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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Nobody Important
Nobody Important
6 years ago

Thank you for the article. I was just having a conversation about this topic with my roommate last night. He’s rather pessimistic about what I do, to an often insulting degree, characterizing attempts to discuss issues of identity, agency, and responsibility as self-congratulatory nonsense. The only reason I end up in these frustrating conversations is because (a) he’s the only person outside any academic cabal willing to read and give feedback on my dissertation’s progress, and (b) I do respect his opinions, even if they are (explicitly) mired in a strictly scientist, determinist, objectivity-is-the-only-value worldview.

It’s kind of revelatory, putting this conversation together in light of the Briggle/Frodeman/Barr paper. The problem of impact is simply that evidence-based studies, and the STEM fields, have become the gatekeepers of public knowledge. Worse, some of those representatives (Krauss, Hawking, Tyson) have all but barred philosophy from passing those gates. As my roommate finally concluded for himself, philosophy can only be an art, incapable of advancing knowledge. I don’t agree with him— but when evidence is crowned the sole arbiter of truth, what recourse do we have?

Anyway, I’ll still keep plugging away on my own “esoteric” studies and writing about the self, and responsibility. I can’t dismiss it as valueless when the subject is so intimate. But it’s fairly clear to me that public impact, outside of direct teaching or pop-psychology, will remain unattainable until (or unless) the value of a good argument can outstrip the value of an experiment.Report

James Wilson
6 years ago

The article raises some really interesting questions, but I think we need to be more careful to distinguish the following two claims than the authors are:

1. The work published in applied philosophy journals is not of a type likely to generate impact, and is not reflexive about generating impact.
2. “Applied” philosophers make scarcely any impact at all.

Given that the authors have analysed only articles written in applied philosophy journals, their data could provide strong evidence in favour of (1), but would not do much to support (2). The authors seem to be aware of this point, but nonetheless seem at times to slip into assuming that (2) has been established, and argue on this basis: “At the core of the applied model of scholarship, then, is a faith in what we might call the passive diffusion model of knowledge transfer whereby peer-reviewed articles somehow lead to societal benefits. Of course, it’s just this kind of hand-waving nonchalance that precipitated the accountability culture now taking hold of the academy.”

However, (1) could be true even if (2) is false. Because of this, it would be useful for the study authors to cross-reference their results with the 2014 UK Philosophy REF impact cases studies. Here you have 98 cases of philosophy research that UK universities have put forward as having achieved significant impact. Work done for interdisciplinary or nonacademic audiences, and outside of ‘mainstream’ philosophy journals, seems to have played a large part in cementing these impacts in nearly all cases. So if there is an “impact deficit” problem here, it may lie more with assumptions about what sort of work counts as a high quality contribution to a philosophy journal, than with the impact that philosophers are in fact having. (See http://impact.ref.ac.uk/CaseStudies/Results.aspx?UoA=32 for the Philosophy REF Case Studies. There are also some useful case studies of impact by philosophers that were submitted to other REF panels: see e.g. http://impact.ref.ac.uk/CaseStudies/CaseStudy.aspx?Id=10492 for Simon Caney’s work on climate change policy)

The authors don’t seem to have made available the dataset of articles and their inclusion/exclusion criteria, so it’s hard to validate the claim that only one article “explicitly discussed impact as a problem for the field as a whole”. But having written one such article myself, and being aware of a few others, the numbers look on the low side. (See http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs40592-014-0001-z)Report

Owen Schaefer
Owen Schaefer
6 years ago

This is a very interesting study, but we should be careful what conclusions we draw from it. It is not actually a measure of philosophy’s impact – rather, it is a measure of how much pure applied philosophy journals discuss impact. The study convincingly shows the impact of applied ethics gets almost no attention in those journals, so there is great space for the authors’ Philosophy Impact project.

Yet even if applied philosophy journals discussed impact more, the central problem remains – it’s just philosophers talking to other philosophers. The general problem: there is little translation of a given article on X into practice/policy surrounding X. But this is just as much an issue if X is abortion as it is if X is the impact of applied philosophy.

