Supply-side philosophy

Many with whom we have been in dialog point us toward bioethics as a field that escapes our criticism. And bioethics offers an interesting case.

Bioethicists often work in the field with stakeholders from other disciplines and various walks of society. But bioethics didn’t so much propel itself out of the gravitational forces of disciplinarity as it was pulled out into space (that is, society) by doctors, patients, hospitals, and scientists who demanded help with their problems.

Bioethics exposes the importance of the demand-side within applied philosophy. People out in the world recognized a conceptual space that was philosophical (or at least ethical) in nature, and helped to clear a social space where this new creature, the bioethicist, could take root and speak with some measure of authority.

Still, this has not been the case for other types of applied philosophy. In the main they have practiced a kind of supply-side philosophy, trying to convince stakeholders to buy the notion that their problems have philosophical dimensions. On endangered species, for example, people have not reached down asking for help. Rather, they saw the issue as economic, political, ecological, and/or biological in nature. No ready-made space was carved out for the philosopher. And environmental philosophers, lacking (with a few exceptions) that tug from the beyond, have fallen back to disciplinary ground. It’s no wonder, then, that (for instance) environmental ethics has not matched the success of bioethics.


Hampering alternatives

Others have claimed that we are looking in the wrong places: applied philosophy journals aren’t where we will find philosophers providing accounts of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work. This strikes us as a peculiar argument. Sure, a policy journal would be a natural place to publish a piece on the philosophical dimensions of a particular policy problem, just as a journal in conservation biology would be a good place to publish a piece on intrinsic value in nature.

And indeed there are philosophers who do publish abroad in other fields. Some of them have been so successful that their impacts on these other fields may rival their influence within philosophy. Some examples of this extra-disciplinary presence might include Michael Walzer with law, Michael Nelson and Baird Callicott with conservation biology, Dan Hausman with economics, Daniel Dennett with cognitive science (and more), Martha Nussbaum with development studies, and Paul Thompson with agriculture.

Clearly we are not claiming that there are no philosophers doing important engaged work. But we are claiming that there is a lack of reflexivity about how to do this work. Because the applied philosophy journals we surveyed  are the places where we should see philosophers reflecting on such work, identifying best practices and lessons learned. Yet there is almost none of this. As a result, efforts to institutionalize alternative philosophical practices are hampered. So too are efforts to train the next generation so that engaged philosophy can become a respectable node on the network of 21st century philosophy.

Never touching ground

In the introduction to the 2009 special issue of the Journal of Applied Philosophy Archard and Mendus speak of the recent expansion of applied philosophy:

in 2009 the philosophical lens has widened somewhat and all our contributors are concerned not simply with the application of philosophy to practical problems (though they are of course concerned with that), but also with the prior question of what it means to apply philosophy to practical problems.

But somehow the discussion never touches ground. Authors skirt the edges of the problem – e.g., Buchanan raises questions about what he calls the ‘Commission Paradigm’ of applied philosophy, and Archard speaks of his “attachment to a version of what is known as ‘bottom up’ applied philosophy, one that starts from the facts of the real world.” But this turns out to be a very abstract form of real world. The articles lack any account of anyone’s actual engagement in the particular problems of people in real time. Nor is there any reflection on how or to what degree the profession’s standards of rigor would need to adapt to practical exigencies, or how actual engagement would affect academic standards for tenure and promotion.

Instead of talking about abstract notions of free will in peer-reviewed journals, applied philosophers talk about concrete problems of, say, euthanasia or endangered species. But they still talk in the pages of peer-reviewed journals, and without including an account of how these insights are supposed to be taken up by people outside the academy. Absent is any reflection about how to actually get involved with the stakeholders in particular policy processes, how to effectively interject insights into conversations, or how to track the impacts of one’s efforts.

People can cavil with the numbers from our survey, and certainly another reckoning could find a higher (or lower) percentage of essays that report some type of interaction with non-disciplinary audiences. But double or triple the number and you still have a shocking lack of reflexivity about broader impacts. Where are the stories about how philosophy must change when its audience changes – about how to do philosophy when you leave the armchair and enter the fray?

Applied diffusion?

At the core of the applied model of scholarship is a faith in the passive diffusion model of knowledge transfer whereby peer-reviewed articles somehow lead to societal benefits. Insights diffuse like a concentrated gas. Or perhaps like the economic benefits of the rich are supposed to trickle down to others. It’s just this kind of hand-waving nonchalance that precipitated the accountability culture now taking hold of the academy. A faith-based impact story just won’t do.

The applied philosophy literature is full of insights about practical problems. But in our survey of the literature we find essentially no accounts of how a philosopher is supposed to ensure that these insights have an impact. It’s a bias rooted in the discipline: one has exhausted one’s intellectual task and professional obligation when one deposits a peer-reviewed publication in a reservoir of knowledge. Whether and how that knowledge gets used…well, who can say?

Escape Velocity 1

Escape velocity is the speed needed to break free from the gravitational attraction of a massive body without further propulsion. Achieving it takes lots of energy, especially if the gravitational pull is strong. That’s why most things on the planet stay on the planet. This is a useful concept for thinking about applied philosophers. They have wanted to escape the ivory tower and have a real-world impact. They’ve been trying to break free of forces that kept them grounded within isolated and insular discussions.

We think this mission has been a failure. Yes, the last 30 years has produced a great deal of subtle philosophic analysis of practical problems. But the field has failed in terms of having an extra-disciplinary impact. This is because philosophers have not been self-conscious about the gravitational pull of the massive body against which they must struggle.

Charting more diffuse influences across time

Today even the humanities are expected to have an impact. In the 2014 REF, for instance, philosophy formed one of 36 ‘units of assessment’. In a previous post we raised the question of impact for the field of applied philosophy. We argued that applied philosophers, a field that should be brimming with impacts, have fallen prey to ‘disciplinary capture’: even when they have sought to be practical they have played an inside game, writing for other philosophers rather than for a wider audience.

Looking back at our own earlier work in applied philosophy we see that we have committed the same mistake. We offered analyses of environmental problems, but never sent our papers to the parties concerned, much less sought their participation at the front end of the research. In recent years we’ve tried to do better. These efforts that have led us to reflect on what could be called ‘the philosophy of impact’ – what counts as impact, how is it achieved, and how can it be demonstrated.

via Impact of Social Sciences – The Impact of Philosophy and the Philosophy of Impact: A guide to charting more diffuse influences across time

Some of our previous activities and some of their impacts