How to make philosophy matter

A vision is laid out here.

We are saddled with early-20th-century modes of philosophy. In the 20th century, philosophy abandoned its Socratic heritage in favor of a disciplinary model of practice. Rather than engaging citizens in all walks of life on the issues they faced, philosophers spoke mainly to one another about problems of their own invention. In this we are the heirs of Kant. In the Grounding for the Meta­physics of Morals (1785), Kant argued that we must separate the role of the technical philosopher from that of the general philosopher. Philosophy would demonstrate its bona fides by developing a mode of inquiry that only other philosophers could understand. To attempt both philosophic rigor and public engagement would result in “nothing but bungling.”

By the beginning of the 20th century, we had abandoned the public role. Like biologists or economists, we embraced expertise. We burrowed down into ever-smaller niches, coming to know more and more about less and less.

At times it looks disturbingly like a case for the REF Impact measure:

It is time to reclaim the public role of philosophy…

The 20th-century paradigm of philosophy did eventually, reluctantly, make room for a few “applied” philosophers in fields such as bioethics, environmental ethics, business ethics, and the like. But even here, in the vast majority of cases, research consisted in talking about applied ethics rather than actually applying, or better, integrating philosophic insights with problems on the ground.

Applied ethics has been centripetal—scholars mostly go out into the world only long enough to latch onto an issue and then bring it back into the fold of specialized academic journals. Applied ethics is written for other ethicists, rather than for the nonphilosophical audiences who actually wrestle with the problems being discussed—doctors and nurses, lab technicians and computer programmers, corporate toxicologists and managers of fisheries….

For the reasons we noted at the outset, the 20th-century model of philosophy today is politically and economically unsustainable. It is also irresponsible. Philosophers at public univer­sities are state employees, and the rest of us are dependent in various ways on public funds, not to mention on the tuition paid by students and their families.

But what it actually suggests is quite far from Impact, as defined by HEFCE:

Field philosophy, found philosophy, public philosophy, experimental philosophy, philosophy of/as interdisciplinarity—these are all expressions of a growing feeling that change is afoot. We seek to promote this change. We view 20th-century philosophy as an aberration—academically challenging work that forgot half of philosophy’s task. It is time to strike out in new, intellectually exciting, and socially useful directions.

Which all sounds great, when you’re focusing on work that fits that model. But, as Magical Ersatz has noted in the comments here, there’s a lot of inspiring, amazing, important work that doesn’t.

One thought on “How to make philosophy matter

  1. I want real pluralism in the distribution of philosophical labour, for the socially relevant philosophy to garner equal respect and institutional rewards as work that, for lack of a better term, is more mainstream within the way that I see the discipline as it is currently structured.

    Much but not all of my work fits in the socially relevant paradigm, and this work draws on and, I hope, contributes to the more mainstream stuff. The mainstream stuff, like the socially relevant stuff, has intrinsic value. It can be inspiring, amazing and important.

    The trouble that I see is a pretty tight circle among top schools, top journals and top scholars in the discipline that rewards the mainstream and penalizes the socially relevant work. So, the mainstream gets to define what is smart, interesting and important, and the socially relevant is the Other, merely applied by scholars bringing a watered down version of the smart stuff to the publics and the policy makers.

    I think the discipline, but not all of us individually, has a duty to contribute to the public good in practical ways. The individual duty that I think we all have, is not to put barriers in front of those who do work that is practical and that is socially relevant. I think that there are many such barriers and that they are deeply institutionalized. And I suspect that those barriers encourage some people to leave the field. The relationships among the mainstream and socially relevant, and women philosophers and feminist philosophy in the discipline are complicated and themselves interesting.

    One of the things that I find most valuable in articles like Briggle and Frodeman’s is that they start debate, and hopefully expand the range of views that are open for discussion.

Comments are closed.