Land-grant universities can reinvigorate philosophy's focus on societal challenges (essay)

In recent years, we’ve seen a surge of articles, essays and blog posts by professional philosophers on the future of philosophy. While it isn’t surprising that people who reflect professionally would reflect on the future of their profession, this surge is symptomatic of a deeper anxiety that some philosophers, and many humanists, have felt in the modern, outcome-oriented academy.

Some of the reflections are more conservative, defending the status quo and arguing that philosophy is just as strong, if not stronger, than it ever was (e.g., Scott Soames, “Philosophy’s True Home”). Others are more progressive, contending that the profession must be diversified if it is to be capable of responding to the complex challenges of a pluralistic world (e.g., Minna Salami, “Philosophy has to be about more than just white men”).

Such anxieties are not unfounded. The university’s role in a globally interconnected world is changing, and we need to be responsive to that change. Without sustained, intentional efforts to engage the challenges of a global public, philosophy will languish.

In a New York Times essay, Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle argue that philosophy as an endeavor lost its way when, in an effort to be integrated into the modern research university, it sought to establish itself as a specialized discipline alongside other disciplines. Although controversial, their position rightly identifies a source of philosophy’s current crisis: to turn inward to disciplinary concerns is to turn away from the questions that the world asks of us.

Before its emergence as a department within the modern research institution, philosophy had in fact long been deeply engaged with the world. At its heart, philosophy is a broad human activity requiring a heightened attunement to the environment we inhabit and a cultivated ability to respond to complexity with nuance and a sense for what is just. If it sacrificed this broader scope of concern as a price of legitimacy in the modern research university, then the “purified” discipline of philosophy was indeed significantly different from the embedded practice of gadflies and other lovers of wisdom. Philosophy, disciplined in this way, is not well positioned to live up to the public commitments it has embodied from its earliest beginnings.

But not all modern research universities are the same. Consider, in particular, how philosophy has taken root in the American land-grant universities that emerged in the 19th century to provide all citizens with access to higher education, democratizing an institution that had been available only to a select few. The land-grant mission directs all of higher education, including philosophy, to the lived realities of the world, emphasizing our shared responsibility to support citizen leaders in grappling with difficult challenges from a diversity of perspectives.

To the extent that philosophy lost its way by turning inward, perhaps it can find its way again in the contemporary public land-grant university by returning to an outward focus that addresses the most complex and intractable challenges of our time. Unlike traditional research universities or, for that matter, liberal arts colleges and other four-year institutions, land-grant universities are charged with the responsibility of reaching out to their states and to the broader regions in which they are situated. Further, they maintain statewide extension networks that support the flow of knowledge and information with the public.

In this context, philosophy can draw on its deepest historical roots as a publicly engaged activity while cultivating the synthesis of a wide range of disciplinary perspectives. Our vision of a philosophy at home in the public land-grant university requires the disciplinary pursuit of a progressive research agenda that emphasizes democratic and inclusive public engagement with real-world issues, such as food security, climate change and environmental justice.

To speak of the disciplinary pursuit of a progressive, inclusive and democratic research agenda is to affirm both the theoretical (and often esoteric) accomplishments of philosophy as an academic discipline and the imperative to be responsive to the world we share. It is a call for an engaged philosophy that recognizes that theory is best informed by practice and that practice is always enriched by theory -- such that the segregation of the two always results in the impoverishment of both.

So understood, engaged philosophy is different from a common conception of applied philosophy, according to which one works out the theory in isolation from the messiness of the real world into which it is then deployed. This conception encourages the antidemocratic view that academic philosophers work out solutions on their own and then merely deliver them to the masses; it is a renunciation of the dialogue that enriches the work. By contrast, engaged philosophy emphasizes the coordination of a broad range of voices, which secures responsiveness to complexity, sensitivity to differences in core values and beliefs, and a robust commitment to justice.

