My Research Philosophy

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Imagine, if you will, a once noble vessel, now stricken and adrift. Many of the decks are ruined shells, filled with debris and inhabited by the lost and helpless. Other decks are nicer, but still plagued with troubles. To make matters worse, members of the crew and passengers live in rival groups and periodically slaughter each other over various matters. The situation is all the more hopeless because there are no lifeboats and virtually no chance of any outside help (although some swear to have seen lights in the sky).

Some few do try to set the ship right and get her back on course. Oddly enough some of the brightest passengers have retreated into the ship’s towers (the walls of which are lined with tiles of finely cut elephant tusks). In the towers, these bright people scribble furiously on scraps of paper in languages only they and their fellows can understand. These scraps, which deal with such dire matters as whether blue is green or green is blue, are passed from tower to tower to the delight of the inhabitants. Sometimes they gather together in bands and, behind tightly closed doors, discuss important matters such as whether they exist or not. While one might expect the crew and passengers would unite and toss such oddballs to the sharks, they do not. Instead, regular tribute is given to the tower dwellers.

Given the dire plight of the ship, it seems immoral for the tower dwellers to squander their intellects and the ship’s resources in such activities. Instead, it seems fair to expect them to help solve the problems that plague the stricken vessel, and those on board.

Not surprisingly, the stricken ship is a crudely obvious metaphor for the earth and the ‘oddballs’ in the tower are, of course, philosophers.

While the analogy might seem a bit silly, it is not all that far from the truth. After all, one has but to look at the daily paper or any news show to see just how well things are going. War, crime, disease, sexism, racism, violence, genocide and other problems abound in the ‘real’ world.

Philosophers are often regarded as being detached from the ‘real’ world. This is shown, in part, by the fact that philosophers tend to focus their research on highly abstract, often self-generated puzzles and conundrums whose solutions (if ever obtained) would seem to have no significant consequences. Further, even when philosophers attempt to address ‘real’ problems, they seem to take perverse delight in creating the most diabolically convoluted and irrelevant papers and presentations possible. Naturally, these papers and presentations are largely for the consumption of other philosophers.

While abstract philosophy has its merits, my view is that a significant portion of philosophical research should be aimed at these very serious problems. When people are on a stricken vessel, each person is expected to help out with the situation. Thus, it seems reasonable to take the current situation on earth to be remarkably like that of a stricken ship. Thus, philosophers are under an obligation to help out.

Given my view on this matter, much of my research has focused on such serious problems that have significant consequences in the world. I have written extensively on topics in ethics, technology, and politics with an approach that is both practical and philosophical.

That said, many philosophic problems are rightly regarded as very important matters and some are even regarded as eternal and essential questions. Bertrand Russell, in The Problems of Philosophy, presented an eloquent and excellent case for the value of philosophy and philosophic questions. To blend Russell’s words with a wonderful line from the Matrix, it’s the questions that drive us to expand our imaginations, to open up new possibilities and to free ourselves from dogmatism. These things certainly seem good and worthwhile.

While Russell argued for the value of philosophy, he also recognized the importance of being involved in the problems of the ‘real’ world. Perhaps the best example of this was in 1960 when Russell told a journalist that there was no time to talk about philosophy in the face of the nuclear threat. True to his word, Russell went out and was arrested for protesting against nuclear weapons. Thus, it would seem that philosophers are not excused from being involved in ‘real’ world problems. Of course, such an argument from authority is relatively weak. Fortunately, another argument can be given.

If philosophers defend their pursuits by claiming that the importance of the philosophic problems obligates them to work on them, then it would seem that philosophers would be equally obligated to work on problems of similar importance. It seems reasonable that matters of life and death, the survival of the human race, and human freedom are matters which are equally important as the problem of personal identity, epistemology and whether beauty is a real quality of objects or not. Hence, it would seem that philosophers cannot be excused simply by claiming that what they do is too important to allow the ‘real’ world to interfere. This does not mean that philosophers should stop doing philosophy. Many philosophic questions overlap with and are relevant to critical ‘real’ world problems. Philosophers are actually ideally suited to deal with problems in a rational and logical manner. This view is what guides my approach to philosophical research.

Thus, philosophers should still do philosophy, but they should also become more involved in the problems of the world.

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  1. I agree that more philosophers could and should work directly on policy problems, but many if not all philosophers seem to be working on something that at least indirectly impinges on worthy policy problems, don’t they?

    For instance, take the question of whether existence a predicate. It seems to be merely word play (from both the outside and inside), but consider its motivation: it helps settle whether the ontological argument can prove the existence of God; and can you think of a more important issue, if God did exist? The question of free will speaks to responsibility and legal reform. Philosophy of aesthetics help us discover what life is worth living for. Logicians help us think more clearly and govern more wisely. Epistemology informs science. And so on.

    I see most if not all philosophers already working on their own different pieces to the most difficult policy problems. Certainly not directly, but at least indirectly, and that’s fine. Can you imagine hundreds or thousands of philosophers all converging to work on a problem such as global warming? There’d likely to be nearly that many different solutions or opinions.

