The Poverty of PPE, Episode Three

7. A University education is intended in part to have an effect on our personal lives – the intention may be that it should have a good effect, but the effect does not necessarily coincide with the intention. We also have our intentions in opting for a University education – most obviously we may hope for higher career earnings. A specific course may be intended for its effects on our personal lives, and we may study a particular course because we hope for personal benefits. But the course also has a social intention – paradigmatically to meet the labour needs of the economy: and we may have a social intention too in choosing a particular course – we may study theology in order that we become equipped to save men’s souls, and it is part of the intention of theology so to equip us. Why anyone should have such intentions is another matter.

8. A questionnaire of the intentions of students coming up to study PPE would undoubtedly show that a large majority were in some loose ways avowedly concerned to develop their consciousness in ways which would better equip them to go out into the world to change it, directly or indirectly, to make it a better place for all. This would show up at a later stage in the careers which former PPE students pursue: a high proportion would appear as politicians, teachers, civil servants and journalists.

9. Necessarily, a course will equip its students to initiate and handle some sorts of changes rather than others. It is highly unlikely that any anti-revolutionary society will provide in its universities courses designed for revolutionaries. The most that can be hoped for is that the course is an asset to as many students as possible, and also that it does not allow any student to carry round his particular values without ever having to justify them, or look at them critically. The worst position is that where the course kills the enthusiasm of the student to ‘do something in and with and for the world’: linguistic philosophy has been criticised for encouraging just this sort of failing by Professor Ernest Gellner: “it kills curiosity, it insinuates the view that everything is as it seems, or as you wish it to seem”. [NOTE: Ernest Gellner, Words and Things, pp.242-3 (Gollancz, 1959; Penguin Books, 1968).] With PPE the courses in Economic Organization, Political Institutions and Political History are other examples of studies which help persons interested in some sort of change rather than other. This is developed at greater length later.

10. The view of PPE (and what is true of PPE is not necessarily true of all other courses) as providing intellectual tools with which to understand and hence to change the world is not incompatible with the view that PPE is a course which seeks to transmit to the student an intellectual tradition, and to equip him to develop that tradition or to challenge it (though I would interpret ‘tradition’ in the sense simply of ‘past endeavour’, not of evaluatively or methodologically homogeneous endeavour: both Marx and Mill are part of the tradition of political theory, and a course in political theory can be criticised for failing to consider important parts of the tradition or to cover them inadequately – e.g. the Political Theory and Moral and Political Philosophy papers in PPE treat utilitarianism as a living tradition but Marxism as a dead one. The only ethical system which Philippa Foot considers worthy of consideration in her choice of articles for the volume Theories of Ethics is Utilitarianism, which is a flagrant case of imbalance.

11. The passive passing on of a tradition is not enough – if only because of its stultifying intellectual effects (look at any French University textbook of philosophy). PPE should not be a process in which only gobbets of knowledge are collected. What is now part of the tradition was often at the time it was written the precipitate of intense social concern. Even where it was not the fruit of such concern, it was socially important in its effects as well as socially determined in its origins. Today, the tradition provides us with material to enlarge our comprehension of contemporary reality, which means developing the intellectual tradition and where necessary challenging it and making a rupture with previously omnipresent presuppositions and models.

12. Human problems are intimately interlocked rather than discrete. Hence, the conceptual apparatus which is applied to the understanding of the contemporary world must also recognise the inter-relationships among problems. It is the major criticism of PPE that it does not manage to integrate the three disciplines which are studied, nor even to relate the two papers which are studied in each of the three components. If we ask why this fragmentation has not been overcome, we will, I think, look to the nature of the society in which this University operates, and to the reflection of the features of that society in academic specialization, professional self-interest and personal narrow-mindedness. Again, we shall be confronted by the contradiction between the technocratic and critical role of the University. Apart from the absence of sociology, philosophy will bear the brunt of the criticism: what should be the lynchpin of PPE is its weakest part. This especially concerns the role of the discussion of values.

13. If PPE is designed for people who are concerned with changing things, then those people will be concerned particularly with values: not with technical questions about How to do things but value questions about What to do. Here PPE should serve to develop our understanding of what, in the tradition, have been considered the ends of life – central to PPE should be a study of great writers on ethics and politics. Yet in the Final examination, Political Theory is, most oddly (or, perhaps, most explicably) only an optional paper. And the moral and political philosophy paper as it is currently taught and examined has very little to do with values. For the impact of the linguistic philosophy in ethics and politics has been to encourage a retreat from first order consideration of substantive value questions into second order analysis of the language in which such questions have been couched. Further, by concentrating on the analysis of individual specimens of value judgments (e.g. ‘this is good sewage effluent’ [NOTE: See R. M. Hare, The Language of Morals, p.123, OUP, 1952.]) present-day moral and political philosophers have little conception of a value system, and stemming from this, practically no anthropological or sociological understanding. [NOTE: This deficiency is also apparent in epistemology. See, for example, the fascinating introduction to Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (Allen & Unwin, 1915).]

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6 thoughts on “The Poverty of PPE, Episode Three”

  1. Although I doubt that the content of the moral philosophy course would cheer the author, I think it is worth noting that it is probably usually less hardcore linguistic philosophy than it once was. The complaint he makes about that sort of moral philosophy is after all what Bernard Williams was getting at when he said something like ‘contemporary moral philosophy has found a new way of being boring, which is by not talking about morality at all’ in either Morality: an Introduction or Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, both of which are pretty central texts for the moral philosophy course. Of course, I suppose what they really want is much less general reflection on what we should do: that’s why you get the thought that sociology and values go together, presumably. But that’s a call to role back academic specialization altogether, not an attack on particular forms of it.

  2. [Incidentally, there are currently two Robs commenting on these posts, so if at least one of them could add a bit to their name to avoid confusion, that would be good. Rob Jubb, I think, has rights of first occupancy on the “Rob” handle, if only at the Virtual Stoa!]

    Who is the “they” here? People like Pateman? Students from the 1960s? Or other people?

  3. According to my detailed historical understanding(!), there was no political theory before 1971 (at least, not since the last Great Dead Philosopher – probably Mill). Obviously, I know that’s not true – indeed, I’ve read some early 20th century stuff on democracy.

    Nonetheless, I’d be interested to know what the content of their paper was and what would be made of the post-1971 Political Theory we do now, which does seem to address normative rather than linguistic questions. (At least, I take it people aren’t only arguing over words, though that does happen).

    [p.s. I don’t find the two Robs too confusing, as you can always hover over the link]

  4. I haven’t seen a 1960s vintage paper, but it’s not too hard to think of what might have been on it. They were big on the theory of punishment in those days (think of what went into Honderich’s book on Punishment); look at the papers in the Quinton collection on Political Philosophy, at the early volumes of Laslett & Runciman on Politics, Philosophy and Society, or at the kinds of things that get chewed over in Brian Barry’s Political Argument. I’m guessing that books like those would give you a pretty good guide to what the pre-1970s Theory of Politics paper might have been like, though I might be wrong.

  5. Well, one of my overriding first impressions of that period was how people were discussing capitalism vs socialism (if not Marxism) as a live option.

  6. The ‘they’ was the author(s) (of the pamphlet).

    I actually probably know even less than Ben about pre-1971 twentieth century political thought, but I would guess one complaint, which would chime well with the talk of values, might be that the discussion of socialism vs. capitalism was overly technocratic, focused on narrow productive indices rather than its social psychology (or something). But maybe someone’s said that already. This is what happens when you go away for the weekend.

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