Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Philosophy, Academic Research, and Practical Engagement

I hope that after this week I'll be able to get back into more of the usual kinds of posts; the past three weeks have been hectic and this week hasn't been any sort of slow-down at all.

However, I notice that Frodeman and Briggle's argument that philosophy has lost its way continues to stir up some discussion. Besides Soames's response, which I questioned here, skholiast at "Speculum Criticum" had two posts commenting on the discussion:

* Philosophy Departments, Nihilism, Psychic Research, and the Continental / Analytic Divide. And a few other things you didn't think were related. Part i
* Philosophy Departments, Nihilism, Psychic Research, and the Continental / Analytic Divide. And a few other things you didn't think were related. Part ii

Recently there has been some back-and-forth on the subject in Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective:

* Maring, Luke. “Abandoning the Academy is the Single Worst Thing Philosophers Could Do: A Reply to Frodeman and Briggle.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 3 (2016): 54-58.

* “Comments on Luke Maring’s Post Regarding ‘When Philosophy Lost Its Way'”, Bob Frodeman and Adam Briggle.

* “Philosophy, the Academy, and the Public: A Reply to Frodeman and Briggle”, Luke Maring

* “Is Anyone Still Reading? A Second Response to Maring”, Adam Briggle and Bob Frodeman

* Bowman, W. Derek. “Philosophy Hitherto: A Reply to Frodeman and Briggle.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 3 (2016): 85-91.

* "Toward New Virtues in Philosophy: A Reply to Derek Bowman," Bob Frodeman and Adam Briggle.

They also reposted a discussion (of the original article and Soames's response) by Steve Fuller at ABC Religion and Ethics.

Maring's arguments, I think, make a significant misstep in assuming that philosophical participation in academia necessarily means participating in academia in the way in which philosophers happen to do so now; but as has been pointed out by a few people, in fact the way philosophers participate in academia currently is largely the result of historical contingencies -- the narrowing of philosophy discipline-wise did not occur simply by philosophical participation in academia (which, in any case, happened for centuries, during some of which philosophy was absolutely thriving) but by a particular philosophical group (those that opposed the treatment of psychology as a science and especially the creation of Psychology Departments) getting the funding and institutional recognition of themselves as the Philosophy Department, and then others, usually at first with similar views, doing the same. The whole thing is a result of a particular set of moves in academic politics at a certain time, not an inevitable result of academic engagement.

Maring also has a conception of the ideals of academic research that I regard as problematic, although I don't think it is as central to the issue at hand:

But, as I explained before, that is not how academic research works. Even if they do not directly impact the public, our small individual contributions create the milieu that makes really impactful work possible. To repeat an example: John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice has been hugely influential; Rawls was in a position to write his book only because he was immersed in an academic back-and-forth, most of which the public never saw. The public does not read most philosophical scholarship (or scientific scholarship, or anthropological scholarship, or…). That is not a problem; that is how academic research is supposed to work.

This is how it often does work, to be sure. That this is how it is "supposed to work" is much more dubious, however. If you look at cases where you can really and indisputably see the kind of thing that Maring has in mind, what you generally get are cases where either (1) the ideas are of very little general interest in the first place and thus almost entirely ivory tower; or (2) the ideas are in fact important to society, and disasters build up because the academic field struggles to keep the public informed and so the public responds by filling the void with whatever seems good at the time. I can hardly imagine that Maring thinks that the ideal of academic research is to study evolutionary theory that the public continually misunderstands so that biologists are constantly having to deal with the consequences of the misunderstanding. But this is one perfectly good example -- and not at all isolated -- of exactly the sort of thing he is describing. And arguably the lesson that has been learned is that ordinary everyday biologists can't just sit around waiting for people to come into the classroom to learn these things.

