nearly a 2+1 load.

  • Finally, the most interesting point – to me, at least – was the description of the way that many students don’t appreciate being made to take a philosophy course. Despite this, they get good course evaluations, presumably indicating that the students enjoy it and have “come around” by the end. He makes the following inference:

    This underlines what is wrong with thinking of our students as customers, whose desires ought to drive our offerings. If we just give the students what they want, half of them would do nothing but channel-surf through undemanding courses on the symbolism of the Matrix movies and what the popularity of reality TV says about contemporary culture–with lots of video-viewing time.

    A somewhat better model than that of commercial customer is that of professional client, in relation, for instance, to a doctor or lawyer. No one with any sense goes to their counselor and says: Prescribe this drug for me in this dosage, or file a lawsuit for me under this section of the Uniform Commercial Code. One goes instead for access to a different kind of judgment and advice, which one wants to take account of a whole range of possibilities and constraints initially visible only to the professional.

    And this is what struck me most heavily. I agree with the sentiment, that students are here to be informed, and to be informed is, at least partially, to be formed – to put yourself (not uncritically) at the mercy (at least in part) of your teacher. You take your teacher to be an authority: not an infallible authority, of course, but an authority at least in a provisional sense. We can’t think of students as mere “customers” in this game because of this kind of relationship. This much seems good sense.

    However, the attitude that “half of my students would prefer to just slack off” strikes me as condescending. But is there a way of expressing the point without being condescending? Am I hopelessly naïve in thinking that most of my students actually want to learn? Maybe this is the happy flip-side of our status as an elective subject for anyone on campus. No-one is forced to take philosophy subjects, so everyone who does wants to.

So, they are my thoughts. What do you think?


I’m Greg Restall, and this is my personal website. I am the Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews, and the Director of the Arché Philosophical Research Centre for Logic, Language, Metaphysics and Epistemology I like thinking about – and helping other people think about – logic and philosophy and the many different ways they can inform each other.


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