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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Bob Kirkman
6 years ago

I consider myself very fortunate to have stumbled into a good and stable academic position that’s not in a philosophy department. My department, like my career, is an anomaly: the inclusion of philosophers among the faculty here was something of a historical accident.

Still, it makes me wonder: to what extent could or should a possible de-disciplining of philosophy be part of a broader de-disciplining or de-silo-ing of academia, or at least the creation and protection of more situations in which creative, cross-disciplinary, practical work can be done, with some equitable and predictable way of managing the risks and rewards of such work?Report

Richard Zach
6 years ago

I find it interesting that the the Quine quote originally appears in the context of making technical philosophy accessible to the “layman.” Quine’s essay can be read here: http://www.mediafire.com/view/hwi1o6dy70jd9wo/Quine_-_Has_Philosophy_Lost_Contact_with_People.pdfReport

Greg
Greg
6 years ago

I agree 100% with Justin’s claim that “more and more, there are philosophers engaged in projects” that are “context-driven, problem-focused, and interdisciplinary.” This has been true of (large portions of) the philosophies of the special sciences for decades now. Also, I was just on a hiring committee where one of the advertised AOSes was Mind, and the percentage of new PhD’s whose research is empirically-informed and/or cross-disciplinary struck me as much higher than even just 15 years ago.

That said, there’s still a lot of philosophy that wouldn’t meet the three conditions for ‘field philosophy,’ and several of Frodeman and Briggle’s other claims about how philosophy is done nowadays seem at least plausible. Specifically: work is often presented in a way that makes it difficult for non-experts to grasp/appreciate; “the effects that [one’s] work has on the larger world” beyond professional philosophy are not particularly valued — at least at the level of tenure and promotion decisions, where fellow experts’ opinions of your work is considered much more important. (Whether those two things are, all things considered, good or bad is a complicated question.)Report

Teresa Blankmeyer Burke
Teresa Blankmeyer Burke
6 years ago

Given the paucity of signing deaf philosophers with academic credentials in philosophy, I’ve been thinking about this for some time, though I didn’t have a name for it. Even though I do speak English and speechread, communicating with non-signing hearing philosophers is a lot of work. For years I didn’t realize that I was even *supposed* to talk to other philosophers — I learned this at the inaugural Mentoring Project for Pre-tenure Women in Philosophy. Deaf people miss out on a lot of professionalizing information because we don’t overhear or have communication access to those conversations in grad school, which is institutionally set up to provide access to formal training, but not the other. (I’ll be talking about this at Central APA, in case anyone’s interested in learning more…)

One way that I’ve always offset that potential fatigue of speechreading and of fighting with institutions to obtain access to professional philosophy practices is to engage philosophically in American Sign Language with the signing Deaf community in cross-disciplinary academic conversations. (Small numbers of deaf academics mean that many of us are solitaires in our fields.) I’ve also done a large amount of philosophical work through political and social projects in the Deaf community, mostly bioethics and interpreting ethics. I think it is important to consider how exclusion from some of these above-referenced widely accepted professional philosophical practices happens, and I think that looking to disabled philosophers might yield some interesting responses to this project. Just to be clear, I am not saying that disabled philosophers do not engage in mainstream professional philosophy practices, or that disability entails alternative approaches to doing philosophy — I’m just suggesting that this might be another worthwhile place to look for field philosophy.

For more than a decade I have been thinking about something I’ve been calling “DEAF PHILOSOPHY” (all caps because it is glossed from ASL) — what philosophy looks like in the signing Deaf community, and what it looks like when done in a signed language. I’m not sure whether this fits the notion of ‘field philosophy’, or whether what I’m doing even *counts* as philosophy according to professional philosophers, but it’s an endeavor that’s served a community I care about deeply, and that’s a pretty good start.Report

Derek Bowman
6 years ago

I find the linked article puzzling. On the one hand the questions Frodeman and Briggle propose to address are promising. For example, they say:

“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.”

And yet their own sketch of how to address this presupposes that “philosophers” are first and foremost “professional philosophers” employed by academic institutions, and their proposed solutions reflect this:

“In practice, this will require many changes, from revised promotion and tenure criteria to alternative metrics for excellence and impact. As these changes are implemented, it will be important to consider at what point the chasm has been reduced to a suitable-sized gap.”

Of course Socrates wouldn’t be tenurable – he wouldn’t even be employable, and it’s not clear he’d want to be hired or tenured. Why assume academic institutions are the only – or even the best – homes for a philosophical community?

—-

Finally, they accept too uncritically the self-conception of (academic) philosophers as inheritors of a Socratic legacy, somehow standing at arm’s length from society.

“After all, we don’t want to eliminate the space between philosophy and society altogether.”

Yet many of the problems faced by academic philosophy arise precisely because – our self-conception to the contrary – there isn’t that much space between institutionalized academic philosophy and many aspects of our society. We don’t stand apart from society when it comes time to negotiate salaries and pay our bills, or when we choose which courses to teach (and when, and to whom) based on the curricular and scheduling needs of our university, who to hire under what terms, etc.Report

Ryan
Ryan
6 years ago

Hi Derek, your comment is interesting and raises some good questions. Here’s some of what came to my mind.

