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March 30, 2015

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Coolican: Philosophy has shaped civilization, yet UNLV plan would cut it

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

The plan to eliminate UNLV’s philosophy department is so preposterous, so right out of a “Simpsons” episode, that the cynic in me thinks it’s a devious — and ethically suspect! — plan to draw attention to the Draconian budget cuts proposed by Gov. Brian Sandoval.

But this is Nevada, and the first term Republican governor has proposed a 17 percent cut to higher education, so sure, why not eliminate philosophy?

After all, aren’t we talking about some college kids and their life-of-leisure professors sitting around ruminating about the meaning of life?

That might be how philosophy is portrayed in popular culture, so it’s understandable that Nevada’s august legislators might think that, but philosophy is something else entirely.

It’s the foundation — along with the Judeo-Christian tradition — of all Western civilization.

(By Western civilization, I don’t mean cowboy poetry and country and western music, but rather, Plato to Shakespeare and everything else.)

Philosophers, specifically Plato and Aristotle, invented the university and established the entire notion of critical, analytical thinking, which is to say, logic. From that, pretty much all human knowledge followed.

The German philosopher Leibniz gave us calculus, which we use in countless fields, from the physical sciences to economics. Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and Galileo, all in their time “natural philosophers,” devised the beginnings of the empirically driven scientific method from which all scientific progress has flowed. Philosophers are the reason we can distinguish between science and psuedo-science.

How about politics? Where did the Constitution come from? Sorry Sharron Angle, it wasn’t handed down on stone tablets by God. It’s an uneasy blend of Aristotle and John Locke. Philosophers both.

Adam Smith, father of capitalism? He was a moral philosopher.

And to my conservative friends: the father of conservatism? Edmund Burke, philosopher.

In short, philosophy is the rigorous application of reason to various human problems, be they moral, scientific, political — although its uses are universal. Philosophy students must learn to think through problems logically, understand arguments, present them fairly and then offer their own written analysis.

This is a difficult activity, but one that pays immense dividends, even if we’re being merely pragmatic. Philosophy students score the highest on the standardized test for law school and among the highest for business and graduate schools.

Pope John Paul II and Martin Luther King Jr. both studied philosophy, but if you prefer corporate sharks and entrepreneurs, there’s Peter Lynch, Carly Fiorina and Patrick Byrne, CEO of

Bill Ramsey, a UNLV philosopher, came here in 2007 from the University of Notre Dame, where he won a pile of teaching awards. He left one of the best departments in the country, in part to build something here.

Ramsey teaches 200 students a semester in Philosophy 101 as well as ethics classes in which he instructs his students how to evaluate the arguments for and against abortion, gay marriage, the use of torture in interrogations and other contemporary issues. In both cases, he’s not telling the students what to think, but instructing them how to think critically.

As he notes, philosophy is “the one discipline that teaches the things we agree we need more of — critical thinking and ethical behavior.”

Think of the 2008 financial crisis, which was a toxic mixture of uncritical thinking and corruption.

So to review: No philosophy means no training in thinking or ethics.

How appropriate.

Coolican’s column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays.

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  1. Mr. Coolican, you didn't even scratch the surface of how important Philosophy is. I would submit that no institution of learning can be considered such unless it teaches Philosophy.

    I will not say humanity can not exist without Philosophy, but I have no hesitation in saying civilization would not.

  2. Inverted underwater basket weaving must be saved no mater the cost.

  3. I may not be the brightest bulb in the fixture, but I'm hoping my children will do better. My daughters will be ready for college in ten years, I'm already planning on leaving. Hopefully I can sufficiently supplement their "worst in the nation" public school education enough that they'll be accepted at a decent university that teaches grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Time to abandon this sinking rusty hulk. Good luck everybody.

    "Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner."

  4. "Philosophers, specifically Plato and Aristotle, invented the university and established the entire notion of critical, analytical thinking, which is to say, logic."

    Coolican -- Plato wasn't a philosopher, he only published his notes of arguably the greatest human being who ever lived, Socrates. And Socrates like many others of his kind, lectured in the public forums, lived in poverty, and wrote nothing himself.

    The flaw in your logic is philosophy must be taught by institutions. Try picking up a book instead -- if it's not in the public library you can do what I did and get it from Goodwill. I'd recommend you start with Plato's "Apology" then work up to "The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius." The latter saved me from religion and myself.

