Archives For Robert Frodeman

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

Frodeman, Robert. “Socratics and Anti-Socratics: The Status of Expertise.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 42-44.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3AO

Please refer to:

Image credit: J.D. Falk, via flickr

Do we, academically trained and credentialed philosophers, understand what philosophy is? It’s a disquieting question, or would be, if it could be taken seriously. But who can take it seriously? Academic philosophers are the inheritors of more than 100 years of painstaking, peer-reviewed work—to say nothing of centuries of thinking before that. Through these efforts, philosophy has become an area of expertise on a par with other disciplines. The question, then, is silly—or insulting: of course philosophers know their stuff!

But shouldn’t we feel a bit uneasy by this juxtaposition of ‘philosophers’ and ‘know’? We tell our introductory classes that ‘philosopher’ literally means to be a friend or lover of wisdom, rather than to be the actual possessor of it. And that Socrates, the patron saint of philosophy, only claimed to possess ‘Socratic wisdom’—he only knew that he knew nothing. Have we then abandoned our allegiance to Socrates? Or did we never take him seriously? Would philosophers be more candid quoting Hegel, when he noted in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit that his goal was to “lay aside the title ‘love of knowing’ and be actual knowing”? But wouldn’t that mean that philosophers were not really philosophers, but rather sophists?

Two Types of Sophists

The Greeks knew two types of sophists. There were the philosophical sophists, who had skeptical beliefs about the possibilities of knowledge. Protagoras, the most famous of these, claimed that experience is inescapably subjective: the same wind blows both hot and cold depending on the person’s experience. But also, and more simply, sophists were people in the know, or as we say today, experts: people able to instruct young men in skills such as horsemanship, warfare, or public speaking. There are some philosophers today who would place themselves into the first category—for instance, standpoint epistemologists, who sometimes make similar claims in terms of race, class, and gender—but it seems that nearly all philosophers place themselves in the latter category. Philosophers today are experts. Not in philosophy overall, of course, that’s too large of a domain; but in one or another subfield, ethics or logic or the philosophy of language.

It is the subdividing of philosophy that allows philosophers to make claims of expertise. This point was brought home recently in the dustup surrounding Rebecca Tuvel’s Hypatia article “In Defense of Transracialism.” Tuvel’s piece prompted the creation of an Open Letter, which collected more than 800 signatories by the time it was closed. The Letter called on Hypatia to retract publication of her essay. These critics did not merely disagree with her argument; they denied her right to speak on the topic at all. The Letter notes that Tuvel “fails to seek out and sufficiently engage with scholarly work by those who are most vulnerable to the intersection of racial and gender oppressions….”

Tuvel’s article and subsequent publishing of the Open Letter have elicited an extended series of commentaries (including no less than two op-eds in the New York Times). The exact criteria for those who wished to censure Tuvel has varied. Some thought her transgression consisted in the insufficient citing of the literature in the field, while others claimed that her identity was not sufficiently grounded in personal experience of racial and/or gender oppression. In both cases, however, criticism turned on assumptions of expertise. Notably, Tuvel also makes claims of expertise, on her departmental website, as being a specialist in both feminism and the philosophy of race, although she has mostly stayed out of the subsequent back and forth.

My concern, then, is not with pros and cons of Tuvel’s essay. It is rather with the background assumption of expertise that all parties seem to share. I admit that I am not an expert in these areas; but my claim is more fundamental than that. I do not view myself as an expert in any area of philosophy, at least as the term is now used. I have been introduced on occasion as an expert in the philosophy of interdisciplinarity, but this usually prompts me to note that I am only an expert in the impossibility of expertise. Widespread claims to the contrary, interdisciplinarity is perhaps the last thing that someone can be an expert in. At least, the claim cannot be that someone knows the literature of the subject, since the point of interdisciplinarity, if it is something more than another route to academic success, is more political than epistemic in nature.

A Change in Philosophy?