On a picky note, I think your first remark about how the authors propose philosophy be changed is a bit unfair. That’s because nowhere in the article (I could have missed it) do the authors say that academic reform is the only way to rehabilitate philosophy. It strikes me that this kind of reform was one example they chose to use, and they used it because this article was primarily geared towards people working higher education (its publication venue, etc.) Maybe for this reason they thought that reform in higher ed would be the most relevant example of the overall reform they’re looking for. Nowhere does this imply this sort of reform is enough; perhaps just necessary.

Taking some of your first and second remarks together, I’m drawn to the following point: I think this discussion runs up against the following dilemma.

On one hand, if philosophy is too responsive to current cultural and social issues, then philosophy doesn’t have the separation it needs to carefully examine these issues. The natural solution here, it might be thought (and I think was thought, though I don’t know the historical facts), would be to house philosophers deep into byzantine, elite institutions with rigorous membership controls and possibly unsustainable job security so that society’s intellectuals could peer into Plato’s sun like other work-a-days can’t. It’s not easy swinging hammers while trying to apprehend the Forms.

On the other hand, if philosophy is too protected by these institutions then it threatens to dislocate itself from the very oxygen it needs to survive: the culture that it’s inevitably embedded within. The solution here, I take the authors to be arguing, is to reintroduce philosophy to the world.

I think that the problem is that philosophy doesn’t fit comfortably into either horn of this dilemma. If the first horn is chosen, then it’s expected that philosophy will to some degree assimilate itself to the other knowledge-producing disciplines in the University. But this is in tension with philosophy’s mandate to question and countenance skepticism. If the second horn is chosen, then the intellectual craft of philosophy seems to be threatened by being reduced to self-help literature for caffeinated yoga moms. Who’s an expert if philosophy is for everyone?

Perhaps it must be accepted that philosophy will always be marginal and radical, and in 2000 years people in space suits will sit around a virtual fire telling stories and laughing about the time there were ‘salaried philosophers.’

It’s not insignificant that Socrates was a hook-nosed, ugly nuisance who was killed by the State–and that he’s seen as a paragon philosopher.Report

The Everyman
The Everyman
6 years ago

Socrates had a snub nose.Report

Shea
Shea
6 years ago

Another excerpt:

“One influential book in STS – Gibbons et al.’s 1994 The New Production of Knowledge – chronicles the shift in late 20th century science from “Mode 1” to “Mode 2” knowledge production. Mode 1 is academic, investigator-initiated, and discipline-based. By contrast, Mode 2 knowledge production is context-driven, problem-focused, and interdisciplinary. This framework is a good rough sketch of our basic point: we are tracing and promoting the 21st century development of Mode 2 philosophy.

But make no mistake. We are pluralists on this point. We believe Mode 1 or disciplinary scholarship should continue to have a central place in philosophy. But Mode 1 thinking needs to be counter-balanced by an equal focus within the philosophical community on conducting work that is socially engaged. In part this is simply recognizing a new reality: increasingly society is demanding that academics demonstrate their broader relevance. This demand has so far largely skipped over philosophy and the humanities, but this is unlikely to remain the case for much longer. Philosophy needs to demonstrate its bona fides by showing how it can make timely and effective contributions to contemporary debates. We believe that this is best done in a way that also shows that Mode 2 philosophizing is enriched by the insights of Mode 1 or traditional philosophy.”

I think the initial focus on “de-institutionalizing” philosophy in Justin’s excerpts and the rest of this thread is slightly misleading. As the authors themselves acknowledge, the problem isn’t the peer review process or the fact that philosophers now attempt to employ rigorous methodological standards regarding their research. On their own, those things are massive improvements to philosophy. The history of Western philosophy has already shown us what happens without these institutionalized standards. A few big-name figures produce large philosophical systems that become popular but tend to be full of holes upon closer inspection. And this is the best case scenario. More often, un-institutionalized philosophy tends to be bogged down in obscurantism and cults of intellect.

Aside from improvements such as a demand for greater clarity, the academic institutionalization of philosophy has allowed us to break problems down in manageable chunks that many people can work on collectively. Of course there are downsides to this: people are less likely to see the big picture and are more likely to remain unreflective about certain common presuppositions. But these problems can be answered within institutionalized academic philosophy by devoting separate subdisciplines to specific foundational issues. (Which is precisely what is happening.)

The problem isn’t with academic research itself; it’s with our inability to extrapolate upon this research and bring it into contact with the broader non-academic community. The solution should come in the form of an addition to what we are already doing, not an abandonment of methodological rigor.Report

Derek Bowman
6 years ago

Shea: I agree that, insofar as the section you quote represents Frodeman and Briggle’s main point, they way they introduce their discussion as a critique (or even a critical examination) of the institutionalization of philosophy is highly misleading.

But I guess I think the questions they say they are going to ask are much more interesting – and more urgent – than the one they ultimately try to answer. Why think philosophers are well equipped to “work alongside non-philosophers on a day-to-day basis, integrating insights with other perspectives on live, ongoing problems” (as Frodeman says in the comments at IHE) when it seems we’ve proven ourselves unable (or unwilling?) to do so effectively at the level of university governance?

