Interpreting The World, Changing The World


Onora O’Neill in Philosophy Now:

In his 11th thesis on Feuerbach, Marx wrote, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” (Theses on Feuerbach, 1845.) Although it may not be a fair accusation, his acid comment sits in the recesses of memory, and plenty of people still share this view, including a lot of philosophers. Sometimes they are queasy about aiming to change the world, and feel that there is something unsavoury, irresponsible or self-important about philosophers who try to. Yet, like others, philosophers are under pressure to show that what they do matters, that they contribute to changing the world – to show, indeed, to use modish jargon, that work in philosophy has ‘impact’. ‘Impact’ is a multiply ambiguous term, and a lot of impact has negative value, so presumably what is meant is that philosophers should show that their work has impact of a desirable sort. On a simplistic view, good impact is economic impact. When claims about impact first came to prominence in academia a few years ago, many people assumed that this meant that the research in some subjects clearly had economic impact, but research in other areas – including philosophy – clearly did not. Some welcomed the thought that funders might be persuaded to channel all the research money towards the former areas. At its crudest, this approach assumed that desirable impact only occurred if research findings yielded novel products, increased productivity, new jobs, or more exports.

Spotting Winners?

This picture of research with ‘impact’ is not particularly helpful, even for the natural sciences. It is the nature of the case that outcomes are unknown when research is being done. So to discover the impact of research, one needs to look at matters retrospectively, tracing back from successful innovations to the research from which they grew. This exercise reveals that successful innovations often depend on manypieces of research in a multiplicity of disciplines, and that the interval from research to innovation can bemany decades. For example, the GPS capabilities that are built into humble mobile phones incorporate corrections that depend on Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, research that was published in 1916. There is no way of telling upstream how great an impact any specific bit of research will have. That is why research councils, foundations or universities typically fund or undertake a portfolio of research projects, and why companies that do research – Big Pharma, for example – fund a lot of projects, and expect a high rate of failure. Nobody can spot the winners upstream.