Philosophy has a well-earned reputation for analysis, but the practice of engaged philosophy in the land-grant context requires a cultivated capacity for synthesis -- of philosophical approaches, of philosophy with other academic disciplines and of academic with nonacademic perspectives. This capacity entails commitment to two key principles.

First, engaged philosophy is committed to cross-disciplinary research, understood as including both interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary activity. Complex problems such as food security and environmental justice have important conceptual and empirical dimensions that require input from a wide range of other disciplines; at the same time, they are problems for people outside the academy, and any adequate response will require input from nonacademic stakeholders. Philosophers can and should play a fundamental role in these cross-disciplinary responses, illuminating the nature of the values in play and providing common ground that facilitates the integration of the various perspectives, both inside and outside the academy. But we should also always come prepared to listen and learn, so our own disciplinary approach is enriched by our engagement with others as we respond to the challenges we face. For example, the Michigan State University-based Toolbox Project uses philosophical concepts and methods to facilitate communication and collaboration in cross-disciplinary projects, ranging from work on transplant rejection in pediatric patients, oil and gas inputs into the Gulf of Mexico, and climate resiliency in western Michigan.

Second, engaged philosophy is committed to inclusivity. A commitment to cross-disciplinary research entails inclusivity in the research response, but research represents only one mode of engagement. Sustainable and just responses to complex social problems require cultivating the habits of inclusive practice and solidarity on a broad scale. This involves ensuring the participation of those who are affected by the problem in all stages of the research process, as well as before research begins and after it concludes. Unless engaged philosophers, and university researchers more generally, work shoulder to shoulder with activists and community members on efforts such as those that involve environmental justice, climate policy and indigenous peoples, the responses they develop will lack the trust and respect needed to ensure long-term viability.

But the habits of inclusive practice must not be cultivated exclusively in philosophy’s external relationships. They must also be embodied in the practices of academic philosophy itself. This means that a much more inclusive understanding of what “counts as” philosophy and of who “looks like” a philosopher is required. Philosophy has been accused of being a monoculture, both in terms of its thematic foci and its demographic composition. Engagement can reveal new contexts for philosophical work, increasing the diversity of philosophical problems and of the philosophical practitioners who engage them.

Just as universities must adapt to remain relevant and accountable in a changing world, so too must the disciplines that give academic depth to them. The anxiety of philosophers is symptomatic of a broader concern about our role in this changing institutional context. But the symptoms themselves point to possible remedies. Specifically, a more inclusive philosophy profession that acknowledges its potential as a partner in cross-disciplinary efforts could model a broader and more diverse understanding of academic excellence -- one rooted in publicly engaged initiatives that enrich the human experience.

Although land-grant universities have their own fraught histories, for the land granted was gained through the colonization of indigenous peoples, they remain ideal institutional sites in which to realize this synthetic vision, because they provide the infrastructure and the resources necessary to advance these commitments to an inclusive and engaged philosophy. The humanities more broadly, and philosophy in particular, are well positioned in the land-grant university to catalyze initiatives that can deepen our shared responses to the most difficult challenges we face.

Christopher P. Long is dean of the College of Arts and Letters and professor of philosophy at Michigan State University, and Michael O’Rourke is professor of philosophy and faculty in AgBioResearch at the university.

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Review of Naomi Zack, "White Privilege and Black Rights: The Injustice of U.S. Police Racial Profiling and Homicide"

You don’t hear much about the United States being a “postracial society” these days, except when someone is dismissing bygone illusions of the late ’00s, or just being sarcastic. With the Obama era beginning to wind down (as of this week, the president has just under 18 months left in office) American life is well into its post-post-racial phase.

Two thoughts: (1) Maybe we should retire the prefix. All it really conveys is that succession does not necessarily mean progress. (2) It is easy to confuse an attitude of cold sobriety about the pace and direction of change with cynicism, but they are different things. For one, cynicism is much easier to come by. (Often it’s just laziness pretending to be sophisticated.) Lucid assessment, on the other hand, is hard work and not for the faint of spirit.