Nor, it should be pointed out, has this always been seen as the way academic research should work in the first place. If you look at a lot of nineteenth-century academics, they often saw themselves, or at least described themselves, as partners with the public in their inquiry. Natural history in the nineteenth century flourished because it consisted of a constant cooperation and interaction between university researchers and a broader public outside of academia -- yes, the researchers often did the work of hammering out the difficult technicalities, but they were technicalities arising out of a broader discussion rather than just an academic one, and those technicalities were only of value to the extent that they could be brought back to that broader discussion. It wouldn't have made much sense to see it in Maring's way -- to do something on the scale of natural history, particularly at the time when collections were often just getting started and field work could sometimes be quite expensive and time-consuming, you needed the help of more than just a few researchers at universities even to deal with the basics. So why not get the gardeners and hikers, and the public generally, involved in collecting and identifying specimens? A lot of the great work in nineteenth-century natural history was done by amateurs working with experts, either immediately or by correspondence. Nor is natural history the only area of academic interest in which this was the case. Bringing scientific results to the broader public was part of what scientists saw themselves as doing; there's a reason why a lot of top nineteenth-century academics are often out and about talking to people outside of academia -- indeed, not uncommonly, people who may not have had more than a basic education in the first place. And, on the other side, there's a reason why things like Faraday's Christmas lectures were immensely popular.

Nor is it even the case that this is the way it has always been seen today. Academic mathematicians often deal with the most technical of technicalities; a lot gets done that only experts with time on their hands explicitly devoted to the problem can do. But mathematics has always had an important, non-stop interaction between experts and amateurs -- indeed, for very much the same reason that natural history in the nineteenth century did. Mathematics is an endless field; no matter how expert you are, it's a sign of irrationality to think you and a small band of others can always on your own do all the work that needs to be done. The dabbling of mathematical amateurs has often made very useful discoveries in mathematics; and the amateurs in making those discoveries have freed up the professionals to build on them and do other things that need to be done to get the math in good order. And in other fields, there is a slow increasing appreciation of the work of non-academics -- citizen science and the like.

And indeed, this is precisely the problem with Maring's characterization: he assumes that "the milieu that makes really impactful work possible" is necessarily an academic one. But historically it has sometimes been the interaction between academics and the broader public that actually created this milieu. And fields in which this has not been the case have tended to be very narrow fields in the first place. Big, sprawling fields like natural history or mathematics have at times had to spill out of academia to get the research done in the first place. Now, perhaps the conditions of philosophy are different, or maybe the conditions of academia have changed enough that it should now be usually done differently even if there are exceptions like certain fields of mathematics. (Certainly it's true that natural history started freezing the amateurs out toward the end of the nineteenth century and the more recent attempts to start up active cooperation have been sporadic and limited.) But the point is that Maring's conception of academic research is not written in stone in the foundations of the halls of learning. It's just the status quo. And precisely the point of Frodeman and Briggle was that the status quo requires treating philosophy as a narrow and very limited discipline. If we are talking about how academic research is supposed to work, Maring's claim can't be taken uncritically; it is precisely the thing that would need to be established.

I think Bowman's argument starts on a stronger foot. He argues that "reluctance to engage with practical affairs was a feature of philosophy long before the advent of the modern university" and then sets out to show that in fact philosophers are doing a lot of practical engagement anyway. The problem is that his example of the reluctance to engage with practical affairs -- Socrates and Plato -- doesn't seem to involve any actual reluctance to engage with practical affairs. Yes, philosophers were sometimes ridiculed -- but the ridicule itself is part of the actual engagement between the philosophers and the public. Aristophanes' The Clouds was not some obscure little work in an obscure venue; it was a criticism of Socrates, who was already a public figure, in the most public venue in the ancient Greek world. It's true that Plato's Socrates is clearly limited in his options as to how he can operate, but this is quite clearly not put forward as a restriction by Socrates himself, but simply by the unwillingness of the citizens of Athens. (And notably, Socrates in Plato's Gorgias says that he's the only one of his contemporaries who practices the true politics.) And the reluctance of Plato's philosopher-kings to rule is quite clearly just due to the fact that the Kallipolis is rigged so that corruptions leading to injustice are difficult to find -- just as parenthood is obscured to make nepotism impossible, and the noble lie is perpetuated simply to make bribery impossible, so the only people allowed to rule are those who aren't motivated simply by a desire to rule, so that self-aggrandizement is impossible. But there's nothing even here about a reluctance for engagement in practical affairs; 'practical affairs' is much broader than 'ruling the city'. What Bowman actually seems to be picking up on is the ancient view that philosophy requires leisure, that philosophy should not be subordinated to other affairs simply because the latter get labeled as more 'practical' or 'useful'. This is not ambivalence about practical engagement; this is an insistence that philosophy has value in its own right.

Frodeman and Briggle seem to be running out of steam at this point; their responses have been getting weaker as time goes on. But, of course, the question is still worth considering.

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