Can We Save Philosophy? (Guest Post by Robert Kirkman) (updated)

Can We Save Philosophy? (Guest Post by Robert Kirkman) (updated)


The following is a guest post* by Robert Kirkman, associate professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech and director of its Center for Ethics and Technology, in which he takes up the problem of academic philosophy’s seeming irrelevance to others both inside and outside of academia.


 Can We Save Philosophy?
by Robert Kirkman

I write this from the margins of the discipline.

I hold a PhD in Philosophy, but I have only once had a full-time position in a philosophy department, as a visiting lecturer in the mid-1990s. After that I had the good fortune of moving on through two full-time but short-term appointments in interdisciplinary programs before landing a tenure-track job in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech.

Since then my ties to philosophy as a profession have become increasingly tenuous. In my teaching and in my research I am more likely to collaborate with engineers and economists than with other philosophers. I generally avoid conferences or publications that are too strictly disciplinary.

In the past few months, though, as I have read of the converging crises in academic philosophy, it seemed to me I should pay more attention to the field in which I was trained and from which I still draw the inspiration for and some of the substance of my work.

Readers of this blog know something of what I mean by “converging crises”: the resurgence of attacks on the liberal arts in higher education; the increasing national obsession with job training, especially in STEM fields; patterns of abuse and misconduct within academic philosophy; the continued predominance of white men in the field; recent upheaval over rankings and standards of merit and prestige; and the it-would-be-absurdly-comic-if-it-weren’t-so-bone-crushingly-sad state of employment for young philosophers.

With all this, it seems to me that if professional philosophy is not having an identity crisis, right about now, it ought to be.

When I was working for that philosophy program, long ago, a senior colleague told me that even if I were to be hired to a tenure-track job in the department I would never attain tenure. I don’t remember the exact words but the intent was unmistakable: What I do is not real philosophy.

In reading comments and stories on this blog and elsewhere from others who are at the margins of field, I keep seeing glimpses of alternative visions of what constitutes real philosophy and how philosophy as a discipline might be reformed, redefined, even revolutionized accordingly.

But, as far as I have been able to see, those visions remain scattered and the visionaries relatively isolated . . . and increasingly prone to frustration and even to despair.

This might be an especially good time to draw out those visions and draw them together, to have a serious and sustained discussion of the meaning and the future of philosophy in academia and in public life, and to consider how to launch a more coordinated effort to save philosophy from its current beleaguered state.

I propose the following questions for discussion:

What models are there for serious work in philosophy within academia that remains rooted in the tradition while being more directly and demonstrably engaged with the work of our colleagues in other disciplines, with the lives of our students, and with the pressing concerns of the wider society?

What models are there for a discipline or a profession that is inclusive of colleagues and students of very different backgrounds and ways of engaging with the substance of the field?

Once we find a vision of what philosophy may be, how do we get there from here?


 

UPDATE (2/22/15):  From a Times Higher Education article:

Despite the many benefits of philosophy, Professor Crane argued that “academic philosophy is in crisis” and no longer really hospitable to “the idea of challenging everything”, not least because the need to be published in a few top journals “encourages incredible conformism around a very narrow range of ideas”.

Professor Newberger took a similar line, reflecting that she had “only managed to maintain my enthusiasm for philosophy by staying away from philosophers”.

The article is mostly about a conference, “What Is the Point of Philosophy?”, that took up, among other things, Stephen Hawking’s claim that “philosophy is dead.”

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JAB
JAB
6 years ago

I am sure philosophy could always do a better job of public outreach… that seems true. But, without feeling particularly defensive, it is hard for me to recognize most of the problems described above. I teach bioethics, environmental ethics and business ethics. Philosophy and philosophers are really useful in those fields. They are recognized as useful. The work philosophers are doing along with scientists in conceptualizing addiction, along with economists, and (on my own campus) along with psychologists also seems to be readily appreciated by the scientists, economists, and the psychologists. If the philosophers engaging with other fields were using different methods or not referencing work that was done by philosophers who are not collaborative, that would be one thing. But it seems like they use the same methods and do reference the approaches developed by other philosophers. I also don’t fail to see students regarding philosophy as “touching their lives.” That’s the regular feedback I get from students about philosophy. They like it, see the benefit of it, and I am pretty confident that if they make decisions about resources in the future, they’ll vote for philosophy to stay. Maybe none of this is enough (are we not teaching enough students?) and I’m missing something.Report

