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.
In 1917 John Dewey published “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy.” The essay consists of a reflection on the role of philosophy in early 20th century American life, expressing Dewey’s concern that philosophy had become antiquated, “sidetracked from the main currents of contemporary life,” too much the domain of professionals and adepts. While taking pains to note that the classic questions of philosophy make contributions to culture both past and present, Dewey felt that the topics being raised by professional philosophers were too often “discussed mainly because they have been discussed rather than because contemporary conditions of life suggest them.”
Dewey soon traveled to China, where he delivered nearly 200 lectures on education and democracy to large crowds across a two-year stay. Back in America Dewey commented on the public questions of the day, a role that he inhabited until his death in 1952. Since then, however, professional philosophers have followed W.V.O. Quine’s path in treating philosophy as a technical exercise of no particular interest to the layman:
Think of organic chemistry; I recognize its importance, but I am not curious about it, nor do I see why the layman should care about much of what concerns me in philosophy.
But is philosophy really analogous to chemistry, a domain of expertise populated by specialists? Or are philosophical questions part and parcel of everyone’s life, as far from a specialist’s tasks as anything can be?
Nearly 100 years after Dewey’s essay, it’s time for another reconstruction of philosophy.
While it is possible to point to philosophers who work with (rather than merely talk about) the concerns of non-philosophers, among the mass of philosophers societal irrelevance is often treated as a sign of intellectual seriousness.
This is a shame, since we are surrounded by phenomena crying out for philosophic reflection. Today we are constantly confronted by philosophic questions, in many cases created by advances in science and technology. Open your computer and you can find thoughtful exploration of issues as varied as the creation of autonomous killing machines, the loss of privacy in a digital age, the remaking of friendship via Facebook, and the refashioning of human nature via biotechnology. In this sense philosophy abounds. But professional philosophers have remained largely on the margins of this growing cultural conversation.
It needn’t be this way. Take the subject matter of metaphysics. Every philosophy department teaches courses in metaphysics. But how is the subject handled? As evidenced by a sample of university syllabuses posted online, metaphysics classes are overwhelmingly exercises in professional philosophy. Just as Dewey complained, classes begin from the concerns of philosophers rather than from contemporary problems. This can be seen in the leading textbooks. Consider as magisterial a source as the Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics, Loux and Zimmerman, eds. Their introduction begins so:
Its detractors often characterize analytical philosophy as anti-metaphysical. After all, we are told, it was born at the hands of Moore and Russell, who were reacting against the metaphysical systems of idealists like Bosanquet and Bradley…
The discussion is entirely framed in terms of the disciplinary concerns of philosophy – and only 20th century analytic philosophy at that. We find no reference to people’s actual lives, to the metaphysical issues tied to the births and transformations and deaths that we all endure, no acknowledgement that questions of metaphysics involve some of the most intimate and transcendent questions of our lives. Instead, metaphysics is a tale told in terms of professionals: Moore and Russell, Bosanquet and Bradley, Quine and Lewis.
We are not claiming that the matters addressed by such essays are insignificant. But it takes one adept in philosophy to extract the nut of existential meaning from the disciplinary shell. No wonder even the best students walk away.
Why do philosophers begin with insider topics when issues laden with metaphysics are in the news every day? The May 25, 2014 issue of The Washington Post describes a patient taking heart pills that include ingestible chips: the chips link up with her computer so that she and her doctor can see that she has taken her medicine. The story also describes soon-to-be marketed nanosensors that live in the bloodstream and will be able to spot the signs of a heart attack before it occurs. These are issues that could fall under “Existence and Identity,” one of the sections of the Oxford Handbook: at stake here are metaphysical questions about the nature of self and the boundary between organism and machine.
This needs to change, for the health of our culture, and for the health of philosophy itself. Unless professional philosophy embraces and institutionalizes an engaged approach to philosophizing, working alongside other disciplines and abroad in the world at large, it will become a casualty of history.
In our opinion, the single greatest impediment to philosophy’s greater relevance is the institutional situation of philosophy. The early 20th century research university disciplined philosophers, placing them in departments, where they wrote for and were judged by their disciplinary peers. Oddly, this change was unremarked upon, or was treated as simply the professionalization of another academic field of research. It continues to be passed over in silence today. Like Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentleman, who did not know that he had been speaking prose, philosophers seem innocent of the fact that they have been doing disciplinary philosophy, or that one might have reasons to object to this fact. And so even when their subject matter consists of something of real significance to the wider world, philosophers typically discuss the topic in a way that precludes the active interest of and involvement by non-philosophers.
