Archives For Robert Frodeman

Author Information: Stephen Howard, Kingston University London

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Editor’s Note:

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Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st-Century Philosophy
Robert Frodeman, Adam Briggle
Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016
182 pp.

Funding is being cut from humanities departments. Tenure-track jobs in philosophy are drying up. Governments and funding bodies are increasingly demanding that the research they fund delivers clear and measurable ‘impact’. Our globalised, technoscientific culture is throwing up a host of urgent ethical, political, even existential questions. Any answers we have come from technocrats or Silicon Valley technologists, futurists and entrepreneurs. In this context, the mainstream of philosophy is failing to address its own impending crisis or enter these major discussions. Philosophers are indulging in insular debates on narrow topics, writing only for their peers: the result of a natural-scientific academic model that encourages intense specialisation.

This, crudely put, is the bleak context that Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle present at the outset of their lively and provocative new book. In response, Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st-Century Philosophy offers an argument for a reconceived conception of philosophy for the twenty-first century. The thesis can be summarised as follows: philosophy must escape its primarily departmental setting and its primarily disciplinary nature to become ‘field philosophy’. The argument emerges through the book’s curious layered structure. The general thesis is stated upfront, with layers of support and detail added by the subsequent chapters. This structure risks being repetitive, but the quality of the writing prevents the reiteration of the core thesis from becoming tedious, and the central notion of ‘field philosophy’ shimmers into shape by the penultimate chapter of the book.

Part One diagnoses the current crisis in philosophy as double-edged. On the one hand, the discipline finds itself in an institutional setting—the neoliberal university—that is increasingly hostile to the prevailing model of philosophy. In a world of shrinking budgets and ever greater demands for return on investment and direct societal impact, professional philosophy’s self-conception as the pursuit of disinterested, pure thought for its own sake seems increasingly passé. On the other hand, the mainstream of philosophy is failing to engage with the major questions of our times. The debate over our technological modernity takes place in magazines and blogs, in what the authors call our ‘latter-day Republic of Letters’. Insofar as academics are consulted for help with answers to contemporary societal challenges, it is scientists and economists who tend to be called upon.

Part Two evaluates three attempts to remedy this predicament. These are the ‘applied philosophy’ that first appeared in the 1980s, environmental ethics and bioethics. Only the latter provides a salutary example for Frodeman and Briggle’s field philosophy, which is finally outlined in Part Three.

What, then, is field philosophy? It would see philosophers ‘escaping the department’. They would move between the university and non-academic sites: NGOs, laboratories, community groups, businesses, think tanks, policy units, and so on. Philosophers may be institutionally based in other departments: medicine, law, the sciences; or they might yo-yo between a philosophy department and wider society. This physical movement would be mirrored by an intellectual one: instead of consisting of closed debates among specialists, the content of the field philosopher’s work would to a great extent be given by the needs of the non-academic field to which they are seconded. Frodeman and Briggle envisage the field philosopher in a dialectical movement, in both mind and body: between urgent, given problems and considered, rational reflection; and between the ‘fray’ of non-academic sites and the ‘armchair’ of the university. As the title shows, this represents a return to a Socratic ideal of the philosopher, embedded in the polis and attuned to the needs of their time.

Frodeman and Briggle acknowledge that this might be seen as a capitulation to neoliberal demands for immediate economic utility. True, many of their statements about the ‘hand-waving’ response of professional philosophy to the demands for increased accountability are not as far from neoliberal critiques of the ‘useless’ humanities as they might be. There is a much-cherished idea that the very conduct of non-utilitarian, specialised humanities research itself represents a performative resistance to a neoliberal agenda. But the authors’ main point is that philosophy should be more pluralistic. Alongside ‘pure’ philosophical work – which might continue in the wealthiest universities, most independent of external pressures – Frodeman and Briggle wish to see alternative models of the figure of the philosopher, which can include the non-disciplinary field philosopher.

Yet a potentially important issue not broached by the authors is: what gives the philosopher the right to pronounce on societal, non-academic issues? Without explicit justification, philosophers appear to risk suggesting that it is simply because we think we’re smart. Admittedly, Frodeman and Briggle insist that the field philosopher’s engagement should be ‘interstitial, horizontal, and reciprocal’, and they give an example of a modest, semi-successful philosophical mediation between community groups and utility companies in a debate over an environmental energy plan.

