Philosopher Wins $1.8 Million Grant to Study Minority Entrepreneurship


Chris Surprenant, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Orleans (UNO) and director of the university’s Honors Program, has won an $1.8 million grant to “examine entrepreneurship patterns in urban communities and support would-be entrepreneurs, with specific focus on black communities, throughout the southeastern United States.”

Professor Surprenant works in moral and political philosophy, including subjects such as criminal justice, the ethics of punishment, incentives, and the connection between institutions and well-being.

A press release from UNO provides some background and details about the work that will be funded by the grant:

Surprenant said that social scientists who study entrepreneurial outcomes between various racial and ethnic groups often conclude not only that smaller percentages of black Americans engage in entrepreneurial activities, but also that they are less successful as entrepreneurs when compared to their non-black counterparts.

However, Surprenant argues that these statistics may not be reliable or at least may not tell the whole story. A significant amount of entrepreneurial activity in these communities may not be accounted for in existing data sets—activity such as selling homemade food, fixing cars, reselling goods, or watching other people’s children. Little research has been done to try to understand how much activity is taking place, in what areas, and where future opportunities may lie as a result.

“Entrepreneurship matters because it’s one of the best ways for people to escape poverty,” Surprenant said. “The challenge is trying to understand and document what is going on, both the obstacles and successes, in a way that would make possible outside investment, either from public or private sources.”

Surprenant’s project involves collaboration among an interdisciplinary group of academics and policy experts, including scholars at historically black colleges.

The grant is from the John Templeton Foundation.

Norman Wilfred Lewis, “La Puerto Del Sol”

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Grad Student4
Grad Student4
2 years ago

By all indications (research, education, etc.), Professor Suprenant is not a social scientist. I wonder what role he will play in the project.Report

Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
2 years ago

Not being trained as a social scientist has not stopped other philosophers from trying to do this kind of empirical work–as in what is called “experimental philosophy”. It is much more difficult than many people realize (I used to be an empirical psychologist so I know whereof I speak).Report

Justin
Reply to  Colin McGinn
2 years ago

Colin, the experimental philosophers I know bring in trained social psychologists when it comes time to plan and execute the studies. Report

Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
Reply to  Justin
2 years ago

Yes, but the problem arises when it comes to interpretation of the data. Here you need to understand the methodological pitfalls in order to avoid hasty inferences. When I was Wilde Reader at Oxford and in the psychology department the weekly colloquia were almost entirely devoted to evaluating the design of the experiment and the inferences being drawn from it. Philosophers interested in this kind of work need to get up to speed on such issues, and actual experience doing it is vital. Report

Chris Surprenant
2 years ago

Press releases and news articles are heavy on bits that grab attention but light on substance. I should have given Justin a bit more information when he asked for it. It’s a fair concern to wonder why someone with my background and interests is running this project. Some additional information may help.

About 1/2 of the money is going to hire social scientists to work on the project, and then a significant chunk is going to support my social scientist friends at the HBCUs and programming in the communities they’re familiar with, and then the last big chunk is going to the nuts and bolts of what we’ll be doing to gather the information in these areas (surveying and community clinics, primarily).

This project stemmed out of my work on criminal justice and criminal justice reform. All of the relevant players–the social scientists at the HBCUs, the policy professionals, and the attorneys who will be assisting us at the clinics in our target cities–were all people I was working with. For different reasons, they all thought that what was needed in the communities that were hardest hit was more opportunity, especially economic opportunity. My initial interest wasn’t so much in the studying of what was going on, but actually doing something that could have a positive impact in reducing crime and changing the image of what was going on in these communities. There’s quite a lot of entrepreneurial activity going on in these communities now, but it’s all off-the-books, and very little of it is “oh, they’re all selling drugs,” which is what most folks unfamiliar with what is going on in these communities seem to think. That’s how interest this project started off as (and, hopefully from my perspective, will continue beyond this grant).

