Public engagement

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Recently I had a brief dispute (very polite on both sides of course) on Twitter with Barry Lam, who does the very cool Hi-Phi Nation podcast, a story-driven philosophy series. The issue was basically whether philosophers should be doing more by way of public engagement, and less by way of - to put it polemically - technical research that hardly anyone reads. I notice that Nigel Warburton, one of the hosts of Philosophy Bites which is among my favorite podcasts and helped inspire my own podcast (I took my approach to interviews from this series), has made comments along these lines on Twitter as well. There are actually two issues I want to address here:

1. Should philosophers, and academics more generally, be rewarded by their universities (or by government funding, etc) for doing public outreach?

As you might expect, my answer here is "yes" and I think this was Barry's main point so we are in agreement on this. However, I do have some misgivings, coming from my experiences in Britain where "impact" has become not just desirable or something to be rewarded, but actually required for all academic departments. A department of a given size is required to submit a certain number of "case studies" showing how their work has had impact outside of normal academic circles. There are many problems here which have been much discussed in the UK, not least defining what "impact" means, exactly (having spoken to many people about it over the years, including people who were actually referees in the judging process, my impression is that no one knows). In my view, public engagement is not something we should require academics to do. I think the demand for engagement shows a blindness to the fundamental fact that academics are teachers, and in that role can affect thousands of lives over the course of a career, without ever going on TV or starting a podcast. It is, I suspect, no coincidence that the call for impact came in at around the same time as tuition fees in the UK. As soon as students stopped being “the public” and started being paying customers, with all that that implies, it came to seem that an academic who “only” teaches and does research is doing nothing for the wider society. The solution here is to make higher education a well-funded enterprise that reaches as many people as possible, not to add impact to the already long list of academic responsibilities (especially in the UK by the way, where all academics do a startlingly large amount of administrative work, despite having no relevant training for it). Of course if someone does do something that reaches a wider audience, that is great and I obviously have no objection to its being recognized as valuable. There are lots of ways to do that, e.g. a salary increase or a reduction in administrative duties (!), and in the UK context the government could provide funding for that if it wants to encourage impact. But to build it into a wider assessment of the quality of research, as they do now, strikes me as just wrong.

2. Is it fair to criticize philosophers for engaging in narrow, technical reseach that reaches only a small and specialized audience?

Here I will begin by making two points drawn from my own experience: first, I write a lot of research like that myself and consider it to be part of my “day job,” unlike the podcast which to me is more like a hobby; and second, the only reason I can do the podcast is by reading through and then summarizing stacks of books and articles on each topic I cover. Practically every sentence in every scripted episode is based at least loosely on something I read that was probably aimed at a specialist audience – I might read several articles on, say, Ockham’s theory of mental language and distill them into a short episode on the topic that is much less detailed and technical but gets across most of the main points made in these articles. Or I might sum up the thousands of words I’ve written about al-Kindi in only one episode of the podcast. Basically my role here, and the role of most if not all popularizers, is to take specialized research and convey it to a wider public but in a form that would not withstand detailed scrutiny. Not because it is wrong or oversimplified, necessarily, but because there would just be a lot more to say, caveats, exceptions, and so on: good history of philosophy is by its very nature full of careful textual exegesis, subtle philological details, references to abstruse features of the historical context, etc.

Ok, you might say, that’s history of philosophy, but surely plain old philosophy is not like that. I beg to differ! Like any academic field, contemporary philosophy mostly makes progress in small, incremental steps. A journal article may do no more than raise and consider a single counterexample to some proposal that most “civilians” wouldn’t even understand in the first place, at least without extensive explanation. But this is just what research is like. I believe there is another fundamental mistake here, which is to think that writing about philosophy is either “popular” and accessible to everyone without presupposing any background, or “niche,” “narrow” and irrelevant to the concerns of any normal person. Rather, what we have is a continuum with a lot of admittedly narrow, detailed work being done at the coal face, which is then often summed up in broader monographs, and perhaps then presented with less detail in handbooks and companion style volumes or textbooks, and finally appears (in a much distilled form) in a more popular forum like, say, a podcast (a very good illustration is the Elucidations podcast, another excellent series where guests talk about their research in a pretty detailed way). This is just how academia works: there is an internal conversation whose results ripple outwards, losing in refinement and gaining in accessibility as the message is passed on, but hopefully without too much distortion. Now with the internet it is easier than ever for anyone to find out what’s going on if they want to, and for academics to disseminate what they are discovering. But please don’t say that every academic who fails to engage in the dissemination part is wasting their time: in their research they are doing the work that ensures there is something to disseminate in the first place.