The authors rightly point out that bioethics is one area of applied ethics that has had a real impact. But this was not because philosopher-bioethicists deigned to discuss impact in their journals. Rather, it was because they engaged directly with members of other relevant disciplines as well as institutional and policy-making entities. And when bioethicists seek advice on how to have an impact, they do not turn to academic articles on the subject – they turn to their colleagues. This all suggests that to have an impact, we don’t need to ‘fix up’ disciplinary journals, but move beyond them.

I think another applied ethics subfield that has more recently taken this to heart is poverty. Singer’s Famine, Affluence and Morality was a hugely important philosophical work in the area, but it and the literature that followed arguably was largely confined to academia. But now, there is a significant cohort of philosophers interested in translating that to actual practice – forming charities like Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours, writing columns for the popular press and engaging directly with economists, aid organizations, philanthropists and others to figure out the best direction to take. This was not presaged by a great shift in the philosophical literature towards discussion of impact (Singer’s recent books have gone in this direction, but I don’t believe that’s indicative of most articles in the area; the authors’ study would have picked that up), so I’m doubtful significantly increased applied ethics publications on impact are really necessary or all that important in the promotion of impact.Report

Teresa Blankmeyer Burke
Teresa Blankmeyer Burke
6 years ago

Another place to look is at philosophers who work in philosophy of disability. It strikes me that a number of philosophers working on philosophy of disability are also quite activist about disability advocacy in philosophical ways. I can think of several instances of such philosophers. I’m not quite sure how to measure impact, though. Do philosophers who sit on national boards, committees, task forces, etc related to disability (and who use their philosophical expertise in these contexts) count as having impact? What about those of us who get emails from various elected officials asking for our feedback? Or who testify before international or local commissions, using our philosophical work as the basis for our testimony? Does impact on the profession count? In the case of some disabled philosophers, a lot of groundwork is necessary to even *get* access as a philosopher, resulting in hundreds of hours expended on one’s own accessibility needs just so that one can get one’s ideas out to philosophers and obtain feedback before putting one’s work in the public domain. Advocating for access for disabled philosophers so that they can also participate in the activities of the profession has the potential for impact on the profession, and also outside of the profession.Report

Alan White
6 years ago

One excellent example of a philosopher not mentioned in the REF studies who combines clear, insightful research with political activism (in the UK) is Thom Brooks.Report

Lynne Tirrell
Lynne Tirrell
6 years ago

I find this methodology pretty mysterious: because so few articles talk about their impact, they aren’t having an impact? That seems pretty off base. There is a lot going on in publicly engaged philosophy, so looking at self-reporting within articles misses the boat. Thinking about best practices for public engagement is something that has been taken up by the APA Committee on Public Philosophy and the independent Public Philosophy Network, which has many alumni of the APA CPP in its leadership. There has been progress, and there is more work to do.

Tracking impact can be done in a variety of ways: Darrel Moellendorf’s important book, “The Moral Challenges of Dangerous Climate Change: Values, Poverty, and Policy ” (Cambridge, 2014) is number 11 of the Library Journal’s bestseller list for Environmental Sciences. This means it is getting read well beyond the halls of the academy. Tracking whether it changes policy is a more complex task.

At the last Eastern APA, there were 4 really worthwhile talks on a panel on the use of philosophical expertise in publicly engaged philosophy, sponsored by the APA Committee on Public Philosophy. Each of the people mentioned below is worth looking up, asking for the draft of their talk, etc. It was a super session, and speaks to the issues in this BlogPost. Allen Thompson (Oregon State) made some great points about the challenges of having impact in environmental philosophy– an area where one would hope to do so, of course. He often publishes in non-philosophy journals and collections, so the research looking only at applied philosophy journals would overlook that important work. Philosophy departments need to support a wide array of writing, reports, and other activities. Allen also cited some examples of philosophers who are having policy impact by working in government agencies now, no longer in academic posts. Asta Sveinsdottir (San Francisco State) compared US and Icelandic relations between philosophy and policymakers, with particular attention to financial markets and the environment. Anthony Skelton (Western Ontario) raised skeptical doubts about the voices of moral philosophers in deciding challenging moral issues in the public realm, and Melissa Jacquart (also at Western Ontario) discussed the gap between scientific understanding and public understanding of science, with particular attention to policy changes in science education.

