In Defence of Intellectual Inquiry

Graphic design of a brain, half in technicolour, half greyed out with scientific script over the greyed-out section.


… we might … ask whether society can afford not to have well-rounded citizens who know how to reason and think for themselves

Adjunct Professor Michael Allen Fox
Philosophy, Faculty of Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences and Education

There was a time when it was considered important for people to cultivate the art of learning – to recognise and affirm the value of knowledge for its own sake.

Today, areas of scholarly research seem to be under increasing pressure to produce outcomes that meet bureaucrats’ criteria of success, to be job-oriented, even to be self-funding. Some might say, ‘Well, what’s wrong with that? Society can’t afford to support idle inquiry, with all the other demands on the public purse’.

Professor Michael Fox says that this “tangible results” model of learning has its uses, and fits well with some programs, especially those oriented toward professional training and certification. But it misses the mark in relation to the arts and humanities, whose strengths lie elsewhere.

Professor Fox suggests that we might instead ask whether society can afford not to have well-rounded citizens who know how to reason and think for themselves; know their history and traditions; and have developed a respect for ideas, shared values and other, diverse people. Anything that expands the mind also makes us more aware, increases our appreciation of the complexities of the world and gives us a greater repertoire of abilities for contributing to the general good. It may provide an enhanced level of satisfaction in one’s life as well. All of these effects are impossible to quantify, but are of great importance nonetheless.

Philosophy, to take one example of an old-style discipline, teaches portable skills such as writing persuasively, critical thinking and finding ways to analyse questions and problems, how to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information, how to place things in a larger context or break issues down into more manageable problems, and how to see connections between matters that are of concern. It also fosters self- examination. (The same can be said of history, literature, art appreciation and other fields.)

These skills can be applied in a variety of contexts, making today’s philosophy a very eclectic or wide-ranging subject. Professor Fox’s scholarly work illustrates this. In Home: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2016), he studied the meaning, emotive significance and larger role in our lives of a cross-culturally central phenomenon that we all experience, albeit in different cultures and sub- cultures. Insights from Professor Fox’s teaching career are combined and explored in other of his publications including Understanding Peace: A Comprehensive Introduction (Routledge, 2014) and Deep Vegetarianism (Temple University Press, 1999), where he engages with major public controversies over the choice of food. These projects don’t spring from a unified research program, nor do they follow an identical method
of inquiry. But they do, as Professor Fox says, contribute to an ongoing conversation about humans’ place in the world and our responsibilities toward it—vital topics treated by the humanities and not by science, and topics that people think about, often quite deeply. What science and the humanities have in common, however, is that they demonstrate in their own ways that how we look at things affects what we discover about them, and that considering subjects from many angles yields new forms of understanding. We need these insights both for stimulation of the imagination and to keep pace with a rapidly changing world.

Does this kind of activity merit society’s support? Professor Fox says that the answer has to be yes. Standing back from the rush and noise of our daily routines enables us to reflect on life in a more measured way and to attain a better appreciation of our common heritage and humanity. These are important results of education, which deserve to be evaluated within an appropriate model of research achievement.

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