Barry Lam on 14 February 2018

Thanks for writing this Peter

Thanks for writing this Peter. My original comments were motivated by the following observation. I have encountered in my travels a surprising number of individuals in the following predicament; they are no longer interested in pursuing the kind of work required to be published in today's peer-reviewed journals. 

I am also of the opinion that the field as a whole, with some exceptions of course, have the following values; serious philosophical work, the kind that is worthwhile to fund, worthy of esteem and accolades, invitations, hiring, raises, and promotion, is the kind of work that appears in peer-reviewed journals. There is lip service to teaching and service, but what is ultimately the locus of evaluation of a philosopher as such is their list of such publications. Maybe I'm wrong, and this is an American thing, or an American elite R1 thing. But my guess is that, those individuals I mentioned in the first paragraph, the field as a whole view them as dead wood; they should make room for serious philosophers, stop taking up space. That I don't think is a good value. 

I think that, if it is the case that every paper in every peer-reviewed journal out there is motivated by philosophical curiosity and pursuit of knowledge, then that alone I think makes it a valuable enough activity to pursue. The fact that such papers are overly technical, or incomprehensible, or read by only a handful of people, or make no lasting contribution to any discussion, while it may be reason for me not to spend my time on them, is not sufficient reason to consider the endeavor unworthy. 

But on the other hand, the fact that some people feel the need to continue churning out such work out of the expectations of the field that one not be considered a charalatan or lazy or undeserving of one's position, promotion or tenure I think is a disservice to the individual, the academy, and possibly even the field. 

I do think that philosophers have a certain set of skills that are beneficial to society as a whole. I also believe that many philosophers are not interested in public engagement and in fact their contribution to the field as a whole would be undermined by wasting their time in this kind of activity. I'm glad that they're churning out the specialized, narrow philosophical work they are. There are also many philosophers, particularly young ones, who simply cannot engage in such activity without a serious cost to their career prospects, but they would very much like to do so. Then there are the people in between who would probably like a mix of research and public engagement even if it involves learning new skills, but when it comes to priority in their lives, would always go with what pays and what moves them ahead in their field. And why shouldn't they? But I think this is a cost, not a benefit, to society as a whole. I also think that if such philosophers could peak into the nearest world in which their research were sacrificed for public engagement, they would find that it may be a cost to themselves as well. 

In reply to by Barry Lam

Peter Adamson on 14 February 2018

Thanks for the thoughtful

Thanks for the thoughtful response Barry! It seems that we agree about a lot here, and perhaps our disagreement is more a matter of emphasis than anything. A few thoughts:

I have never worked at a university that was not a research oriented institution, I did my PhD at Notre Dame and was then at King's College London and now LMU Munich. In this sort of place research is just part of the job description and staff are indeed subject to, at a minimum, social pressure to keep up their productivity. I think the US situation is very different from Europe, because of the tenure system which means that most academics have a huge incentive to publish early in their career, which vanishes overnight when they get tenure. That doesn't really exist here in Europe. Also we don't have lots of colleges where the staff is pretty much just expected to teach, without doing research, whereas that is common in the US. I have no problem with that: clearly, plenty of good research is being done and to be honest if all the "pure teaching" positions were occupied by people who were publishing loads, that would just exacerbate the existing problems of journals having too many submissions to cope with, and all of us being unable to keep up with what is being published in our reading.

So when I talk about research and teaching as the two key roles of the academic, I don't want to rule out or denigrate academics who "only" do teaching and admin (or indeed public outreach): as I say in my original post, teaching is one of the most important things we do, or rather the most important.

On the other hand I am a bit uncomfortable with your suggestion that research should be purely motivated by curiosity and intellectual passion. I guess that research-active philosophers got into the field in the first place for those reasons, but once they are actively working in the field the research is part of the job too, and it is vital that universities do not start thinking of research as a kind of bonus thing that academics do in their spare time. For all its flaws, I guess that the Research Assessment in the UK is the only thing that gives universities a reason to give their academic staff any time to do research at all - and even as it is, the assumption seems to be that they hire people who are so passionate about the research that they will find a way to do it whatever other duties are piled on top of them.