So as we started to think about how we could run community clinics or provide people with worthwhile services, I had assumed that the data on economic opportunity and entrepreneurship was out there. But as I talked with my colleagues working in these areas (and by these areas I mean people who are both social scientists and who focus on and often live in these communities), they kept saying how no good data had been collected. They convinced me that that data was what was needed before someone else threw more money at entrepreneurship in these communities and then failed (like everyone else seems to have done). So this seemed to us to be an opportunity to get this somewhat narrow, but to us very important, data on what kind of economic activity is going on in these communities right now (again, mostly focusing on off-the-books stuff) and where opportunities for investment or assistance (do people need access to knowledge, capital, both, or something else?) may lie.

So, what’s my role? I’m the one who knows everyone, understands the problems, and understands what data we need to get to have it be useful to policy professionals and lawmakers, and so I’m coordinating it. Don’t worry, the social scientists are driving the nuts and bolts research side of the project. Obviously there are a lot of people with relevant backgrounds in this area. Anyone who is interested in working with us or who otherwise believes they can assist in some way (especially if you live in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Jackson, Atlanta, or Houston) should feel free to reach out to me directly. Report

Desiderio Lopez Guante
Desiderio Lopez Guante
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
2 years ago

Thanks Chris for clarifying your role in it and giving more details about the project, and congratulations for having won the grant. But it is not clear to me how this is related (in case it is supposed to be) to Philosophy? So, how does this relate to Philosophy, in case it is supposed to relate to it in any way?Report

Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Desiderio Lopez Guante
2 years ago

It’s not, at least under my understanding of academic philosophy. But most of what I do now likely wouldn’t count as traditional, academic philosophy either. Report

Earnest Honesty
Earnest Honesty
Reply to  Desiderio Lopez Guante
2 years ago
Jon Light
Jon Light
Reply to  Desiderio Lopez Guante
2 years ago

Respectfully, this question (“why is this philosophy?”) is a huge part of the problem: philosophy doesn’t need to be about the sorts of things it was about 50 years ago. I’d much favor an overly broad definition of philosophy–like philosophy is whatever philosophers do–than one that would say this isn’t it. We lose so much of our voice, marketability, and everything else by overly constraining what “counts” as philosophy. Let’s just stop asking that question altogether.

Congratulations, Chris, on an excellent project!Report

desiderio Lopez Guante
desiderio Lopez Guante
Reply to  Jon Light
2 years ago

“What is Philosophy?” is one of the philosophical questions par excellence — the fact that Philosophy asks this question about itself is one of the things that distinguishes it from the other sciences/humanities.

Of course, philosophy is what philosophers do… when they are doing philosophy. So your definition of Philosophy as “whatever philosophers do” is circular.

It is important to have our voice as philosophers heard, but that doesn’t justify calling whatever a philosopher does “Philosophy”. Report

moderate
moderate
Reply to  Jon Light
2 years ago

Suppose you met someone who you knew was a philosopher and also a musician. Would it be a ‘problem’ to ask whether, and if so how, her music was related to philosophy? And if the music had nothing to do with philosophy, would that be a flaw?

Of course there are specific cases in which it is disrespectful to ask whether something is philosophy or not, but the idea that this question is problematic *in general* strikes me as completely absurd.Report

Desiderio Lopez Guante
Desiderio Lopez Guante
Reply to  moderate
2 years ago

I did not suggest it was a flaw the fact that this was not Philosophy — nor does Chris seem to have taken it that way… And, to be honest, I do not see why there are any specific cases in which it is disrespectful to ask whether something is Philosophy. At most the answer is so obvious that it is stupid to ask the question — but that constitutes no disrespect to the addressee of the question…. Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Desiderio Lopez Guante
2 years ago

Desiderio, I don’t think the answer to what is or is not philosophy is obvious at all. I think it is a semantic choice we make—and I think restricting “philosophy” to a narrow range of mostly a priori endeavors has only harmed the discipline.

Throughout most of history, there was no sharp division between philosophy and science. Scientists, in fact, were often referred to as “natural philosophers.” The carving out of philosophy as a narrow domain only really strongly emerged in 20th century analytic philosophy. Further, if you look at history, on those occasions where philosophers cast empirical work as “not philosophy”, it mostly worked out against us. The philosophers at Pisa famously decried Galileo’s “unphilosophical” empirical methods. We all know how that turned out. So much the worse for philosophers, so much the better for science. One can only imagine how better respected philosophy might be in the academy, popular culture, and politics of Galileo we’re thought of as a “philosopher.”

