The Philosophy of Philosophical Institutions

Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle (both of the University of North Texas) have published an essay, “Socrates Untenured,” at Inside Higher Ed that makes a case for what they call “field philosophy” — a “context-driven, problem-focused, and interdisciplinary” approach. Their hope is that “a new philosophical practice, where philosophers work in real time with a variety of audiences and stakeholders, will lead to new theoretical forms of philosophy – once we break the stranglehold that disciplinary norms have upon the profession.”

The essay includes a call for philosophers to be more reflective on the way that the institutions in which they work affect the kinds of work philosophers do.

The early 20th century research university disciplined philosophers, placing them in departments, where they wrote for and were judged by their disciplinary peers. Oddly, this change was unremarked upon, or was treated as simply the professionalization of another academic field of research. It continues to be passed over in silence today. Like Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentleman, who did not know that he had been speaking prose, philosophers seem innocent of the fact that they have been doing disciplinary philosophy, or that one might have reasons to object to this fact. And so even when their subject matter consists of something of real significance to the wider world, philosophers typically discuss the topic in a way that precludes the active interest of and involvement by non-philosophers.

Philosophers view themselves as critical thinkers par excellence who have been trained to question everything; but they have overlooked the institutional arrangements that govern their lives. The department is seen as a neutral space from which thought germinates, not itself the object of reflection. One finds no exploration of the effects that disciplining might have had on philosophical theorizing, or of where else philosophers could be housed, or of how philosophers, by being located elsewhere, might have developed alternative accounts of the world or have come up with new ways of philosophizing. In fact, the epistemic implications of the current institutional housing of philosophy are profound….

Why is peer-reviewed scholarship the sole standard for judging philosophic work, rather than also the effects that such work has on the larger world? And why is there only one social role for those with Ph.D.s in philosophy – namely, to talk to other Ph.D.s in philosophy?

It seems to me that more and more, there are philosophers engaged in projects that fit with Frodeman and Briggle’s conception of “field philosophy.” Discussion of Frodeman and Briggle’s arguments, examples of “field philosophy” and the like, pointers to philosophical work on the university and disciplinarity, and of course your thoughts on related matters, are welcome in the comments.

UPDATE (1/14/15): Readers may be interested in a reply to Frodeman and Briggle by Maya Frodeman here, and this follow-up to Maya Frodeman by Lyudmila A. Markova, here.

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