The attitudes revealed by L’Affaire Tuvel (and examples can be multiplied at will[1]) suggests that we are looking at something more than simply another shift in the philosophical tides. There has always been a Hegelian or Cartesian element within philosophy, where philosophers have made claims of possessing apodictic knowledge. There has also always been a Socratic (or to pick a more recent example, Heideggerian) cohort who have emphasized the interrogative nature of philosophy. Heidegger constantly stresses the need to live within the question, whether the question concerns being or technology. He notes as well that his answers, such as they are, are true only approximately and for the most part—zunächst und zumeist. In this he follows Aristotle, who in the Ethics 1.3 pointed out that some areas of inquiry are simply not susceptible to either precision or certainty of knowledge. To my mind, this is the condition of philosophy.

Grant, then, that there have always been two camps on the possibility of expertise in philosophy. But I suggest that the balance between these two positions has shifted, as philosophy has become a creature of the university. The modern research university has its own institutional philosophy: it treats all knowledge democratically, as consisting of regional domains on a common plane. There is no hierarchy of the disciplines, no higher or lower knowledge, no more general or specific knowledge. Researchers in philosophy and the humanities see themselves as fellow specialists, rather than as intellectuals of a markedly different type than those in the natural and social sciences.

Today these assumptions are so deeply embedded that no one bothers to note them at all. Few seriously propose that philosophers might have a role to play other than being an expert, or that our job might be to provoke rather than to answer. I, however, want to raise that very possibility. And operating under the assumption that naming the two positions might help rally troops to their respective standards, let the two camps be designated as the Socratics and the Anti-Socratics.

Part of the attraction that Science and Technology Studies (STS) has held for me has been its undisciplined nature, and the faint hope that it could take over the Socratic role that philosophy has largely abandoned. Of course, the debate between the Socratics and Anti-Socratics rages in STS as well, framed in terms of Low and High Church STS, those who resist STS becoming a discipline and those who see it as part of the necessary maturation of the field. I admit to feeling the attractions of High Church STS, and philosophy: expertise has its prerogatives, chief among them the security of speaking to other ‘experts’ rather than taking on the dangerous task of working in the wider world. But I think I will throw my lot in with the Socratics for a while longer.

References

Aristotle. The Nichomachean Ethics.  Oxford University Press, 2009. https://goo.gl/XCOhe9

Brubakermay, Rogers. “The Uproar Over ‘Transracialism’.”  New York Times. May 18, 2017. https://goo.gl/Qz9BKs https://goo.gl/sTwej9

Frodeman, Robert and Adam Briggle.Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st-Century. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

Fuller, Steve and James H. Collier. Philosophy, Rhetoric, and the End of Knowledge: A New Beginning for Science and Technology Studies. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Hegel’s Preface to the “Phenomenology of Spirit”. Translated by Yirmiyahu Yovel. Princeton University Press, 2005.

Schuessler, Jennifer. “A Defense of ‘Transracial’ Identity Roils Philosophy World.” New York Times. May 19, 2017. https://goo.gl/sTwej9

Tuvel, Rebecca. “In Defense of Transracialism.” Hypatia 29 March 2017. doi: 10.1111/hypa.12327

[1] See, for instance, https://goo.gl/QiTyOw.

The following are a set of questions concerning the place of transhumanism in the Western philosophical tradition that Robert Frodeman’s Philosophy 5250 class at the University of North Texas posed to Steve Fuller, who met with the class via Skype on 11 April 2017.

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

Image credit: Joan Sorolla, via flickr

1. First a point of clarification: we should understand you not as a health span increaser, but rather as interested in infinity, or in some sense in man becoming a god? That is, H+ is a theological rather than practical question for you?

Yes, that’s right. I differ from most transhumanists in stressing that short term sacrifice—namely, in the form of risky experimentation and self-experimentation—is a price that will probably need to be paid if the long-term aims of transhumanism are to be realized. Moreover, once we finally make the breakthrough to extend human life indefinitely, there may be a moral obligation to make room for future generations, which may take the form of sending the old into space or simply encouraging suicide.