    Then there's the internet.

    " little does the common herd know of the nature of right and truth." - Socrates in Plato's "Euthyphro" (399 B.C.E.?)

  5. Altho I am hoping the legislature will step up and addresss the revenue issue in Nevada so that education will not be cut....
    Before any other departments are cut, all sports programs should be cut. We do not ned football, golf, baseball, golf nor any other sport.

  6. KillerB, if this were ancient Greece, perhaps we could all follow Plato around Las Vegas Boulevard as he dispenses wisdom. But philosophy, like the rest of the liberal arts, exists in a college or university to teach people HOW to think, so that we can make reasoned judgments about everyday matters in our lives and major policy issues. I oppose eliminating this department, but I also realize that one of the reasons that Sandogibbons is so opposed to higher and K-12 education is that a better educated populace would realize what a disastrous empty suit he is, and that the same can be said for the party to which he belongs.

  7. Killer B: You need to head back to the library, apparently.

  8. I wholeheartedly agree that philosophy is crucial to a broad university education.
    As a philosophy major as an undergrad in university in Canada, I was taught ethics plus critical thinking.
    I am convinced that the philosophy subjects I took made me an honest lawyer, more interested in doing what was in the best interests of my clients rather than enriching myself at their expense.
    I am of the opinion that most of today's lawyers, politicians, and business people would not be shafting society if they had taken several philosophy courses in college rather than stuffing themselves with business courses and "learning" that the sole goal is to get as rich as possible as quickly as possible.

  9. "KillerB, if this were ancient Greece, perhaps we could all follow Plato around Las Vegas Boulevard as he dispenses wisdom."

    MichaelGreen -- what part of "Plato wasn't a philosopher, he only published his notes" did you not understand?

    "Killer B: You need to head back to the library, apparently."

    Coolican -- you need to clarify why.

    Belleville -- as irrelevant as ever.

    Guys, my point is not that philosophy isn't important, it's just not exclusive to public institutions. Read and think, dolts!

    Epictetus, anyone?

    "I shall have liberty to think for myself without molesting others or being molested myself." -- John Adams, letter to his brother-in-law, Richard Cranch, August 29, 1756, explaining how his independent opinions would create much difficulty in the ministry

  10. "The logical consequence of your argument would be to eliminate the university itself because we all have WikiPedia to "teach" us."

    Gramsci -- if it was an argument perhaps that would be its logical conclusion, but it's not. I've only provided an opinion. But that opinion is based on my fondness for the Great Books of the Western World -- WikiPedia is just a quick and handy reference.

    Unfortunately for all of us to some extent we are in survival mode. And imposing the support of academic elites on a struggling and increasingly destitute populace just ignores the reality.

    "I think TV is very educational. Every time someone turns on a TV, I go in the other room and read." -- Groucho Marx

  11. Hey, we get all the philosophy we need from Fox News and the intellectual giants they employ.

    Let's cut any program that might enable students to think critically. Philosophy, logic, political science, history, sociology, anthropology.

    We have to be suspect, after all they are called "liberal arts."

    And how about the earth sciences? Just a bunch of atheists preaching "evolution" and "global warming" -- let's review how relevant they are.

    So why stop at philosophy?

  12. "Philosophy states that greed, discrimination, class warfare, social injustice, elitism, feudalism, etc, etc. are all wrong and not good for man kind."

    What an ill-informed, broad generalization there, Bob. Ever read Nietzsche? Rand? And "mankind" is one word.

    Killer B, you foolishly reduce Plato to a transcriber of Socrates' work; as Patrick suggested, perhaps you need to access the library more often. Or, even better, take a Philosophy course or two, which can help you develop the skills to retain what you read.

  13. Yes, it's these "academic elites" that are bankrupting the country. With their "philosophy" departments and summers off.

    Thank you, Killer B. My eyes have seen the light. As you put it "imposing the support of academic elites on a struggling and increasingly destitute populace..... yada, yada, yada"

    Yes, I thought it was the bankers, the real estate speculators, the Madoffs that were the problem.

    I thought GE, which did not pay a dime in corporate tax last year, was the problem. I thought the other 122 corporations who paid no federal corporate tax last year was the problem.

    But now I see that it is these damn academic elites.

  14. "Killer B, you foolishly reduce Plato to a transcriber of Socrates' work..."

