We sought ways around the gridlock of current debates over the role of religion in public life by examining the way an early 18th century philosopher and theologian had responded to similar circumstances by refashioning the concept of God to accommodate modern ways of thought. The Australian Research Council’s panel of experts, acting on the advice of independent specialist assessors, deemed it worth pursuing. On the basis of its title alone, however, Briggs deems it “ridiculous”.
The discipline of philosophy developed in ancient Greece in opposition to a rival discipline popular, then and now, with politicians: rhetoric. The philosophers saw as mere rhetoric language used just to achieve a desired result – to trigger an immediate response rather than a reasoned one. A contemporary term for this, "dog-whistling", captures the picture well. Dogs react to mere sounds, they don’t act on the basis of concepts expressed in words. The word "ridiculous", unaccompanied by reasons, is really just a whistle. [HT: Paul Giladi]
I have to admit that I am ambivalent about Redding's approach. While I sympathize with his plight (it must be horrifying to be singled-out for ridicule by a powerful politician) and also sympathize with the desire to tell the politicians to go to hell and, thus, would like to cheer him on, it is patently self-defeating to insult the hand that feeds you. More important, Redding never addresses the core issue and, thus, fails to elevate the discussion. The target of his ire, MP Jamie Briggs, had claimed that "We want a strong research culture in Australia, particularly in relation to medical research...We want research in Australia but we want it focused on things that really matter."[*]
It is entirely legitimate in a democratic context for politicians to state their priorities. This is not to justify ridicule, but election-speech is, well, election-speech. Briggs is clear on his funding priorities.
In response, Redding tries hard to make philosophical research within the "division of intellectual labor" seem "relevant." But he fails to realize that even if his argument were fully granted, he still would lack an account explaining why philosophy should be among the Australian government's funding priorities. The only hint of some such argument is that other experts -- presumably fellow philosophers -- deemed his project funding-worthy given the existing rules; it does not explain why the rules shouldn't be changed.
I am not claiming that one could not develop an argument for why funding historical-conceptual research on the notion of God in the eighteenth century might not help around contemporary 'gridlock' (and grant for the sake of argument that getting rid of such "gridlock" is desirable); even if such research could deliver on its promise, it is by no means obvious why this should be a higher priority for the public than other worthy projects. (Again, I am not claiming no argument can be made; just that no argument is being offered for prioritizing it.)
Now, somebody might say that I am ignoring another argument in Redding's piece: philosophy can help in developing the "capacity for conceptual thought that allows us to reason and act on the basis of reasons." Let's stipulate this is true. (Redding comes very close to asserting that only philosophy can help develop this capacity.) Let's stipulate that this ought to be a high priority for any public (and ignore the massive evidence that many, even democratic governments prefer a certain amount of sheepishness in their populations). It is by no means obvious that this requires (much) research-funding--we already have the available knowledge to deliver the kind of teaching might develop this capacity. (We also stipulate that on-going research is not detrimental to such role!)
I don't write any of this in order to ridicule. But if you are the electoral-losing side of a very threatening argument it behooves you to start thinking seriously about the issues at hand along two dimensions: (i) how does one speak to politicians and the public in a democracy (and it simply won't do to recycle Plato's elitists Memes); (ii) if you want to play the public-funding game, you need to understand that if you are selling relevance you may still be deemed not relevant enough.
It is a further question if one really should be even selling relevance; I doubt it is a winning long-term strategy for philosophers.
[* As it happens my wife is a surgeon, so I am not entirely disinterested here. We have no plans to move to Australia.--ES.]