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The British Philosophical Association

David Evans on the creation of a new society for Britain’s nine-to-five thinkers.

All serious philosophy in Britain depends on a healthy and strong academic core; the 5-600 full-time paid philosophers who research and teach in academic departments provide a focus of meetings, classes, venues and publications around which much more extensive networks of committed philosophers can cluster. The great majority of academic philosophers warmly welcome outreach to the many philosophers who operate outside the strictly professional circle; snobbish exclusivity is an attitude now long-gone from the scene. Nonetheless I think all concerned would acknowledge that all philosophers derive essential support from the existence of a vigorous and well-resourced academic culture. A new body, the British Philosophical Association, has recently been formed to protect and promote that culture.

The BPA, as it is known, already exists. Its constitution was approved at a meeting in Liverpool in October 2002 and the association was launched, with considerable fanfare, at the Joint Session and other philosophy conferences in Belfast this summer. On October 24 the first annual meeting will be held at Westminster, in the House of Commons.

These developments are the outcome of three years’ discussion and planning by the National Committee for Philosophy, and in order to understand the motive for this preparatory work, it is necessary to delve into that committee’s past. The NCP was formed at a time when academic philosophy appeared to be in crisis. This was the early 1980s, when budget cuts and mergers led to the actual closure of some philosophy departments and a sense of threat to many more. Since philosophers generally believed – then as now – that the presence of a decent number of philosophers is an essential feature of any institution deserving the name of University, a counter-attack was needed.

It was successful; the tide of closures was stemmed. But that success led to a realisation that the profession needs a constant line of communication and influence to the bodies which fund and plan the course of academic affairs in the nation (or, more recently, nations). Throughout the 1990s the NCP cultivated links with funding councils and other quasi-governmental agencies, with the consequence that it came to be recognised as the subject association for philosophy. In this capacity it made important contributions to the conduct of the research assessment exercise in philosophy, and through its contact with the Quality Assurance Agency, it played a large part in establishing the subject Benchmarking Statement for Philosophy. It also had extensive contact, particularly over selection and funding of research students, with the British Academy and the successor bodies which are about to complete their evolution into the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Now the NCP is itself evolving, into the BPA. It will remain the subject association for Philosophy; and indeed the changes in arrangement are expressly designed to strengthen the fulfilment of that role. To be effective, a subject association needs credibility with its professional constituency and adequate resources to pursue its function. The NCP operated through philosophy departments, which were invited to send representatives to meetings and to take part in electing the committee. In this way every academic philosopher had access to the work of the committee; but still many individuals lacked a sense of involvement with these activities. To remedy this, the BPA is offering membership not only to departments and learned societies but also – and this is the important innovation – to individual philosophers, either in full or in associate form. [Basically, it’s open to lecturers and PhD students! Ed.] So far over 155 have joined as full members (11 more as associates), along with 60 departments and 8 learned societies.

There are strong inducements, both altruistic and self-interested, for individuals to join. By doing so they will help sustain the health of the profession and subject of philosophy, and directly influence its future direction through voting at the annual general meetings of the association. At the same time they will be eligible for very significant discounts on books and journals from a large number of leading publishers in philosophy. The £15 membership fee is quickly cancelled out for those who take advantage of such reductions.

So there are strong incentives for individual academics to join up. If, as we hope, recruitment is healthy, the BPA will enjoy a strong income stream, which will provide the other main difference between it and its predecessor NCP. The latter received subscriptions only from philosophy departments. Its lack of funds placed in a far weaker position than other comparable subject associations to gather information, pursue initiatives and generally promote the interests of philosophy.

The birth of the British Philosophical Association will strengthen the position of philosophy in the UK. The new body appeals for the support of all who wish to promote the place of philosophy in our individual lives and in the life of society.

© Prof. David Evans 2003

David Evans is a professor of philosophy at Queens’ University Belfast. A member of the National Committe for Philosophy for eleven years, he was the committee’s chair from1994-8.

For more about the BPA, visit: http://www.bpa.ac.uk.

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