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
6 years ago

Readers might be interested in this talk by Rick Dale, where he uses some quantitative methods to look at how interdisciplinary philosophy is relative to other fields and also how much concept stability there is in philosophy relative to other fields: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYvX87ENvnUReport

Clement Loo
Clement Loo
6 years ago

JAB,
I tend to agree with you in regards to the question about whether philosophy has a place in contemporary academia. It’s quite clear that it has. I wonder what you think of Robert’s second (and what strikes me as the more interesting) point. Right now there are some really deep divisions in the field about what the practice of philosophy should look like.

In regards to this point, I believe I see it quite clearly within my circle of colleagues and friends. There does seem to be a contingent of folks who thinks that philosophy does not need to justify itself and that it should be comfortable and focus on the fundamental and often quite abstract problems. On the other hand, there are folks, which I would include myself, that thinks that philosophy should be engaged and applied that philosophers should spend as much (if not more) of their time responding to and writing for audiences within the sciences, social sciences, and perhaps even to non-academics as much as they do in respect to other philosophers.Report

Matthew
Matthew
6 years ago

Academic philosophers talk amongst themselves, for the most part, because they have long been told by scientists that they are doing hypothetical, and not real, work. And whilst it is clear what constitutes scientific merit in published papers, the necessary steps and rigour, nothing of the sort exists for Philosophers, who call each other charlatans regularly and are seen as publishing guff. Science is reproducible, falsifiable, confirmable etc. Philosophy has long needed to make the case that it actually does something concrete, and that that has standards attached to it. I’m not sure it’s possible in fact, and as a scientific paradigm prevails, I doubt it would be possible to enculture a philosophical one ‘just because’. Science gives us TVs, philosophy is boorishness.

In any case I’d recommend that academic philosophy be held to accound, rather than tell people how good it is, or what it is good for. In fact I’d rather academic philosophy die and be born again in the midst of life, not basing itself on the spurious and actually quite suspect motives of bed-feathering know-it-alls.Report

Shane Epting
6 years ago

Great insights. Here is an example of how the discipline is (slowly) changing. Philosophy of the city has recently emerged as an intra-disciplinary, interdisciplinary research area, producing socially applicable knowledge. Yet, it remains grounded in philosophy. The Philosophy of the City Research Group holds conferences that bring philosophy into the public sphere. At the last conference, for example, Achille Varzi gave a fantastic talk on city identity. Eduardo Mendieta argued about animals’ rights to the city. Lots of great research. Nearly 40% of presenters were women. With urban issues such as participatory budgeting changing the shape of local democracy, it is a very exciting time for the discipline. Although the majority of attendants were philosophers, scholars from other disciplines such as architecture and urban planning attended, along with a few city council members and professional planners. For info about the conference series in 2015, see http://www.philosophyofthecity.org. I understand your concerns about the narrow view of what counts as philosophy. During a recent interview, I suspected that I was not advancing to the final round when one of the search committee members asked, “who do you expect to read your work?” Haha, good times. I think it is rather short sighted of departments to dismiss applied or trans-disciplinary research. With budget cuts hitting departments, having philosophers on board who can bring in externally funded research dollars should carry more weight.Report

Bob Kirkman
Reply to  Shane Epting
6 years ago

Shane (@5), there are certainly places for practically-oriented philosophers to develop their craft. I would also point to the Public Philosophy Network and to the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics.Report

Ben
Ben
6 years ago

Matthew,

(1) Most of science has nothing at all to do with the production of TVs or any other technological (or otherwise practical) product.

(2) On the other hand, there are plenty of philosophers who do very important applied work (especially on methodological issues — implicitly you are alluding to some of that work in your own post).