Nevertheless, such a justification of the philosopher’s input seems to me necessary, and I have two suggestions. Firstly, we might point to the resources that philosophical history offers those who have studied it. This is not just the common, narrow defence of secondary school philosophy as providing tools for logical analysis. Rather, we might point to the synthetic approach to previous systems and ideas that characterises thinkers from Aquinas to Kant to Deleuze. A further resource is the sensitivity to rhetoric and context-sensitive argument, which we see in philosophers like Leibniz or Arendt.

Secondly, we might indicate recent examples of philosophical public intellectuals, who do indeed conceive of their work as an engagement with given societal problems. I am thinking not of purveyors of inoffensive, philosophically-tinged panaceas, such as Alain de Botton, but instead the likes of Foucault or the Frankfurt school. Both of these points serve to underline the fact that it is particularly contemporary Anglo-American analytic philosophy that is the target of Frodeman and Briggle’s critique. While the authors acknowledge that the predominant Anglo-American, disciplinary version of continental philosophy has also become inward-facing and exegetical, we might emphasise that the engaged ‘field philosopher’ is perhaps not such a new figure but was rather active in pre-war, wartime and post-war France and Germany, and has not yet died in the French-speaking world (and tiny pockets of other countries), at least.

Nonetheless, Socrates Tenured offers a bold diagnosis of philosophy’s malaise and a proposed means to escape it: whatever your view of the proposals, they are worth exploring and debating—even, perhaps, outside of the academy.

Author Information: Robert Frodeman, University of North Texas, Robert.Frodeman@unt.edu

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3nN

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As we do every holiday season, last night we watched the 1951 version of Dicken’s Christmas Carol. It was deeply comforting, and deeply troubling. It’s great because the director (Desmond-Hurst) treats the subject matter with the gravity and modesty it deserves. This is the version that haunted my childhood: how Marley’s face on the door knocker frightened me, as did his banging of chains. Ditto the hand that juts out from the black figure of the ghost of Christmas Future.

But what frightens me now is what the story portends for our future. The movie declares that it’s a story of redemption, or as it says, of (individual) reclamation. But it is about something more fundamental than that. It assumes the existence of a moral and metaphysical order. The accounts always balance: Marley wears the chains he forged in life, and if Scrooge is to avoid the same fate he must come to his senses. Of course, terrible injustices exist in Dicken’s London, but there is a stability to the world that is intensely consoling. Now, however, it’s this stability and consolation that’s been lost.

I feel that the greatest task of the philosopher—I mean the term in a generic sense, which includes STSers and many others—is to try to identify the deepest, most profound, and most significant problem of his or her time and think it through. Of course, people will differ in their evaluation of what this is. But that’s ok. In fact it’s good, for it increases the chances that someone will get lucky and hit upon the right problem. This is what led me to environmental philosophy, and then to interdisciplinarity, and most recently to what might be called policy studies but which is really about thinking through the problem of the mismatch between the supply and the demand for knowledge.

Now, all these issues remain central. But I am increasingly gripped by the sense that it is our loss of a moral and metaphysical order that is the chief problem of our time—an instability that is being driven by science and technology. It’s a point that Ted Kaczynski spotted early, though I reject his methods. When I read about the latest developments in AI and DIYbiology I feel a world spinning out of control—and feel that it is this feeling, mis-interpreted, that has led us to Trump. It’s spawned a wildness that expresses itself in Trump’s statements and behavior, and of some of those who support him, a feeling that things have been spinning out of control (MAGA); but rather than trying to react in a conservative or Burkean manner to reestablish order, the urge has now become nihilistic, expressing itself as authoritarianism and irrationality—Bannon’s ‘let’s blow up the entire system’ and the GOP’s ‘who cares if Putin threw the election, our guy won’.

So it is that here, teaching in Texas, I find myself saying repeatedly to my classes: you guys say you are christian; you picket abortion clinics; but why aren’t you picketing the biology building, which represents a much greater threat to your world order? In this sense I think Fuller is correct, that our political choices are reorienting themselves from left-right to what might be called black-green—that the real debate before us is between those who seek deification via technoscience, versus those hoary old metaphysicians who declaim the folly of that path and call for the observance of some type of larger order and limit.

It’s a battle that I fear I am on the losing side of. Which goes a long way to explain my love of old movies like A Christmas Carol, where I can (for all the Jim Crow or sexism or other stupidities) for an hour or two find a moral and metaphysical order that offers me solace.

Author Information: Robert Frodeman, University of North Texas, Robert.Frodeman@unt.edu

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On Disciplinary Philosophy

The relationship between the philosopher and the community has always been fraught. 20th century academic philosophy dealt with this difficulty by going disciplinary, restricting its conversations to itself.

