Debating applied philosophy

by Ingrid Robeyns on June 29, 2012

The Society for Applied Philosophy celebrates its 30th anniversary at its Annual Conference in Oxford this weekend. I delivered earlier today a plenary paper on the conceptualization of the rich, on which I may or may not write another post in the future (you can see that I’m writing this after a long wine reception and being in combative spirits!). Earlier today we had a roundtable on the nature of applied philosophy, which was very interesting. There were a few panelists opening with some statements, but a large part of the session was simply the philosophers present in the room voicing their views and concerns about the nature of applied philosophy and its interaction with society at large.

Part of the discussion was about the interventions philosophers make in society (something that given its nature often happens in this subfield). As someone stated, philosophy has a build-in tendency to not lead to one view, but to a range of possibly conflicting views, which may be puzzling to the public (often a policy maker) who often expect one answer to a question. Philosophers serving on ethics committees raised the issue that such committees often turn to the philosopher to get ‘the ethical view’ on a case — whereas there are often a plurality of perspectives that are relevant to a case, and the philosopher is not someone with privileged access to some ‘ethical truths’. Philosophers have skills (through training) which may help them with illuminating certain views, and helping to clarify people’s own views in case they are muddled, but there was a debate in the room to what extent applied philosophers’ own substantive views that follow from their philosophical thinking are in any sense ‘better’ than those of others. My own take on this is that philosophers should feel free (and in fact be encouraged) to develop substantive positions on a topic, but should be careful in communicating the status of that philosophical view to the wider public: it is not a statement of ‘the philosophical truth on a topic’, but rather a (hopefully) carefully worked out view on an issue or problem, on offer to the public; and since many members of the public actually would welcome well-grounded substantive views in order to be able to better develop their own views, this is an important contribution the (applied) philosopher could make to society.

Another interesting discussion emerged around the issue of whether applied philosophers should be happy or rather worried if their substantive conclusions are taken up by policy makers or other societal actors in the public sphere, since sometimes they are not properly understood or they are taken out of a debate or out of their context. One woman nicely pointed out that she doesn’t mind her substantive views being taken up in public as long as they are considered together with the arguments that support that view — but one should become worried if substantive conclusions start circulating in public divorced from the arguments, given that the arguments are often regarded as the much more important part of philosophical work than the conclusions.

I came out of the discussion thinking: “Applied philosophers and the public at large – not always an easy relationship”. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a couple of years from now we’ll have exactly the same discussion all over, since it’s not a tension that we will easily solve.



Jim Harrison 06.29.12 at 11:46 pm

Philosophers like to argue, but arguably (sic) their more important historical role has been to serve as agenda setters. In this respect they are rather like historians who would simply be stamp-collecting antiquarians if it weren’t for their culturally more significant function of deciding which parts of the past to ignore. Both philosophers and historians serve as politicians of thought, struggling not merely to establish what was or is but what mattered and will matter. To put a Heideggerian insight into a modern terminology, we all find ourselves in a state of just-having-fallen-off-the-turnip-truckitude and consequently need to make a world around ourselves by some sort of decision process if only in order to figure out which way is up.

Of course, viewed in this perspective, philosophy is also a bit like poetry, i.e. something whose value is inversely proportional to its volume. Just as poetry is either unreadable or unforgettable, philosophy comes across as either pointless logic chopping or the most important kind of human thought. You can learn to appreciate virtuoso performances of academic philosophy—in fact I do appreciate such things—but the taste is decidedly an acquired one, rather like appreciating a clever passage in the Talmud or a brilliant finesse in duplicate bridge. My question is, under what circumstances does it in fact matter at all when it doesn’t matter hugely?


JSE 06.30.12 at 1:52 am

I’m not sure this is different in any material way from the situation of applied mathematics! One difference is that while the substantive views arrived at by mathematicians are not infrequently taken up by policymakers, the technical arguments that support those views are almost never brought along for the ride, for obvious reasons.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.30.12 at 5:54 am

I’ve always been fond of the model of “applied philosophy” Martha Nussbaum so ably examined in what remains for me her best book, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (1994). She quotes the following from Epicurus: “Empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sickness of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul.” The elimination of human suffering on the one hand, and the achievement of human flourishing (eudaimonia) on the other, are in effect two sides of the same coin. For the Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics, notes Nussbaum, “philosophy is above all the art of human life.” The medical analogy central to this conception of philosophy plays an intriguingly similar role to the very same analogy used in Buddhism (and the approach to ‘the emotions,’ what for the Buddhist falls under the larger rubric of ‘mental afflictions,’ is in many respects the same as well). “Empty and vain” is any philosophy, on this account, not conceived along the lines of an “art of human living.” Philosophy understood as centrally concerned with ethically normative “ways of living” is of course likewise found in classical Chinese worldviews (Daoist, Confucian…) and Indic philosophical schools that grew up within religious traditions (Nyāya, VaiÅ›esika, Sāmkhya, Yoga, MÄ«māmsā, Vedānta, Jaina, Buddhist, and Cārvāka).