2. How do you understand the relationship between AI and transhumanism?

When Julian Huxley coined ‘transhumanism’ in the 1950s, it was mainly about eugenics, the sort of thing that his brother Aldous satirized in Brave New World. The idea was that the transhuman would be a ‘new and improved’ human, not so different from new model car. (Recall that Henry Ford is the founding figure of Brave New World.) However, with the advent of cybernetics, also happening around the same time, the idea that distinctly ‘human’ traits might be instantiated in both carbon and silicon began to be taken seriously, with AI being the major long-term beneficiary of this line of thought. Some transhumanists, notably Ray Kurzweil, find the AI version especially attractive, perhaps because it caters to their ‘gnostic’ impulse to have the human escape all material constraints. In the transhumanist jargon, this is called ‘morphological freedom’, a sort of secular equivalent of pure spirituality. However, this is to take AI in a somewhat different direction from its founders in the era of cybernetics, which was about creating intelligent machines from silicon, not about transferring carbon-based intelligence into silicon form.

3. How seriously do you take talk (by Bill Gates and others) that AI is an existential risk?

Not very seriously— at least on its own terms. By the time some superintelligent machine might pose a genuine threat to what we now regard as the human condition, the difference between human and non-human will have been blurred, mainly via cyborg identities of the sort that Stephen Hawking might end up being seen as having been a trailblazer. Whatever political questions would arise concerning AI at that point would likely divide humanity itself profoundly and not be a simple ‘them versus us’ scenario. It would be closer to the Cold War choice of Communism vs Capitalism. But honestly, I think all this ‘existential risk’ stuff gets its legs from genuine concerns about cyberwarfare. But taken on its face, cyberwarfare is nothing more than human-on-human warfare conducted by high tech means. The problem is still mainly with the people fighting the war rather than the algorithms that they program to create these latest weapons of mass destruction. I wonder sometimes whether this fixation on superintelligent machines is simply an indirect way to get humans to become responsible for their own actions—the sort of thing that psychoanalysts used to call ‘displacement behavior’ but the rest of us call ‘ventriloquism’.

4. If, as Socrates claims, to philosophize is to learn how to die, does H+ represent the end of philosophy?

Of course not!  The question of death is just posed differently because even from a transhumanist standpoint, it may be in the best interest of humanity as a whole for individuals to choose death, so as to give future generations a chance to make their mark. Alternatively, and especially if transhumanists are correct that our extended longevity will be accompanied by rude health, then the older and wiser among us —and there is no denying that ‘wisdom’ is an age-related virtue—might spend their later years taking greater risks, precisely because they would be better able to handle the various contingencies. I am thinking that such healthy elderly folk might be best suited to interstellar exploration because of the ultra-high risks involved. Indeed, I could see a future social justice agenda that would require people to demonstrate their entitlement to longevity by documenting the increasing amount of risk that they are willing to absorb.

5. What of Heidegger’s claim that to be an authentic human being we must project our lives onto the horizon of our death?

I couldn’t agree more! Transhumanism just puts more options on the table for what death looks like. For example, one might choose to die with or without the prospect of future resurrection. One might also just upload one’s mind into a computer, which would be its own special kind of resurrection. I think Heidegger and other philosophers have invested such great import on death simply because of its apparent irreversibility. However, if you want to recreate Heidegger’s sense of ‘ultimate concern’ in a post-death world, all you would need to do is to find some irreversible processes and unrecoverable opportunities that even transhumanists acknowledge. A hint is that when transhumanism was itself resurrected in its current form, it was known as ‘extropianism’, suggesting an active resistance to entropy. For transhumanists—very much in the spirit of the original cybernetician, Norbert Wiener—entropy is the ultimate irreversible process and hence ultimate challenge for the movement to overcome.

