The last philosopher in Alaska's Interior contemplates extinction

Well, I should have said "the last philosopher holding an associate professor job," but then the title would've been less catchy. Details aside, I am, in a very real and lonely sense, the last member of my species within 353 miles in every direction.

My lonely job is in the Department of Philosophy & Humanities at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. When I arrived here 17 years ago there were five faculty in our department. But colleagues retired, or left, or passed away (in the case of Dr. Joseph Thompson). Instead of renewal, the university reabsorbed the vacant positions. And the department shrank until it could almost shrink no more. Now, we're down to two temporary appointments, and only one permanent position (mine). The number of students, however, barely changed (around 25). We are also self-sufficient, and made a decent profit. But when the deficit came, we were deemed too small (faculty-wise), and our philosophy major was marked for elimination.

Without a philosophy bachelor's program, UAF won't be good at attracting and retaining philosophy professors. No philosophy professors, no philosophy at UAF. This amounts to one of the most significant amputations in UAF's history. Am I exaggerating? No, and if it sounds like it, it's because we've forgotten what philosophy is for. Philosophy is not about farfetched, untestable ideas. Philosophy is the mercilessly critical analysis of our most profound assumptions. We humans think in a scaffolding-like way. Our ideas pile in layers, each one resting on the one below. We naturally shy away from messing with the very bottom, fearing the collapse of the scaffolding. But the outside world can be brutal to those who hang on to false ideas. And just like with any superstructure (think about your home), a good scaffolding of ideas requires constant reassessment -- foundation's level included.

Luckily for us (sort of), we humans are quite predictable when it comes to scaffoldings and our deepest assumption levels. In such a way that, for instance, what the Greeks figured out about Greek human knowing is still remarkably relevant to standard human knowing. So philosophy teaches analyses of the best and the worst human thinking moves in history. But studying history of philosophy is not enough. Applied philosophy is also necessary. Science and technology result in a stream of new knowledge, some to turn soon into dear assumptions, pushing others into oblivion. A few examples: the new logic systems coming from physics and math; the possibility of artificial intelligence; and every single counterintuitive scientific theory out there. (If you think this is ivory-tower stuff, think for instance, about Google's research on military-grade artificial intelligence, or global warming, and vaccine debates.)

Choosing or assessing our knowledge scaffolding via vote or political affiliation will not do. We create the best knowledge superstructures by learning the best critical analyses in history; and the best critical thinking maneuvers out there. Only then is superb, out-of-the-box thinking possible. And this is precisely what training in philosophy provides. Losing philosophy is not a good idea, especially when we need to adapt to a changing world.

Upon the demise of the philosophy bachelor's degree, we should fear the extinction of philosophy at UAF. But, as Chancellor Brian Rogers has stressed, the philosophy major might be gone, but the Philosophy & Humanities Department is not. Those of us who remain intend to serve the general student body with classes such as introduction to philosophy, critical thinking, or ethics. To serve other disciplines, we will teach courses such as philosophy of science, philosophy of biology, philosophy of psychology and the neurosciences, and research ethics. And to serve the Fairbanks community at large, we will continue providing such things as public lectures, seminars, philosophy for kids projects, and K-12 invited lecture series.

Socrates is reported to have concluded that an unexamined life is not worth living. I say, maybe so. But when you have the fortune of living in Alaska, and the terrible responsibility of deciding what to do when your state is undergoing a multifaceted crisis (climatically, economically, you name it) an unexamined life is, for sure, very dangerous.


Eduardo Wilner, Ph.D, is an associate professor and chair of philosophy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Eduardo Wilner

Eduardo Wilner is chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.