John M. Cooper (and after Pierre Hadot) has recently characterized all of classical Greek philosophy in much the same manner: “In antiquity, beginning with Socrates…philosophy was widely pursued as not just the best guide to life but as both the intellectual basis and the motivating force for the best human life….” For the details, see his Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus (2012).

I complete the picture with Nussbaum’s introduction to the Roman Stoic, Seneca: “According to this account, philosophy is still a compassionate doctor, administering to urgent human needs. ‘There is no time for playing around,’ says Seneca, attacking philosophers who devote their careers to logical puzzles. ‘…You have promised to bring help to the shipwrecked, the imprisoned, the sick, the needy, to those whose heads are under the poised axe. Where are you deflecting your attention? What are you doing?’ And yet, this compassion is combined with a fundamental respect for the integrity of the reasoning powers of each person. The patient must not simply remain a patient, dependent and receptive, she must become her own doctor.”

Perhaps needless to say, most contemporary professional philosophers do not imagine this to be the kind of philosophy they practice.


Hidari 06.30.12 at 6:46 am

This is an important debate, but I’m afraid illustrates the (wilful?) blindness that many academics still have when they come to enter into and engage with the public sphere. Obviously there are specific issues with explaining complex issues, discussing situations where there is more than one answer (when a policy maker wants one and one only) and so forth.

But a much more fundamental question is with the relation of ‘politics’ to the public sphere and academia in an advanced capitalist society. I have a certain amount of experience in the field of bringing academic findings to politicians, and I finally got out of it when I realised that almost always (not quite always, but usually) the decision, whatever it was, had been made in a back room many months/years before and now various politicians wanted an academic figleaf to support whichever decision had already been decided upon. The most successful academics were those who realised this and tailored their conclusions to the prevailing political wind. And of course this is inevitable given the nature of academic funding for research.


Ingrid Robeyns 06.30.12 at 7:22 am

Thanks all!
Hidari, you are absolutely right, and I should say in fairness to the people in the room that this issue was also discussed (not from the perspective of funding but simply from the perspective of fitting in in the prevailing practices of politics); I should have mentioned that too. Yet I think people’s experiences are diverse (possibly because we live in different countries and the political practices there are different), and depending on the situation one is working in, one may decide that it’s better to redraw from trying to contribute to society via policy, or that it is a suitable route despite its limitations.
But you’re absolutely right that it is something academics should be aware of and think about carefully (my own observation, for whatever that’s worth, is that philosophers may actually be more aware and more doubting this enterprise then academics from other disciplines, given the nature of the subject).


QS 06.30.12 at 7:42 am

“Both philosophers and historians serve as politicians of thought”

I like this.


Adam Roberts 06.30.12 at 10:17 am

I fear that, in significant parts of the world, the question is not ‘what philosophers …’ but ‘that philosophers …’ I mean that whatever else philosophers do, they start out questioning and challenging; and that whatever else philosophers convey, substantively, to the general public it is underwritten by the belief that questioning and challenging are worthwhile human activities. This is not a point of view universally shared. this, from Unfogged from the 2012 platform of the Texan Republican party:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

It seems to me that one of the main thing philosophers need to do is to persuade quite a significant chunk of the world’s population that we need philosophers at all; a chunk who might say ‘why would we need philosophers when we already have theologians?’


Nick 06.30.12 at 11:41 am

The thing I find about philosophy is that when it becomes practical, it usually ceases to seem like philosophy. For example, the utilitarian(ish) idea that people’s interests be given equal weight overall has penetrated some policy making domains in the form of the cost-benefit analysis. Of course, the empirics of actual CBAs are often terrible but the aspiration pays tribute to a philosphical notion.


