There Is No One Thing Philosophers Should Be Doing

There Is No One Thing Philosophers Should Be Doing


The latest in a series of articles exhorting philosophers to engage with “real world problems” appears at Inside Higher Ed this morning, focusing on philosophy at land grant universities in the United States. The authors, Christopher P. Long and Michael O’Rourke (both of Michigan State), write:

To the extent that philosophy lost its way by turning inward, perhaps it can find its way again in the contemporary public land-grant university by returning to an outward focus that addresses the most complex and intractable challenges of our time… 

Philosophy can draw on its deepest historical roots as a publicly engaged activity while cultivating the synthesis of a wide range of disciplinary perspectives. Our vision of a philosophy at home in the public land-grant university requires the disciplinary pursuit of a progressive research agenda that emphasizes democratic and inclusive public engagement with real-world issues.

There’s a lot packed in here, including a lot to agree with.

Yes, philosophers should address the “challenges of our time.” This is something that has been said many times here (and not just in the Philosophers On series). Yes, philosophers should be able to engage with the public. And yes, philosophers should be interdisciplinary (and in at least one way we are more interdisciplinary than other humanities fields).

These are good suggestions. Contrary to the narrative of their essay, more and more philosophers are producing more and more work that looks like what Long and O’Rourke are after. And philosophers should continue to do so.

But not all philosophers.

I don’t know if Long and O’Rourke mean to be issuing a methodological program for all of philosophy. Sometimes they come off like that, but I don’t want to be uncharitable. However, the thought that they might be doing so, and that others might agree with them, prompts me to say: there is no one thing philosophers should be doing.

“Well there is: they should be philosophizing.”

Ha ha ha, you got me there. Well let’s put it this way: there is no one way to philosophize well. (Mutatis mutandis as necessary.)

So while there is value in publicly-engaged, practical, interdisciplinary philosophy, there are other kinds of philosophy worth doing, worth supporting, worth promoting, even at public institutions. Philosophy that is effectively inaccessible to the broader public, that is abstract and theoretical and serves no practical problem-solving purpose, and that isn’t in any way interdisciplinary can still be great philosophy: interesting, insightful, joyful, beautiful, and quite possibly true.

It’s good to keep this in mind. First off, it’s correct. Secondly, if practicality becomes the measurement of the value of a discipline, philosophy will lose, and then disappear; we are already seeing this. Third, it is respectful to hard-working and intelligent philosophers whose work does not seem practical or “relevant” at all. Fourth, while not oriented at solving “real world” problems, such philosophy nonetheless has real world effects, particularly on our students, some of whom are disturbed into thoughtfulness by philosophy’s deep problems.

More generally, pluralism about the aims and methods of philosophy (and not just along the practical-theoretical axis) is all we’re epistemically entitled to. As I’ve said elsewhere:

We need to be more welcoming of a variety of approaches to philosophy. This is not to abandon qualitative judgments, but it is to have a certain kind of modesty in our judgments about what counts as a worthwhile philosophical question or a worthwhile philosophical method. I mean, it seems silly to think that finally, after a couple of thousand years, we, the dominant Anglo-American analytic philosophers, have, in the last century, finally hit upon the correct set of questions and the correct method of philosophy. I happily admit that those are my questions and my method, but nonetheless I think I have to be open to the idea that it may be limited in important respects.

That was originally said in a discussion of cultural diversity, but it applies here, too. We should all be in favor of good, practical, publicly-engaged, interdisciplinary philosophy. And other kinds of good philosophy, too.

"Colorspace Atlas" by Tauba Auerbach

“Colorspace Atlas” by Tauba Auerbach

guest
17 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ben
Ben
5 years ago

Amen!Report

Brian Weatherson
Brian Weatherson
5 years ago

It’s strange to me to run together inter-disciplinary work with publicly engaged work. Publicly engaged work engages with the general public. Inter-disciplinary work engages with other academics.

If one is engaging with relatively specialized, technical interests of those academics, you’ll be doing the latter but not the former. And that’s a fairly typical situation for philosophers working on theoretical physics, or semantics, or game theory.