Naomi Zack’s White Privilege and Black Rights: The Injustice of U.S. Police Racial Profiling and Homicide (Rowman & Littlefield) is a case in point. It consists of three essays plus a preface and conclusion. Remarks by the author indicate it was prepared in the final weeks of last year, with the events in Ferguson, Mo., fresh in mind. But don’t let the title or the book’s relative brevity fool you. The author is a professor of philosophy at the University of Oregon -- and when she takes up terms such as “white privilege” or “black rights,” it is to scrutinize the concepts rather than to use them in slogans.

Despite its topicality, Zack’s book is less a commentary on recent events than part of her continuing effort to think, as a philosopher, about questions of race and justice that are long-standing, but also prone to flashing up, on occasion, with great urgency -- demanding a response, whether or not philosophers (or anyone else) is prepared to answer them.

Zack distinguishes between two ways of philosophizing about justice. One treats justice as an ideal that can be defined and reasoned about, even if no real society in human history ever “fully instantiates or realizes an ideal of justice for all members of that society.” Efforts to develop a theory of justice span the history of Western philosophy.

The other approach begins with injustice and seeks to understand and correct it. Of course, that implies that the philosopher already has some conception of what justice is -- which would seem to beg the question. But Zack contends that theories of justice also necessarily start out from pre-existing beliefs about what it is, which are then strengthened or revised as arguments unfold.

“However it may be done and whatever its subject,” Zack writes, “beginning with concrete injustice and ending with proposals for its correction is a very open-ended and indeterminate task. But it might be the main subject of justice about which people who focus on real life and history genuinely care.”

The philosopher Zack describes may not start out with a theory of what justice is. But that’s OK -- she can recognize justice, paradoxically enough, when it's gone missing.

I wish the author had clarified the approach in the book’s opening pages, rather than two-thirds of the way through, because it proves fundamental to almost everything else she says. She points out how police killings of young, unarmed African-American males over the past couple of years are often explained with references to “white privilege” and “the white supremacist system” -- examples of a sort of ad hoc philosophizing about racial injustice in the United States, but inadequate ones in Zack’s analysis.

Take the ability to walk around talking on the phone carrying a box of Skittles. It is not a “privilege” that white people enjoy, as should be obvious from the sheer absurdity of putting it that way. It is one of countless activities that a white person can pursue without even having to think about it. “That is,” Zack writes, “a ‘privilege’ whites are said to have is sometimes a right belonging to both whites and nonwhites that is violated when nonwhites are the ones who [exercise] it.”

In the words of an online comment the author quotes, “Not fearing the police will kill your child for no reason isn’t a privilege, it’s a right.” The distinction is more than semantic. What Zack calls “the discourse of white privilege” not only describes reality badly but fosters a kind of moral masochism, inducing “self-paralysis in the face of its stated goals of equality.” (She implies that white academics are particularly susceptible to "hold[ing] … progressive belief structures in intellectual parts of their life that are insulated from how they act politically and privately …")

Likewise, “the white supremacist power structure” is a way of describing and explaining oppression that is ultimately incapacitating: “After the civil rights movement, overt and deliberate discrimination in education, housing and employment were made illegal and explicitly racially discriminatory laws were prohibited.” While “de facto racial discrimination is highly prevalent in desirable forms of education, housing and employment,” it does no one any good to assume that “an officially approved ideology of white supremacy” remains embodied in the existing legal order.

None of which should be taken to imply that Zack denies the existence of deep, persisting and tenacious racial inequality, expressed and reinforced through routine practices of violence and humiliation by police seldom held accountable for their actions. But, she says, "What many critics may correctly perceive as societywide and historically deep antiblack racism in the United States does not have to be thoroughly corrected before the immediate issue of police killings of unarmed young black men can be addressed."

She is not a political strategist; her analyses of the bogus logic by which racial profiling and police killings are rationalized are interesting but how to translate them into action is not exactly clear. But in the end, justice and injustice are not problems for philosophers alone.

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