So in sum, my view is that there is a place for both research active and research inactive philosophers, and the latter can take pride in the teaching they do. At institutions that are research intensive, though, academics should be rewarded for publishing and given space and time to do it, because it is a core part of their job. To be frank, at a place like the LMU a professor who doesn't do any research is really failing to do part of what they were hired for - publishing is not an optional extra, as it might be at an institution that is focused exclusively on teaching or social outreach or whatever. And as I say, this is a contrast with public engagement which I think really ought to remain optional, not part of what we are expected to do (with the exception of positions that may have that as part of their conception, for instance in the UK there are a few people who hold posts called things like Professor for the Public Understanding of Philosophy or whatever).


Matt Teichman on 18 February 2018

Hi, everybody! What an honor

Hi, everybody! What an honor to be discussing this incredibly important issue with two of the great podcasters of our time.

So I basically agree with Peter, with a couple caveats. I suspect that both Barry and Peter would agree with them, but I'll make them nonetheless, because if not, then that's something worth discussing.

From a macro perspective, I think it's imperative that there be a diversity of types of activity going on within the profession of philosophy, and that doing any/all of them be able to count as fulfilling your core professional obligation. As long as there are a lot of people coming up with insights to be disseminated and also a lot of people doing the disseminating, we're in good shape. If the scales tilt so that at a large scale the profession is only doing one of those two types of thing, then we're in bad shape. And there's also the logical question Peter raises about what, if anything, the 100% dissemination end of the scale could even look like.

I also think we should do whatever we can to encourage single individuals to do both. That's not any kind of knock against people who spend their career focusing exclusively on one--it's an unavoidable psychological fact that different people have different temperamental inclinations, and it's just fine for there to be some or perhaps even many such people. We don't want to run around being the everyone must be a jack of all trades police. Nonetheless, I don't see any plausible way of denying that the more people there are who contribute in both ways, the better off we all are.

At this point, I feel like I should pause to explicitly flag that the idea of original research and dissemination being completely separable activities is ultimately a simplifying abstraction that we will probably want to give up. The reason for this is that no original research is really 'complete' until it's been subject to a certain amount of dissemination, because until we roll up our sleeves and fully go through the dissemination process, we haven't properly understood it yet. University libraries are currently teeming with incredible insights that no one can actually understand, because the authors are dead and no one took the time to digest the work while the authors were alive. On the one hand, this is clearly better than if the insight had never been arrived at by anyone. On the other, it is also clearly worse than if the insight had been properly digested by the broader community and was widely being applied in practice. At the end of the day, research breakthroughs exist in order to have an effect. No research breakthrough that's condemned to an eternity of sitting around in a library gathering dust is ever going to be a fully happy research breakthrough.

Anyway, the fact that dissemination is at least a little bit implicated in the substance of the original research itself, in the sense that it enhances our understanding of it, is another reason I think it's good to have as high a number of people doing both as we deem reasonable. Not as a requirement that is in any way enforced, but as an ideal to be aspired towards.

Getting back to the narrowness worry, another thing I wanted to mention is that getting hung up on what types of publications actually end up appearing in journals strikes me as a bit of a red herring. I think we can likely make this discussion most helpful by lifting it to the virtue ethics level (if you'll permit me a computer science metaphor). So although I don't think that the preponderance of any particular type of article in the top journals is anything to be concerned about in and of itself, there is a real worry that we should be concerned about, and it has something to do with narrowness in the field. But it has less to do with what is in fact being published and more to do with the culture of the discipline.

There are plenty of 'inside baseball' books and papers that are great works of philosophy despite the fact that they presuppose an extensive background in the field. I'm reading one right now--'Aboutness' by Stephen Yablo--and it's one of the finest works of philosophy I've ever had the pleasure of reading. If any book justifies the continued existence of the profession, that one does. But having written works that presuppose an acquaintance with a non-trivial amount of academic literature is one thing, and having no interest in learning about anything outside of your exact maximally precisely specified area of expertise is quite another. And that's an attitude I come across rather frequently, at least over here in the US. The superstition is that by learning about something outside of your official area, your knowledge about your official area somehow diminishes. It's irrational, empty of any basis in empirical evidence, and yet time and time again, I somehow seem to get sucked into one-sided conversations with philosophy professors who aggressively presuppose it.

