Socrates Tenured

Selections from

Frodeman, Robert, and Adam Briggle. 2016. Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st Century Philosophy. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

The Argument in a Nutshell

Universally venerated by contemporary philosophers, the actual philosophic practice of Socrates is rejected or ignored. Socrates could never get a position today in a philosophy (or any other) department.

Socrates Tenured offers an account, and a critique, of the marginal role that academic philosophy plays in society. It focuses on an issue that has been ignored by the philosophic community: the institutional setting that philosophy has occupied since the creation of the modern research univer- sity. We see this setting – namely, the department – as the great unthought of contemporary philosophy.

Ours is both a theoretical and practical critique. Practically, this account constitutes a rejoinder to the ongoing reinvention of the modern research university. This reinvention, itself a response to various political and tech- nological pressures, is likely to significantly affect both philosophy and the humanities more generally. Humanities departments at a few well-endowed schools will be able to continue on as before, but we suspect that for the vast majority of such departments, wrenching change lies ahead. The dangers we discuss, readily available for all to see, get little sustained academic attention for the simple reason that the people who set the agenda have a sinecure: tenure. This institutional fact has encouraged a blindness concerning the theoretical dimensions of our institutional housing.

Philosophers have a choice. We can continue to teach our classes and con- duct our research while hoping that things continue on as before. Or we can try to take (partial) control of our future by changing our profession before our profession is changed by others. We choose the latter path, and call for the development of new institutional models that seek a way out from the cul de sac academic philosophy finds itself in.

But there is more at stake here than simply the fate of philosophy depart- ments. The issue here is nothing less than the future of our fast-evolving soci- ety. Make no mistake: philosophizing always goes on in one way or another. Academic philosophy may have gone socially dormant, but new expressions of philosophy are blossoming across society. The dynamism of this modern- day Republic of Letters stands in stark contrast to the inward-looking con- servatism of contemporary academics. This new Republic of Letters offers philosophizing on the fly, in response to a variety of game changers that have deeply philosophical elements – issues like climate change, artificial intel- ligence, globalization, new forms of media, and the potential remaking of the human genome.

These philosophers seldom hold PhDs in the field. They are usually identi- fied, and self-identify, as business people, scientists, journalists, engineers, and futurists rather than philosophers. They have created an informal network of blogs, YouTube channels, magazines, and books. They function as free- lancers, or inhabit a set of institutions that exist on the margins of the univer- sity, such as the Centre for Study of Existential Risk and the Future of Life Institute. Some of these institutions, such as X, formerly Google X, while on the margins of the academy, are very well placed in society. Other thinkers live a much more subterranean existence. In the aggregate, this network is fulfilling a role that academic philosophers have mostly abandoned – broad thinking in public venues about who we are, where we are going, and who we ought to be.

Socrates Tenured is a response to these developments. We first offer an account of the state of academic philosophy today, and of why contemporary philosophy (including applied philosophy) has failed to serve societal needs. We then provide an alternative model for philosophizing – what we call field philosophy – as a means to bridge the gap between (and temper the limita- tions of) academic philosophy and the amorphous, evolving techno-Republic of Letters.

Field philosophy has two basic features. First, it enlarges the range of aca- demic philosophy by taking a more entrepreneurial approach towards philoso- phizing. We see field philosophy as a type of academic philosophy where one works on an ongoing basis with people in the STEM disciplines, the world of policy, community groups, and NGOs. On this account, field philosophy complements rather than rejects normal ‘disciplinary’ philosophy. In fact, we will argue for a circulatory model where field philosophers periodically return to the department to report on their experiences and to recharge their batteries before once again going out into in the world.

Second, field philosophy wants to bring the informal but intensely creative public forms of the modern-day Republic of Letters in closer relation with academic philosophizing. Philosophers within this techno-Republic of Letters would be enriched by a better acquaintance with academic work. They might, for instance, temper some of their optimism concerning the liberatory prom- ise of accelerating technological advance. We believe that these two expres- sions of philosophy – the disciplinary work occurring in the academy, and the new Republic of Letters – need to recognize one another and function in a kind of informal partnership. Field philosophy can function as that bridge. And while we devote less attention to it, we will also note the existence of a third model for philosophizing – what we call the philosopher bureaucrat – in which academically trained philosophers permanently set up shop within extra-academic institutions across society. These three models – disciplinary philosophers, who mainly communicate with one another, field philosophers, who shuttle between academia and the larger world, and philosopher bureau- crats, who have ‘gone native’ – should constitute the ecosystem of twenty- first-century philosophy.