(3) The philosophical canon (Hume’s Treatise, Kant’s Critiques, etc.) — though it may not be a concrete product like a nice shiny TV — makes me prouder on behalf of humanity than any technological product. But that’s just my subjective judgment.Report

Bob Kirkman
Reply to  Ben
6 years ago

1) It might be worth considering, by analogy, the relation of engineering to the natural sciences. Yes, engineers draw from the sciences for the models they use, but the work they do is something more than or other than mere “application” of theory.

2) Practical philosophers might do well to pattern themselves after engineers, in this sense, drawing from the well of theory but not limited to that activity in practicing their craft.

3) Practical philosophy need not merely pander to the fickle tastes of consumers, as would “a nice shiny TV.” I would say the capacity of modern medicine to alleviate human suffering might be more apt as a model for what practical work can be, again drawing from the well of theory but not limited to doing so.Report

Joe
Joe
6 years ago

“What I do is not real philosophy.”

If I were the sort to start one of those online petitions, I would gather together a group of signatories who promise to refuse to either (a) ask about the “philosophical” status of someone’s work, or (b) answer such questions when they are directed to them personally. If someone is working in a philosophy department at all, boundary-policing is not only pointless, it’s ethically questionable, since we know that underrepresented groups are more likely to pursue intellectual activities that (conveniently) fall outside this absurdly narrow, 20th-century conception of what philosophy must be like.

Perhaps, instead of worrying about the answer to the question “is this philosophy?”, we should just… stop asking it? We have stock answers for deans and administrators: we already basically tell them whatever they want to hear. But with one another, let’s just stop, and let a thousand flowers bloom. Working on Mackie’s account of causation and quantum physics? Great, welcome to philosophy. Offering a new theory of race that draws on Mills, De Beauvoir and Judith Butler? Great, welcome to philosophy. The cross-cultural social science of moral intuitions? Dennett’s intentional stance and robotics research? “Problems For Perdurantism?” Welcome, welcome, welcome.

It will be suggested that we can be too inclusive, and that’s probably true, but since we are currently nowhere near that state of affairs, a moratorium on the question might do some real good.Report

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
6 years ago

Joe, this reminds me of Josh Knobe’s metametaphilosophy of inclusivity (in photo form: https://m.flickr.com/#/photos/carolynsuchy-dicey/5127209191/ )Report

Heather Douglas
Heather Douglas
6 years ago

There are lots of models of this kind of work (serious academic work engaged with those outside the discipline). There is SRPOISE doing engaged work: http://srpoise.org. There is JCSEPHS (http://jointcaucus.philsci.org) also doing engaged work. See the work of those involved with these groups for examples.
And Bob Frodeman has also called for a rethinking of the discipline in his Sustainable Knowledge (http://www.amazon.com/Sustainable-Knowledge-Theory-Interdisciplinarity-Palgrave-ebook/dp/B00G99Z3N0) I review that book here: http://issues.org/31-2/books-2/Report

BuddyB
BuddyB
6 years ago

Thanks for your questions Dr. Kirkman.

In response to your first question, I see philosophy of education as fulfilling this role.

There is serious philosophical work within education that is rooted in many traditional issues. Philosophy of education is arguably the most philosophical of philosophical pursuits, if only because any answer to the question “what is education?” assumes answers to many other fundamental and life-orienting questions (viz. what is the good?; what are the epistemic goals of being a person?; how should society be structured?; does God exist; how ought we to live?).

The concerns of philosophy of education are unquestionably engaged with the lives of students, with the work of other disciplines, and with the pressing concerns of our wider society.

Perhaps more focus on these matters within philosophy departments would help alleviate some of our concerns?

(For one example of philosophy and philosophers doing groundwork in this area check out the Intellectual Virtues Academy webpage: http://www.ivalongbeach.org)Report

Matthew
Matthew
6 years ago

Ben, I will enumerate my reply:
1) However this is the public face of science. Science works and is all around us in the form of technology. Whether or not all science gives us technology is completely beside the point.
2) ‘Very important’ being the words I would call into question, since philosophical work is widely discredited, as I described.
3) It makes me more proud that people can think for themselves and not resort to the authority of canon to win an argument. Incidentally, good for you, subjectively speaking.