Philosophers view themselves as critical thinkers par excellence who have been trained to question everything; but they have overlooked the institutional arrangements that govern their lives. The department is seen as a neutral space from which thought germinates, not itself the object of reflection. One finds no exploration of the effects that disciplining might have had on philosophical theorizing, or of where else philosophers could be housed, or of how philosophers, by being located elsewhere, might have developed alternative accounts of the world or have come up with new ways of philosophizing. In fact, the epistemic implications of the current institutional housing of philosophy are profound.
Philosophers once recognized that there is something problematic about treating philosophy as simply one discipline alongside the others. It was once understood that in addition to fine-grained analyses philosophy offered perspectives that undergirded, capped off, or synthesized the work of other disciplines such as physics or biology, and then connected those insights to our larger concerns. Such work lost favor in the 20th century – dismissed as Weltanschauung philosophy by analytic philosophers, and as foundationalism by continental philosophers. But reopen this perspective and questions abound: if philosophy is not, or not exclusively a regional ontology, why are philosophers housed within one region of the university?
Why is peer-reviewed scholarship the sole standard for judging philosophic work, rather than also the effects that such work has on the larger world? And why is there only one social role for those with Ph.D.s in philosophy – namely, to talk to other Ph.D.s in philosophy?
Philosophers may have ignored their institutional placement, but for other disciplines critical reflection on the structures of knowledge production has become par for the course. Perhaps the most important site for such analysis is the interdisciplinary field of science, technology, and society studies (STS). One influential book in STS – Gibbons et al.’s 1994 The New Production of Knowledge – chronicles the shift in late 20th century science from “Mode 1” to “Mode 2” knowledge production. Mode 1 is academic, investigator-initiated, and discipline-based. By contrast, Mode 2 knowledge production is context-driven, problem-focused, and interdisciplinary. This framework is a good rough sketch of our basic point: we are tracing and promoting the 21st century development of Mode 2 philosophy.
But make no mistake. We are pluralists on this point. We believe Mode 1 or disciplinary scholarship should continue to have a central place in philosophy. But Mode 1 thinking needs to be counter-balanced by an equal focus within the philosophical community on conducting work that is socially engaged. In part this is simply recognizing a new reality: increasingly society is demanding that academics demonstrate their broader relevance. This demand has so far largely skipped over philosophy and the humanities, but this is unlikely to remain the case for much longer. Philosophy needs to demonstrate its bona fides by showing how it can make timely and effective contributions to contemporary debates. We believe that this is best done in a way that also shows that Mode 2 philosophizing is enriched by the insights of Mode 1 or traditional philosophy.
While Mode 1 philosophy is still the reigning orthodoxy, there is a growing heterodoxy within the ranks of philosophers, sometimes lumped under the title of “public philosophy.” We call our own version of Mode 2 work “field philosophy.” There are a number of similar approaches in areas such as environmental justice, critical race theory, feminism, and bioethics that we recognize as allies. We celebrate these diverse approaches to Mode 2 philosophizing, whether they go by the name of ‘public’, ‘applied’, or by some other title. But we believe that the lack of thought given to the institutional dimensions of philosophizing has limited the effectiveness of this work. A new philosophical practice, where philosophers work in real time with a variety of audiences and stakeholders, will lead to new theoretical forms of philosophy – once we break the stranglehold that disciplinary norms have upon the profession.
It will take a community to institutionalize Mode 2 practices. As it stands now, heterodox practitioners (however they self-identify) exist on the margins and lead professional lives that run against the grain. As the feminist public philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff notes, many Mode 2 philosophers try to “walk a fine line between responsiveness to community needs and employment survival, pushing the boundaries of academic respectability even while trying to establish their credentials in conventional ways." It is these “conventional ways” that must change. We have to invent a philosophy where responsiveness to community needs (not just disciplinary interests and imperatives) is an integral part of one’s employment and is viewed as academically respectable.
In practice, this will require many changes, from revised promotion and tenure criteria to alternative metrics for excellence and impact. As these changes are implemented, it will be important to consider at what point the chasm has been reduced to a suitable-sized gap. After all, we don’t want to eliminate the space between philosophy and society altogether. Socrates was engaged, but still an outsider. He certainly was no pundit looking to score the most outrageous sound bite and rack up the most “likes” on Facebook. We need a people’s philosophy that reserves every right to be unpopular.
Robert Frodeman is a professor of philosophy and religion studies at North Texas and director of its Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity. Adam Briggle is an associate professor of philosophy and religion studies at the University of North Texas.