In sum, where others see gloom for philosophy, we see the chance for a renaissance – a rebirth of thoughtful action in an age that desperately needs it. And while some have claimed we are selling the soul of philosophy in order to comply with utilitarian accounts of value, we see ourselves as engaged in an act of jujitsu, turning the superior size of neoliberal forces to our common advantage.

Our argument can be boiled down to eight points:

  1. Advocates of a market economy and technological progress have typically viewed their projects as the antithesis of philosophy, which they have dis- missed as mere wool-gathering. Given the nature of academic philosophy, they have a But these social forces have now become philosophical in spite of themselves. Our global technoscientific culture raises any num- ber of epistemic, ethical, hermeneutic, aesthetic, and metaphysical ques- tions. This opens up new theoretical opportunities, as well as employment prospects, for philosophers both within and outside the academy.1
  2. To seize these opportunities philosophers must interrogate their insti- tutional Treating philosophy (and the humanities generally) as a discipline – that is, as a regional ontology, consisting of specialists housed in departments – was the wrong response to the development of the modern research university. The exclusive disciplining of philosophy constitutes the original sin of twentieth and now twenty-first-century philosophy.
  3. Addressing societal needs and responding to the challenges of neoliberal- ism requires new ways of What currently passes for philo- sophical research – as a sole model – is unsustainable: state legislatures will not continue to pay for research that is directed towards a small set of disciplinary peers. Our new cultural milieu also requires new models for the teaching of philosophy. In both cases philosophy needs to be approached as a practice, with both research and teaching focused on spot- ting the philosophical moments residing within other disciplines, in social issues, in public and private institutions, and in everyday life.
  4. A pluralistic approach to doing philosophy should also raise questions about what counts as quality philosophical thinking. Disciplinary philoso- phy has been uncritical about the question of rigour, part of its disregard of the philosophical dimensions of the field of Of course philoso- phers must make thoughtful and nuanced arguments. But what counts as excellence here should be treated as relative to the temporal, economic, and axiological needs of a given audience and situation.
  5. The question of how to implement philosophical ideas needs to become part of our thinking – treated as a philosophical project in its own We need a research programme on the impacts of philosophy. This should in turn prompt the development of a general philosophy of impact that will be of interest across the academy (e.g. the STEM community) and to society at large. What does it mean for academic research to have an effect upon the world? What counts as a good effect? For at its root, the question of whether philosophy or any other research is useful or practical implies an understanding of what counts as useful or practical.
  6. Twentieth-century attempts at philosophic relevance have had a melancholy fate. Applied philosophy, a creation of the 1980s that sought to make dis- ciplinary philosophy more relevant, has largely been a failure – occasional exceptions Rather than becoming a philosophical prac- tice out and about within society, applied philosophy focused on writing philosophy articles for other philosophers. In contrast, field philosophy is attuned to the rhythms of contemporary society: practically engaged, stakeholder-centred, and timely.
  7. Ours – we insist – is a plural agenda: traditional disciplinary philosophy is the source of valuable insight and should be But it needs to be in dynamic balance with the more entrepreneurial approaches of the field philosopher and the philosopher–bureaucrat. The 110 PhD programmes in philosophy across North America should become experiments in different ways of practising philosophy and training philosophers – rather than the lemming-like repetition of the same that currently obtains in department after department.
  8. A number of philosophers – a decided minority, to be sure – already practice something like field philosophy (and bureaucratic philosophy). Yet they rarely reflect on or write up their experiences, towards the goal of training the next generation of This needs to change if their insights into different ways of philosophizing are to be built upon and institutionalized.

To describe matters synoptically, Socrates Tenured consists of three parts and encompasses four themes. In part I, chapter 1 offers a statement of the problem – the marginal societal role of academic philosophy, and a historical sketch of how we came to this juncture. In chapter 2, we describe the disci- plinary status quo and outline the practical reasons why it is unlikely to last, by drawing together some of the numbers that illuminate the current situation of philosophy and the humanities more generally.

Part II (chapters 3 through 5) offers an analysis of various twentieth- century attempts to solve the problem of societal irrelevance. Chapter 3 looks at the field of applied philosophy writ large. Chapter 4 considers the case of environmental ethics. Both these areas are found to largely fail at the task of making philosophy relevant. We diagnose the lack of a larger societal impact in terms of ‘disciplinary capture’. We then turn to bioethics in chapter 5. The situation here is different, and we provide an explanation for the field’s rela- tive success in having a broader impact.