In any case, I think our discipline would be far less (self-)marginalized in the academy if we stopped drawing the “obvious” distinction you seem to favor and instead see philosophy as continuous with natural science, differing in degree not in kind.Report

moderate
moderate
Reply to  Desiderio Lopez Guante
2 years ago

Desiderio,
My comment was supposed to be a reply to John Light, not to you. I know you weren’t suggesting that it would be a flaw if the project weren’t philosophy. My point is that LIght’s complaint about your question seems to assume this.Report

Desiderio Lopez Guante
Desiderio Lopez Guante
Reply to  Desiderio Lopez Guante
2 years ago

Moderate and Marcus, there is no more space to reply directly to your comments, so I am replying to my own comment to answer your points.

Moderate: sorry about the misunderstanding, and thanks for the clarification.

Marcus: (a) yes, the answer to the question what is or is not philosophy is not obvious at all; (b) in answering that question, some semantic choices are involved, but such semantic choices cannot be completely arbitrary and, most importantly, the answer to the question cannot depend on what one decides to call “Philosophy”; (c) for much of history there was no sharp division between necessary and a priori judgements and yet that does not mean we should not sharply distinguish between them. Similarly, the fact that throughout most of history there was no shape division between philosophy and science does not mean there should not be one. For (i) it might be that philosophers in the past were not very clear about what philosophy was or (ii) it might be that the methods of science in the past were more philosophical than they are now. I guess the truth is a combination of (i) and (ii). (d) Even if there is a distinction in degree but not in kind between philosophy and science it does not follow that every scientific project is a philosophical project; (e) finally, (i) I am not sure philosophy is marginalised or self-marginalised, (ii) even if it is, what is the problem with that?, (iii) if there is a problem with (self) marginalisation, surely the solution is not to pretend that what is not philosophy is philosophy. Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Desiderio Lopez Guante
2 years ago

Desiderio: I think your argument is based on a mistaken understanding of semantics. You seem to think there are objective answers to what is “really” philosophy and what is not. I reject this picture. With the exception of scientific concepts, which refer to natural kinds, as well logical-mathematical concepts, I think most concepts (such as “philosophy”) are entirely human constructions—so there is no objectively correct answer to what philosophy is or is not. Rather, we get to *decide* what it is—and I think we should make the relevant semantic decision on normative grounds, such as what is practically useful, good for the discipline, and so on. I see only harm done to philosophy by casting the concept narrowly. I expect you disagree. But then we can disagree over those normative issues, and I could make an extended case for understanding philosophy much more broadly.
In any case, I flatly reject the notion that there is a “right” way to deploy the concept independent of the normative issues. I think the view of semantics that view presupposes is deeply mistaken, and that Wittgenstein showed as much well over
60 years ago.Report

Desiderio Lopez Guante
Desiderio Lopez Guante
Reply to  Desiderio Lopez Guante
2 years ago

Marcus: Your view — at least as expressed in your latest post — is based on a couple of fallacies. First: that if (the referent or extension of) a concept is entirely a human construction, there is no objectively correct answer to what falls and does not fall under such a concept. This is fallacious. Second: that if (the referent or extension of) a concept is entirely a human construction, we get to decide what falls and does not fall under it. This is fallacious too. One example should suffice to show that both claims are fallacies. Music is entirely a human construction. Yet clearly it does not follow from that that there is no correct answer to what is and is not music, and even more clearly, it does not follow from that that we get to decide what is and is not music. The referent of a concept might be a human construction, but if the concept has clear necessary and sufficient conditions associated with it, then there is an objectively correct answer about what falls and does not fall under it, and we do not get to decide what falls and does not fall under it. The objectivity of a concept does not depend on whether its referent is a human construction.