Heather Douglas – Those two groups you cite are thinktanks?

Buddy B. I asked the question “What is education” to a group of 14 year old Secondary students in the UK. They replied “It’s shit, sir”. And they are right.Report

Amy Olberding
Amy Olberding
6 years ago

My colleague in philosophy, Zev Trachtenberg, works in a an interdisciplinary group on the antrhopocene that seems a good model of meaningful interdisciplinary cooperation with strong philosophical elements. See the group’s project blog here: http://inhabitingtheanthropocene.comReport

BLS Nelson
6 years ago

“Heather Douglas – Those two groups you cite are thinktanks?”

This claim puzzles me. Both SRPOISE and JCSEPHS are cross-university groups, while common vernacular holds that think-tanks are independent public policy institutes. What do you mean?Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
6 years ago

I am very pluralistic about philosophy, and I am happy to accept many different projects under its aegis.

I do, however, want there to be space, *among other approaches*, for a certain way of doing philosophy which does not easily lend itself to “being more directly and demonstrably engaged with the work of our colleagues in other disciplines, with the lives of our students, and with the pressing concerns of the wider society”. I am thinking of a way of doing philosophy on which it is understood as a pure a priori science, concerned with the most general and abstract features of reality. Does this involve engagement with the work of our colleagues in other disciplines? Well, maybe a few (in my experience, mostly set theorists and theoretical physicists, but I’m open to learning from many other fields — the nature of the enterprise means, however, that they will primarily be furnishing data for philosophers’ more general theories, in which we shouldn’t expect them to take any particular interest).

Does this involve engagement with the lives of our students and with the pressing concerns of the wider society? Frankly, no, for the simple reason that, since reality as a whole is not anthropocentric, there is no reason to expect that the project of gaining knowledge of its most general features will have much to do with any distinctively human concerns.

I am aware that many people reject this conception of philosophy, and I have absolutely no desire to demand that they conform to it, or to denigrate their interests, or to say that what they’re doing isn’t philosophy. But I also don’t think that the version of philosophy I do is something that I need to apologize for: I think that the things we discover while doing philosophy in this way are intrinsically valuable, just as many other sorts of knowledge are intrinisically valuable. So I do feel a bit left out when people write manifestos for philosophy on the assumption that all of philosophy is a humanistic discipline, sharing in the concerns of other humanistic disciplines and straightforwardly amenable to interdisciplinary projects. Much of it is, and that’s great — as I said, I’m a pluralist. But not all of it is, and it’s occasionally useful for those of us in the part that isn’t to point out that some commonly made generalizations about what philosophy “ought to be” if it is to remain “relevant” fit our work rather badly.Report

edward casey
edward casey
6 years ago

Bob: thank you for raising the right questions at this timely moment. Your characterization of contemporary problems in the
field of philosophy is sharply accurate, alas. We philosophers are indeed in a crisis and need to admit it — and then do something
about it. In particular, we must address public issues of major concern to people way outside of academe. Otherwise, we are not
earning our keep. I look forward to seeing you in Atlanta this fall, at the SPEP meeting in October. Best Regards, Ed
(Edward S. Casey, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, SUNY at Stony Brook)Report

J. Edward Hackett
J. Edward Hackett
6 years ago

Maybe, Bob has opened us up to that one awesome Jamesian moment, a moment when we recognize the practical informs the theoretical. The prudential position of philosophy in North America is an outlier; it’s an outlier since North American culture is incapable of viewing what philosophy can do for culture. However, for those of us working on philosophers on the margins already, we’ve all heard it before from the monolithic philosophical culture that our work is not real philosophy. These same philosophers do not see the necessity of working in culture. Culture is at odds with what these philosophers deem worthy of their attention, yet culture can do wonders for philosophy. Now, philosophy is seen as completely moribund no matter whether one is Husserlian, Ancient Indian scholar, or an Analytic. We need a neutral view of experience to carry us forward.

