Toward a More Expansive Conception of Philosophy (guest post by Angela Potochnik)


To whom are we as philosophers speaking and responding; whom do we judge as being worthy of dialogue and, hopefully, our intellectual contributions?

The following guest post* is by Angela Potochnik, professor of philosophy and director of the Center for Engagement with Science at the University of Cincinnati.


[Marie Brenneis, “Beyond the Frame”] 

Toward a More Expansive Conception of Philosophy
by Angela Potochnik

We all know it is an increasingly vexed time for academia, perhaps especially for the humanities. Some philosophy departments are being trimmed and even closing. Theories on why academia in general and the humanities in particular are in peril abound, as do ideas for how to respond. In this post, I want to describe one type of response to this situation.

In brief, I believe significant mitigation can be achieved by embracing an expansive view of what philosophy training should include and what it should prepare you for. What I have in mind is sometimes thought to be capitulating to administrative and political forces, compromising the nature of philosophy in the process. But, done well, I think this expansion of our conception of philosophy, its interlocuters and its training, only enriches the practice and profession of philosophy.

I will use as a case study developments that have occurred at my home institution of University of Cincinnati. I think our department has done some interesting things on this front, and besides that, this is simply the example about which I know the most. But, of course, we have no special claim on this strategy, and we have a lot to learn from other departments and initiatives in philosophy. I hope to hear from others in the comments below with their examples of strategies and successes, as well as pitfalls and roadblocks.

The Philosophy of Science Association has just announced that its Executive Office will move to the University of Cincinnati (UC). UC and PSA are now advertising for someone to serve as the new Executive Director of the PSA; in contrast to past PSA Executive Directors, this will be a staff position rather than faculty. (Please share the job ad with anyone who might want to apply!) The majority of the position will be devoted to directing the PSA, with the remainder in service to UC’s young Center for Public Engagement with Science. The PSA Office will additionally be supported by an annual appointment of a Graduate Student Intern to serve as PSA Assistant Director, as well as undergraduate philosophy interns, who may take on special projects for the PSA.

This is a development that is at once supported by and contributes to related work that has been underway for some time. First, for decades the UC Philosophy Department has cultivated a focus on philosophy of science broadly construed, and many of our faculty collaborate actively with scientists from biology and psychology to speech pathology and environmental engineering. Our PhD program offers a ‘Philosophy and the Sciences’ degree track that about half of our PhD students pursue, which requires several science graduate courses. Our graduate students are welcomed into graduate courses in other programs across the university, including Biology, Classics, Economics, Geology, Psychology, Neuroscience, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and more. What is more, graduate students from such other disciplines find their way into our graduate philosophy seminars as well.

These interdisciplinary connections support both our PhD Program and our graduates’ outcomes. Our PhD students have gone on not only to academic positions in philosophy departments, but also psychology departments, environmental studies programs, and even to do related work outside of academia, such as biotech.

Besides this expansive view of the academic boundaries of philosophy, we have more recently explicitly cultivated a focus on public engagement. One notable example is the recent Center for Public Engagement with Science. This Center works to expand and enrich the interface between science and the public to benefit all stakeholders. It is an interdisciplinary initiative, but one with philosophers at the table because we are setting the table, so to speak. And in my opinion, it is much better and more effective for this kind of initiative to be a bottom-up, faculty-driven effort on a shoestring rather than a top-down mandate with dollars attached but an unclear vision. The Center for Public Engagement with Science is poised to be a good partner for the PSA, as in the past years, the PSA has renewed its focus on mentoring early career scholars, outreach to the public, and connection to other disciplines, especially the sciences.

It’s worth me saying this baldly: The Center for Public Engagement with Science would not exist if my department weren’t ready to accept this as the work of philosophy faculty and reward it as such. Indeed, the UC philosophy faculty revised our tenure and promotion requirements some years back to explicitly count public-facing activities toward tenure and promotion. I do not take this for granted. In contrast, the chair of another department once told me that something like this center wouldn’t be held against me if it didn’t interfere with my real work.