Now, it is incorrect to say that disciplinary philosophy was not (or is not) concerned with the matters of the larger world; but the model for its having an effect has been limited to the tacit embrace of the concept of indirect effects. Impact was to be achieved through passive dissemination—teaching 20 year olds in abstract or idealized accounts of issues, the trolley problem rather than case studies or direct involvement. Similarly, research publications would slowly work themselves into the zeitgeist through a natural osmotic process rather than through practical attempts of implementation. There were of course exceptions to this; but the individuals directly and actively involved remained one-offs. Their efforts were not institutionalized in terms of undergraduate courses in philosophy or public policy or graduate programs that trained students to work with the public or private sectors.

The 2016 presidential election highlights the inadequacy of this approach. Rather, Trump announces the inevitability of public philosophy.

Questioning All Assumptions

How so? Put the point in Heidegger’s language. Heidegger caused a stir in the 1950s when he said that scientists do not think. His point, however, was reasonable if not self-evident: science—at least, normal science—begins from a set of accepted presumptions. Philosophy—at least on Heidegger’s account—is the questioning of all assumptions. This is why Heidegger put such a premium on questioning—in one work, devoting a 55 page chapter to the question of how to ask questions. (This may also be a way to define the difference between analytic and continental philosophy: the latter has an obsession with first order questions).

Similarly, with some minor exceptions (ie, the 13th and 17th amendments) American politics has not been a thinking person’s game. Like Heidegger I mean no insult, but to point out that we have been playing by a common set of rules for the last 227 years. The election of Trump represents the breaking of those rules. Don’t simply focus on his challenges to the 1st (i.e. threatening to use the power of the presidency to silence his opponents, e.g. The Washington Post) and 6th (the right to due process, ie to ‘lock her up’) Amendments. The challenge is more basic than that: Trump is a classic Platonic demagogue. His unprecedented mendacity and rhetorical bombast represents a more general destruction of democratic norms.

STS: A Successor?

Note that this implicates more than Trump himself. For all its faults this election cycle (namely, that it breathed life into the Trump phenomena from the beginning), the media did end up making Trump’s decades-long trail of lies and corruption abundantly clear. That is, the American electorate was fully warned—and elected him nonetheless. Trump, then, represents a challenge to Enlightenment assumptions of the reasonableness of man. Notably, the very cohort that went to the mat for him—white men without college degrees—is precisely the one that Trump has long dismissed as a bunch of losers, the plumbers and merchants who he serially stiffed for their services.

Trump leaves us, then, with a set of questions that are inescapably philosophic in nature: is it possible to re-establish democratic norms for an age of ubiquitous knowledge? Can democracy function in a time dominated by social media? Or should we recognize, as the Chinese have, that authoritarianism is a necessity, given the complexity of contemporary society?

These are, classically, philosophic questions. But it may be that the academic discipline of philosophy is constitutionally incapable of answering them any longer in anything more than a scholastic fashion. Moreover, these questions have a distinctive spin today, for science and technology is playing a distinctive if not determining role in the reshaping of our political landscape. STS, then, may be the successor to academic philosophy in the raising of these questions—if it can avoid philosophy’s fate of disciplinary capture.

Author Information: Adam Briggle, University of North Texas, Adam.Briggle@unt.edu and Robert Frodeman, University of North Texas, Robert.Frodeman@unt.edu

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3gA

Editor’s Note:

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In a widely read essay, Daniel Sarewitz argues that science is in deep trouble. While modern science remains wondrously productive, the results of science today are more ambiguous, contestable, and dubious than ever before. The problem does not lie in the lack of funding or of scientific rigor. Rather, Sarewitz argues that we must let go of a longstanding and cherished cultural belief—that science consists of uniquely objective knowledge that can put an end to political controversies. Science can inform our thinking; but there is no escaping politics. Scientific results rarely end political debates, which ultimately remain debates over how we should live.

Sarewitz, however, fails to note the corollary to his argument: that a change in our expectations concerning the use of science for policy implies the need to make something like philosophic deliberation central to decision making.

Philosophy relevant? We had better hope so. For the other option is value fundamentalism, where rather than offering reasons for our values we resort to dogmatically asserting them. This is a prescription for political dysfunction—a result increasingly common on both sides of the Atlantic. As science has become more contestable, politicians retreat into intransigence, stymying the political process. Of course, deliberating over values is no more a magic bullet than science has turned out to be. But whether we are talking about scientific results, or ethical, social, or political values, the lack of certainty does not mean that evidence cannot be marshalled and reasons cannot be given.