Part III has two central points. Chapter 6 provides our resolution to the problem of societal irrelevance in terms of field philosophy. Chapter 7 is more prospective in nature: we consider the need to develop a new project across the whole of philosophy: the philosophy of impact.

To restate our four themes: we offer a description and diagnosis of the irrelevance of philosophy, an explanation of the generally failed attempts to be socially relevant, our own model for achieving societal relevance, and an outline of new areas for philosophic research.

To think with us, turn the page.


  1. To cite one example, the establishment of a ‘broader impacts’ criterion for the funding of grants by the NSF and other public science agencies around the world is a de facto acknowledgement of the central role of ethics and values within scientific



Philosophy Purified

The story of Western philosophy can be told in a number of ways.1 It can be presented in terms of periods – ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary. Or as a quarrel between ancients and moderns, with ‘postmodernity’ some- what awkwardly tacked on at the end. It can be rehearsed in terms of great thinkers: Descartes as the modern pivot, Frege (or Husserl) as having inaugu- rated twentieth-century thinking, Wittgenstein (or Heidegger) as the greatest thinker of the twentieth century. It can be seen as consisting of core areas (in the analytic tradition, metaphysics and epistemology and the philosophy of language) or traditions (in the continental tradition, phenomenology and existentialism). And the canon can be re-read in terms of gender and racial exclusion, as a discipline almost entirely fashioned by and for white men of European descent.

Yet despite the richness and variety of these accounts, all of them pass over a crucial juncture: the locating of philosophy within a modern institution (the research university) in the late nineteenth century. The institutionalizing of philosophy made it into a discipline that could be seriously pursued only in an academic setting. This fact represents the great unthought of contemporary philosophy.2

Take a simple detail: philosophy had never before had one central home. Philosophers could be found anywhere – serving as diplomats, living off sine- cures, grinding lenses, even housed within a college or university. Afterward, if they were ‘serious’ thinkers, the expectation was that philosophers were inhabitants of the research university. Against the inclinations of Socrates, philosophers became experts like other disciplinary specialists. This occurred even as philosophers lectured their students on the virtues of Socratic wis- dom, which highlights the role of the philosopher as the non-expert, the questioner, and the gadfly.

As Bruno Latour (1993) would have it, philosophy was purified. This puri- fication occurred in response to two events. The first was the development of the natural sciences circa 1870 and the appearance of the social sciences in the decades thereafter. Each grouping consisted of successor disciplines to philosophy: in the first case out of natural philosophy, in the second case moral philosophy. The second event was the placing of philosophy as just one more discipline alongside these sciences within the modern research univer- sity. At the same time that learning was driven into the academy, philosophy lost its traditional position there, as the natural and social sciences divided the academic world between them.

This is not to claim that philosophy had reigned unchallenged within the university prior to the late nineteenth century. The place of philosophy had shifted across the centuries and in different countries. And many of those who we think of as philosophers did not work within the academy at all. But within or outside the university, ‘philosophy’ had always included the sense of being concerned with living a good life. Indeed, from the perspective of what followed (i.e. the development of a scientific research culture) earlier conflicts between philosophy, medicine, theology, and law were internecine battles rather than clashes across yawning cultural divides. These fields were thought to hang together in a grand unity of knowledge – a unity that shat- tered under the weight of increasing specialization by the end of the nine- teenth century.

Early twentieth-century philosophers thus faced an existential dilemma: with the natural and social sciences claiming to map the whole of knowledge, what role was there for philosophy? There were a number of possibilities: philosophers could serve as

  • synthesizers of academic knowledge;
  • formalists providing the logical undergirding for research and education;
  • translators  integrating  the  disciplines  and  helping  to  bring  the  larger insights of the academy to the world at large;
  • disciplinary specialists who focused on recondite philosophical problems in ethics, epistemology, aesthetics, and the like; or
  • a combination of some or all of these roles.

But in terms of institutional realities, there seems to have been no real choice. Philosophers needed to become scientific. They needed to accept the structure of the modern research university, which consists of various specialties demarcated from one another. Real philosophers would be trained and credentialed as specialists. And so the ‘discipline’ became the reigning standard for what would count as proper philosophy. It was the only way to secure the field’s survival.