There’s important work being done, not just in “applied philosophy’ journals, and so a wider net must be cast. Folks interested in this issue should look to sessions at the APA sponsored by the Committee on Public Philosophy. We’re trying to do 2 kinds (in general): content sessions and methods sessions. Examples of “content sessions” would include the “Ferguson and Social Justice” (2015 Central), our session on Moellendorf’s book at the Pacific, and more. Examples of “methods” sessions would include the Expertise session above (which had tons of “content” but also focussed on method issues). At the next Eastern, we’re sponsoring a session on the kinds of public projects the NEH will sponsor– and it’s not just books and papers. That will have recipients of NEH support and some folks from the NEH, to talk about expanded support for a wider array of publicly engaged efforts. LOTS going on, and this is just a hint. (Long comment, sorry, but still just a hint.)Report

Ryan Muldoon
6 years ago

I agree with others that measuring (applied) philosophy’s impact solely from examining articles published in applied ethics journals is a fairly narrow approach. Worse, it might limit how we think about what philosophers can do to increase philosophy’s impact in the wider world. Almost certainly, writing for newspapers or magazines, or working with journalists, will get far wider readership than applied ethics journals. But much more importantly, I think philosophers should think think about how to get more engaged with decision-makers where they have some expertise. Bioethics has been a great example of this. Its impact is much less in the journal writing, and much more in hospital ethics boards, and IRBs and other such institutional efforts.

I do theoretical work on social norms. I very much doubt that my papers on the subject are going to have a wider impact beyond some philosophers and economists who likewise want to do theoretical work on norms. Instead, I and others at Penn (led by Cristina Bicchieri) train UNICEF staff to diagnose the presence of (harmful) social norms, and develop approaches to end harmful practices in a more sustainable way. This allows us to make a real-world impact, promoting agency and equality amongst the worst-off in the world. Because of this experience with UNICEF, and my formal theoretical work, I was hired to be one of the core authors of the 2015 World Development Report with the World Bank. As far as I’m aware, I’m the first philosopher to do this. It was a real learning experience for me, and I think I was able to bring philosophical and ethical considerations to the table that would have otherwise may not have been made salient. I had to learn how to translate philosophical work into a language that economists, policy-makers and on-the-ground development professionals could actually use. I’m continuing to do work with both UNICEF and the World Bank, precisely because I think my philosophy background brings something important to the table, and this work allows me to have fairly direct real-world impact. It’s one thing to write an article about the importance of (say) reducing racial and gender discrimination in education, it’s another to go to Guatemala and work with their education Ministry to develop policy approaches to reducing the drop-out rate amongst indigenous girls.

Obviously, I don’t think that all philosophers need to do work like this. It’s important to work on pure philosophy, and it’s important to work out frameworks for thinking about applications. But I do think that philosophy as a discipline would serve itself well to think more broadly about how philosophy can have an impact. If we want to grow as a discipline, and remain healthy, it’s important for us to think about how we can engage with the wider community. We also might want to think about how we can, as a discipline, make this kind of activity more welcomed and not frowned upon. Philosophy has more or less ceded these public outreach efforts to economics and STEM advocates. We don’t really show the public (or particular institutions) that we have a valuable set of tools to understand the world around us. We can do better on this front.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
6 years ago

Philosophical writing on ethics and war is widely read by people in the military, at least in the US, and is taught at military academies. Jeff McMahan, David Rodin, and others often give talks to military audiences. Whether their work has an impact on the actual conduct of war is another question, but it’s certainly known.Report

yeahwell
6 years ago

As everyone here has noted, the featured study is rather parochial. Strong philosophical inquiry that also makes concerted efforts to connect with real-world issues (so-called) is happening in many venues. For all that, I think I find the basic premise of the make-an-impact-in-the-real-world view somewhat disagreeable or at least unjustified. It seems to stem from the more general scientistic zeitgeist that reckons “objectivity” and practical usefulness/applicability as the only measurements of value; a zeitgeist that is increasingly putting pressure on the humanities to shape up if they want to keep their funding. I’m not terribly convinced that academic philosophers need to fit themselves to this mold, however – though it is doubtless true that some areas of philosophical inquiry hold a more or less natural relationship to “real-world” concerns (e.g. some moral and political philosophy).