Practically speaking, this implies placing individuals with philosophic training within a wide variety of institutions—in scientific disciplines across the university, and in institutions like the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the European Environment Agency (EEA), the US National Science Foundation, and the EU Directorate General for Science and Research. Their role would not be as specialists whose job is to provide answers. Instead, their task would be to ask the questions to help to enlarge our conversations and increase our sympathies.

Granted, as it is currently constituted academic philosophy is not up to this task. The problem isn’t with this or that idea, but rather with the assumptions that underlie how philosophy is done. A premium is placed on theoretical rigor, even at the loss of social significance. This is an expression of the institutional form that philosophy has taken. Prior to the 20th century, philosophers could be found almost anywhere, in a variety of occupations both public and private. Since 1900, however, they have had only one institutional home—the university, and more particularly that peculiar institution known as the ‘department’. Philosophy departments ghettoize philosophy, steering philosophers toward problems primarily of interest to their disciplinary colleagues – at the cost of practical relevance to larger societal concerns. Even applied philosophers suffer from what can be called disciplinary capture.

Indeed, what Sarewitz says of academic science is painfully true of most philosophy and of the humanities generally: what should be the most relevant of disciplines has become “an onanistic enterprise worthy of Swift or Kafka.” Philosophers have mimicked scientists in all the worst ways, practitioners of a specialized discipline, speaking to fellow adepts and measuring their success with internal standards of progress and rigor. One telling sign of this: of the approximately 110 PhD programs in philosophy in North America, not a single one centers its attention on training graduate students to work outside of the academy.

This suggests the need for something analogous to the Open Science movement. Call it Open Humanities. Open Science marks a sea change in how science is done: open data, open laboratories, open peer review, and open access publication. Promoted by the European Commission as well as the US National Academies, Open Science emphasizes the importance of transparency from the design of research projects to the reporting of results, and of greater collaboration both across academic disciplines and between academia and various communities. An Open Humanities initiative could bring philosophy out of the study and into the community, where it could play a role in integrating scientific knowledge with the values we pursue.

Now, Sarewitz doesn’t speak in terms of Open Science. Rather, he revives Alvin Weinberg’s call for “trans-science,” a problem-oriented, stakeholder driven approach to inquiry that is judged by success in the real-world rather than by disciplinary metrics. In 1972, Weinberg noted that society increasingly calls on science to solve complex problems; but such problems “hang on the answers to questions that can be asked of science and yet which cannot be answered by science.” Complex, open-ended human quandaries are “never absolute but instead are variable, imprecise, uncertain—and thus always potentially subject to interpretation and debate.” They cannot be precisely described and unambiguously characterized by science. Thus, they require trans-science.

On our reading, trans-science is another name for what we call dedisciplined philosophy. Weinberg says that trans-science begins with an act of “selfless honesty” where experts acknowledge that an issue has exceeded the boundaries of their domain. Trans-scientists have to know when they don’t know – otherwise they’ll labor under the illusion (and perhaps fool others too) that they are capable of solving problems that they, in fact, cannot solve. But this is the stuff of Socrates. For Socrates, wisdom consisted in knowing that one does not know. His ‘method’, if you want to call it that, exposed the self-assured expert as a poseur, a sophist pronouncing authoritatively on matters outside his jurisdiction.

If trans-science is our new ideal, then Socrates is back in business. Philosophers working within the Socratic model can bring useful skills to our knotty problems, including hermeneutics (thinking through issues that admit of varying interpretations and framings), ethics (uncovering hidden normative commitments and analyzing our debates about values), and epistemology (assessing different claims to knowledge). But as important as these activities are, more crucial is the propagation of a distinctive mindset: a commitment to explaining one’s values and to giving a hearing to the values of others. Of course, bringing this to fruition will require philosophers to also let go of their cherished claims to expertise, and engage in humble collaborations with others. That is, they need to stop talking only to one another.

For at least the past seventy years, society has hoped that science could dispense with the need for politics, and for philosophy; that it could turn open questions about the good life, beauty, and justice into things that experts could seal shut with certainty. It turns out, however, that we are doomed to philosophize. So let’s find ways to do it well, in public venues that are open to all.