    Is there evidence that more philosophers on a problem even helps? We’re not exactly known for collaborative or diplomatic skills, and that’s what’s often needed in policy. Look at how much philosophical literature there is on personhood, which is closely related to the abortion debate: we’re no closer to a national consensus than we’ve been since Roe v Wade.

    Still, I’d feel better if there were more philosophers on the job in policy and government. But we probably also don’t want too many philosophers fighting to steer the ship.

  2. I do agree that some of what academic philosophers work on can be applied to life outside the academy. As you note, even seeming esoteric questions have important implications.

    In the United States there is something of a tendency for academic philosophers to be a bit isolated from life outside the academy (at least in terms of acting within the profession). There are some notable exceptions, but it seems like academic philosophers have yielded much of the popular philosophical territories to “pop thinkers.” European philosophers seem to be somewhat more engaged. One challenge, I think, is for interested philosophers to come down from the ivory towers without getting stuck in the bog of soft thinking.

    True-one generally does not think of diplomacy and cooperation when one thinks of philosophers. There are, of course, reasons for the stereotypes of the academic philosopher. However, I suspect that in some cases these traits are intentionally nourished and people can habituate themselves to being more diplomatic.

    In my own case, I’ve found my philosophical skills very useful in practical matters (one trick is knowing when to stop theorizing and when to take action).

  3. Just as Plato thought that certain individuals were cut out for certain types of work, I think we can apply the principle of division of labor here:

    Maybe we don’t need most or many philosophers to be the next Noam Chomsky or Martha Nussbaum (but I agree we probably need more); that’s not their area of expertise or competent. Instead, philosophers, keep doing what you’re doing. But we do need “connectors”–experts who understand philosophical research and can draw the connection to practical problems in a way that a broader audience can understand and appreciate, with the goal of informing policy debates. (Is this what you mean by “pop thinkers”?)

    This would keep everyone who likes the status quo in the ivory tower happy, and it’d create a new class of jobs, and it’d fill the need (for more philosophical engagement) you first described?

  4. It seems to me that the same argument could be directed at Sportspeople, Opera singers, Cosmologists, Lepidopterists and so on. Surely everyone to his/her own abilities tastes and desires. In point of fact in WW2 it was common for people with certain callings and talents, to forego those, and do work which helped the war effort. I am sure that with a bit of thought and a little research I could come up with a few philosophers who have turned their talents to affairs in the world at large.
    See also http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/may/10/empty-chair-for-philosopher-king

  5. Don’s comment and link prompted me to think, what if we entertained the contrary hypothesis — i.e., that philosophers actually ought to shy away from positions of power? Many of the classic-to-early-modern philosophers which we remember are the ones who were advisors to those in power.

    Socrates, through the youth in the Athenian democracy.
    Aristotle, through Alexander.
    Machievelli, through the Medici.
    Descartes, through Christina.
    Hypatia, through Orestes.
    Thomas More, through Henry VIII.
    Marx, through Engels.

    The general lesson we learn from this (admittedly arbitrary) list is that those who sought to be philosopher-kings usually don’t have happy deaths. Socrates was forced to drink the hemlock cocktail for corrupting the youth. Aristotle died in exile from Athens, after the death of Alexander. Machievelli died heartbroken after being spurned by the rise of the republicans and the fall of the Medici. Descartes died of a malady brought on by the cold while travelling to meet Christina. Hypatia, in the square, killed and corpse burned by a Christian mob who resented Orestes. Henry had More’s head chopped off. (On the other hand, even though Marx died stateless, he was admired and reasonably influential. A smart-ass might point out that this might be because Marx was not distinctively philosophical, which let him lose the philosopher’s curse.)

    Nowadays, the philosopher’s curse seems to have died off a bit. I don’t believe that today’s widely influential applied philosophers — Nussbaum, Sen, Singer, Pogge — are destined for horrible deaths. The worst case scenario today for philosophers working in G20 nations is that their most influential philosophers will only die ‘public deaths’, by coming to absurd conclusions through specious reasoning in such a way that causes most competent people working in the profession to feel uncomfortable being associated with them. [I will abstain from providing examples of this latter kind.]

  6. Bill,

    Good points. There does seem to be a very worthwhile niche between the purely academic researchers struggling with grue while deconstructing shopping malls and the “pop thinkers” who are often more pop than thinkers. :)

  7. Don,

    I agree. While I do think it would be unreasonable to expect people to sacrifice much for others, I do think that everyone should do what they can. Your war example is very apt-after all, we always do seem to be in a war (in the US we have some actual wars plus more “war against X” than I can recall).

  8. Interesting point.

    Socrates actually said that he avoided going into politics because he believed that someone who would fight for the right must have a private rather than public station. Although he did end up being killed by his fellow Athenians, he claimed he would have been killed much earlier if he had gone into politics.

    But, Marcus Aurelius met with some success (well, aside from his son) as a philosopher in power. There are, of course, the tales that he was murdered.

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