Philosophy’s Impact (updated)

Philosophy’s Impact (updated)


The applied philosophy literature is full of insights about practical problems. But in our survey of the literature we find essentially no accounts of how a philosopher is supposed to ensure that these insights have an impact. It’s a bias rooted in the discipline: one has exhausted one’s intellectual task and professional obligation when one deposits a peer-reviewed publication in a reservoir of knowledge. Whether and how that knowledge gets used…well, who can say?… Absent is any reflection about how to actually get involved with the stakeholders in particular policy processes, how to effectively interject insights into conversations, or how to track the impacts of one’s efforts.

In a post at the London School of Economics’ Impact Blog, Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman, both philosophy professors at the University of North Texas, and Kelli Barr, a graduate student there, argue that philosophers—even those who work in applied philosophy—are not doing enough to make sure their work has an “impact” on the real world. It’s not that philosophers aren’t talking about real-world problems. It’s that they are usually just talking about them to other philosophers. The problem is the institutional setting of philosophy in discipline-based universities. “Disciplines do a great job of developing new knowledge. But they do a poor job at transmitting that knowledge to society.”

The team surveyed around 4,500 applied philosophy articles and found that:

Only about 1%, some 55 articles, included any self-conscious reflection on the question of how to actually do applied philosophy or what applying philosophy means…. Only 8 papers – some 0.18% of the total – made the recursive move, giving attention to whether their efforts had mattered to non-disciplinary audiences. And only 1 explicitly discussed impact as a problem for the field as a whole.

You can learn more about their project here.

There is a lot to mull over here. Are philosophers not making enough of an impact? If so, is the culprit the discipline-based university? Are philosophers trained to “transmit” their knowledge to society? Should they be? And what would such training ideally look like? Is researching the impact of one’s philosophical work philosophy? Does that matter?

The authors acknowledge “that there is a growing cohort of public philosophers who are challenging the applied model. Yet they remain a tiny minority, and even they are not offering accounts of best practices for how to work out in the field.” What would such best practices look like?

UPDATE (5/27/15):  Three items:

(1) Briggle and Frodeman, along with Britt Holbrook (Georgia Tech) have a new piece at the Impact Blog: “The Impact of Philosophy and the Philosophy of Impact: A guide to charting more diffuse influences across time.” They write:

There is a need for further reflection on how philosophy – and the humanities more generally – can achieve broader impacts. We call our own thoughts about this ‘field philosophy,’ which can be put in terms of its own set of maxims:

  • Be case-based: begin your thinking not with abstract concerns, but with a specific problem of concern to non-philosophers
  • Involve your audience in the framing of the problem and the design of the research
  • Check back in with them regularly for mid-course corrections. Better yet, work with them on a weekly basis
  • Adopt a contextual definition of rigor: what counts as rigorous research should adjust to the needs, timeline, and economics of the situation
  • Include non-disciplinary standards for success

These maxims don’t constitute a method that can be followed to produce a guaranteed result (like baking bread, for instance). Judgment always plays a central role. But engaging those upon whom we hope to have an impact both increases the chances of having broader impacts and improves our work.

(2) Those interested in an example of ‘field philosophy’ can check out Adam Briggle’s A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking: How One Texas Town Stood Up to Big Oil and Gas

(3) Eric Schliesser takes up the question of impact in a post at Digressions & Impressions, reminding us that “The biggest social impact of professors occurs in the class room and in one’s (more extended) role(s) as intellectual mentor to students, day in day out” and that a failure to keep this mind may “contribute to a kind of practical madness in which research is conceived as something wholly opposed to teaching.”

(4) I encourage readers to look at this related post on how your academic productivity is measured.

(image: photo of “Points of Contention” by Jonathan Latiano)

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