Derek Bowman 06.30.12 at 11:47 am

@Patrick O’Donnell

One thing that seems to be missing from this account of philosophy as therapeutic is a proper dose of Socratic modesty. At least it seems so when presented in the context of worries about how one’s positions might be taken up by a decision making body or into a larger public debate. Do philosophers have sufficient expertise about the good life to be the voice of “the ethical position” in such debates? If not, we should be especially worried when we think others might take our positions as ‘certifications’ of that kind.


philofra 06.30.12 at 11:53 am

Why not mention some visible philosophers who apply.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.30.12 at 1:08 pm

I suspect a very, very small number (if any) of contemporary philosophers, especially the academic sort, come close to exemplifying, or even aspiring to the therapeutic model. There’s nothing intrinsic to the therapeutic model, any more than a physician well-versed in the arts of healing, that entails or implies immodesty of any kind: epistemic or otherwise. As the therapeutic model involves something on the order of “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” the philosopher’s life is one of ongoing lessons in humility, like the ideal doctor, the philosopher never fails to learn from his patients, nor does she forget to practice daily self-examination (a more humbling exercise is hard to imagine). And let’s not forget that Socratic humility, such as it is, was hardly perceived as such by those of his time, hence the Apology, the false accusations, Aristophanes’ portrait of Socrates, and so forth. Immodesty on Socrates’ part did not preclude his commitment to living according to philosophical standards of courage, justice, piety, and temperance, did not prevent the deference to his daimon…. Moreover, the therapeutic model is exercised in the first instance on an individual basis, not at the collective level, as Nussbaum says, therapeutic arguments, like medical treatments, are directed at the health of the individual. Consider too, and by way of analogical example, Grant R. Gillet’s remarks, speaking both as a neurosurgeon and professor of biomedical ethics in his invaluable book, Bioethics in the Clinic: Hippocratic Reflections (2004): “Hippocratic practitioners clearly need to cultivate certain virtues. They need to be trustworthy and committed to discovering and respecting the patient’s real interests. They must appreciate widely different life stories and the role illness in these stories. They must then incorporate their clinical learning into practicing the art of medicine, systematically incorporating scientific and therapeutic developments. This requires empathy and humility, and a right use of their powers as healers so that they can participate in liberating their patients from affliction. They must have a number of traits: imagination, self-criticism, generosity of spirit, loyalty, justice and patience, even irony. And in all of this they must cultivate their own growth as people so that they become more complete in their ability to help those who turn to them.” Just so….

Finally, the resurrection of the notion of “intellectual virtues” or regulative or virtue epistemology is an attempt to formulate in today’s terms and under contemporary conditions an idea whose origin lies in classical Greek philosophy. In other words, epistemic modesty in particular or philosophical modesty in general bespeaks the sort of humility that is the opposite of vanity and arrogance, and is incarnate in the therapeutic model as exemplifying the care, concern, and attentiveness that eludes the immodest, the vain, the arrogant. This is the converse of that species of self-importance and individual and group flattery one finds in academic circles routinely rewarding (by salaries, titles, awards, praise, etc.) the talented, the skilled, and the accomplished, routinely obsessing over citation numbers, attainment of tenure, individual and departmental prestige, funding and grants, leaving the stamp of one’s mental products on disciples, on one’s field, and so on.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.30.12 at 1:17 pm

Erratum: “Modesty on Socrates’ part…”


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.30.12 at 1:48 pm

I might have said that I don’t envision philosophers, professional or otherwise, being accorded any special status or privilege in public or political fora, their views being filtered through participatory and deliberative democratic methods and processes along with the views of their fellow citizens (which does not mean their contributions might not be unsettling or that their engagement might come at great risk to themselves, like Jan Patočka in the former Czechoslovakia or Rudolf Bahro in East Germany, or Buddhist monks and nuns in Tibet, or…Socrates in the agora).


PJW 06.30.12 at 3:11 pm

Dr. Albert Schweitzer cultivated those certain virtues, from what I’ve read and and from the stories told to me by my uncle who, after graduating from medical school in 1960, spent a year with Schweitzer at Schweitzer’s hospital in Africa. After a day of doctoring, Schweitzer would play piano every night for the enjoyment of all. I’m sure my uncle’s year with Schweitzer has served him well in a medical career that continues into his 80s.


QS 06.30.12 at 5:37 pm

Hegel destroyed the therapeutic school, and thereby left it to be revived by capital in the form of self-help doctrines and products.