Now, I am not hereby committing myself to the claim that “Philosophy” has clear necessary and sufficient conditions associated with it. I referred to such concepts to show the fallacies in your view. But I do not need to claim that “Philosophy” has clear necessary and sufficient conditions associated with it to defend my position, which is simply that what is Philosophy does not depend on what we decide to call “philosophy”.

Perhaps my response is based on a misunderstanding of your view, but after considering another interpretation of what you said, I concluded that the above was the most charitable interpretation. If I misinterpreted you, you can now clarify what your view is.

Also, I am bemused by your claim that my view is based on a misunderstanding of semantics. I have said very little to betray any particular understanding of semantics. All I have said that might be relevant to your point that I am misunderstanding semantics is that, in answering the question about what is Philosophy, some semantic choices must be made but these cannot be completely arbitrary and that the answer to the question cannot depend on what one decides to call “Philosophy”. By rejecting this, you suggest that the semantic decision can be completely arbitrary. But then, what reason do you have to say that the decision *should* be based on what is practically useful, good for the discipline, and so on?Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
2 years ago

Philosophers often care about empirical research to support their arguments, or to understand which concepts and arguments are the most significant ones for conditions that actually matter to us, or to provide a check on a priori speculation. If you’re doing philosophical work on issues of justice or the economy, you’ll want to refer to a lot of empirical research on these issues.

If there’s a particular type of empirical research that would be important for your work, and you can’t find anyone who has done it, it makes sense to do it yourself. That’s what’s going on in X-phi, and I take it that’s what’s going on here. (This would seem to be the same sort of case as when physicists need to create a branch of math to fill a need they have, or when statisticians do work on epistemology that hadn’t been addressed by philosophers.)Report

desiderio Lopez Guante
desiderio Lopez Guante
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
2 years ago

What you say is true. Still, that kind of empirical research is still not Philosophy. So I quite like Chris’s answer — he is aware that this is not Philosophy, and he does not feel the need to make it pass as Philosophy. Report

Dale E Miller
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
2 years ago

Expand your area of interest a little north and my university might like to be involved. We have good working relationships between an entrepreneurship center and humanities faculty, we have a social science research center, we’re in a majority non-white city, and we have two HBCUs nearby.Report

Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Dale E Miller
2 years ago

Thanks, Dale. The cities were driven mostly by where I had existing parters who were working with us on criminal justice reform issues; certain cultural similarities; and (perhaps most important) where there are offices of a large, regional law firm that I have personal connections to that will support the project with pro bono attorneys. We’re not certain at this point how much legal work will be done, but we want to be able to provide this option to the people in the community we’re working with. Knowing we have a large firm behind us that is willing to help out (and one that has offices in each of these cities) made my life much easier.Report

David Jacobs
David Jacobs
2 years ago

I am not at all worried about whether this is “philosophy” according to a narrow definition.

I do wonder whether the research will proceed from the assumption that deregulation and “opportunity” are inextricably associated. Good empirical work is open-ended. If “opportunity” is defined as the absence of legal constraint, then we may have excluded legitimate concerns about material conditions.Report

Gal Kober
Reply to  David Jacobs
2 years ago

Your concern seems to me entirely justified. See, for example: https://thebaffler.com/salvos/academe-on-the-auction-block-johnsonReport

David Jacobs
David Jacobs
2 years ago

And Congratulations!Report

Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
2 years ago

All disciplines have these border disputes, simply because human knowledge is not divided into neat segments, not to speak of institutional constraints. They tend to be heated and partisan. It would be so much easier if we could limit philosophy to Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein (and maybe their progeny).Report

Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
2 years ago

As if on cue I read some bizarre stuff from Clark Glymour about my conception of philosophy over on the Leiter blog (drawn from a 3am interview). Reaching for Trumpian levels insult and error he actually suggests that my view of philosophy has to be wrong because it doesn’t include empirical science: but the whole point was that science is NOT a form of conceptual analysis and should not be. Also you have to be careful about what might be meant by “conceptual analysis” (it might be necessary to read my book here).Report

Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
2 years ago

He also criticizes Rawls and Scanlon on similar lines, and by implication most traditional philosophers (he singles out Plato and Socrates).Report