On the other hand, there are issues of public relevance where the bulk of the best work is by philosophers. Just looking at stuff I know, I think work about disagreement and about blame and responsibility are like that.

This isn’t to disagree with anything Justin said. It’s just to kvetch about the assumptions behind having a box labelled in house work, and another box labelled inter-disciplinary, publicly engaged work. The categories here are cross cutting in a bunch of important cases.Report

Michael O'Rourke
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
5 years ago

Hi Brian. Your comment may not have been intended to reach back to our IHE piece — I’m not sure. We were careful not to conflate interdisciplinary work and publicly engaged work, for the reasons you list. We speak in the piece of “cross-disciplinary” work, meant to cover both interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary activity, where the latter (at least on one common meaning) involves engagement with non-academic communities and stakeholders. I agree that disciplinary philosophy can have public relevance, although to the extent that such work involves active engagement with the non-academic public (as opposed to downstream uptake by non-academics), it would count as transdisciplinary on this way of thinking about it.Report

Shane Epting
5 years ago

The Philosophy of the City Research Group has been engaging with city council members, urban planners and community groups at their conferences for the last three years. For example, NYC Council member Jumaane Williams was at the first conference in Brooklyn, discussing participatory budgeting with philosophers. If you’re interested in these sorts of issues and approaches, the next conference is at the University of San Francisco, November 17-19. To submit an abstract or for more information, see http://www.philosophyofthecity.org.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
5 years ago

So for philosophy to “regain its way”, it must embrace a pre-determined political agenda? If that’s philosophy finding its way, I’d rather it stay lost.Report

CLAIRE KATZ
5 years ago

I find it interesting that what is not suggested is engaging the public in/with philosophy itself. Wouldn’t public engagement with philosophy also include philosophizing? For example, the philosophy in prisons and philosophy in schools movements are not applied, they don’t attempt to solve the world’s problems or any current problem in particular. Rather the aim is to bring philosophy to a wider group of people.Report

Colin Heydt
Colin Heydt
5 years ago

I’m always a bit surprised that whenever the topics of “public philosophy” and of being a “public intellectual” come up, there is nary a mention of the most obvious way that philosophers can engage the public productively: teach good/better classes.Report

CLAIRE KATZ
Reply to  Colin Heydt
5 years ago

Yes–I agree with that. But in a land grant university we have a unique responsibility to engage the public outside of the classroom, hence the Ag extension services. I don’t think it means that every department needs to fulfill this particular responsibility, but it seems a good thing if we can.Report

Jeff
Jeff
5 years ago

At one point not so long ago, almost every teacher getting certified to teach in the US took at least one philosophy of education course. While the value of philosophy of education as philosophy, especially when taught by professors educated in schools of education is an open one (for the record, this is my background, and I understand the criticism that work in the field lacks rigor), the point I want to raise here is that a majority of states are moving away from seeing philosophy of education as something valuable, if not useful, for future teachers to a place where these courses are seen as almost completely irrelevant to the work of teaching. Maybe these courses could be more rigorous, and maybe they could be more practical in the sense of preparing teachers to face the very real dilemmas they will face on a daily basis in the classroom, but I worry that a field that was once valued as practical and philosophical (I remain in awe when I imagine Dewey reading something like his *Experience and Education* to a group of practicing teachers, or that *Democracy and Education* was written as something like a textbook for teachers) is now seen as almost useless. I mention all of this in case it means anything as philosophers think about the question’s helpfully raised by Justin above. Philosophy once was seen as very relevant to teachers and and future teachers, and–at least in my reading and experience–this (certainly at a policy level) doesn’t seem to be the case.Report