6. What is your response to Heidegger’s claim that it is in the confrontation with nothingness, in the uncanny, that we are brought back to ourselves?

Well, that certainly explains the phenomenon that roboticists call the ‘uncanny valley’, whereby people are happy to deal with androids until they resemble humans ‘a bit too much’, at which point people are put off. There are two sides to this response—not only that the machines seem too human but also that they are still recognized as machines. So the machines haven’t quite yet fooled us into thinking that they’re one of us. One hypothesis to explain the revulsion is that such androids appear to be like artificially animated dead humans, a bit like Frankenstein. Heideggerians can of course use all this to their advantage to demonstrate that death is the ultimate ‘Other’ to the human condition.

7. Generally, who do you think are the most important thinkers within the philosophic tradition for thinking about the implications of transhumanism?

Most generally, I would say the Platonic tradition, which has been most profound in considering how the same form might be communicated through different media. So when we take seriously the prospect that the ‘human’ may exist in carbon and/or silicon and yet remain human, we are following in Plato’s footsteps. Christianity holds a special place in this line of thought because of the person of Jesus Christ, who is somehow at once human and divine in equal and all respects. The branch of theology called ‘Christology’ is actually dedicated to puzzling over these matters, various solutions to which have become the stuff of science fiction characters and plots. St Augustine originally made the problem of Christ’s identity a problem for all of humanity when he leveraged the Genesis claim that we are created ‘image and the likeness of God’ to invent the concept of ‘will’ to name the faculty of free choice that is common to God and humans. We just exercise our wills much worse than God exercises his, as demonstrated by Adam’s misjudgment which started Original Sin (an Augustinian coinage). When subsequent Christian thinkers have said that ‘the flesh is weak’, they are talking about how humanity’s default biological conditions holds us back from fully realizing our divine potential. Kant acknowledged as much in secular terms when he explicitly defined the autonomy necessary for truly moral action in terms of resisting the various paths of least resistance put before us. These are what Christians originally called ‘temptations’, Kant himself called ‘heteronomy’ and Herbert Marcuse in a truly secular vein would later call ‘desublimation’.

8. One worry that arises from the Transhumanism project (especially about gene editing, growing human organs in animals, etc.) regards the treatment of human enhancement as “commercial products”. In other words, the worry is concerns the (further) commodification of life. Does this concern you? More generally, doesn’t H+ imply a perverse instrumentalization of our being?

My worries about commodification are less to do with the process itself than the fairness of the exchange relations in which the commodities are traded. Influenced by Locke and Nozick, I would draw a strong distinction between alienation and exploitation, which tends to be blurred in the Marxist literature. Transhumanism arguably calls for an alienation of the body from human identity, in the sense that your biological body might be something that you trade for a silicon upgrade, yet you humanity remains intact on both sides of the transaction, at least in terms of formal legal recognition. Historic liberal objections to slavery rested on a perceived inability to do this coherently. Marxism upped the ante by arguing that the same objections applied to wage labor under the sort of capitalism promoted by the classical political economists of his day, who saw themselves as scientific underwriters of the new liberal order emerging in post-feudal Europe. However, the force of Marxist objections rest on alienation being linked to exploitation. In other words, not only am I free to sell my body or labor, but you are also offer whatever price serves to close the sale. However, the sorts of power imbalances which lay behind exploitation can be—and have been—addressed in various ways. Admittedly more work needs to be done, but a time will come when alienation is simply regarded as a radical exercise of freedom—specifically, the freedom to, say, project myself as an avatar in cyberspace or, conversely, convert part of my being to property that can be traded from something that may in turn enhance my being.

9. Robert Nozick paints a possible scenario in Anarchy, State, and Utopia where he describes a “genetic supermarket” where we can choose our genes just as one selects a frozen pizza. Nozick’s scenario implies a world where human characteristics are treated in the way we treat other commercial products. In the Transhuman worldview, is the principle or ultimate value of life commercial?

