Field Philosophy and the Societal Value of Basic Research

Review of Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle (2016) Socrates tenured: The institutions of 21st-century philosophy. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 167 pp.

As expressed in its mission statement, Krisis: journal for contemporary philosophy has always sought to combine high academic standards with critical engagement with public issues. It “stands in a European philosophical tradition that takes its public task seriously” and intends to play an “active role in a range of public debates, in the Netherlands and elsewhere”. Socrates tenured similarly argues for a broad conception of “post-disciplinary philosophy”, consisting of three types of philosophical practice (122-126).1

The first is disciplinary philosophy. Its institutional home is the “department of philosophy” and its primary audience consists of fellow disciplinary philosophers. This type of philosophy is specialist, difficult, and therefore not accessible for non-philosophers. Second, there are the philosopher-bureaucrats: academically trained philosophers who have left academia for a job in all kinds of public or private organizations. We may think of ethicists who work in the ethics committee of a hospital, logicians who participate in the research of a computer company, or philosophers turned journalists who investigate controversial sociocultural issues.2 The focus of the book is on the third category: field philosophy, a notion modeled on the features of field sciences and their differences with laboratory sciences (119-120). Institutionally, field philosophers can be found both in philosophy departments and in all kinds of other sites of the university. They differ from disciplinary philosophy in that they aim not only at an academic audience but also (and substantially) at non-academic audiences.

The goal of field philosophy is to “help excavate, articulate, discuss, and assess the philosophical dimensions of real-world policy problems” and its approach is to “pursue case-based research at the meso-level that begins with problems as defined and contested by the stakeholders involved” (124). Note the “begins” and “assess”, which imply that field philosophy preserves its own independence; it is not a form of empirical or experimental philosophy. In particular, Frodeman and Briggle strongly emphasize that field philosophers should literally “enter a local field” and concretely interact with the relevant publics. Furthermore, they should explicitly reflect on the impact, or lack of it, of these interactions, and feed these reflections back into their academic context. As an example of a field-philosophical project they review the participation of one of the authors (Adam Briggle) in environmental debate and action concerning a plan for a more renewable electricity production in the town of Denton, Texas (89-92). On the one hand, this participation in actual local debate and action distinguishes field philosophers from social-critical philosophers who exclusively focus on academic discourse. On the other hand, field philosophy is still defined as a type of academic philosophy, which constitutes a difference with what, in the Netherlands, is called publieksfilosofie (“philosophy for the public”).

The stated reason for writing this book is the claimed dominance of disciplinary philosophy and the corresponding marginality of field philosophy in academia. A considerable part of the book is devoted to a development and defence of this point. In three substantial chapters the authors provide detailed discussion and assessment of the institutional history and the recent literature in applied philosophy, environmental philosophy and bioethics. The first two are shown to be largely captured in disciplinary philosophical practices. In contrast, bioethics has made significant contributions to field philosophy, even if it faces several remaining problems that need to be tackled (101-107).

Thus, there seems to be a significant agreement between Frodeman and Briggle’s view of philosophy and the mission of Krisis as stated at the beginning of this review. Similarly, I myself am in broad sympathy with the analyses and assessments of this book. Still, I would like to add a few points of comment, some constructive, some critical.

The book is strongly US-centered. This is quite clear in the institutional histories of applied and environmental philosophy and bioethics. For instance, at one point (97) the account of the latter seems to move on to the situation in the UK, but after only one sentence the authors return to the US. To be clear, the problem is not a focus on the US as such. The point is that the book does not show much awareness of its almost exclusively American approach.

A central subject of the book concerns the politics of academic inquiry: how should academic disciplines, in particular philosophy, relate to each other and to society? In this respect, the criticism of the current institutionalization and professionalization of philosophy, its insularity in a separate department and its fragmented discourse of specialists, has a point. In the Netherlands, some have broached similar criticisms and argued for a return to the “Central Interfaculty” as the appropriate institutional haven for philosophy.3 However, professionalization is only one of the crucial changes that universities have undergone in the past decades. In addition, there have been far-reaching processes of hierarchization, bureaucratization and commodification (Radder 2016, chaps. 5-8). Strengthening and concretely institutionalizing field philosophy would also require halting and reversing these processes. Although the authors occasionally refer to the neoliberal university, this issue deserves to be addressed much more systematically.4 Furthermore, my hypothesis for a broader, worldwide study would be that outside the US the position of non-disciplinary philosophy may not be as marginal as claimed by the authors. For instance, field philosophy may also be practiced under the heading of Science & Technology Studies (see Felt et al. 2017), an area of research hardly addressed in the book.