That attitude is something that I am in favor of pushing back against, and it's more or less independent of the extensional issue of how many instances of each type of article we see appear in print. It's not a 'which paper should I write' kind of question--it's a virtue ethics question of the form: 'what type of life do I want to lead, and what type of life do we admire'? Do I want to lead a life in which I take pride in what I'm ignorant of, on the grounds that that ignorance supposedly makes me more knowledgeable about the hyper-specific thing I supposedly know a lot about? Or do I want to lead a life in which I'm driven to satisfy my curiosity at every turn, wherever that may lead me? I can't speak to the situation in the UK, but in the US there are substantial social incentives at a number of the top departments putting pressure on both faculty and graduate students to adopt the former stance. That really is something we need to resist, and I think it's what at least a lot of people have in mind when they raise worries about the field getting too narrow/specialized/professionalized.

In reply to by Matt Teichman

Peter Adamson on 18 February 2018

Thanks for writing in Matt!

Thanks for writing in Matt! Folks, in case it isn't obvious, this comment was from Matt Teichman who started and still hosts the Elucidations podcast mentioned above in my original post.

You make a lot of great points there, all of which I agree with as you suspected. But the one I most want to pick up on is towards the end: that professional philosophers (indeed all philosophers) should avoid narrowness in their interests, even if their published work may be narrow in scope. This is something I've argued for myself at least in the context of the history of philosophy, for instance in my list of 20 rules and in fact, one thing I like about doing history of philosophy is that it naturally tends to force you to come to grips with issues from across the range of philosophical sub-disciplines, from ethics to metaphysics to aesthetics, etc, simply because the historical authors did that too. I would say it also applies in contemporary philosophy: it would be a poor ethicist who just didn't care, and knew nothing at all about, epistemology and metaphysics. My experiences here have been broadly better than Matt's, maybe just because of where I have worked: certainly every time I have been on a hiring committee, one of the things we looked for was the candidate's ability to connect their speciality subject to other areas of philosophy. If for no other reason that when you hire this person, you want to be able to have interesting conversations with him or her! Yet I do agree with Matt, in the sense that there are professional pressures that push young philosophers to pursue only a narrow specialism - by the time you can take a breath because you have tenure, you have already been overspecializing for numerous years. Still, I think even the specialized "narrow" research would benefit from a wider perspective on the part of the authors and I believe that most people at research-oriented departments value this sort of breadth too and look for it in hiring. So my advice to grad students would be: do specialize, but don't put blinders on because the issues around your issue, and the further issues around those other issues, are important for you too and knowing about them may get you a job someday!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Karl Young on 9 March 2018

Wow, this discussion is only

Wow, this discussion is only missing Nigel Warburton re. some of my absolute favorite primary sources of philosophy ! Of late, I've more often than not gone and read someting more detailed like a paper or a book based on one of your podcasts (though Matt and Barry I'm still waiting for some help with Whitehead - I know Peter is wasting too much time with giraffes for that, but maybe in a couple of years he'll get there - Matt how about interviewing someone like Randy Auxier or Gary Herstein re. helping me parse their book ? :-)).

In any case I just wanted to add my 2 cents that the situation Matt describes seems to be endemic in US Academia. As a physicist who had a hard time focusing on anything for too long (my dissertation advisor in furstration once heatedly asked "Do you just want to sit around and talk philosophy all day ?!" - I didn't answer honestly for fear of not getting my union card) I obviously fell on the non-specialist side of the divide. Most disciplines obviously need some combination of specialists and generalists (i.e. people to do really hard detail work and people to clear the logjams via insight across specializations). But like Matt and Barry (sorry if I'm assuming too much here), I think the current funding deficiencies and publishing practices (impact factors,...) in the US has pushed things too far to the side os self protecting communities of specialization - it sounds like that's the case for philosophy as well many of the sciences.

Though, in keeping with my temprament, my ideal was to end up teaching a broad range of classes in a liberal arts setting (physics, mathematics, computing, philosophy of science) I didn't have the pedigree to land in what I considered the right setting and ironically ended up in a highly specialized soft money research setting. But as life goes that actually provided me with a glorious career that allowed me to do some teaching as well (and as it turned out more than I wanted !). Go figure. But all this is to say that I think the discussion you guys are having is important and in fact needs to occur on a larger scale re. the future of Academia in the US across all discplines. 

For now though please keep your public outreach work for the benefit of we philosophically unwashed !    

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