East Lansing, Mich.
Philosophy has a long and storied history of public engagement. Socrates was famous for prodding his fellow Greeks in the marketplace to think through weighty issues. John Stuart Mill served a term in Parliament, where he pushed for women's right to vote. American pragmatists like John Dewey wrote widely about politics and social justice.
But today, Cornel West is perhaps the only philosophically trained scholar with a significant public audience in the United States. Other American philosophers lament that their input is welcomed by foreign governments yet spurned at home.
But that may be changing. A growing subset of the discipline is seeking to take a more public stance. These publicly inclined philosophers see a need for government to factor moral and ethical priorities into policy considerations, which they say are too often dominated by economists with their emphasis on quantification.
And, in an age of increasing ideological rigidity, these philosophers argue that their training gives them a unique ability to identify the unexamined assumptions and value systems that can harden political factions. Such a skill is valuable, they say, because problems like climate change are growing more complex at the same time that the public's ability to think through the implications of possible solutions is diminishing.
"Philosophy could do some good, even a hell of a lot of good," says John Lachs, a professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University, who has spent years exhorting those in his discipline to become more publicly engaged.
Recent evidence suggests that some of his colleagues are listening. The Public Philosophy Network, a new group that connects publicly minded philosophers and ethicists and provides mentors to younger scholars, held its first conference this fall.
Many members are beginning their academic careers and want to pursue the kind of publicly engaged work that they read about in the history of their discipline, says Sharon M. Meagher, a professor of philosophy at the University of Scranton and a founder of the network.
"As undergrads what appealed to them was the model of Socrates in the streets," she says. "That's what they thought philosophy was going to be. Then they got to grad school."
While supporters of the new network concede that they are operating at the margins of the discipline, the group seems to have struck a chord. It started when 40 publicly minded philosophers gathered in April 2010 to talk about how they might support one another. Now, a year and a half later, 500 people have joined.
And the American Philosophical Association, which will meet late this month, hopes to re-energize its committee on public philosophy to help members gain a bigger platform.
But many philosophers scoff at the idea that they would get enmeshed in the issues of the day. To do so, they say, risks turning their discipline into just another means to arrive at a set of predetermined ends.
Some of them point to Martin Heidegger, who served in the Nazi Party in the 1930s, as a cautionary tale of what can happen when philosophers grow too cozy with the powerful, or to the McCarthy era as an example of what can happen when their ideas, like Marx's, become politically toxic. It is safer, they reason, for philosophers to embrace their own analytical and logical traditions, where they can pursue the truth without the messy entanglements of everyday life.
"Philosophy has this reputation of being an ivory-tower discipline full of pipe-smoking tweed-wearers," says Michael R. O'Rourke, a professor of philosophy with appointments in neuroscience and environmental science at the University of Idaho. He attended the new network's conference and runs a program at Idaho, the Toolbox Project, that uses philosophical methods to help scientists collaborate across disciplines.
"We need to take the lead as philosophers in pushing our discipline out into the world to make a difference," he says.
Irrelevance and Worse
Pushing beyond the discipline's boundaries has tended to take two forms. One entails philosophers' reaching the public directly through speeches, books, and op-ed essays, as well as advising on policy. The other, and more common, occurs when philosophers work across disciplines and in applied contexts like biomedical, food, and legal ethics. Each form comes with its own set of barriers.
Direct public engagement by philosophers tends to happen locally and largely out of sight, often through such activities as organizing small conferences or serving on hospital ethics boards. While biomedical ethicists have helped change norms of health care in the United States, philosophers are more likely to make a difference on a national scale in other countries.
For example, Martha C. Nussbaum, a professor of law with appointments in philosophy and divinity at the University of Chicago, and Amartya Sen, a professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard University, have seen their work on economic opportunity and human welfare reflected in the United Nations' "Human Development Report." Their view expands upon economic measures of poverty and inequality to encompass well-being and the choices and opportunities that are available to people.
Ms. Nussbaum says governments outside the United States have invited her to travel widely to share her ideas on those and other issues. But she and other philosophers have not had the same experience in America, perhaps because their politics are too far to the left, they say.
"If we are not in Washington, that is because a conscious decision has been made not to invite us there," say Ms. Nussbaum, noting that President Obama has not reached out to her even though he has known her for years. "The problem is with anti-intellectualism and the general nature of media and politics in the U.S., not with philosophers."
Others argue that the structure and financing of academe itself have encouraged philosophers to recede from view. With external grant money scarce, this argument goes, many philosophers have felt little incentive to engage with the world beyond. It has become simpler to embrace a safe and "scientific" version of the discipline over a publicly engaged one. In the United States, in particular, the field is dominated by analytic philosophy, which is devoted to questions of formal logic, while scholars who work in the tradition of Immanuel Kant and other Continental philosophers tend to be on the fringes.
"The reward structure is exclusively based on the regard of professional peers for your research," says David E. Schrader, executive director of the American Philosophical Association. "That was a feature that tended to push philosophy toward being inward."
Writing for and speaking only to one another has spurred a self-justifying retreat to irrelevance, Vanderbilt's Mr. Lachs argued in an essay, "Can Philosophy Still Produce Public Intellectuals?" published last month in Philosophy Now. As the discipline's methods and conclusions have become less comprehensible to the wider public, he wrote, some philosophers have nursed the suspicion that their work is fundamentally unserious.