To be sure, there has been recent movement (and one hopes progress) on trying to address institutional barriers to gender equality (and, to a lesser extent, other important dimension of equality) in the philosophy profession. But when it comes to the question of how to avoid exploiting our colleagues, our students, and ourselves (as adjuncts, as overworked graduate TAs, and even sometimes as overworked and underpaid tenure-track faculty) , the response I’ve seen is a combination of silence, apologetics for the status quo, and impotent hand-wringing. (To be clear, the other academic professions have done no better on this score). If this is how we run our own house, why should anyone else care to avail themselves of our practical wisdom?Report

Shea
Shea
6 years ago

Derek, I agree that it is rather absurd to have half of academic philosophy devoted to ethics and yet have silence in regard to the ethical issues that directly face the discipline. However, I’m not sure how much can be done by philosophers qua philosophers regarding adjuncts and the hiring practices of contemporary universities. We can certainly speak out and provide arguments against it, but these things are likely to fall on deaf ears. Plus the issue is a pretty straightforward example of exploitation, so I’m not sure how much there is to be said of philosophical interest in the first place. Exploitative practices are bad? Of course academic philosophers could strike or engage in other forms of activism, which I suspect will be far more successful than arguments. But this wouldn’t really be an example of socially engaged philosophY so much as socially engaged philosophERS.Report

Derek Bowman
6 years ago

Shea, I’m not sure I understand your response. I thought we were discussing Frodeman and Briggle’s proposal for a kind of “field philosophy” in which professional philosophers “work alongside non-philosophers on a day-to-day basis, integrating insights with other perspectives on live, ongoing problems.”

If, as you suggest, philosophers qua philosophers are powerless to address the ongoing problems of our own profession, I don’t see why anyone should think that professional philosophers have some untapped ability to help members of other professions with their day-to-day decision making.

But, contrary to your suggestions, it’s clear that there’s plenty that already IS done by philosophers qua professional philosophers to enable and enact these exploitative labor practices. We’re the ones who carry out the orders to staff our classes this way, we’re the ones who sign adjunct contracts to teach philosophy classes, we’re usually the ones who recruit and hire fellow members of our profession for exploitative positions, we’re the ones who continue to train new grad students, etc., etc. Each of us who engages in these practices has the ability to stop and thereby end our own participation in it. And, collectively, we have the ability to stop it entirely. Whether we ought to do so – how to balance the various costs and benefits and assign responsibility and complicity for those choices are difficult practical questions that can be meaningfully informed by various forms of philosophical inquiry.Report

Shea
Shea
6 years ago

Derek, I think there must be some sort of confusion here. My point was that there isn’t really a call for a “philosophy of hiring practices” because the issues involved are pretty clear. Your point about philosophers making bureaucratic decisions doesn’t really have any bearing on this. Not everything a philosopher does is philosophy. The decision to sign adjunct contracts, for example, is not a development of a philosophical idea. Indeed, the problem is not really philosophical in nature: I suspect it is simply due to a casual callousness or self-interest on the part of the philosophers making the decision to hire more adjuncts. They know it’s exploitative and they do it anyway.

The notion of a “field philosophy” that the authors are putting forth certainly isn’t the idea that philosophers need to go around making bureaucratic decisions for other people. In fact, there is a TON of “field philosophy” in the philosophy of science, cognitive science, and semantics. We can and do help other fields solve specific problems. The fact that philosophers are, as individuals, lazy and subject to tragedies of the commons is to be expected. There can be no real philosophical debate about whether we should continue to utilize exploitative hiring practices. Of course we shouldn’t. Case closed. But organizing a plan to correct the problems that face our field is not a quintessentially philosophical issue. Rather, it is a question of practical strategy and logistics. Philosophers aren’t necessarily equipped to answer those questions. We would likely be better off consulting labor unions or other organizations that have more experience at that sort of thing.Report

Derek Bowman
6 years ago

Shea,

Thanks for your response – and your patience. Your distinction between helping non-philosophers make “bureaucratic decisions” and helping them solve, let’s call them “conceptual problems” is helpful.

But it’s not clear to me that Frodeman and Briggle don’t mean their notion of “field philosophy” to include the former. For example they talk about the need to “work in real time with a variety of audiences and stakeholders” and “to invent a philosophy where responsiveness to community needs … is an integral part of one’s employment.” And in the comments Frodeman calls for “integrating philosophical ideas as best one can under pressures of time, cost, and politics.” It’s precisely the latter that I think we’ve so far shown ourselves unable or unwilling to do in the case of our own disciplinary employment practices – applying philosophical insights to our own bureaucratic decisions under the pressures of real world decision making.

But in any case, for the reasons I’ve already given, I don’t think the ethical and political issues around exploitative academic labor practices are cut and dry. Certainly there’s plenty of weak will and self-serving bad faith going on. But once one gets past the obviously false belief that “there’s nothing I can do,” there are a lot of complicated questions about how to balance competing values and of how to understand the relationship of individuals to collective injustices they contribute to.Report