That philosophers only speak to other philosophers (a claim that is over stated, by the way) is not intrinsically problematic. In working out complex ideas, it is only helpful to exchange those ideas with fellows who have the necessaries to fully engage with the concepts and arguments deployed in philosophical analysis. I think it’s perfectly fine to exist in that space if one’s work lends itself to that sort of confined, “esoteric” conversation. This is precisely why a division of labor is important. There are others who can (and likely much better than we philosophers) draw upon said conversations and develop beneficial ways of “transmitting them to society”. In my judgment, if philosophers take on the dual task of doing philosophy and finding ways to make their work explicitly “useful” to the real-world, the work will be compromised. I mean…there’s a reason I’ve chosen to study philosophy rather than one of the STEM disciplines. What the hell was the point of that decision if I’m only to find that I must overhaul all my work to make it more like the sciences!

Of course, I wouldn’t want to downplay the concerns the authors of the study raise. There is doubtless room for philosophers to extend the boarders of discourse. Nevertheless, I’m more inclined to think that if philosophers want to have a more prominent public voice, the goal shouldn’t be to make the work (by forcing it?) more relevant to real-world concerns but to more publicly contend against the predominant and narrow view that STEM fields are the only disciplines of any value given their “objectivity” and practical applicability – this instrumentalization of reason. In short, we need better PR!Report

JT
JT
6 years ago

It seems to me that there are a number of issues here. First, there’s the perennial challenge of improving philosophy’s relationship to the public (or non-philosophers more generally). Second, there’s a question about the value of and need for interdisciplinary work–especially in connection with the sciences and social sciences.

What I thought was unique about the Briggle, Frodeman, and Barr’s blog post is that they point to a third, novel issue that dovetails nicely with the former: a need for philosophers to be more engaged in politics and policy making–in the way that economists and other social scientists (perhaps to a lesser degree) often are. For instance, they lament that currently in (even!) the applied philosophy literature, “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.” The lone exception, in their view, is bioethics: “bioethicists are an interesting exception – even if they did not show up in our literature review – for they often work in the field with stakeholders from other disciplines and various walks of society.” I would add that many political philosophers, especially those working in development ethics–and advocates of the capabilities approach in particular–are also notable exceptions. (Another that springs to mind is Wil Kymlicka, whose work on multiculturalism is not only wonderfully interdisciplinary, but also very much policy-orientated.)

I think their diagnosis of the problem as being both one of a lack of demand from non-philosophers (issue one) and one of ‘the gravitational forces of disciplinarity’ (issue two) is right on. Even if they’ve only subtly reframed the question (I think they do more than this), it seems to me that this opens up the debate in new, interesting, and productive ways.Report

JT
JT
6 years ago

I just noticed that the wording at the end of the second paragraph might be read to imply that Kymlicka is not a political philosopher. For the record, he is, to my mind, a political philosopher par excellence.Report

Noelle McAfee
Noelle McAfee
6 years ago

May I take this as an opportunity to plug the upcoming meeting of the Public Philosophy Network with which the authors of the article are involved? The meeting will be at the University of San Francisco (hosted by Ron Sundstrom), June 11-13, with participants including the authors of the article discussed here plus Nancy Tuana, Eric Thomas Weber, Elizabeth Minnich, Paul B. Thomspon, Chris Long, John Corvino, Eduardo Mendieta, Ramona Ilea, John Lachs, Michael Menser, Sharon Meagher and me (as co-directors) and many others from around the country and the world. Go here for more: http://publicphilosophynetwork.ning.com/page/public-phil-conference?xg_source=msg_mes_networkReport

Michael Brent
6 years ago

Perhaps we should aim to have more power, wider recognition, and increased authority in public policy processes, as suggested by one strand in the original blog post, where philosophers would be involved with stakeholders in public policy processes and “could take root and speak with some measure of authority”. But even if we should aim to do so, must we limit our conception of impact in this way?