About 10 years ago, I was an admissions officer at a university in London, where (typical of the British system of admitting major by major) I read essays from those who wanted to study philosophy. To be honest, the essays were largely indistinguishable from one another, presumably because the applicants were all given identical advice about what they should say.
But my interest peaked when the applicants mentioned what drew them to philosophy in the first place. Often, they cited a work of “popular” philosophy, perhaps Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, or something by A.C. Grayling or Alain de Botton. The students would not be reading such works once they arrived to do their degree. Rather they would read the philosophical classics – Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant – and cutting edge philosophical papers from the more recent past. They had been pulled in by popular philosophy, but at university they would experience professionalized philosophy, learning its special jargon, conceptual tools, and history.
There has long been a gulf between the public experience of philosophy and philosophy as it is pursued among the experts. Like other academics, philosophers focus on sharing research with colleagues, and draw on it when they teach the students who have shown enough aptitude (and paid or borrowed enough money) to get into their classrooms. Only a minority of academics try to speak to a broader audience, and when they do, the link to what they do in their professional life is presumed to be rather indirect. Knowledge trickles down from the ivory tower to the public sphere, but what comes out has typically been just that: a trickle.
This is beginning to change. The reason can be summed up in an unlovely, two-word phrase: “new media.” With tools like blogs and podcasts, platforms like iTunesU and “massive open online courses” (MOOCs), academics now have the opportunity to reach an enormous audience of people who need only an Internet connection and a modicum of curiosity. There are online interviews with leading philosophers (Radio 4’s “In Our Time,” “Philosophy Bites,” “Philosopher’s Zone,” “Elucidations”) and themed series like my History of Philosophy podcast. You can also find free philosophy instruction on YouTube and on iTunesU (traditional university lectures recorded and put online), while many conferences and professional lectures are also appearing on the internet (for instance from the Aristotelian Society, or the Center for Mathematical Philosophy in Munich).
It’s an unprecedented opportunity. So why don’t more academics take advantage of it? Many of the podcasters who host series on topics in history, for instance, are not university lecturers but independent scholars. I know, because I met them on Facebook (of course).
Of course there are plenty of practical explanations for this reluctance. New media projects require a certain degree of fearlessness when it comes to technology, and can be very time-consuming. With the heavy demands of teaching, research and administration, it’s no surprise that launching such a project may not rise to the top of an academic’s “to do” list. In theory, there could be rewards to balance the costs in time and energy. We are frequently asked to demonstrate the wider social “impact” of our work these days, on grant applications or in the Britain’s Research Excellence Framework survey. But “impact” is a rather ill-defined notion. When I first launched my own podcast, I was warned that it would not necessarily make a good impact case study in the REF: how exactly does one document the “impact” of a podcast? In any case, hosting a podcast is unlikely to help your career as much as writing a good journal article or two, which could easily take less time.
Beyond the practical issues, I suspect most academics still assume that media projects are inevitably “popular,” in the pejorative sense of being strictly introductory. A podcast or blog isn’t the place to do real philosophy or history – this view holds -- that happens in the classroom, or in the pages of peer-reviewed journals and monographs. But such worries miss the promise of new media. With no time limits and no editorial constraints, academics can make any ideas they choose freely available on the Internet. If that content isn’t for everyone, so what?
My own podcast covers the history of philosophy “without any gaps,” moving chronologically at a slow (some might say excruciatingly slow) rate. (Obviously this sort of thing isn’t for everyone. But my listeners are not just fellow academics and undergraduates. They are commuters, truck drivers, homemakers, retirees, high school students – as I say, anyone with an Internet connection and curiosity about the subject. We should not underestimate how widespread that curiosity might be, even when it comes to rather recondite topics.
Furthermore, just as students in a university setting helping their teachers to see things in a new way, the audience for a new media project will respond with corrections, comments, and other sorts of feedback. So there is a chance here for a democratic and open conversation in which knowledge is shared among many more people, not just those among the academic community. I believe that more and more academics will seize that chance, even if the use of new media raises questions about the role of universities and academic experts.
Why, for instance, should students pay high tuition to learn the same things they could be downloading for free? Yet this worry too, I think, is misplaced.
If anything, following a blog, taking a MOOC, or subscribing to a podcast will bring potential students to fields of study they would not otherwise have considered. I don’t read admissions essays anymore, but I like to imagine that some of the applicants say they’ve been inspired to pursue philosophy because of something they found online.