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How Embedded Philosophy Differs from Public Philosophy

The formal call for public philosophy in the US was inspired in large part by the American Philosophical Association (АРА) which, after a series of meetings, launched the Committee on Public Philosophy in 2007. At that time and arguably throughout its existence, there has been no standard definition of the nature of public philosophy. Public philosophy is described by some as philosophical writing that is aimed at non-philosophers—often published in nonphilosophy venues such as blogs or newspapers. Others list bringing traditional philosophies to non-traditional settings such as bookstores or radio programs. The АРА includes philosophical writing that engages contemporary issues in the category of public philosophy. Often on the list is teaching philosophy to traditionally underserved populations such as prisoners or children. The Committee on Public Philosophy also lists promoting to the public the value of philosophy for individuals and societies as a form of public philosophy (www.

The aspect of public philosophy most aligned with what I call embedded philosophy or what Frodeman and Briggle (2016) call field philosophy is philosophical effort to “bring the discipline into dialogue with other humanities, the arts, natural sciences, social sciences, and interested people outside of academia” ( The difference, of course, turns on the meaning of the phrase “bring the discipline into dialogue with.” There are many ways of being in dialogue with others. As the majority of my work has been in dialogue with scientists and engineers, let me speak from my experiences in these domains.

As founding director of the Penn State Kock Ethics Institute (, my two central goals for the institute were: (1) to integrate ethics across the Penn State curriculum; and (2) to catalyze innovative transdis-ciplinary ethics research. To accomplish the first goal, we instituted a series of what we called Teach the Teachers Seminars. We offered these seminars to faculty in the College of Engineering as well as to faculty in the Eberly College of Science. The goal was to provide science and engineering faculty with the knowledge and resources they needed to incorporate ethics education within their courses. The success of these summer-intensive seminars resulted in well over 3,000 students per year being taught “ethics-infused” courses in science and engineering. While not discounting the importance of this work and indeed recognizing it as bringing the discipline of philosophy into dialogue with the sciences and engineering, I do not see this work as field philosophy or embedded philosophy.

The unique nature of the type of embedded philosophy I have engaged in resulted from the efforts we made in the Institute to catalyze innovative trans-disciplinary ethics research. Being trained as a philosopher of science disposed me not only to attend to the importance of epistemic as well as ethical issues but also to understand how they are often interfused, that is, how they are mutually informed or coupled. Becoming embedded in a team of climate scientists led to transdisciplinary approaches to climate risk management in which attention to such coupled epistemic-ethical aspects of science, particularly decision support science, transformed both the questions asked by climate scientists and the design of the models. It also informed our interactions with stakeholders and decision-makers.

Practicing What We Preach

The growing acceptance of the centrality of values in the context of climate change decision-making is well reflected in the recent US climate change assessment, Climate Change Impacts in the United States, which made clear that decision-making had to incorporate both “uncertain scientific information of varying confidence levels, and the values of stakeholders and decision-makers” (Melillo et al. 2014, 621).

Attention to the role of both epistemic and non-epistemic values in the practice of science and engineering has become a subject of growing attention in philosophy. The work of philosophers such as Helen Longino (1990), Heather Douglas (2009), and Kevin Elliott (2017) have contributed to this growing field. However, how to translate such findings “into the field” remains a pressing question. The remainder of the chapter will provide a series of lessons learned from my experiences as an embedded philosopher.

How to Start?

There is no simple answer to this question, but it is one that I am often asked. I began by identifying an area of research that: (a) interested me; (b) where the philosophical issues were complex, multiple, and crucial; and (c) where there was a large team of potential researchers with whom to partner. I chose climate science for a variety of reasons. I was already doing work on the topic of gender and climate change. In 2004, in part because of this work, I began to participate in side-events at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. I quickly identified a series of issues of philosophical relevance, yet noted that few philosophers were involved in the Conference of the Parties or in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) had significant strength in the field of climate change science; indeed, it is arguably one of the top US universities in terms of the range and quality of scientific research on climate change. This convergence of interest and opportunity led me to devote a substantial amount of time to building partnerships with climate change scientists at Penn State.

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