But this description is misleading – because the kind of philosophy that predated this institutional shift did not survive. It’s not like philosophy – that old creature – found a familiar niche in a new institutional ecosystem, one that would allow it to do what it had long been doing. Rather, philosophy itself changed, evolving into a disciplinary creature. The act of fitting (or fit- ting in) changed what survived. Philosophy was something new, even though most philosophers did not recognize the shift, preferring to believe that they and Socrates remained members of the same species. As if Socrates would stand a chance of surviving in the new institutional ecosystem.

This – the hiving off of philosophy as a discipline – was the act of purifi- cation that gave birth to the contemporary concept of philosophy. That is, to a degree hardly recognized, an institutional imperative drove the theoretical agenda. If philosophy was going to have a secure place in the academy it needed its own discrete domain, its own arcane language, its own standards of success, its own gatekeepers, and its own specialized concerns.

Having evolved into the same structural form as the sciences, it’s no wonder that philosophy fell prey to physics envy and feelings of inad- equacy. Philosophy adopted the scientific modus operandi of knowledge production – progress, rather than insight – but then failed to match the sciences in terms of advancement in describing (let alone controlling) the world. Much has been made of the inability of philosophy to equal the cogni- tive success of the sciences. But what has passed unnoticed is philosophy’s all-too-successful mimicking of the institutional form of the sciences. We are judged by the same coin of the realm: peer-reviewed products. We too develop sub-specializations far from the comprehension of the person on the street. In such ways we are oh-so scientific.

Our claim, then, can be put simply: philosophy should never have been purified. Rather than being seen as a problem, ‘dirty hands’ should have been understood as the native condition of philosophic thought – a subject matter that is present everywhere, often interstitial, and essentially interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary in nature. Philosophy is a mangle. The philosopher’s hands were never clean and were never meant to be.

There is another layer to this story. The act of purification accompanying the creation of the modern research university was not only about differentiat- ing realms of knowledge. It was also about divorcing knowledge from virtue. Though it seems foreign to us now, prior to purification (and standardization, i.e., that philosophy is in principle no different from any other region of knowledge) the philosopher was assumed to be morally superior to other sorts of people. The eighteenth-century thinker Joseph Priestley wrote, “A Philoso- pher ought to be something greater and better than another man” (Priestley 1775, vol. 1, p. xxiii). Philosophy, understood as the love of wisdom, was seen as a vocation on par with the ministry. It required significant virtues (foremost among these, integrity and selflessness). What’s more, in keeping with its questioning nature, philosophy was viewed more as a process than a product. The pursuit of wisdom was a virtue in itself, further inculcating these virtues. Knowing and being good were intimately linked, for the study of ethics elevated those who pursued it. The point of philosophy, after all, was to become good rather than only to collect or produce knowledge.

As Steven Shapin (2008) notes, the rise of disciplines in the late nineteenth century changed all this. The implicit democracy of the disciplines ushered in an age of “the moral equivalence of the scientist.” The “de-magification of the world” (as Weber put it) put an end to any notion that there is something uplifting about knowledge. The purification of ‘is’ from ‘ought’ contrib- uted to the feeling that it is no longer sensible to speak of nature, including human nature, in terms of purposes and functions. And by the late nineteenth century, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche had shown the failure of philosophy to establish any shared standard for choosing one way of life over another.

Once knowing and being good were divorced, the scientist and the philoso- pher could both be regarded as experts, but there are no morals or lessons to be drawn from their work. Science derives its authority from impersonal struc- tures and methods, not the superior character of the scientist. The individual scientist is no different than the average Joe; he or she has “no special authority to pronounce on what ought to be done” (Shapin 2008, p. 25). Science became a “de-moralized” tool in the service of power, bureaucracy, and commerce.

Philosophy has aped the sciences by fostering a culture engaged in ‘the genius contest’. Philosophic activity has become a competition to show how clever one can be in creating or destroying arguments. Like the sciences, philosophy has become a technical enterprise – the difference being that we manipulate words rather than genes. Lost was the once common sense notion that philosophers are seeking after the good life – that we ought (in spite of our failings) to strive to be model citizens and human beings. Having become specialists, we lost sight of the whole. The point of philosophy now is to be smart rather than good.

The irony today is that our culture’s success at technical smarts has raised a whole new set of philosophical questions about the good. Which raises the question of whether academic philosophers are ready to help society think.


  1. This prelude is a revised version of: Frodeman, Robert, and Adam Briggle (2016), ‘When Philosophy Lost Its Way’, The New York Times, January
  2. We discovered, just as this was going to press, that Loncar (2016) raises a similar question: “What is the philosophical significance of academic disciplines and philosophy’s inclusion within disciplinary structures?”