Highlights of my work and anecdotes#

Research and policy in philosophy: a few methodological remarks#

by Cinzia Ferrini (University of Trieste)
(Presented on September 24th, 2005 at the 17th General Meeting of the Academia Europaea (Conference Centre, Telegrafenberg, Potsdam), Session: “New Members”.)

Cinzia Ferrini with a picture of Goethe
It is widely acknowledged that the main European trend and practice in University policy today is to conceive education as a transmission of pre-packaged knowledge. Its goal is to develop a mass university, by measuring, evaluating, and organizing the relation between teaching and research according to the module or ‘credits’ system. Despite its possible merits, in Italy the introduction of this form in Humanites has often produced a proliferation of small didactic units, increasing the risks of a fragmentation of course contents, and of a general lowering of the cultural level, so that course material is easy to acquire and use in a short time. This widespread tendency is especially at odds with the kind of gradual maturation, competences, aims, and standards proper to philosophical studies.

I do not wish here to contest the proliferation of ‘intellectual fast-food’ by opposing ‘thick’ theoretical and historical ideas to ‘thin’ generalizations from scarce and sketchy data. Rather, I shall focus on a consequence of this new trend recently drawn by the Italian Ministery of Public Education. Very briefly, the proposed reformation of the Italian university system abolishes the current professional research profile (whether immediately or in a few years is still an issue at stake), which provides for permanent faculty appointment once a candidate passes public national competition, including written and oral examinations. The new policy is to replace this system by a figure generated by a pre-established training programme consisting in a series of short-term research contracts that produce usable results, according to procedures established by each university. At the end of this local selection process, lasting approximately over a decade, the new researcher is expected to apply for an associate professorship, by passing a qualifying national evaluation. This would put an end to any productive interchange between secondary school and university. Up to now, an appointment as high-scool teacher in history of philosophy (covering all periods from ancient to contemporary) is the most common post-graduate activity before moving to a university career. For filling such teaching obligations requires, in effect, completing one’s training in the entire history of western thought.

I shall briefly highlight one important way in which the direct elevation of relatively young scholars from the proposed series of short-term research contracts to a professorship would dramatically lower the quality of philosophical research and teaching in Italian public universities.

In my view, the fundamental flaws in this educational policy are constituted by the very object of any theoretical and historical analysis of ideas: namely, the nature of a philosophical text, and the very characteristic of original, worthwhile research in philosophy. On the basis of my own experience, I would like to single out three different methodological models of research that can advance and deepen our comprehension of the history, development and significance of thought. It goes without saying that these features can also be taken as three interwoven aspects of a single research work:

One such kind of research revises or challenges standard views about an author, a school, or a cultural movement, often revealing misleading conceptual operations of interpreters (either followers or opponents) on the transmission and reception of a theory. I shall call this critical research, for typically discloses layers of ideological preconceptions which force interpretations into pre-estabilished tracks that occludes from scholars aspects or features of the philosophical text under consideration or hinder their taking them into proper account whenever they run counter to their interpretive framework.

A second such kind of research discovers or reconstructs relevant sources for, or influences on the text in question, which are either previously unknown or discounted. Characteristic of this kind of, I shall say, historiographical research, is to cast new light on the meaning and value of a thesis espoused in a text. This reappraisal may serve to state or to elucidate debts, contaminations or intersections, that is, relationships among authors also of distinct though related fields of inquiry, establishing also whether, say, a controversial claim is an original position or an endorsement or variant of a previously expressed idea.

A third such kind of research refines our conceptual tools and either adjudicates among, or reconciles conflicting readings of the same text through parallel analysis and by exploiting multifacetted competences drawn from philological, scientific, literary, theological, juridical, or other contextual sources which do justice to the richness and complex cultural background of the learned past masters. Characteristic of this kind of what I shall call comparative research is to place a philosophical text in a wider cultural context, instead of confining it within the limits of a current university discipline.

If we return now to the issue at stake, it is obvious that the intellectual training of the proposed new research profile in Italy is inspired by progressive specialization, which provides ever more circumscribed mental frames of reference. It also drops the opportunity offered by high school teaching to enlarge one’s own background information and culture. This is exactly contrary to the requirements of meeting the complex challenges offered by a philosophical text just noted and to the ever increasing standards for outstanding research in this field. Moreover, the fact that the new formative paths would be marked by a series of research projects implicitly though inevitably stresses the aim of selecting candidates who display an ability to deliver usable results quickly, and therefore to plan succesfully short-range products.

In philosophy such topics and subject-matters are often chosen under the pressure of managing research teams which also influence the renewal of short-term research contracts. Indeed, today in Italy is almost impossible to receive research funds on the basis of individual research projects.
In sharp contrast to this, a permanently appointed researcher is granted more intellectual freedom in choosing topics, subject matter, and time-frame. Furthermore, such researchers can be much more easily open to interdisciplinary discourse and exchange, because they can be less directly and tightly dependent upon their strictly professional circles. Last but not least, the localism of the initial selection process fails to support the policy of achieving common standards for measures of quality and assessment within the pan European context for research in Humanities. I do hope that my new membership in the Academia Europea can support the pursuit of this latter perspective for excellence in philosophical research within public university.

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