Frodeman and Briggle see field philosophy as a form of mode-2 inquiry, that is, research that is context-driven, problem-focused and transdisciplinary (23-25). Their general conception of philosophy does include classical disciplinary (that is, mode-1) philosophy. Yet, philosophy as a whole should be transformed by adding field philosophy as a major, mode-2 part of it. Field philosophy includes normative judgment: it not only concerns what is but also what should be (47). But its endorsement of the mode-1/mode-2 discourse leads one to ask: how critical is field philosophy? At what kind of assessments does it aim? After all, mode-2 discourse has often been severely criticized for its advocacy of a neoliberal science policy. See, for example, this comment by Mieke Boon and Tarja Knuuttila:

As universities have sought to renew their financial base through contract research, educational services, consulting, and the commercialization of research results the mode-2 ideology legitimizes the status quo by offering a rosy vision of the organizational and other changes that are taking place (Boon and Knuuttila 2011, 76-77).

Although this criticism does not necessarily apply to all mode-2 research, it does entail a strong warning against naively joining the mode-2 rhetoric. I suppose, for example, that Frodeman and Briggle do not simply agree with the views and practices of the “entrepreneurs and technologists of Silicon Valley and other hubs of innovation [who] function today as de facto philosophers” (122). But how they would assess these practices (through “critical thinking” aimed at “serving a common good”, 124) remains rather vague. In this respect, the social-critical mode-3 approach proposed by Harry Kunneman is much more explicit about its own normative stance (Kunneman 2010). The same applies to René Gabriëls’ critical analysis and assessment of the Dutch debates on nuclear energy and poverty (Gabriëls 2001).

Above, I stated that the criticism of the dominance of disciplinary philosophy “has a point”. Yet this claim should be qualified by acknowledging the nature and societal value of basic research. First, we should note that basic research is not the same as disciplinary research. In fact, much basic academic research is interdisciplinary. Examples from philosophy abound, especially if we broaden our perspective by including philosophers from outside of the US. We may think of the many interdisciplinary studies building on the work of Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault or Jürgen Habermas; or of integrated history and philosophy of science and empirically-informed ethics. Thus, even if there certainly is a strong tradition of disciplinary philosophy, there is also a significant movement of interdisciplinary philosophers.

My second qualification is more critical. Again, it concerns basic science. Frodeman and Briggle require that academic inquiry should aim for more or less direct societal impact. From the perspective of their “philosophy of impact” (137-149), they strongly criticize the idea of basic research (in particular in the humanities, including philosophy) as motivated by individual curiosity and as possessing an intrinsic value. It is, however, not at all necessary to interpret basic research in terms of individual curiosity, as the authors do. Furthermore, we can, and should, go beyond the idea of intrinsic value and defend the societal value of basic research.5 Since societies have to cope not just with current complex problems but also with hard to anticipate future complexities, they need knowledge resources that are optimally multi-purpose and open-ended. As many examples from the history of science show, basic scientific knowledge offers the best epistemic possibilities for coping with future complexity and uncertainty. This appraisal of basic science is not meant as an endorsement of the scientistic doctrine that science, and only science, is the royal road to solving all our problems. What it says is that, in as far as science is useful for the purpose of anticipating future complexity and uncertainty it is basic science rather than the much more specific application-oriented disciplines. This applies just as well to the humanities and hence to philosophy. Therefore, a comprehensive, critical philosophy should not be limited to the specific problems of particular target groups but also acknowledge the interests of those future generations that will be affected by our current policies. Furthermore, in contrast to what is suggested by critics of the so-called linear model of the relation between science and technology, including Frodeman and Briggle (137-139), we do not need to interpret basic research as a sufficient, or even as a strictly necessary, condition of technological invention and economic or social innovation. A good enough reason (which is not at all “mysterious”: 139) for promoting basic research from a societal perspective is that, frequently enough, the results of this kind of research constitute a significant and indispensable component of processes of invention and innovation (see also Carrier 2011). Due to the dominance of neoliberal politics, in many countries basic research is under pressure and sometimes even marginalized. The above arguments imply that this type of research, with its characteristic long-term perspective, deserves our support: the societal value of academic inquiry, including philosophy, should not be limited to its short-term, local impact.

Finally, should Socrates be, posthumously, tenured? Although Frodeman and Briggle briefly address some critical interpretations of Socrates (15-16), they still see him as a worthy representative of field philosophy, who certainly deserves tenure. I disagree. As I.F. Stone (1989) has convincingly demonstrated, the philosophy and politics of Socrates was strongly essentialist, elitist and anti-democratic. For this reason, he is not the icon of field philosophy that Frodeman and Briggle claim him to be.