The abstract nature of philosophy, and sometimes philosophers themselves, has often contributed to the perception that the discipline has difficulty engaging with wider social issues and hence impact. Using evidence from REF2014 impact case studies, Diana Hicks and J. Britt Holbrook chart five ways in which philosophers have achieved impact and applied philosophical thinking to a range of social issues.
What is a philosopher to do when the Research Excellence Framework (REF) comes calling? Arguably, philosophy exemplifies a form of scholarship proudly defying pressure for relevance, and so is a truly hard case in which to find impact. However, recently, some philosophers have begun pushing back on the idea that philosophy is antithetical to impact. Frodeman and Briggle’s theoretical call for field philosophy in their book Socrates Tenured argues that philosophers ought to venture out of the Ivory Tower to engage non-academics and their problems. Might a field philosopher have better success responding to the REF than your typical, armchair philosopher?
In our own work, we were interested to compare Frodeman and Briggle’s theory of field philosophy to empirical evidence offered by the REF’s Impact Case Studies. How would empirical evidence of what philosophers actually did in order to have impact compare to their theory? Were REF impact narratives presented by what we think of as a typical armchair philosopher? Or did the more impactful philosophers venture into the field, as described by Frodeman and Briggle?
|Typical Armchair Philosopher||Field Philosopher|
|Considers philosophical issues||Considers philosophical dimensions of real-world issues|
|Pitched at the level of abstract principles or thought experiments||Addresses real world issues|
|Addresses mainly fellow philosophers||Listens first to non-philosophers|
|Method: conceptual analysis||Method depends on the situation|
|Evaluation relies on peer review||Evaluation by stakeholders|
|Most at home in philosophy department||Most at home in the field|
REF Impact Cases in Philosophy
We read the REF 2014 philosophy case studies to see what kind of stories philosophers could tell about their societal impact. We came away impressed by the ingenuity and importance of the societally relevant work of UK philosophers. We also identified five broad approaches they used to engage society – dissemination, engagement, provocation, living philosophy and philosophy of X – that more or less align with field philosophy.
The first strategy was to go about one’s scholarship as usual, i.e. examining big questions in which any thinking person must take an interest, and give lots of talks to which the public were invited. Public lectures can be supplemented with writing for the enlightenment literature, that is for periodicals directed at the non-scholarly audience, such as the Times Literary Supplement or the New York Times opinion section. This strategy, while better than nothing, tends to be discussed only when being juxtaposed with stronger engagement (as argued here by Patrick Stokes).
Impressive examples of stronger engagement were evident in the REF cases. The University of Aberdeen’s philosophers hosted guided discussions of philosophical issues in a prison, in a charity helping homeless and unemployed youth, in a philosophy café, and in schools. In these collaborative discussions views were put forward, revised and sharpened in the light of friendly criticism in order to reach a deeper understanding of genuinely puzzling issues.
A second example of engagement explored ‘best interests decision-making’. Doctors and other care-providers must act in the best interests of patients. However, as soon as one moves beyond this intuitive and universally agreed principle, problems arise. Philosophers at the University of Essex studied the philosophical, ethical, and legal problems in cases that have been brought before a special court that adjudicates disputes over best interests decisions taken on behalf of care-recipients. They helped the court grapple with issues such as: To what extent can or should the assessment of the best interest of P (the care-recipient) take into account the interests of family or care-providers? And, when and under what circumstances does best interests decision-making amount to an objectionably paternalistic intervention in the autonomy rights of P? The project engaged practitioners in roundtables, produced technical reports, informed discussion of the law of best interests, and influenced public policy guidelines. Notable in these cases was the conversation with practitioners at the beginning and throughout the projects. Such conversation began with problems defined by the stakeholders and so exemplified the approach of Frodeman and Briggle’s field philosopher.
The third approach shared by several successful philosophy cases was to engage in provocation, for example, advancing ethical arguments in favor of sports doping and human genetic enhancement, i.e. “designer babies”, or arguing that we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. Provocations are a type of philosophy focused on the real world, though from a somewhat exotic perspective. The problems were not defined by stakeholders as the definition of field philosophy suggests they should be, nor are they clearly problems central to philosophy. Nevertheless, the topics resonated with a non-academic audience because of their controversial, counter-intuitive claims about aspects of everyday life, and were likely developed with a broader audience in mind.
The pluralism exhibited here bodes well for the expansion of philosophy’s influence, as there are many routes available for everyday philosophers, not just the biggest names, to engage and influence society.
In the fourth approach a person’s scholarly work was related to their life outside academia, creating a natural link to broader engagement. These cases were distinguished by the variety of means by which philosophers integrated their scholarly work and their non-academic lives to the benefit of both: one established a non-profit; another worked for a political party; a third produced a biography which became a film. In this work they moved between the academy and larger world, a distinguishing characteristic of Frodeman and Briggle’s field philosopher.
The fifth approach involves thinking about an area of everyday life and naturally leads to engagement with specialists in the field, a central characteristic of field philosophy. For example, work on the philosophy of information led to consulting for Capgemini, Google and the European Commission. The philosophy of wine involved consulting for large drinks firms, public lectures at wine industry conferences, contributions to popular books on wine, press coverage, an experiment at a high-end restaurant, and contributions to a film and app produced by a drinks firm. Philosophy of art lead to workshops at museums and galleries and a reality TV series. Philosophy of X by definition engages with real world problems and takes philosophers out of the university and into the wider world – consulting for industry, training prison staff, teaching in art galleries, curating exhibitions. This institutional engagement provided a kind of multiplier effect, extending the reach of philosophers across a broader slice of the public than could be reached by public lectures alone.
The philosophy cases submitted to the UK REF impact evaluation exercise in 2014 suggested five broad approaches to engaging society that align in different ways with field philosophy.
Dimensions of Field Philosophy
|Strategies||Examine real world problems||Listen to stakeholders||Audience outside university||Flexible method||Work in & out of university|
|Philosophy of 'x'||✓||?||✓||✓||✓|
Of course, these categories are not entirely mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, in proposing these categories, we hope to have begun to produce what Watermeyer has called a cartography of impact to help academics recognize, reconcile and mobilize their professional and public role. The pluralism exhibited here bodes well for the expansion of philosophy’s influence, as there are many routes available for everyday philosophers, not just the biggest names, to engage and influence society. Indeed, there are no doubt other ways for philosophy to influence society yet to be revealed, as our work cannot claim to have uncovered them all.
This post draws on the authors’ co-authored article A Cartography of Philosophy’s Engagement with Society, published in Minerva.
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