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Institutionalizing Field Philosophy

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So, were we successful? Perhaps. But such battles are never definitively won (or lost). The list resurfaced and was included in modified form in the successor to America COMPETES, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act

2017 (PL 114-329, §102). The policy fight continues (Holbrook 2018). But surely we can claim that CAPR had an impact on policy at the NSF level? The NSB-revised Merit Review criteria put in place by NSF in 2012 (FY 2013) are still in place, after all. Did NSB not follow CAPR’s suggestions?

One problem with institutionalizing field philosophy is that the metrics for success do not really exist. Policy impact is great, if that is what you want to do. But, with the exception of grant proposals that ask for potential broader impacts, societal impacts are essentially invisible to universities in the United States? US universities do not count your broader impacts. What counts is what is easily quantified: number of grants, grant dollars, number of publications, impact factor of the journal in which an article is published, number of citations, and so on.

So, what we have is a narrative that makes a case that CAPR had an impact on society. It is a persuasive narrative, I think, one based on painstakingly documenting specific interactions, specific recommendations, and specific policy changes that followed. But what does such a narrative count for? CSID was shut down by UNT, despite the success of CAPR, and despite winning several subsequent grants. I am now in a tenure-track position at New Jersey Institute of Technology', and what counts for tenure boils down to the number of publications (since my hiring, of course, so nothing I did before September of 2015 counts) and grants. Having a broader impact on society is nowhere to be found among my promotion and tenure criteria, though one might say there is a place for broader impacts: they are necessary to get a grant from NSF. But until we change the reward system at universities, field philosophy, insofar as it aims to have an impact on the world, rather than simply understanding it better, may be relegated to the margins. I take this view to be consistent with the idea that Socrates could never get tenure in a philosophy department today.

That Socrates could never get tenure today is an indictment of the system—a reductio ad absurdum—not an indictment of Socrates. How should we respond? One option would be to discipline field philosophy. Perhaps it would be to our benefit to lay out precisely what field philosophy is, outline its necessary characteristics, define its scope, and prescribe its methods. It appears that this is what Frodeman and Briggle (2016) and Brister and Frodeman (Introduction, this volume) are up to. After a couple of books, maybe we will need a journal. Field philosophy could become a fully-fledged sub-discipline of the discipline of philosophy. But, to me, that would betray what field philosophy is about. The point is not to adapt ourselves to the world; we seek to change it.

The question of how to institutionalize field philosophy without disciplining it too much is the question we field philosophers ought to address next. Why avoid disciplining field philosophy? To the extent that we discipline field philosophy, we de-philosophize it. Philosophy is not equivalent to the discipline of philosophy. There is no univocal philosophic method. We philosophers have no agreed upon set of principles that allow—or require—us to specify—and follow—rules. Philosophy done well advances according to a manner, not by following a method. To say that philosophy advances according to a manner— what Kant called a “feeling of unity”—is not to suggest that anything goes. There are still rules for field philosophers. We simply have not found them yet. My hope is that reading this book will evoke that feeling of unity among us field philosophers, and that this shared experience will form the basis of a community of field philosophers committed to changing the world for the better. If enough of us commit to living it out, field philosophy will live on without us.


  • 1 Several other philosophers have also engaged in research I would classify as along the lines of Philosophy of Science Policy and have also been instrumental in moving the field forward. Paul Thompson, especially, had been engaged in policy-relevant philosophy and with policymakers and other stakeholders for years prior to 2003. Andrew Light is another good example. One might also mention bioethics, which is certainly policy relevant and engaged with policymakers, practitioners, and other stakeholders. But Frodeman and Mitcham led the charge to institutionalize the approach within philosophy as a whole, rather than within or as a specialized subfield.
  • 2 The distinction between a method (modus logkus) and a manner (modus aesthetkus) is laid out by Kant in §49 of his Critique of Judgment (1987 [1790]). According to Kant, a method follows definite principles, whereas a manner is guided by nothing other than the feeling of unity in the presentation of one’s thoughts.
  • 3 Congress supported the Broader Impacts Criterion, but was concerned that proposers and reviewers were not taking full advantage of it. The list of goals introduced in the America COMPETES Act 2007 was supposed to make it easier for researchers who professed to be confused by the meaning of broader impacts.
  • 4 The America COMPETES Act 2007 had asked for a report to Congress on the Broader Impacts Criterion (§7022). That report, completed in 2008, contained the following list of “goals that broader impacts are best suited to promote”:
    • • Increased Economic Competitiveness
    • • Increased Academic and Industry Partnerships
    • • Development of a Globally Competitive Science and Engineering Workforce
    • • Increased Participation of Women and Underrepresented Minorities in Science and Engineering
    • • Improved K-12 Science and Mathematics Education and Teacher Development
    • • Improved Undergraduate Science and Engineering Education
    • • Increased Public Scientific Literacy
    • • Increased National Security.
    • (National Science Foundation, 2008. “Report in Response to America

COMPETES Act: Sec. 7022," p. Id)

Other than the order of the goals, and slight variations in wording, the list in H.R. 5116 is identical to this one.

5 In the United Kingdom, things are different. The Research Excellence Framework provides additional incentives for universities to encourage researchers to pursue societal impacts (see Hicks and Holbrook 2019).


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