‘It was only in the 20th century that, by acquiring a university position, it became possible in England to pursue a scholarly career if you were not of independent wealth, or a church minister, or prepared to make huge personal sacrifices. Teaching and scholarship could be rolled into salaried employment. I would be the last person to find fault with this very convenient arrangement, but still, we can ask whether it has come with a cost.
It is striking that the free-ranging thinkers of earlier times, unconfined by university appointments, reflected on whatever they felt like. Mill wrote about philosophy, politics and economics. Bentham discussed everything from pure logic to whether prisoners should be provided with hempen or flaxen sheets. Hume, read now in philosophy departments, was known in his lifetime as a historian and essayist. Locke was a physician and philosopher, and Berkeley’s interests extended beyond philosophy and religion to the recommendation of “tar-water” as a cure for most ailments.
Causation is hard to establish but the rise of the English university sector seems to have gone hand in hand with the solidification of studies into “disciplines”, currently at what we must hope is its peak in the research excellence framework (REF). Here academics aim to write papers that a particular group of subject specialists will rate as world class in their sub-discipline. The assessment of unconventional work remains uncomfortable. I’m not sure, for example, what the philosophy REF panel would make of Berkeley’s research on tar-water, or even Bentham’s on prisons, for that matter.
When academic leaders proclaim that the problems of the modern world are too complex for traditional disciplines, and that we have to move to a “new paradigm” of inter-disciplinary thought, a polite cough may be the appropriate response. Arguably, disciplinary specialisation is an artifact of how universities have chosen to organise themselves. Despite their claims to be breaking down barriers, virtually every university is still designed around the idea that universities teach in single-subject disciplines and must, as a first priority, employ the staff to deliver the undergraduate curriculum.
Even combined and modular programmes are superimposed on to a structure of departments that developed in the 19th century and has moved on only through increasing specialisation and fragmentation since.
Could it be that rather than regarding single-discipline scholarship as a tradition that needs to be broken, history will instead view it merely as an unfortunate passing phase? No doubt it has brought order and rigour to what was once fluid and confusing. Could now be time to recapture our sense of disorder, mobility, a little confusion, and a lot of excitement?’
Jonathan Wolff is professor of philosophy at University College London