Antonio Conselheiro 06.30.12 at 5:55 pm

First you need to get rid of all the inapplicable philosophers.

“Applied Philosophy is philosophy itself”. Stephen Toulmin.


Actio 06.30.12 at 7:13 pm

Ingrid @ Hidari “… and depending on the situation one is working in, one may decide that it’s better to redraw from trying to contribute to society via policy, or that it is a suitable route despite its limitations.”

When ruling political parties only seek figleaf academics then the applied philosopher can still contribute to policy processes indirectly by valuable contributions to progressive political grassroot organizations and NGOs. I submit Peter Singer as a paradigmatic example of that. Both his interaction with animal rights/liberation activist movement and the movement building


engels 06.30.12 at 8:23 pm

My own take on this is that philosophers should feel free (and in fact be encouraged) to develop substantive positions on a topic, but should be careful in communicating the status of that philosophical view to the wider public: it is not a statement of ‘the philosophical truth on a topic’, but rather a (hopefully) carefully worked out view on an issue or problem, on offer to the public; and since many members of the public actually would welcome well-grounded substantive views in order to be able to better develop their own views, this is an important contribution the (applied) philosopher could make to society.

This is a line that has always puzzled me. Does a political philosopher forswear giving arguments for her views? It seems to me that in making an argument, at least one which purports to be rigorous, one is attempting to rationally compel the someone to accept its conclusion. Isn’t it disingenuous to claim at the same time that this conclusion is simply ‘on offer’?


engels 06.30.12 at 9:24 pm

Okay, I know most political philosophers don’t claim that their conclusions are rationally inescapable. I do think there is in the nature of an argument that it involves an attempt at compulsion and I’m suspicious of any ‘offer’ which backed by arguments. Btw my boss is often ‘requesting’ that I do things…


Matt 06.30.12 at 9:35 pm

I do think there is in the nature of an argument that it involves an attempt at compulsion

I suppose it depends on the argument, and how one sees it working. Most arguments in moral and political philosophy (including applied philosophy) have premises that are not, to say the least, obvious and uncontroversial. If you see this about your premises, then you should see that it will most often be open to people to reject or modify one or more of them so that the conclusion doesn’t follow. This is one reason why argument here often takes the form of “building a case” for some conclusion, for showing why it’s a plausible conclusion given premises that we share, or why it represents an attractive outcome. But this form of argument isn’t well characterized as an “attempt at compulsion”, I think, at least if it’s done right. In fact, given the level of disagreement on moral and political claims, and given the loose fit between premise and conclusion in practical reasoning generally, I tend to be pretty suspicious of anyone who thinks that their argument “compels” a certain conclusion.


Ingrid Robeyns 06.30.12 at 9:44 pm

Engels, point taken. I think my view is this: one can situate the position of a philosopher who has developed a substantive view that s/he is sharing with society as a point somewhere on a spectrum with two extremes. At one end is the philosopher who claims that her view is the truth and those who advocate another position must be wrong. On the other hand are complete relativists, who advocate that philosophers really are in no way in a better position to develop and defend a view than any other person in society (or who see the production of knowledge as merely political).
My view is in the middle: I think that philosophers, by their training, are more likely than most non-philosophers to be able to develop sound argument (within their area of expertise!) with the necessary amount of detail and with an eye on what’s important; and, it is their professional duty to develop that argument as good as they can. But still their reasoning is fallible and they have no super-cognitive-powers, and moreover there are (in absolute numbers) plenty of non-philosophers in society who are also able to develop arguments of that quality and are able to devote the time to it (some research journalists come to mind, or commenters on this blog!). If this is correct, then the philosopher is more likely to provide a well-thought-trough argument, but this is only a probabilistic statement.
In short, your comment is spot-on, so let me try to reformulate it a bit more sharper (if I can): I do think that philosophers should defend their position, and the ‘on offer’ should therefore not be understood as a ‘relativist’ offer, (that is, here’s my view which I take to be on an equal footing with zillions of views that float around in society, many not supported by any sound argument at all). Philosophers are, after they have done the hard work, entitled to try to convince others of their views. But they should not abuse the status they have in society (*if* they have any such status, I hasten to add) to use their authority to put their arguments+view beyond public debate.