There is something to that, in the sense that anything that permits discretionary choice will lend itself to commercialization unless the state intervenes—but I believe that the state should intervene and regulate the process. Unfortunately, from a PR standpoint, a hundred years ago that was called ‘eugenics’. Nevertheless, people in the future may need to acquire a license to procreate, and constraints may even be put on the sort of offspring are and are not permissible, and people may even be legally required to undergo periodic forms of medical surveillance—at least as a condition of employment or welfare benefits. (Think Gattaca as a first pass at this world.) It is difficult to see how an advanced democracy that acknowledges already existing persistent inequalities in life-chances could agree to ‘designer babies’ without also imposing the sort of regime that I am suggesting. Would this unduly restrict people’s liberty? Perhaps not, if people will have acquired the more relaxed attitude to alienation, as per my answer to the previous question. However, the elephant in the room—and which I argued in The Proactionary Imperative is more important—is liability. In other words, who is responsible when things go wrong in a regime which encourages people to experiment with risky treatments? This is something that should focus the minds of lawyers and insurers, especially in a world are presumed to be freer per se because they have freer access to information.

10. Is human enhancement consistent with other ways in which people modify their lifestyles, that is, are they analogous in principle to buying a new cell phone, learning a language or working out? Is it a process of acquiring ideas, goods, assets, and experiences that distinguish one person from another, either as an individual or as a member of a community? If not, how is human enhancement different?

‘Human enhancement’, at least as transhumanists understand the phrase, is about ‘morphological freedom’, which I interpret as a form of ultra-alienation. In other words, it’s not simply about people acquiring things, including prosthetic extensions, but also converting themselves to a different form, say, by uploading the contents of one’s brain into a computer. You might say that transhumanism’s sense of ‘human enhancement’ raises the question of whether one can be at once trader and traded in a way that enables the two roles to be maintained indefinitely. Classical political economy seemed to imply this, but Marx denied its ontological possibility.

11. The thrust of 20th Century Western philosophy could be articulated in terms of the strife for possible futures, whether that future be Marxist, Fascist, or other ideologically utopian schemes, and the philosophical fallout of coming to terms with their successes and failures. In our contemporary moment, it appears as if widespread enthusiasm for such futures has disappeared, as the future itself seems as fragmented as our society. H+ is a new, similar effort; but it seems to be a specific evolution of the futurism focused, not on a society, but on the human person (even, specific human persons). Comments?

In terms of how you’ve phrased your question, transhumanism is a recognizably utopian scheme in nearly all respects—including the assumption that everyone would find its proposed future intrinsically attractive, even if people disagree on how or whether it might be achieved. I don’t see transhumanism as so different from capitalism or socialism as pure ideologies in this sense. They all presume their own desirability. This helps to explain why people who don’t agree with the ideology are quickly diagnosed as somehow mentally or morally deficient.

12. A common critique of Heidegger’s thought comes from an ethical turn in Continental philosophy. While Heidegger understands death to the harbinger of meaning, he means specifically and explicitly one’s own death. Levinas, however, maintains that the primary experience of death that does this work is the death of the Other. One’s experience with death comes to one through the death of a loved one, a friend, a known person, or even through the distant reality of a war or famine across the world. In terms of this critique, the question of transhumanism then leads to a socio-ethical concern: if one, using H+ methods, technologies, and enhancements, can significantly inoculate oneself against the threat of death, how ethically (in the Levinasian sense) can one then legitimately live in relation to others in a society, if the threat of the death of the Other no longer provides one the primal experience of the threat of death?

Here I’m closer to Heidegger than Levinas in terms of grounding intuition, but my basic point would be that an understanding of the existence and significance of death is something that can be acquired without undergoing a special sort of experience. Phenomenologically inclined philosophers sometimes seem to assume that a significant experience must happen significantly. But this is not true at all. My main understanding of death as a child came not from people I know dying, but simply from watching the morning news on television and learning about the daily body count from the Vietnam War. That was enough for me to appreciate the gravity of death—even before I started reading the Existentialists.