In his Essay on Radical Empiricism, James advances a limit to experience. “Taken as it does appear, our universe is to a large extent chaotic. No one single type of connection runs through all the experiences that compose it.” This limit is an expression of his pluralism, an openness to what can be experienced means we cannot absolutize our philosophical approaches. In the end, I would submit to you that echoing Joe above is the best attitude we can have together. When a completely analytic department is shut down that would never hire you, philosophy itself is hurt, and the same goes with the wildly partisan Continental department that would never see eye to eye with the Leiter-20. Like it or not, philosophers must ban together and openly be humble about their internal rifts in philosophizing to take stock about exactly where the discipline is. It is threatened by a world that does not see the value of the liberal arts in general.

In France, they have never had to argue for the necessity of philosophy, and while I reveal my hand in the love of James, I do not think an embrace of Jamesian pragmatism tout court is plausible. However, I do think that the same modesty inherent in his concept of experience could strengthen us and form the basis of an all-inclusive community that suffers at the hands of the STEM-demanding world. Even arguments against a purely STEM expectation often talk of a STEAM conception; they introduce the “A” as art. Philosophers need to be united on their front and perhaps this moment is the call to invent (or revive?) a new category of philosophizing. If philosophy is having trouble in the university and the university culture is following dangerously what most people are anxious about in terms of the culture at large, then perhaps we are talking of a revival of philosophy of culture, education, and perhaps an integrated area between the two: philosophy of higher education. What is the purpose of philosophy? What is the purpose of philosophy in the university? And perhaps, most of all, what is the purpose of the university and how does the university relate to culture? Does the neoliberal management of the university undermine what the university’s purpose actually is?Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

Few people outside professional philosophy understand what professional philosophers are doing and so the discipline looks useless. Professional philosophers encourage this attitude by rarely attempting to address philosophical work to people outside the profession in language they have a chance of understanding. Professional philosophers also encourage this dismissive attitude to philosophy by not valuing the work of philosophers (like Dr. Hackett) who do address people outside the discipline in ordinary language. The great irony is that books that are well-tailored to appeal to non-professionals sell well. If we want to turn around the public’s perception of the usefulness of philosophy, we need to produce philosophical works for the public to consume, and to treat the production of such works as a worthwhile use of a professional philosopher’s time.Report

Johannes
Johannes
6 years ago

I see no crisis. One often hears the “argument”:
Most people don’t read philosophy. Therefore, philosophy is useless to most people.

The conclusion does not follow, most people might simply be too busy, too lazy, too uninformed etc. to read philosophy. If more people actually read philosophy they would benefit from it. Philosophy is understanding directed to the individual, to get benefit out from it you have to personally engage with it. This of course is not the case with many other sciences that help produce “black boxes” for mass consumption: devices, medicine…
(I leave out the cases where philosophy actually does indirectly benefit people.)

“What models are there for serious work in philosophy within academia that remains rooted in the tradition while being more directly and demonstrably engaged with the work of our colleagues in other disciplines, with the lives of our students, and with the pressing concerns of the wider society?”

Two suggestions:
– Write better books for non academics.
– Structure the education of philosophy students so that some large part of them also have to specialize (to a reasonable extent) in some other science. Many do this anyway, but it could be made more formal. (I don’t know how the US system works.)

Mostly I think that those in other disciplines who can benefit from philosophy in their scientific work often already read philosophy, but often philosophy will not be directly useful to scientists, so in those cases there is no reason to bring philosophy into it.
You can find multiple examples from the recent and not so recent past where this exchange of ideas has been productive: linguistics, physics, logic, artificial intelligence research etc. Often these communities have their interdisciplinary journals.Report