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2OQ

Editor’s Note: Thanks to Steve Fuller, Scott Stephens, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and ABC Religion and Ethics for allowing us to repost this piece. The original post resides at: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2016/03/29/4433563.htm

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Philosophy has never been comfortable with its status as a discipline in the academy. Even today, the philosophers who most students read were non-academics: Plato, Rene Descartes, David Hume, John Stuart Mill.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: W. Derek Bowman, Providence College,wdbowman@gmail.com

Bowman, W. Derek. “Philosophy Hitherto: A Reply to Frodeman and Briggle.”[1] Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 3 (2016): 85-91.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2Nv

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I am grateful to Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle for raising the issue of philosophy’s institutionalization as an academic discipline.[2] This institutional reality is central to many of the challenges facing contemporary philosophers: employment problems for philosophy PhDs; the role of the liberal arts in the future of education; the place of academic journals in a world of internet archives and social networks; etc. Unfortunately, Frodeman and Briggle’s analysis rests on an inaccurate interpretation of both historical and contemporary philosophy. In particular, they are wrong to suggest that practical engagement with matters of public concern was a defining feature of philosophy prior to its institutional transformation, and they are wrong to claim that contemporary philosophy has abandoned such engagement.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Luke Maring, Northern Arizona University, luke.maring@nau.edu

Maring, Luke. “Abandoning the Academy is the Single Worst Thing Philosophers Could Do: A Reply to Frodeman and Briggle.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 3 (2016): 54-58.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2LL

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Philosophy is no stranger to criticism. Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle’s article is remarkable because of how they explain the discipline’s shortcomings: philosophy lost its way when it became an academic discipline.[1] The problem is that philosophers ply their trade in colleges and universities, not, like their hero Socrates, out in the everyday world and among the hoi polloi.

Scott Soames responded to Frodeman and Briggle’s article by pointing out examples of fruitful collaboration between philosophy, on the one hand, and mathematics, science, and linguistics on the other.[2] His examples show that Frodeman and Briggle have badly misrepresented the history of philosophy (a point I return to below). But Soames does not get to the heart of Frodeman and Briggle’s concern. Their primary concern is not that philosophy has lost touch with other branches of the academy, but that philosophy has lost touch with the everyday world.[3]  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Gregory Sandstrom, European Humanities University, gregory.sandstrom@ehu.lt

Sandstrom, Gregory. “Steve Fuller’s False Hope in IDism: The Discovery Institute’s Anti-Transhumanism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 10 (2015): 1-7.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2kz

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“I’m not machine. I’m not man. I’m more.” — John Connor (Terminator Genisys 2015)

While I have been gradually working on a couple of other articles related to SERRC posts (Frodeman 2015 and Eglash 2015) that challenge Steve Fuller’s embrace of ‘Intelligent Design’[1] (ID), this one is the easiest to finish due to the starkness of the problem. The Discovery Institute (DI), home of the Intelligent Design Movement (IDM), has been beating its anti-trans-humanism PR drum in recent years. Fuller, on the other hand, has made pro-trans-humanism into one of the main topics of his recent work, indeed calling it now a “full-blown ideology” in his and Lipinska’s The Proactionary Imperative (2014, v).  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Robert Frodeman, University of North Texas, Robert.Frodeman@unt.edu

Frodeman, Robert. “Anti-Fuller: Transhumanism and the Proactionary Imperative.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 4 (2015): 38-43.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-1Zr

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Academics suffer from a type of déformation professionnelle: we believe that across the long arc of history that ideas get their due. Our efforts are premised on the assumption that the best argument and deepest thinker will eventually be recognized.

Steve Fuller offers an interesting case in point. Few academics are as dedicated to the academic enterprise. His scholarship is prodigious, drawing from a wide range of historical and disciplinary sources. He publishes like crazy. Yet, despite its depth and verve, Fuller’s work has not gotten the notice it deserves— the attention, say, lavished on the Latours and Bourdieus of the world. Why? Besides accident, and the lack of a French accent, I see two factors at work.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Lyudmila A. Markova, Russian Academy of Sciences, markova.lyudmila2013@yandex.ru

Markova, Lyudmila A. “A Brief Reply to Maya Frodeman.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 9 (2014): 53-54.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-1Br

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I would like to consider briefly three points in connection with issues raised by Maya Frodeman.

1. Academics’ approval or disapproval in transforming the knowledge production system in universities does not mean much. Certainly the majority of academics do not want such changes, but the main reason is not that they fear losing their position in the social structure of the university. Rather, a serious difficulty follows in recognizing and taking up new ideas. Many academics believe sincerely that new knowledge policies will destroy science. And they are right if science is considered by politicians, in the same way as by academics, and if the science policy does not take into consideration the changes outlined by Robert Frodeman. Philosophy offers the ability to see the current features of contemporary science that make it fundamentally different compared to classical science (which some scientists and philosophers perceive as the only possible one).  Continue Reading…