Diary

Colin McGinn

I have recently been to two valedictory parties for Oxford philosophers on the brink of emigrating to America. I spoke to another philosopher who is actively considering a munificent offer from a Californian university. Reliable rumour has it that a number of other leading British philosophers are contemplating taking their talents to the Land of the Free. And they have been preceded there by several others in the past few years. British philosophy appears to be packing up and moving across the Atlantic. Neither is this minor exodus being compensated for by American philosophers taking up posts in Britain. There are too few such posts, and those there are are not attractive to American philosophers. The consensus seems to be that it is better to be a philosopher in America than Britain right now and for the foreseeable future.

The reasons are not far to seek. You get three times the pay over there, your teaching and administrative duties are comparatively light, your sabbatical leave is generous. Research is highly valued and appropriately rewarded. Philosophy in America is accordingly flourishing. There is much justified optimism there. In Britain, however, philosophy is suffering from multiple cuts, as indeed are other subjects. The deepest cut is the freezing of posts: it keeps young scholars out of academic life, thus inducing an atmosphere of stagnation, and it results in morale-destroying lacunae at the senior level. Consequently, there are now departments with no very junior people and no professors. The government may have set out to hack the ‘dead wood’ from the university system: what they have done instead is to slice off the living shoots and healthy branches.

This was, of course, entirely predictable: established scholars will go where they are most valued and where they can best get on with their work, while potential scholars are forced to take up other occupations. Nor is this depletion of intellectual resources readily reversible: these people won’t be coming back. During the 12 years I have been a professional philosopher (I scraped in just before the squeeze) I have seen a steady decline in the vitality of British philosophy. Meanwhile America has surged ahead, and it is now consolidating its lead over Britain by attracting some of our best philosophers. California is now arguably stronger philosophically than the whole of Britain – in a decade it might be Arizona or Montana! Recent government policy may not be the whole reason for this intellectual recession, but there can be no doubt that it is a large part of the reason. And the same can be said of other subjects.

Four years ago, when I was a lowly lecturer in London, I had to decide whether to take a job at a university in Los Angeles. The offer sounded unrefusable: pay tripled, lots of research time, excellent and affable colleagues. Only a devout patriot could turn it down. I had already spent six months in LA three years earlier and had greatly enjoyed it. It was philosophically stimulating, and I made more friends than I had in England. But I wanted to go over again for a trial period before deciding. I wanted to get a sense of what it might be like to live there permanently.

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