Avi
Avi
6 years ago

I suspect this sense of “crisis” involves a mixture of typically philosophical self-doubt, managerial/administrative pressure in the academy, and a commendable feeling of social responsibility. It seems to me that the last alone should carry any normative weight, but need not do so for all philosophers (at least in their activity as philosophers). For many, philosophical inquiry is driven by a sense of wonder and a desire to know. If this is the case, one shouldn’t expect philosophy to be “relevant” or useful, although it might turn out that some philosophical fields end up improving the human (and other animal’s) condition or making money. The idea that it is somehow unacceptable (morally?) to pursue an inquiry that has no social or financial value strikes me as bizarre. Is it wrong to become a professional musician who specializes in atonal music that very few people find appealing or a painter who creates works with a very limited audience? As far as books by philosophers for a non-philosophical audience, in the Anglo world one finds widely read “non-professional” works by living philosophers such as Singer, Frankfurt, Nussbaum, Dennett, and Goldstein, among others. In Europe, of course, there is a strong tradition of philosophers as public intellectuals. Not every philosopher will be a public intellectual and not every philosopher will work in a socially relevant field, though, and that should be okay.Report

Another Grad Student
Another Grad Student
6 years ago

I worry that a couple things are being run together here. The sexual harassment problem and lack of women and other minorities is a big problem for the field, but I just don’t see how it relates to the role of philosophy in public life. As far as the latter problem goes, the only things that really need to change imho is (1) we need to do a better job of popularizing work, and (2) we need to not have committees not hiring people or denying them tenure because their work isn’t “real philosophy”.

However, what I want to point out is that we should expect neither of these changes to affect the political attacks on philosophy. The Republicans are going to attack us notated what. Their base is completely irrational and there is nothing we can do to change their minds. So if we do make these changes we should just do it for their own sake. (As far as attacks by people like deGrasse Tyson, etc. we just need to call them out to a debate and give them a thorough verbal spanking. Lord knows they can’t argue their way out of a paper bag.)

As far as (1) goes, it should be done as an ADDITION to rigorous academic work, not as a replacement for it. Ideally, the popularized work should attempt to simplify and reproduce arguments that have already been defended in a rigorous peer-reviewed process.

As far as (2) goes, I see it as really being one symptom of the more general problems of bias that face our discipline. The “not real philosophy” judgment is of the same kind as judgment about innate philosophical talent, prestige, etc. The only remedy is to make our hiring and application processes as blind as possible. Eliminate interviews… they simply do not give one any new relevant information that could not be better conveyed through other means. As far as job talks go, they should be part of an overall quantitative process where each candidate is given a score prior to the talk given the other qualities his or her application. Then each member of the committee fills a form that ranks the talk across predetermined dimensions and this is added to the previous score. There should be no vetoes like “He/she defended a bad position”, “This isn’t real philosophy”, or “It was well-prepared, but I don’t think he/she has the raw talent of X”.Report

Onion Man
Onion Man
6 years ago

I work on 6th-11th century Indian Buddhist texts that deal with the nature of perception, idealistic monism, and syllogistic logic, however there is absolutely no place for me in 99% (maybe 100%) of “Philosophy” departments. Academic philosophy is dead because it committed suicide by auto-erotic asphyxiation, not because Stephen Hawking and Neal DeGrasse Tyson can’t appreciate Quine.Report

Chris
Chris
6 years ago

It seems when most above discuss “academic philosophy” they mean research or possibly condescending to publish for the masses. Only one ‘commentor’ focused on TEACHING, which is what I do (at a tribal designated Community College that is 9% white, where I am very lucky to be tenured), and, like his students, my students regularly say it has changed their lives, blown their minds or simply given them a massive headache because they never had to think so much (which I take as a profound compliment.) I have no problem filling classes. However, I am constantly frustrated by the lack of accessible, relevant texts, by ivory tower-to-ivory dialogue riddled with obfuscation, and by regurgitations of the same old compilations of the classics. Foucault admitted he obsfucated on purpose to impress,to be heard ,in his circle. I have no doubt many, for example Irigaray and Cixous, did the same. This is why I wrote my own text for my ethics classes. So, irritating. Unwilling to write another text, I am desperately looking for a relevant, contemporary, inclusive, accessible text for my lower level Women’s Studies course. HELP! ?????Report

Bob Kirkman
6 years ago

Chris, for ethics, have you seen Weston’s 21st Century Ethical Toolbox? It’s an accessible, practical and inclusive book. I simply don’t know whether there is anything comparable for women’s studies.Report

Chris
Chris
6 years ago

Thank you Bob Kirkman!Report