Socrates Tenured. The Argument in a Nutshell.

APP Editors’ Note: The following is an excerpt from Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st Century Philosophy–APP_socrates_tenured_poster_aug16

Universally venerated by contemporary philosophers, the actual philosophic practice of Socrates is rejected or ignored. Socrates could never get a position today in a philosophy (or any other) department.

Socrates Tenured offers an account, and a critique, of the marginal role that academic philosophy plays in society. It focuses on an issue that has been ignored by the philosophic community: the institutional setting that philosophy has occupied since the creation of the modern research university. We see this setting – namely, the department – as the great unthought of contemporary philosophy.

Ours is both a theoretical and practical critique. Practically, this account constitutes a rejoinder to the ongoing reinvention of the modern research university. This reinvention, itself a response to various political and technological pressures, is likely to significantly affect both philosophy and the humanities more generally. Humanities departments at a few well-endowed schools will be able to continue on as before, but we suspect that for the vast majority of such departments, wrenching change lies ahead. The dangers we discuss, readily available for all to see, get limited attention for the simple reason that the people who set the agenda for the philosophical community have a sinecure: tenure. This institutional fact has encouraged a blindness concerning the theoretical dimensions of our institutional housing.

Philosophers have a choice. We can continue to teach our classes and con- duct our research while hoping that things continue on as before. Or we can try to take (partial) control of our future by changing our profession before our profession is changed by others. We choose the latter path, and call for the development of new institutional models that seek a way out from the cul de sac academic philosophy finds itself in.

But there is more at stake here than simply the fate of philosophy departments. The issue here is nothing less than the future of our fast-evolving society. Make no mistake: philosophizing always goes on in one way or another. Academic philosophy may have gone socially dormant, but new expressions of philosophy are blossoming across society. The dynamism of this modern- day Republic of Letters stands in stark contrast to the inward-looking conservatism of contemporary academics. This new Republic of Letters offers philosophizing on the fly, in response to a variety of game changers that have deeply philosophical elements – issues like climate change, artificial intelligence, globalization, new forms of media, and the potential remaking of the human genome.

These philosophers seldom hold PhDs in the field. They are usually identified, and self-identify, as business people, scientists, journalists, engineers, and futurists rather than philosophers. They have created an informal network of blogs, YouTube channels, magazines, and books. They function as free-lancers, or inhabit a set of institutions that exist on the margins of the university, such as the Centre for Study of Existential Risk and the Future of Life Institute.  Some of these institutions, such as X, formerly Google X, while on the margins of the academy, are very well placed in society. Other thinkers live a much more subterranean existence. In the aggregate, this network is fulfilling a role that academic philosophers have mostly abandoned – broad thinking in public venues about who we are, where we are going, and who we ought to be.

Socrates Tenured is a response to these developments. We first offer an account of the state of academic philosophy today, and of why contemporary philosophy (including applied philosophy) has failed to serve societal needs. We then provide an alternative model for philosophizing – what we call field philosophy – as a means to bridge the gap between (and temper the limitations of) academic philosophy and the amorphous, evolving techno-Republic of Letters.

Field philosophy has two basic features. First, it enlarges the range of academic philosophy by taking a more entrepreneurial approach toward philosophizing. We see field philosophy as a type of academic philosophy where one works on an ongoing basis with people in the STEM disciplines, the world of policy, community groups, and NGOs. On this account, field philosophy complements rather than rejects normal ‘disciplinary’ philosophy. In fact, we will argue for a circulatory model where field philosophers periodically return to the department to report on their experiences and to recharge their batteries before once again going out into in the world.

Second, field philosophy wants to bring the informal but intensely creative public forms of the modern-day Republic of Letters in closer relation with academic philosophizing. Philosophers within this techno-Republic of Letters would be enriched by a better acquaintance with academic work. They might, for instance, temper some of their optimism concerning the liberatory promise of accelerating technological advance. We believe that these two expressions of philosophy – the disciplinary work occurring in the academy, and the new Republic of Letters – need to recognize one another and function in a kind of informal partnership. Field philosophy can function as that bridge. And while we devote less attention to it, we will also note the existence of a third model for philosophizing – what we call the philosopher bureaucrat – in which academically trained philosophers permanently set up shop within extra-academic institutions across society. These three models – disciplinary philosophers, who mainly communicate with one another, field philosophers, who shuttle between academia and the larger world, and philosopher bureaucrats, who have ‘gone native’ – should constitute the ecosystem of twenty- first-century philosophy.

In sum, where others see gloom for philosophy, we see the chance for a renaissance – a rebirth of thoughtful action in an age that desperately needs it. And while some have claimed we are selling the soul of philosophy in order to comply with utilitarian accounts of value, we see ourselves as engaged in an act of jujitsu, turning the superior size of neoliberal forces to our common advantage.

