Socrates Tenured: An Introduction, Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle

SERRC —  August 11, 2014 — 3 Comments

Author Information: Robert Frodeman, University of North Texas, and Adam Briggle, University of North Texas,


Editor’s Note: Bob Frodeman and Adam Briggle were kind enough to share a draft (further abridged) of the introduction to their proposed book Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st Century Philosophy. The book is under consideration for publication in our “Collective Studies in Knowledge and Society” series. A reply to their Frodeman and Briggle’s introduction is forthcoming.


There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. — Thoreau

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. — Quine

Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men. — Dewey


In 1917 John Dewey published “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy.” This essay, a nearly 17,000 word reflection on the role of philosophy in early 20th century American life, expressed 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 inestimable 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. In America Dewey commented on the public questions of the day, a role that he inhabited until his death in 1952. Since then, however, a different set of expectations has ruled. Professional philosophers have followed Quine’s path in treating philosophy as a technical exercise of no particular interest to the layman. While it is possible to point to philosophers who work with (rather than merely talk about) non-philosophical stakeholders, among the mass of philosophers societal irrelevance is often treated as a sign of intellectual seriousness.

Today we live in a global commons created and constantly modified by technoscientific invention. We are surrounded by phenomena crying out for philosophic reflection. Indeed, open your computer and you will 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, as Romano (2012) and Goldstein (2014) have recently argued, philosophy abounds.

But professional philosophers have remained largely on the margins of this growing cultural conversation. It needn’t be this way. Take metaphysics. Every philosophy department teaches courses in metaphysics. But how is the subject handled? As evidenced by a sample of syllabuses posted online, metaphysics classes are overwhelmingly exercises in professional philosophy. Classes begin from the concerns of philosophers rather than from contemporary problems. The same is true of leading textbooks. Consider as magisterial a source as the Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics, Loux and Zimmerman, eds. Their introduction begins:

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 discipline 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.

The eight sections of the Handbook reflect this Olympian perspective:

  • Universals and Particulars
  • Existence and Identity
  • Modality and Possible Worlds
  • Time, Space-Time, and Persistence
  • Events, Causation, and Physics
  • Persons and the Nature of Mind
  • Freedom of the Will
  • Anti-Realism and Vagueness

Chapter titles are laden with jargon like “Supervenience, Emergence, Realization, Reduction” and “Compatiblism and Incompatiblism.” This is not to say that the matters addressed by such essays are not significant. But it takes an adept in philosophy to extract the nut of existential meaning from the disciplinary shell. No wonder even the best students walk away confirmed in their prejudices concerning the irrelevance of philosophy to everyday life. [1]

Why do philosophers begin with insider topics when issues laden with metaphysics are in the news every day? Today’s (May 25, 2014) 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 fall under “Existence and Identity,” one of the sections of the Oxford Handbook: at stake here are not just new physical instruments, but metaphysical questions about the nature of self and the boundary between organism and machine. Loux and Zimmerman miss the chance to frame this section in terms of our increasingly Borg-like existence rather than solely in terms of scholastic debates.

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.

Nearly 100 years after Dewey’s essay it is time for another reconstruction of philosophy.


Over time a domain of action previously accepted as given evolved into something deemed worthy of sustained critical commentary, often in association with particular social, economic, or political processes. — Rinella

This won’t be easy. To philosophize today–by which we mean professionally, in a salaried position, at a college or university–is to live within a paradox. Now, one could claim that it has always been so. A gap has always existed between the concerns of philosophers and our real world philosophic problems. Everyone wrestles with how to live a rich and fulfilling existence. Yet formalize the question–what constitutes the good life?–and the topic tends to ossify. People dismiss it as wool gathering. But the contradiction remains. People often describe ethics as merely a matter of opinion, even while they also struggle to ensure that their children are treated fairly. And they reject aesthetics as subjective even as they plan trips to national parks and pour over the details of their kitchen remodel.

The tension between the language and concerns of philosophers and everyday philosophical problems has been part of the West’s DNA since the milkmaid laughed at Thales tumbling into a ditch. But Thales had practical chops, too, which he proved when he made a killing in the olive market. The vexed nature of the relationship between philosophers and society was demonstrated early on by Socrates’ fate. With one leg in abstruse contemplation and the other planted in contemporary affairs, philosophy has alternately bored and irritated the outside world. It is a tension that philosophers have often sought to lessen. Chief among those complaining about the uselessness of philosophy have been philosophers themselves. Thus Descartes scorned the abstractions of the Schoolmen and Marx said the point of philosophy was to change, rather than merely interpret the world.

But if the relationship between philosophy and the polis has always been fraught, and laced with perhaps more than a bit of subterfuge, it was also in the end a workable one. Until the 20th century, that is. Since then the tension has grown into a paradox, the gap into a chasm. Socrates Tenured offers an account of how this chasm was created – how philosophy, the most relevant (if not the most efficient) of subjects, lost the creative tension between contemplation and engagement and slipped into cultural irrelevance. But more than simply critique, this book also proposes a way forward, describing how philosophy can regain a relevant role in culture.