Alan White
Alan White
5 years ago

A quibble with the title of the OP, since it is a categorically prescriptive denial. All philosophers *should* be engaged in genuine inquiry, and thus education of both themselves as well as others. If someone aspires to be called a philosopher, then that someone *should* have the attitude of seeking truth, wisdom, insight, etc that drives what they do. While this is not a “thing” in the sense of particular subject-matter or approach to philosophy, it is a thing in the sense of a certain character of commitment to philosophy. I do fear that there are some in the profession who just phone it in–especially in the classroom. We have great responsibility as philosophers (if not great Spidey-like power)–but the root of that responsibility is in our drive to philosophize to the best of our ability. Short of that, we are just pretenders.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Alan White
5 years ago

Seeking truth, wisdom and insight isn’t the exclusive preserve of philosophers: pretty much any academic should be doing that.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

David (if I may)–Bazinga. But in defense of my point, I just wanted to address Justin’s excellent post about philosophers and philosophy specifically. Most all disciplines I can think of constitute an inquiry of x, and certainly they should be diligent about inquiring into x, but since philosophy’s task (as I see it) takes the form of an inquiry of the inquiry of x, seems to me that places an intellectual responsibility on philosophers unlike any other group of academics. The best philosophers–certainly you’re among them I’d reckon–must not only know x as well as the inquirers of x, but have a special commitment to pursuing truth, wisdom and insight that transcends that of the usual inquirers of x. I try to hold myself up to such high standards–however short I may fall of achieving them–and prescriptively I think all philosophers should strive to do that as well.Report

Michael O'Rourke
5 years ago

Thank you for your comments, Justin. I couldn’t agree with you more. Chris and I are pluralists about philosophy — pluralism about “what counts as a worthwhile philosophical question or a worthwhile philosophical method” is a key strength of philosophy as it is practiced at Michigan State. While we emphasize what can be special about philosophical work in a land grant context, it is also important to recognize the value of more traditional, theoretical philosophy. (Chris’s scholarship is, for example, very traditional and broadly theoretical.) In our view, working to develop a philosophical ecosystem that is home to a diversity of philosophical pursuits is crucial to securing a robust and influential future for our discipline. I would like to think that those of us who do more practically oriented philosophy have something to contribute to the reflections of our more theoretical colleagues, and vice versa. This is in effect what we intended by the following line in the essay: “To speak of the disciplinary pursuit of a progressive, inclusive and democratic research agenda is to affirm both the theoretical (and often esoteric) accomplishments of philosophy as an academic discipline and the imperative to be responsive to the world we share.” I agree, though, that this part of our view does not stand out as clearly as it could.Report

Melody
Melody
5 years ago

Philosophy should be about the active pursuit of knowledge and truth-seeking. If that means something other than fighting for tenure and journal publications–more power to those philosophers. I don’t want to look back when I’m 90 and realize I forgot what attracted me to philosophy to begin with!Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

The OP seems to be defending a point that nobody I know of disagrees with. Does anyone really object to philosophers doing work that isn’t directly “engaging with real world problems”?
It would be a strange thing to object to, since we don’t know what work will end up having practical applications.Report

Ed Chen
Ed Chen
5 years ago

Surely, there is a question of ethiics involved in choice of areas of research and teaching that professional philosopher’s pursue and engage in. I suggest that the idea that where public money is involved, there should be public benefit. Should not there be some sort of responsibility for the purpose and use of money, if one receive’s income from a public institution (whether univeristy, college, or grant giving body)?

I suggest that professional philosopher’s must at least try to find a justification as to why their work is not directed towards public benefit. That their work is useful in some way to society. If they don’t agree with this, they must find a robust justification as to why, and make that justification public.

Philosophy as conceived of “the love of wisdom” needs to ask what type of love that is. A love worth pursuing, is that which has useful benefits for society, not just for the individual, and has better moral worth than one that is directed soley at satisfying intellectual pleasure – Isn’t their view of the good life, Epicurean? and selfish and approves of inaction on preventable harm?

Professional academic philosopher’s can make a valuable contribution to society – but that will never happen if they do not even try. the “pursuit of wisdom” cannot be separated from the pursuit of the good,. I argue that conceptions of good, cannot be separated from conceptions of wisdom – there is an essential relationship between the 2 ideas, and you cannot say you are “philosophisizing” if you do not reflect on this relationshipReport