    Rodger -- I didn't use your word "transcriber," which Plato definitely was not. Since you offered nothing to prove he was anything else, how exactly would your post be at all relevant on the point?

    And why should I "better, take a Philosophy course or two"? I prefer to read the real thing direct, with only the translator between the writer and me. I don't need a dumbed-down version or the filter of an academic's opinion. I'd rather read Admiral James Stockdale on Epictetus than a tenured professor any day.

    "The universe is transformation: life is opinion." -- Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, from "The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius," Book IV, translated by George Long

  15. With the exception of bodily functions, including reproduction, I can think of few if any activities that don't benefit from the application of critical thinking.

    Rather than use geometry to teach this concept, I suggest a class in formal logic beginning even earlier in school, with exposure to classical philosophy and ethics in 9th or 10th grade. At least we might stand a small chance of having a reasonably aware electorate. That is, after all, the biggest benefit to society provided by public education (or should be, anyway.)

  16. "...with exposure to classical philosophy and ethics in 9th or 10th grade."

    boftx -- funny thing is how "the classics" used to be part of every common curriculum. Then came Big Education's move starting in the 60s to weed out all the works by "dead white men." The dumbing of America resulted.

    "It was the same with those old birds in Greece and Rome as it is now. . . . The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know." -- President Harry Truman on the insight "Plutarch's Lives" gave him

  17. Plato was a philosopher and his ideas were substantially different from those of his teacher Socrates. For example, in the Apology, which probably closely represents what the historical Socrates thought, Socrates says that he does not know what happens to the soul after death. On the other hand, the character of Socrates in several of Plato's carefully written dialogues attempts to prove the immortality of the soul, which is a central part of Plato's thought. Socrates based his claim to wisdom on "knowing that he did not know" the ultimate truth - Plato developed a system of philosophy that assumed the existence of absolute truth and claimed to describe a method of reaching that truth.

  18. "Plato was a philosopher and his ideas were substantially different from those of his teacher Socrates."

    sally -- you could very well be correct. But in my opinion Plato's greatest works -- The Republic, Apology and Crito -- are mainly what we have of Socrates. We also have at least Epictetus (who also wrote nothing himself) and Marcus Aurelius (who wrote, but only for himself) to thank for more on him. Perhaps in their time they had access to writings other than Plato's.

    Correctness isn't the most important part of this Discussion, it's the value of philosophy (of which there are many branches) and whether a starving public should be forced to support it being taught in public institutions.

    "Socrates used to call the opinions of the many by the name of Lamiae, bugbears to frighten children." -- Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, from "The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius," Book XI, translated by George Long

  19. I would say that we need all students, especially at the high school, to be well grounded in critical thought more than ever if we hope to solve the problems we now face.

    Just look at the ideological divide we have today. Throw in the fringe groups that are gaining momentum and "Idiocracy" is becoming all too apt.

  20. talking to yourself does not promote higher learning, it promotes crazy. Also, constantly regurgitating quotes doesn't make you educated. No need to reply, I won't be reading it.

  21. Plato also believed that the great majority of people were too dumb to be interested in education and cared only for material comforts and getting rich; therefore they should have all decisions made for them for their own good by the very few who were smart enough to go through school and reach the pinnacle of higher education, the study of philosophy. Plato's ideal society, described in the Republic, was the prototype for fascism. Personally, I prefer a democracy (which Plato hated) and think that a functioning democracy depends on everyone having the opportunity to learn to think critically, i.e. philosophically. Public institutions such as public universities and libraries are therefore crucial to democracy.

  22. Screw authority. :)

  23. Actually, I shouldn't say that as I am not an anarchist, but I definitely say question authority.

    At the same time, any authority that government has comes from that which is given by permission of the voters. It can, and should, be taken back from time to time just to remind the government that it is a means to an end, not the end itself.

  24. @Sally:

    My recollection is that the Republic was not about fascism, but it was written at a time of the the defeat of Athens in a war with Sparta. Plato was, in part, attacking the ability of Athenian democracy to pull itself together and confront Sparta. Please feel free to correct this if I am in error--it is something I remember from a course decades ago.

  25. "Plato's ideal society, described in the Republic, was the prototype for fascism."

    sally -- I read "The Republic" a few years ago when preparing for an upcoming legislative session. As I recall it was totally a conversation between Socrates and others. Fascinating introduction to what's become known as the Socratic Method, but as to whether it was an accurate account of that long, long conversation (or conversations) or Plato's own philosophy masquerading as his teacher's we'll never know, since Socrates was executed in what 399 B.C.E.?

