Mark Gardiner on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

mark gardinerMark Gardiner is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Mount Royal University, Canada. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In light of the fact that the humanities are under siege in so many universities around the world, I take the invited blog question to really be that of asking philosophy of religion (PofR) to justify its place in the modern university.

To begin, my defence is predicated upon ‘philosophy of religion’ (PofR) being understood in much broader ways than it has traditionally been. The companion Blog series–“What is Philosophy of Religion?” (–provides excellent discussion on what PofR is, might be, or should be. Many entries illustrate and critique ‘traditional’ PofR’s narrow emphasis on such things as the existence of (a particular type of) God, the truth/rationality of religious belief, metaphysical questions about freedom, miracles, and life after death. PofR must wrestle with the myriad religions as concretely practiced around the globe just as much as, if not more than, ‘religion’ as a reified abstract entity historically tied to abstract monotheism. Of this I will offer no further elaboration or justification, other than to note that my defence of the value of PofR in the modern university is a defence of this sort of ‘revised’ or ‘reformed’ PofR.

The other noun phrase in the Blog question–‘the modern university’–invites some reflection as well. The definite article is, of course, misleading, for there is no single thing which constitutes ‘the’ modern university. The adjective ‘modern’ signals that what are called universities have changed over time with the implication that it is that change which underwrites the need for PofR to justify itself. I doubt that the question ‘What does Philosophy of Religion have to offer the medieval university?’ could seriously have been raised, given that ‘philosophy of religion’ was then tantamount to Christian theology. Consider an analogous question: “What does the study of business have to offer the modern university?” It cannot now be raised seriously, but such absurdity is not a priori. It would have been (and likely was) a quite serious question in the past. Business did not enter the academy as a result of a sudden recognition that its subject matters did, in fact, fall under the type of knowledge whose pursuit universities were designed to foster. Rather, its body of knowledge had advanced to such a degree (pun intended) that its mastery required the prolonged multi-year training from those who were both educators and researchers; in other words, only a university style system could properly enable (and regulate) entrance to and mastery of it. But this couldn’t have been enough; business schools could have remained at the level of specialized ‘technical’ institutions. What more was needed was a ‘recognition’ that business interests itself in a set of generalized, or more ‘universal’, social values of precisely the type that the university was designed to enable. In other words, what should be included and what excluded from ‘the university’ is a function of what the society which supports and maintains it at any given time deems to be of sufficient general and social value. Some values have seemed to transcend of the particularities of culture, such as the speaking, writing, and reasoning well, and this perhaps explains why at least the trivium has had a history indistinguishable from ‘the university’ itself (at least prior to this century). Other values are more transitory. Medieval Europe’s obsession with ‘spiritual’ well-being is what would have made the blog question rhetorical in the 14th century. As it became possible to question the very existence of such a thing, let alone its value, philosophy of religion aka theology no longer had a built-in justification in relation to ‘the university’. To considerable extent, economic (i.e. material) well-being has replaced ‘spiritual’ well-being as the predominant social value, and it is this change which allowed business to enter. Although it now seems analytic to many that ‘economic well-being’ is the sine qua non of ‘the modern university’, it is important to realize that it has not always been seen so, nor should we expect it to always be so. If, or when, that value recedes, business may be called upon to show what it has to offer the ‘modern’ university.

PofR, then, can seek to justify itself in two distinct ways. First, it can try to show that it does align with ‘economic well-being’. Many, including some writing entries in this blog, do just that. Exposure to the humanities in general (and PofR by implication) have been amply demonstrated to increase the prospects of meaningful and well paid employment. Especially in a world of increasingly unstable and changing markets, the generalized skills of problem solving, complex reasoning, clear articulation, and abstract thought strongly contribute to the predominant value of economic well-being. The ability to spot and critique often unnoticed assumptions is a decided plus especially in a world tending towards globalization in which an ever increasing number of diverse cultural forms, beliefs, and practices participate.

But what interests me more is the second sort of justification: PofR can critique the very values underwriting ‘the modern university’, perhaps arguing that they are not worth preserving, at least not in the manner in which universities now operate. That would be the negative first step in the defence; the positive second step would be to argue for a set of values which the modern university properly ought to enable, protect, and advance, and show that PofR aligns strongly with them. The reflexivity is not lost on me; philosophy in general constitutes just the sort of body of knowledge and methodology which is equipped to explore, understand, explain, and critique the relationship between norms and practices, oughts and ises. If the very nature of the university is to socially operationalize advancement of a set of shared values requiring the sort of training and scholarly research indicative of that institution, then the very discipline which is well (best?) suited to fully understand, articulate, and explain that mandate ipso facto has much to offer it. Philosophy, I put it, ought always have an home in the university.

PofR, as a branch of philosophy, shares in its general justification, but it also deserves a more focused one. First, I argue that more philosophical attention to religion and religious phenomena makes for better philosophy, particularly at its most fundamental level at which its bedrock concepts are to be found: truth, meaning, reason, explanation. These bedrock concepts are so thoroughly intertwined that it is impossible to separate them in any practical way. They all coalesce, I argue—following a ‘interpretationalist’ line in the philosophy of language associated with such philosophers as Donald Davidson and Robert Brandom—in the ways in which we seek to understand human language and explain human behaviour. Religious phenomena—language and behavior—is incredibly rich and diverse; it serves as the most important ‘acid test’ for theories of meaning: any adequate philosophy must accommodate religion. An approach to philosophy which takes semantic constraints as bedrock, and which is informed by the nuances and complexities of real and lived religious phenomena, is a better philosophy. It is a philosophy better suited to explore, unravel, and critique the myriad hidden assumptions, competing values, and the social placement that is driving ‘the modern university’ in the early 21st century. It is the right type of philosophy to carry on the self-reflection and critique that is critical to the function and survival of the academy, but which is all too often lost sight of.

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