Our argument turns on the single greatest impediment to philosophy’s greater relevance: the current 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 Gentleman, to whom no one had explained that he had been speaking prose, philosophers seem innocent of the fact that they have been disciplined, 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 may have had much to say to their fellow citizens, but unlike Nietzsche’s Zarathustra they no longer come down from the mountaintop to say it.

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. For when philosophers leave behind disciplinary standards, living and working elsewhere than in philosophy departments, their standards for sound theoretical work change as well.

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 twentieth 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 PhDs in philosophy–namely, to talk to other PhDs in philosophy?

Rinella’s comment (2010) is drawn from an interview that Foucault gave to Paul Rabinow shortly before his death. Foucault was concerned with “what one could call the problems or, more exactly, problematizations”–how we decide what questions do or do not get asked (Rabinow, 1984). Why, for instance, has the philosophy of science de facto consisted of the philosophy of physics and not geology (Frodeman 2003)? Why has the philosophy of technology, our reflection on the ways in which we modify our environment, not included an account of the ways in which we modify our internal environment via drugs? Similarly, we seek here to problematize the institutional aspects of philosophy, and the humanities generally. We envision a wide range of theoretical, practical, and political consequences to result.


Philosophers may have ignored their institutional placement, but for other disciplines critical reflection on the structures of knowledge production is 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, 1994–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.

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 this 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.

It is instructive to extend some of the debates within STS and the related field of science policy into the realm of philosophy. One of the central questions for science policy is; how does scientific research translate into social value? Since the end of World War II, the answer to this question has basically been serendipity. In a 1945 letter to President Truman, Vannevar Bush (who had led scientific R&D efforts during the war), argued that basic research is foundational to social progress. We know science will improve society, he argued, but we don’t know which research project will lead to which improvements. There is no way to predict how things will turn out. So it is best to conduct as much basic research as possible, trusting that somewhere down the line it will somehow pay off. This allowed scientists to wall off a narrow domain of responsibility: their job was to conduct good research as judged by their disciplinary peers and then “throw it over the wall” to society. The later use of that research was not their responsibility.

This is the institutional form that philosophy also took on. What do we have in philosophy departments if not, in Bush’s words, “the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity”? There is the same guiding faith that somehow, somewhere down the line those words in peer-reviewed academic philosophy journals will pay rewards to society.

Increasingly, that faith is not good enough. At the federal level, budget cuts and a growing animosity toward the public sphere have led to Congressional attacks on individual research grants and even entire research programs. This has also led to increasing attempts to measure the broader social impacts of research. Attempts at such measurement include bibliometrics, patent analysis, Altmetrics, community-engaged research, and translational research. But while such questions are a hot area of research across a number of fields, for the most part philosophers and other humanists still plod along with the old serendipity model of mode 1 disciplinary scholarship. They have not yet seen this as an opportunity for interesting theoretical work which also holds important practical outcomes.

It’s time for a philosophy policy analogous to science policy, and indeed we believe that this is already beginning to germinate. 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 (which we describe below) “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.

We have two audiences in mind for this book. First, for administrators, scientists, engineers, and others who would benefit from the work of Mode 2 philosophy, our goal is to introduce a kind of philosophy that shatters preconceived notions of philosophers as navel-gazing nook-dwellers. Second, for philosophers, our goal is to open up new opportunities for theorizing and for employment. Quite often, when philosophers follow the urge to engage in real-world problems they wind up working through a set of thorny theoretical and practical issues with no resources to help them cope. We hope this book serves, perhaps not as a set of best practices but as a reference to help foster a community of practitioners. In the absence of such a self-reflexive community, the various experiments in Mode 2 philosophizing will remain a sequence of one-off attempts. Isolated individuals fed up with the disciplinary status quo will reinvent the wheel of alternative philosophy anew each time. Lessons learned will not be shared. Traps that could be avoided won’t be, and alternative career paths for philosophers will remain closed, because making a generational change takes collective and sustained effort.

More importantly, it will take a community to institutionalize Mode 2 practices. As it stands now, heterodox practitioners (however they may 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” (Alcoff 2002, p. 522). 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.

This is how to shrink the chasm between philosophy and society. 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.

[1] But don’t ethics textbooks, and classes, often take the tact that we are advocating? See below, but we happily concede that our account applies to different degrees to different aspects of philosophy. But even ethics classes need to do a better job of hooking onto the world.

3 responses to Socrates Tenured: An Introduction, Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle

    Patrick Atwater January 16, 2015 at 2:20 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with the statement of the problem but the approach in improving the connection between philosophy in the academy and society broadly falls flat. To apply the author’s criticism to themselves, where is the type 2 / fieldwork underpinning this essay? Why not inform this debate with data from a random sample of philosophy courses — for instance a student survey on applicability to their lives? At the end of the day, this critique is just a pair of academic dudes and somewhat ironically could be easily pointed back on itself — a point Maya makes well:

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

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