    What matters is its contribution to our thought even now. Thanx so much for your contributions to this Discussion!

    "Robert Heinlein said "The most powerful words in the English language - 'Pay To The Order Of...' "

    airweare -- actually in this economy, especially with the recent crash, the most powerful words in the English language would be "I promise to pay..."

    "All money is a matter of belief." -- Adam Smith

  26. Without a liberal arts education, tenure, the discipline of philosophy, etc., we'll plunge right back to the Dark Ages and the signs are already apparent.

  27. "Without a liberal arts education, tenure, the discipline of philosophy, etc., we'll plunge right back to the Dark Ages and the signs are already apparent."

    ssenjo -- what signs?

    History shows the sure way to "plunge right back to the Dark Ages" is for religion to again rule everyone and everything, especially the Catholics.

    "The greatest tragedy in mankind's entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion." -- Arthur C. Clarke, 1999, from "God, Science, and Delusion: A Chat With Arthur C. Clarke" in Free Inquiry magazine

  28. "The world is on cruise control..."

    BrianK -- excellent way to put it.

    Since being turned on to philosophy by an Asa Baber article I've learned the old principle of how much man acts like a herd. Maintaining the status quo at all costs is definitely a herd thing.

    "[Socrates] was accustomed to say that he did not himself know anything, and that the only way in which he was wiser than other men was that he was conscious of his own ignorance, while they were not. The essence of the Socratic method is to convince the interlocutor that whereas he thought he knew something, in fact he does not. The unexamined life is not worth living..." -- W. K. C. Guthrie "The Greek Philosophers"

  29. Students should be required to take some philosophy or intellectual heritage courses, regardless of their major. I recall having to take some courses, which traced the development of intellectual thought from Gilgamesh, Old Testament and Plato right up through the 20th century (this was the 20th century when I took the course). It was taught by all sorts of professors, from History, Philosophy, English, whatever, who brought their own focus to the core readings. 30 weeks well spent, years and years ago.

  30. Plato, in his Republic, was concerned with the question of how to organize society. It is the same question many of us write about each day here and argue about. It is an enormously difficult challenge, today, as it was in the 5th century BC.

    This is why Plato still speaks to us today with meaning and relevance in the 21st century.

  31. Watch some mindless campaign ads for a few months on the tube, as most of had to (even those of us who watch little TV) and then read Plato's Republic or Aristotle's Politics. You might be left with the sense that something is wrong with political discourse in the country and the maturity of the outcomes.

  32. Two years ago, writers for the Times of London discovered what many of our own citizens have yet to learn: that critical thinking skills and a grasp of comparative philosophies are important in the workplace.

    Hannah Fearn wrote, "Is philosophy now better for one's career than an MBA? Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), suggests that it could be. Philosophy graduates, he says, will be more prepared for the workplace of the future, thanks to their ability to 'learn how to think and learn how to learn'."

    The Greeks posited the existence of a set of universal positive values: the Virtues. While examining these virtues, they inspected the human society. Our issues (prejudice, injustice, and the causes of war) were all subjects of study for philosophy students. Today, many seem content to rail against an unknown and misunderstood enemy -- whether that enemy is an "Islamist," or a "liberal," or a "right-wing radical."

    Modern political discourse is often filled with fallacies and unrecognized assumptions. The rhetoric that accuses one's opponents of wanting to "starve old people" or "force America into a failed socialist regime" is far removed from any genuine understanding of what the opponent actually believes or claims. We need to think critically.

    It would be bad indeed for any one philosophy to suppress the others. Just as critical thought and evaluation are required in the workplace, so also are these things important in the lives of informed citizens. Why vote at all if you don't understand the issues?

    The professor, too, must be careful not to force out different viewpoints. On the contrary; (s)he puts them forward for inspection and evaluation. Plato reckoned that ordinary "job skills" were not education. Critical thinking and reasoning about our existence and relationship with one another -- these things were Education, and the process of learning philosophy brought people closer to the Ideals. Erasmus wrote about the enrichment of the individual culture as a result of the educational process. Yes.

    Education is far more than workforce training, and philosophy is necessary in order to receive education.