Tom Hurka 07.01.12 at 12:21 am

1) One way philosophers influence public policy that hasn’t been mentioned is by influencing courts and judges, especially ones deciding constitutional questions. In Canada philosophers have been quoted in decisions on abortion, assisted death, and other topics. And I don’t think that, outside the US at least, judges are as likely as Hidari says politicians are to have made up their minds on other grounds in advance.

2) The therapeutic conception of philosophy is reflected in Aristotle’s remark that his aim in the Nicomachean Ethics is not knowledge but practice. The great moral philosophers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — Sidgwick, Moore, Carritt, Ross, Broad — had exactly the opposite view, saying they aimed at knowledge, not practice. Sidgwick, for one, said he thought the “desire to edify” had impeded the progress of philosophical ethics, and I can’t say the writings of present-day “therapeutic” philosophers make me think he was wrong.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 07.01.12 at 1:56 am


Just as the physician seeks knowledge of the etiology of illness as well as knowledge of possible therapeutic treatments, regimens, or cures, so too does the medical philosopher seek knowledge: it’s not a question of choice between knowledge and practice but more precisely: what sorts of knowledge are we seeking? what is knowledge for? why do we seek knowledge? to what uses should our knowledge be put? and so forth. What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom? As I’m sure you know, Hellenistic ethical schools believed that knowledge was subordinate to a few overarching goals or aims or ends: eudaimonia, the relief of suffering, ataraxia, etc. Knowledge in classical Greek philosophy is to serve the ends of proper living (living that exemplifies temperance, justice, wisdom…). It is knowledge, in the form of wisdom, that enables one to live the good life. With Socrates, the virtues are pursued in part through philosophical thought and argument. Knowledge is here subordinate to, in the service of, a certain way of life.

How does one assess “progress” in philosophical ethics? Does it involve standards or criteria having to do with how you and I are better equipped to lead ethical lives? Does it rely on examination of the rhetorical strategies that engage people as they are? Is such progress understood in light of “the Good?” Is such progress related to the attainment of edaimonia?…or the elimination of suffering? Should we wait for such progress in philosophical ethics to trickle down from the highest floors of the Ivory Tower?

I confess my ignorance with regard to the number of contemporary “therapeutic (professional) philosophers” (the ones I’m aware of that might earn this appellation I count on one hand). In any case, I suspect their criteria for assessing progress in philosophical ethics is indeed different from that of Sidgwick. The desire to edify possesses an advantage, as it were, evidenced in classical Greek philosophy, Hume, some of the moral sense philosophers, the Buddhists, among others, namely a deep appreciation of the relevance, indeed, importance, of moral psychology to ethics. It is such appreciation that allows ethics to be relevant to the rest of us, and not just academic philosophers, or legal and biomedical ethicists.


Matt 07.01.12 at 2:36 am

The great moral philosophers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—Sidgwick, Moore, Carritt, Ross, Broad—had exactly the opposite view, saying they aimed at knowledge, not practice.

At least with Sidgwick this view changed over time. His last book was a collection of essays entitled _Practical Ethics_, many directed at practical issues of how to live one’s life day-to-day, and in inaugural address to the Cambridge Ethical Society, which he helped found, he explicitly said that the aim of such a group should be, following Aristotle , not knowledge, but action. His works on politics (often ignored by philosophers) had been moving this way for some time, too.


QS 07.01.12 at 11:25 am

#21, philosophers begin from a position of politics and when called to practice politics (that is, give their reasoned argument on an issue to a politician or group) continue to be political, that is possess an argument which is “relative” in that it is one of many but superior in that it is theirs and they represent it. No one should expect a philosopher to enter a fray with a meze-table of possible arguments, but to enter with their argument and persuade according to their logic. The partiality of this is not to be attenuated. Trying to do so is folly regardless, for the partiality/particularity of the philosopher’s argument will be readily pointed out by a politician who disagrees.


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Rob 07.01.12 at 5:57 pm


Apologies for the shameless self-promotion, but I thought this might be interesting if you’re worried about how philosophy might be interpreted in the public sphere:


Tony Lynch 07.02.12 at 6:10 am

I am a philosopher and the self-declared “applied philosophers” I know practice as moral bureaucrats, running everything through their preselected (axiomatic) principles (Autonomy, Utility &c) and churning out “results” which are then utilised (selectively, but with the experienced applied philosophical bureaucrat, not always) by whatever authority is in place and in the light of whatever ends it, in fact, has.


Aveek 07.03.12 at 12:09 pm

I’ve discussed this issue in a short blogpost if anybody is interested:

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