Editor’s Note:

    The following are elements of syllabi for a graduate, and an undergraduate, course taught by Robert Frodeman in spring 2017 at the University of North Texas. These courses offers an interesting juxtaposition of texts aimed at reimagining how to perform academic philosophy as “field philosophy”. Field philosophy seeks to address meaningfully, and demonstrably, contemporary public debates, regarding transhumanism for example, given attention to shifting ideas and frameworks of both the Humboldtian university and the “new American” university.

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

Philosophy 5250: Topics in Philosophy

Overall Theme

This course continues my project of reframing academic philosophy within the approach and problematics of field philosophy.

In terms of philosophic categories, we will be reading classics in 19th and 20th century continental philosophy: Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. But we will be approaching these texts with an agenda: to look for insights into a contemporary philosophical controversy, the transhumanist debate. This gives us two sets of readings – our three authors, and material from the contemporary debate surrounding transhumanism.

Now, this does not mean that we will restrict our interest in our three authors to what is applicable to the transhumanist debate; our thinking will go wherever our interests take us. But the topic of transhumanism will be primus inter pares.

Readings

  • Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Preface
  • Hegel, The Science of Logic, selections
  • Heidegger, Being and Time, Division 1, Macquarrie translation
  • Heidegger, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’
  • Nietzsche, selections from Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil

Related Readings

Grading

You will have two assignments, both due at the end of the semester. I strongly encourage you to turn in drafts of your papers.

  • A 2500 word paper on a major theme from one of our three authors.
  • A 2500 word paper using our three authors to illuminate your view of the transhumanist challenge.

Philosophy 4750: Philosophy and Public Policy

Overview

This is a course in meta-philosophy. It seeks to develop a philosophy adequate for the 21st century.

Academic philosophy has been captured by a set of categories (ancient, modern, contemporary; ethics, logic, metaphysics, epistemology) that are increasingly dysfunctional for contemporary life. Therefore, this is not merely a course on a specific subject matter (i.e., ‘public policy’) to be added to the rest. Rather, it seeks to question, and philosophize about, the entire knowledge enterprise as it exists today – and to philosophize about the role of philosophy in understanding and perhaps (re)directing the knowledge enterprise.

The course will cover the following themes:

  • The past, present, and future of the university in the Age of Google
  • The end of disciplinarity and the rise of accountability culture
  • The New Republic of Letters and the role of the humanist today
  • The failure of applied philosophy and the development of alternative models

Course Structure

This course is ‘live’: it reflects 20 years of my research on place of philosophy in contemporary society. As such, the course embodies a Humboldtian connection between teaching and research: I am not simply a teacher and a researcher; I’m a teacher-researcher who shares the insights I’m developing with students, testing my thinking in the classroom, and sharing my freshest thoughts. This breaks with the corporate model of education where the professor is an interchangeable cog, teaching the same materials that could be gotten at any university worldwide – while also opening me up to charges of self-indulgence.

Readings

  • Michael M. Crow and William B. Dabars, Designing the New American University
  • Crow chapter in HOI
  • Clark, Academic Charisma
  • Fuller, The Academic Caesar
  • Rudy, The Universities of Europe, 1100-1914
  • Fuller, Sociology of Intellectual Life
  • Smith, Philosophers 6 Types
  • Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st Century Philosophy
  • Plato, The Republic, Book 1

Author Information: Stephen Howard, Kingston University London

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

Editor’s Note:

socrates_tenured_cover

Image credit: Rowman & Littlefield International

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

Please refer to:

dickins_christmas

Image credit: valkrye131, via flickr

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

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3j1

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Image credit: nchenga, via flickr

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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Image credit: Jef Safi, via flickr

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

Please refer to:

crossroads

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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

Please refer to:

raven

Image credit: Hartwig HKD, via flickr

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

Please refer to:

sunset

Image credit: Sunny_mjx, via flickr

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…