My hunch is that even if we should attempt to have a more influential role in changing public policy, we must also try to do what other commenters above (e.g., Schaefer, Tirrell, Muldoon) have intimated: namely, have a serious conversation about expanding the current model of what counts as scholarship to include a wider array of activities so that multiple ways of engaging with the community are deemed fully legitimate means of earning tenure and promotion. I don’t think this has much, if anything, to do with the discipline-based nature of the academy. Rather, it relates to current notions of excellence in scholarship. If we don’t widen the notion of academic scholarship, folks who are eager to work beyond the confines of traditional institutional boundaries will have to wait until post-tenure before doing so in a way that is not genuinely risky to their academic careers.

But then the question becomes similar to one that Justin raised at the end of his post: if we decide to enlarge the conception of scholarship, what, exactly, should we include? Precisely which ways of engaging with the wider community should be deemed fully legitimate for tenure and promotion? It looks as though I might have to attend that Public Philosophy Network meeting in San Francisco and find out for myself.Report

Brian Robinson
6 years ago

Thanks for this post. It raises an important issue for the discipline.

One example of applied philosophy moving beyond the journal and into the world is the work being done by Michael O’Rourke (Michigan State) and the Toolbox Project (www.toolbox-project.org). The Toolbox Project has conducted over 150 philosophical workshops on 4 continents to facilitate dialogue. Much of the work O’Rourke and the Project did focused on using philosophy to foster enhanced collaboration among interdisciplinary researchers, though it has expanded out to include Responsible Conduct of Research training and climate change and sustainability in W. Michigan. Much of this work has then been the basis for subsequent journal articles.

So perhaps the the paradigm for applied philosophy needs to change (or expand) to application then publication, instead of the more typical publication (and then maybe application).Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
6 years ago

@Michael Brent:

Why assume that this kind of “applied” activity is best done within the confines of a traditional academic career?

You write: “If we don’t widen the notion of academic scholarship, folks who are eager to work beyond the confines of traditional institutional boundaries will have to wait until post-tenure before doing so in a way that is not genuinely risky to their academic careers. ”

But the reality is that increasing numbers of PhD holders have no choice but to “work beyond the confines of traditional institutional boundaries” if they want to work at all, since tenure-track jobs aren’t available to them. If philosophical training really can be usefully applied to other endeavors, why not aim to have philosophers directly employed by the firms or institutions doing that work? I take it that something like this already happens with bioethicists with jobs on hospital review boards. How does this work in other fields – do chemists get credit toward tenure for work done outside the academy, or do they just get industry jobs?Report

Michael Brent
6 years ago

Hello Derek Bowman,

Thanks for the comment. I made no assumption that such activity is *best* done within the confines of a traditional academic career, and I would be happy to think of ways to widen the notion of scholarship within and beyond traditional institutional boundaries, especially given the reality to which you point.

Cheers, MBReport

AS
AS
6 years ago

For those interested in reading a philosopher who has written very thoughtfully about what applied philosophy means in the context of bioethics, I would highly recommend Judith Andre’s book “Bioethics as Practice.”

I realize that bioethics attracts a fair amount of deserved scorn, but under its rubric there is also much valuable work being translated from theory into practice.Report

PeterJ
6 years ago

Customer feedback – A dearth of good ideas would be an adequate explanation for this lack of impact. This researcher has given up following the academic literature for their scarcity.

Perhaps it would be good to have some examples of new ideas that should have had an impact but didn’t. Without reference to examples of theories and ideas it’s difficult to know what it would mean for philosophy to have an impact. After all, if bad ideas have no impact this is a good thing.Report

Avi Appel
Avi Appel
6 years ago

I agree, discussing impact is not a measure of having impact, nor is it the most effective means of impacting.

But I’m not convinced by your explanation of why philosophy of medical ethics has had more impact than other areas of applied ethics. Here is an alternative (or supplementary?) hypothesis: What accounts for the impact of philosophy of medical ethics upon medical practice is the receptivity of medical practitioners to taking ethics seriously. People who choose to go into medicine already care a great deal about patients – they are the kind of people who want to help others with medicine (i.e. selection bias). So they are the kind of people who are very receptive to applied medical ethics. But people who are in, say business or animal agriculture, are not going into their fields with altruistic motivations. The impact of business ethics and animal welfare ethics is decidedly less impactful. Business ethics does engage with the relevant fields outside philosophy – but its target audience is not as receptive.