"Either philosophers have nothing to offer or what they offer is so arcane that only professionals can grasp it," he wrote. "Both beliefs present a convenient excuse for staying out of the struggles for the soul of our society and for being satisfied with a comfortable life within the university."
Working Across Boundaries
Some philosophers have not stayed on the sidelines. Michigan State University has been particularly aggressive in putting philosophers at the intersection of disciplines working on knotty issues. Quandaries such as climate change, food scarcity, and medical, legal, and educational ethics are hard to define or solve through traditional analytical approaches, and they tap into deep disagreements over values.
The disagreements do not always arise in rarefied contexts. They can be found, for example, in a pig barn.
Paul B. Thompson, chair of agricultural, food, and community ethics at Michigan State, works with the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources to think through how to treat animals ethically while also feeding a growing human population sustainably and safely. That's a challenge that is "open-ended and characterized by pervasive uncertainty," he says.
Philosophers have a role to play in working through these priorities. "When you're trained in philosophy, you have to come to terms with texts that seem absolutely crazy on their first read," Mr. Thompson says. "You become receptive to the internal logic and open to alternative points of view. We may be quicker in understanding where someone else is coming from."
One of his colleagues, Kyle Powys Whyte, an assistant professor of philosophy in environmental ethics, used those skills recently in a project with two groups of students: animal-science majors who are being trained to run conventional industrial-agricultural businesses, and students taking a noncredit certificate program to become organic farmers.
While each group raised pigs and slaughtered them for food, they approached their jobs very differently. The students trained in the industrial system kept their pigs indoors in pens. That allowed one person to care for and feed hundreds of pigs at once, keep them free of disease, and maintain a stress-free feeding schedule.
The organic farmers took a more pastoral approach. They allowed their two sows, Honey and Ruby, and the piglets to graze on the property, eating leftover corn and alfalfa crops, fertilizing the soil, and expressing what the students and their professor, Laurie Thorp, called their essential "pigness"—rooting in the dirt, socializing, and cuddling with one another when they slept. This system was also more labor-intensive.
On a recent Wednesday, a dozen students, some clad in Carhartt work clothes, others with ponytails and beards, met with Mr. Whyte and Lissy Goralnik, a doctoral student in Michigan State's department of fisheries and wildlife, to examine their differences over what system of food production would work best.
Both groups of students said they cared about bringing a good product to market and wanted to protect the health of the pigs. But, under Mr. Whyte's and Ms. Goralnik's guidance, each set of students came to realize that they were using the same words but meaning different things.
The variance in their approaches became most evident when they talked about the demeanor of the pigs. Where did they seem to be happiest? How did each setting affect the people who worked with them?
Matthew O. Merritt, a student from the organic farm, argued that pigs were happier outdoors. Dave Chamberlin, a senior majoring in animal science who has worked on pig farms for years, asked him how he could tell.
They seemed childlike and joyful on their farm, said Mr. Merritt. When the pigs were in the industrial facility, they chewed at the metal bars of their cages.
"Pigs chew bars," Mr. Chamberlin said. "That's just what they do."
Students from the organic farm persisted, while also acknowledging that they were imposing a human frame of reference. "We're anthropomorphizing them," said Bill Bass, a tattooed, bearded former computer programmer who was raised in farm country. "We have no way of knowing what they're thinking."
The two groups of students agreed that they wanted to spend more time learning from each other—and getting to know the pigs.
Mr. Whyte and a colleague, Dale Rozeboom, a professor of swine nutrition and production management, hope that such collaborations can help develop more introspection and willingness to see one another's point of view.
"We can't continue to educate these students in silos," Mr. Rozeboom says. "They have to know how to dialogue with people."
Their session together had done that, Mr. Whyte says. "They were talking about ought and obligation. They were engaged in a philosophical conversation, but they didn't call it philosophy."
Some critics in the discipline would not call it philosophy, either.
Several public philosophers say their colleagues seem to take pleasure in policing the field's borders. Those who work in applied contexts can quickly find themselves working outside philosophy departments—and staying there.
Nancy Tuana, a professor of philosophy and director of the Rock Ethics Institute at Pennsylvania State University, has coped with that problem. She works with teams of scientists studying climate change and rising sea level, and helps raise questions about ethics and scientific values.
"That is not something that is the profile of a philosopher," Ms. Tuana says. "Half of my publications are no longer in philosophical journals."
Andrew Light, an associate professor of philosophy at George Mason University, says he had to move outside the field to influence the climate debate. An environmental ethicist, he says he spent six years learning the details of climate policy and now advises the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in Washington.
He credits his philosophical background with helping him make the transition from philosopher to policy wonk, though he would not recommend that others follow the same arduous and indirect path: "If someone said, 'I want to make a difference in climate change,' I wouldn't say do what I did."
When philosophers say they want to make a difference, some of their peers cringe, fearing that the philosophy will be corrupted by ideology.
"Under the guise of philosophy we get ideological advocacy," Gerald Gaus, a professor of philosophy at the University of Arizona, wrote in an essay, "Should Philosophers 'Apply Ethics'?"
"This, though, is to sacrifice the idea that philosophy is impartial in that its goal is simply to get things right," he wrote.
As citizens, he argues, philosophers have a right to apply their ethics instead of leaving public-policy debates to others. "However, when applying ethics in this way, they are not doing philosophy."
Such a position is "completely wrong-headed," counters Mr. Light. "What it winds up doing is ensuring that philosophically trained people and philosophers aren't at tables where decisions are actually made and that actually have very weighty moral consequences."