Philosophy, the Academy, and the Public: A Reply to Frodeman and Briggle, Luke Maring

Author Information: Luke Maring, Northern Arizona University,

Frodeman and Briggle’s response contradicts or undermines several of the main arguments of their New York Times article. And, just as importantly, they are still working with a deep misunderstanding of how academic research is supposed to function. 

(1) Frodeman and Briggle seem to retract the thesis of their New York Times article. They write, “Maring’s basic point is a non sequitur: in no way have we ever stated or implied that philosophy should abandon the academy. Quite the opposite: we are institutional pluralists. Philosophy should have several homes—including the academy.”

I am glad to see Frodeman and Briggle endorse this kind of institutional pluralism, but that was not the point of their article. They wrote that academic philosophers have washed their hands of everyday concerns, and that the philosopher’s hands “were never meant to be [clean].” They claim that academic philosophy is the result of a “purification” that should never have happened. Their thesis, in other words, is that academia has put philosophers in a very bad position to do their jobs. So if we add Frodeman and Briggle’s latest response to their NYT article we arrive at a strange two-part conclusion: (a) academia has ruined philosophy, but (b) academic philosophy is an important discipline well worth keeping around.

Moreover, if they embrace an institutional pluralism that includes academic philosophy, it is hard to see what Frodeman and Briggle’s complaint is supposed to be. This sort of pluralism would have philosophically informed people working in lots of different institutions, and that is exactly what we see. Each year, many thousands of philosophy majors graduate from college and take positions in businesses, law firms, accounting firms, high schools, and the like. My former students often email to say that our philosophy classes help them be better, more ethically aware entrepreneurs, lawyers, accountants, and teachers. Many of my colleagues across the world teach as well or better than I do, so it seems that the academy has already achieved much of what Frodeman and Briggle are agitating for: philosophically aware, philosophically trained people working in a wide variety of institutions.

Of course, Frodeman and Briggle are welcome to supplement academic philosophy by developing field philosophy. But the title of their article is not “Why Academic Philosophy Needs Supplementation,” nor does the substance of their article suggest that title.

(2) Frodeman and Briggle also undermine their argument that abandoning the pursuit of moral goodness has been “the heart of our undoing.” Why is it a problem that becoming good is not the academic philosopher’s profession? Their article gives only one answer: academic philosophers are not philosopher-priests, so our arguments must rest upon impersonal considerations like soundness of argument. They discuss no other consequence of abandoning the professional pursuit of moral goodness. So if Frodeman and Briggle are now prepared to eschew the philosopher-priest, they give us no reason at all to be concerned that developing moral goodness is not our main professional objective.

(3) Frodeman and Briggle are still misunderstanding the nature of academic research. They write that applied ethics is “a failure.” (I assume they’d make the same judgment about the other fields I mentioned—social philosophy, feminist philosophy, critical race theory, and bioethics.) Their evidence is that majority of these subfields’ ideas have not “trickled down” from academia to the public. Frodeman and Briggle still seem to think that a piece of academic scholarship is important for the public only if lots of members of the public read it.

But, as I explained before, that is not how academic research works. Even if they do not directly impact the public, our small individual contributions create the milieu that makes really impactful work possible. To repeat an example: John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice has been hugely influential; Rawls was in a position to write his book only because he was immersed in an academic back-and-forth, most of which the public never saw. The public does not read most philosophical scholarship (or scientific scholarship, or anthropological scholarship, or…). That is not a problem; that is how academic research is supposed to work.

To sum up: If the academy really is broken in the ways Frodeman and Briggle originally claimed, it is hard to see why we should keep it around. If, on the other hand, the academy is an important part of a larger institutional pluralism, it is hard to see what the problem is supposed to be. Similarly, I am glad to read that Frodeman and Briggle do not endorse the ideal of the authoritative philosopher-priest; but the loss of such authority is the only consequence they identify of abandoning moral goodness as our chief professional aim. And, lastly, Frodeman and Briggle’s criticism of academic research still rests upon a misconception. As I explained before, our research efforts can be important for the public even if we cannot always draw straight line from one to the other.

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7 replies

  1. I will let Frodeman & Briggle respond to your (2), but let me respond to your (3). There is a burden of proof problem between you guys. They simply doubt that academic philosophy has any publicly discernible impact, and your response presupposes that it does have impact but they’re looking in the wrong place for it. Your own example (which analytic philosophers often raise) is Rawls. But does Rawls make your point? What enabled Rawls to write his book (the academic to-and-fro) is not necessarily what enabled his book to have whatever public impact it has had. Frodeman & Briggle are more concerned with the latter, but you only address the former.

    I would say that Rawls’ public impact was historically ‘overdetermined’ in the sense that he was providing a kind of transcendental foundation for the social democratic welfare state of the mid-20th century. In other words, the ideas he was advancing were largely familiar, popular and already being applied to varying degrees. Insofar as Rawls’ work has figured in public debate, it has been as ideological legitimation for policies that would have been pursued, even if Rawls had never existed. Where Rawls did have more substantive impact was indeed in academic philosophy, where he provided some neat, pedagogically tractable arguments for the welfare state, without presupposing too much about economics, politics or sociology. In this respect, Rawls did for the welfare state what JS Mill had done for liberalism in the previous century. However, Mill had the added advantage — at least from Frodeman & Briggle’s standpoint — of being a public intellectual and (briefly) a Liberal MP who made liberalism happen as politics. Rawls made a decisive difference only in the academic world, while his work played a minor supporting role in the political world.

    • Thanks for this. You might be right that Rawls is not the best example, but, fortunately, the larger point doesn’t require him to be. (I chose Rawls b/c I watched my graduate school professors do a really good job of teaching A Theory of Justice to undergrads who went on to hold pretty important governmental positions. Not all of those students agreed with Rawls, of course, but his book impacted their thinking pretty deeply. Maybe Thompson’s “A Defense of Abortion” is a better example? I have found that the “Abortion, Intimacy, and the Duty to Gestate”–the article by Little cited in my original response–makes a big impact upon students, but I don’t know how widely it’s taught.)

      The larger point is, as you say, a burden of proof question. I do not know how best to measure the public impact of philosophy, and I do not mean suggest that philosophy is already as impactful as it could (or should) be. The point is rather that we should not measure the public impact of academic scholarship in the way that Frodeman and Briggle do: looking to see what percentage of academic articles are cited outside the academy. The research milieu is (or can be) important to the public, so sustaining the milieu is (or can be) important even if *no one* outside the academy reads most of the research that sustains it.

      Frodeman and Briggle boldly claim that subfields like applied ethics are a “failure;” the burden of proof is theirs.


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