I sat in on a bioethics class (filled with premeds) this past semester, as well as a business ethics class (filled with MBA students). Both classes had plenty of people who took the material seriously, but there was a palpable difference in priorities between the two groups of students and a resulting difference in receptivity to philosophy of applied ethics.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
6 years ago

Just out of curiosity, I followed the relevant link in the conference announcement that Noelle McAfee supplied in order to see what kind of accessibility requirements the conference organizers are prepared to provide. The page of the USF website to which I was taken offers information about how disabled students who attend USF can get note-takers, interpreters, etc., as well as how to arrange assessment for these provisions, all services implemented by USF staff. As far as I can see, however, the page offers no information whatsoever about accessibility for delegates at the conference that N.M. has advertised (or any other conference), nor what measures the conference organizers themselves have taken to ensure the inclusion of disabled philosophers.Report

Shea
Shea
6 years ago

To summarize the general consensus of this thread: impact is determined by how one actually interacts with the world outside academic philosophy. There is obviously an important discussion to be had about the best ways to do this (e.g., is it more effective to submit papers to conferences in other fields, or contact policy makers directly?, etc.). But the fact that people do not usually discuss these questions when they are adressing first-order problems in journal articles is hardly surprising. These questions properly belong to meta-applied philosophy (i.e., the applied philosophy of applied philosophy).

On a broader note, my first reaction is that I suspect there is something of an impact issue, even though the authors’ data suggest nothing about this either way. The cynic (in the non-philosophical sense) in me is suspicious of the claim that people listen to philosophers. But whether philosophy has an impact is an empirical claim, and thus cannot be established by a cynical gut-reaction. Upon reflection, I begin to suspect that most of the philosophy that actually tries to be interdisciplinary succeeds to some extent. But applied ethics isn’t what comes to mind. Rather, I think of philosophy of biology, psychology, cog sci, and linguistics. Not so much Phil physics. But I suspect this is due to the sociology of contemporary physics, which seems to be divided between a field of theoreticians who have given into the naive dogmatic speculative metaphysical impulse in their obsession with beautiful mathematics, and the verificationistic experimentalists whose motto is “shut up and calculate”. Neither of these mindsets are very open to philosophical thinking. At any rate, the field is currently in the data collection stage, so there isn’t much point in careful philosophical analyses until all of the data is in. (The theoretical status of string theory becomes a moot point if supersymmetry is experimentally disconfirmed. Or so my physicist friend tells me, at any rate.)

I would also point out that most scientists I know are also driven by a desire to understand the world, regardless of whether their experiments will have some sort of practical implications down the line. The idea that knowledge only has extrinsic practical value is “scientistic” in the sense that it is an idea that belongs to the rabble who worship “Science”. It is not the attitude of actual scientists. When actual scientists are critical of philosophy and the other humanities, they tend to be critical on epistemological grounds. It is not that our knowledge is worthless, but rather that we are just plain bad at acquiring knowledge. Frankly, it is a valid criticism and we should respond to it by refining our methods.Report

Adam Briggle
6 years ago

Thanks for this article – just to be clear, this study is not intended to measure impact but to scan the literature to see to what extent applied philosophers are thinking about impact – do they thematize it as a question worth discussing in the literature? Seems like, basically, no. Now, we grant there are impacts out there- but we think philosophers could do much better at engaging with real world issues if they took up the questions surrounding impact as philosophical issues in their own right, worthy of space in the pages of journals.Report

Thom Brooks
Thom Brooks
6 years ago

I’ve been travelling and so come to this late. I’m surprised more philosophers do not aim for greater impact of their work beyond academia. My work with MPs, Peers and policy advisors are some of the most engaging and fruitful. A few weeks ago I organised a panel on political theory and impact at the Houses of Parliament. I have a brief piece commissioned by Political Studies Review on philosophy and impact – http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1478-9302.12007/abstract Their next issue is a special issue on political theory and impact where I reply to several critics. Impact is challenging, but more rewarding than many might think.Report

J. Britt Holbrook
6 years ago

@ Thom Brooks — thanks. I look forward to reading that special issue!Report