All of this is to say that my department has a proud tradition of resisting boundary policing, be they boundaries between philosophy and other disciplines or boundaries between proper academic/philosophical research and activities with broader reach. Other examples include the development in the past few years of humanities-wide graduate course offerings in public outreach and professional opportunities beyond academia, including paid internship opportunities tailored to the needs and skills of humanities PhD students (working with University of Cincinnati Press, as well as local museums and libraries). At the undergraduate level, philosophy courses are often cross listed with other disciplines and satisfy general education requirements well beyond humanities and ethics; our intro course How Science Works satisfies natural sciences and quantitative reasoning gen ed requirements. The department also houses an interdisciplinary Cognitive Studies major.

I have focused on an expansive conception of philosophy training as including interdisciplinary endeavors and public engagement. There are other things an expansive conception of philosophy might involve that I have not addressed. One is crucially important: Philosophy only grows stronger by including and addressing thinkers and intellectual traditions beyond those traditionally centered in the Western European tradition. I have less to say here; our department has more work still to do on this front.

This discussion emphasizes initiatives that have had practical benefit to our department, undergraduate and graduate programs, and graduates. But none of this is pandering to the administration or giving up the fight for philosophy and humanities unsullied by crass commercialism. Rather, even as initiatives like these have practical benefits, they also contribute to the development of a richer notion of what philosophy is.

To whom are we as philosophers speaking and responding; whom do we judge as being worthy of dialogue and, hopefully, our intellectual contributions? Narrowly philosophers, or other intellectuals, like scientists? What about discourse beyond academia? And relatedly, what do we see as valid outcomes for philosophy training? Are Philosophy PhDs employed outside philosophy and even the academy irrelevant, a happy accident, or a desired end? In my view, the more broadly we define the community and relevance of philosophy the better. The roots of philosophical inquiry are much older than professional philosophy, and there’s much to gain by loosening the profession’s boundaries.

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NJJJB
NJJJB
9 months ago

In my experience people who advocate for an “expansive” notion of philosophy, and particularly people who want a “broad construal” of philosophy of science, are often extremely quick to reject large chunks of philosophy — philosophy that they view as insufficiently “naturalistic”, and as not being based in serious understanding of relevant sciences.

I’m not accusing the Angela Potochnik of this — from the post it does seem like she wants a genuinely expansive notion of philosophy. But it’s useful to note that when many people, especially philosophers of science, use similar rhetoric and claim that they are anti-boundary policing that is not true. Rather they are just advocating for different boundaries — for example, involving the rejection of traditional metaphysics. Report

real_email_fake_name
real_email_fake_name
Reply to  NJJJB
9 months ago

This is consistent with my own experience; the philosophers who are the most eager to tear down boundaries between philosophy and nearby technical disciplines are also very quick to poo-poo historical or a priori work.

Now if only there were a “like” button…Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  real_email_fake_name
9 months ago

Hang on. I can think of several prominent philosophers of science who have been very metaphysics-critical (James Ladyman, for instance) but the form of the criticism is: this fails to establish truths because its methodology isn’t defensible. That’s not boundary-policing; it’s arguing that a particular set of methods shouldn’t be used at all, not just that they don’t count as philosophy. Similarly, a positivist who thinks certain metaphysical questions are meaningless or ill-posed isn’t saying that those questions should be discussed outside philosophy departments; they’re saying that those questions shouldn’t be discussed at all.

Compare: the extreme critic of science who says that so-called “scientific knowledge” is worthless propaganda, and so no-one should do philosophy of physics, isn’t boundary-policing. The critic who concedes that philosophers of physics are asking coherent questions, but thinks they’re just doing physics or history of science and so shouldn’t be working in philosophy departments, *is* boundary policing.

(All of this without prejudice either to whether boundary policing is always bad, or whether there are good methodological criticisms of a priori metaphysics.)
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JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  David Wallace
9 months ago

Was this comment supposed to be reassuring? I mean, either way, the upshot is that philosophers shouldn’t be doing metaphysics, and should be doing stuff more like science. So it isn’t suggesting merely “expanding” the boundaries, it’s suggesting moving them so as to align with the interests of the person redrawing them. In any case, Ladyman’s criticisms are not apt, and the “metaphysics” he (and Ross) advocate is second-rate, at best: https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/every-thing-must-go-metaphysics-naturalized/#_ednref Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  JDRox
9 months ago

Reassuring? Not especially. Just observing that there isn’t a double standard here, and that there’s nothing wrong with arguing that a given approach to philosophy is methodologically flawed, or that a given set of questions are pseudoquestions.