Our argument can be boiled down to eight points:

  1. Advocates of a market economy and technological progress have typically viewed their projects as the antithesis of philosophy, which they have dismissed as mere wool-gathering. Given the nature of academic philosophy, they have a point. But these social forces have now become philosophical in spite of themselves. Our global technoscientific culture raises any number of epistemic, ethical, hermeneutic, aesthetic, and metaphysical questions. This opens up new theoretical opportunities, as well as employment prospects, for philosophers both within and outside the academy.1
  1. To seize these opportunities philosophers must interrogate their institutional setting. Treating philosophy (and the humanities generally) as a discipline – that is, as a regional ontology, consisting of specialists housed in departments – was the wrong response to the development of the modern research university. The exclusive disciplining of philosophy constitutes the original sin of twentieth and now twenty-first-century philosophy.
  1. Addressing societal needs and responding to the challenges of neoliberalism requires new ways of philosophizing. What currently passes for philosophical research – as a sole model – is unsustainable: state legislatures will not continue to pay for research that is directed toward a small set of disciplinary peers. Our new cultural milieu also requires new models for the teaching of philosophy. In both cases philosophy needs to be approached as a practice, with both research and teaching focused on spotting the philosophical moments residing within other disciplines, in social issues, in public and private institutions, and in everyday life.
  1. A pluralistic approach to doing philosophy should also raise questions about what counts as quality philosophical thinking. Disciplinary philosophy has been uncritical about the question of rigour, part of its disregard of the philosophical dimensions of the field of rhetoric. Of course philosophers must make thoughtful and nuanced arguments. But what counts as excellence here should be treated as relative to the temporal, economic, and axiological needs of a given audience and situation.
    The question of how to implement philosophical ideas needs to become part of our thinking – treated as a philosophical project in its own right. We need a research programme on the impacts of philosophy. This should in turn prompt the development of a general philosophy of impact that will be of interest across the academy (e.g. the STEM community) and to society at large. What does it mean for academic research to have an effect upon the world? What counts as a good effect? For at its root, the question of whether philosophy or any other research is useful or practical implies an understanding of what counts as useful or practical.
  1. Twentieth-century attempts at philosophic relevance have had a melancholy fate. Applied philosophy, a creation of the 1980s that sought to make disciplinary philosophy more relevant, has largely been a failure – occasional exceptions notwithstanding. Rather than becoming a philosophical practice out and about within society, applied philosophy focused on writing philosophy articles for other philosophers. In contrast, field philosophy is attuned to the rhythms of contemporary society: practically engaged, stakeholder-centred, and timely.
  1. Ours – we insist – is a plural agenda: traditional disciplinary philosophy is the source of valuable insight and should be supported. But it needs to be in dynamic balance with the more entrepreneurial approaches of the field philosopher and the philosopher–bureaucrat. The 110 PhD programmes in philosophy across North America should become experiments in different ways of practising philosophy and training philosophers – rather than the lemming-like repetition of the same that currently obtains in department after department.
  1. A number of philosophers (a decided minority, to be sure) already practice something like field philosophy and bureaucratic philosophy. Yet they rarely reflect on or write up their experiences, toward the goal of training the next generation of philosophers. This needs to change if their insights into different ways of philosophizing are to be built upon and institutionalized.

To describe matters synoptically, Socrates Tenured consists of three parts and encompasses four themes. In part I, chapter 1 offers a statement of the problem – the marginal societal role of academic philosophy, and a historical sketch of how we came to this juncture. In chapter 2, we describe the disciplinary status quo and outline the practical reasons why it is unlikely to last, by drawing together some of the numbers that illuminate the current situation of philosophy and the humanities more generally.

Part II (chapters 3 through 5) offers an analysis of various twentieth- century attempts to solve the problem of societal irrelevance. Chapter 3 looks at the field of applied philosophy writ large. Chapter 4 considers the case of environmental ethics. Both these areas are found to largely fail at the task of making philosophy relevant. We diagnose the lack of a larger societal impact in terms of ‘disciplinary capture’. We then turn to bioethics in chapter 5. The situation here is different, and we provide an explanation for the field’s relative success in having a broader impact.

Part III has two central points. Chapter 6 provides our resolution to the problem of societal irrelevance in terms of field philosophy. Chapter 7 is more prospective in nature: we consider the need to develop a new project across the whole of philosophy: the philosophy of impact.

To restate our four themes: we offer a description and diagnosis of the irrelevance of philosophy, an explanation of the generally failed attempts to be socially relevant, our own model for achieving societal relevance, and an outline of new areas for philosophic research.

To think with us, turn the page.


  1. To cite one example, the establishment of a ‘broader impacts’ criterion for the funding of grants by the NSF and other public science agencies around the world is a de facto acknowledgement of the central role of ethics and values within scientific research.