(And I’m not committed to the view that there’s anything wrong with boundary policing either, just that it’s a very different issue.)

The quality or otherwise of Ladyman’s arguments is neither here nor there; he’s included here as an example.Report

Kevin J. Harrelson
Kevin J. Harrelson
9 months ago

Outstanding post!

The example is specific to philosophy of science, but similar implementations might aim at a range of other fields.

Historical circumstances have changed the boundaries of philosophy before, and they should do so now. The first reply expresses a common worry about certain canonical variants of philosophy being eliminated on a model like OPs. That needn’t be so, but even if limited resources dictate that analytic metaphysics or seminars on Kant get pushed out …. is that so unacceptable? Can we not adjust what we do that much? And I say this as someone with a great fondness for both metaphysics and Kant. There’s a place for those things, but that place might not be at the heart of a continuing discipline. That thought doesn’t keep me up at night at least.Report

Barbara Wimsatt
Barbara Wimsatt
9 months ago

The move to break down boundaries between philosophy /history/ the sciences and other disciplines began 50:years ago at U Chicago. It’s also been important at places like Minnesota and elsewhere. Congratulations for continuing this tradition and moving the boundaries even further!Report

Eric Steinhart
9 months ago

This is a fantastic post – thank you!
Yes, philosophy departments are closing – and more will close as the Covid disaster unfolds. What you’re doing is key to the survival of philosophy.
I’m heartened by the fact that you revised your tenure and promotion requirements to include more public-facing work. Look at how much effort other disciplines (like the sciences, mathematics, and so on) spend on public outreach. It’s time we do the same. Report

Phil Bold
Phil Bold
9 months ago

“I have focused on an expansive conception of philosophy training as including interdisciplinary endeavors and public engagement. There are other things an expansive conception of philosophy might involve that I have not addressed. One is crucially important: Philosophy only grows stronger by including and addressing thinkers and intellectual traditions beyond those traditionally centered in the Western European tradition. I have less to say here; our department has more work still to do on this front.”

Completely agree. But also thinks it’s important to include and address thinkers and intellectuals traditions *within* the Western European tradition that are regularly (maybe even systematically) ignored by (analytic) philosophy departments, especially those that help to broaden the intellectual landscape, and include voices of BIPOC. A case in point here is Marx (regularly, and plausibly ignored systematically); without whom it would be difficult to understand the enormous intellectual contributions of Angela Davis. More thoughtful selections from/broadening of the “canon” might likewise enhance interdisciplinary connections.Report

grad
grad
Reply to  Phil Bold
9 months ago

I really agree with this point. Centering non-European philosophical traditions is one way to decolonize philosophy, but I was never taught that Angela Davis even was a philosopher, let alone any serious consideration of Marx. Yet this is one of the more obvious ways that philosophy education has resources even in the European traditions that still dominate.Report

Angela Potochnik
Angela Potochnik
Reply to  Phil Bold
8 months ago

Yes, thanks! I entirely agree. I clumsily tried to gesture in that direction by saying “thinkers and intellectual traditions beyond those *traditionally centered* in the Western European tradition.” But in any case this bears emphasis. Report

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
8 months ago

We should also recognize costs of more expansive notions. Take, for instance, ‘ethics,’ which has been interpreted more expansively in applied fields. ‘Ethics’ faculty positions in various engineering, business, architecture, etc. schools have been gobbled up by psychologists and other social scientists. The expansive interpretation has not created an interdisciplinary utopia, but contributed to the removal of traditional philosophy altogether.

As a general matter, if we were to be successful in expanding the notion of philosophy to include the methods/concepts of other much more dominant, socially legitimated fields (economics, psychology, whatever), all of a sudden philosophy departments will begin to resemble those other departments, not the other way around. Perhaps philosophy departments should start hiring economists, psychologists, etc. only when economics and psychology departments become more open to hiring more traditional philosophers.

Boundaries do not only pose limitations, or mark out philosophers for institutional deletion, but can also be used as an eminently useful defense against being transformed beyond recognition by other fields with more cachet. Report