‘Systemic relevance’ and the value of philosophy

by Michael Klenk

The COVID-19 pandemic has instigated talk of the systemic- or societal relevance of institutions and professions. Quickly, attributions of systemic relevance have become a matter of distribution of resources. In Germany, for example, a union recently demanded extra financial support for systematically relevant professions. Whether your profession is deemed systemically relevant may thus be of material consequences for you, and eventually for the constitution of our societies.

But in my previous post, I raised a question about the societal relevance of academic philosophy. Academic philosophers do not predict the virus’s spread like epidemiologists. They don’t take care of patients in hospitals like nurses, and they do not stack the much-desired toilet paper into supermarket shelves. What, then, is their societal relevance?

As we will see, there is little hope for providing an a priori argument for the societal relevance of academic philosophy. But, in an interesting twist, the way of thinking that leads to that conclusion is paved by philosophy. At the end of this post, I’ll briefly consider what this means for questions about societal relevance in general and how it reflects back on the value of philosophy.

To start us off, think of an analogy with games. Before you play any but the most straightforward of games it makes sense to ask about the rules. What are the rules we are playing by? In analogy, when you attempt any but the simplest of evaluations, it makes sense to ask about the standards that apply for that particular evaluation. So, what are the criteria that apply to assessments of systemic relevance?

We could immediately continue by enumerating various standards or criteria for societal relevance. For example, some might consider a profession’s or industry’s contribution to the gross domestic product or its relevance for health and food supply. Others might think of the pleasure that people gain from that profession, or propose a jury to decide the matter.

But philosophy taught us that with evaluations whose criteria are obscure and potentially debatable, we should not get ahead of ourselves. There will inevitably be disagreements amongst different interest groups. We might too readily settle for a popularity contest, where the most popular or the most powerful group wins and gets to formulate what systemic relevance means.

Ultimately, talk of systemic relevance might actually be a kind of popularity contest. But there is a chance that it is not a popularity contest and that there are substantive facts about who is or is not systemically relevant. When we let systemic relevance be determined by a popularity contest, we already have accepted that societal relevance is something that is decided by power or popularity.

Illustration by Anita Tung, via https://www.anitatung.com/illustration

Philosophy opens our eyes to different options. Philosophy has taught us that there are very different types of evaluations, depending on where their standards come from. In popularity contests, the standards come from those that get to vote. But that is not the only type of evaluation.

So, the origin of standards for evaluations from matters a great deal because it informs what kind of debate we can reasonably have about the type of assessment in question. For example, when we discuss evaluations of taste, we implicitly recognise that class of assessment as one where you determine the standards for you, and I decide the standards for what I like. There’s no use arguing about taste. But for other categories, the criteria are more objective, at least in the sense that they are not solely up to the evaluator.

Thus far, we have followed philosophy’s way to a more nuanced conception of societal relevance. It opened up the idea that, ultimately, there could be more to societal relevance than a popularity contest.

When we continue further down that path, we will encounter the possible origins for standards of systemic relevance, which we can see thanks to philosophy. But while philosophy has provided the means to see clearly, no sign for its systemic significance comes into view.

There are three possibilities about the origins of standards for systemic relevance. First, we assume that there are objective truths about systemic relevance, out there to be discovered. They might be like the truths of mathematics, and thus not discoverable by experiment or observations, but solely through thinking. This means that the standards of systemic relevance are not settled by popularity contests, but instead exist independently of what people think about them. That makes much sense when you think of a society with much disdain for public health services. In a popularity contest, public health workers would then not be counted as systemically relevant, and that seems to be the wrong conclusion. The true standards of systemic relevance seem to be independent of the fragility and possibly idiotic outcomes of popularity contests.

That’s what philosophy helps us see. Is philosophy systemically relevant, on that view? There’s no reason to think so. Philosophers have assured us that people can come to know such objective truths about systemic relevance. But none of these arguments shows that academic philosophers are required to make these discoveries. You and I and any relatively clear-headed person are well enough equipped to discover truths about systemic relevance.

A second and related option is to suppose that the standards of systemic relevance are objective truths, but more like those that are discoverable by science. It makes sense to think that way. For example, the standards of systemic relevance may depend on human nature, which would explain why professions that cater to basic necessities and health are readily seen as systemically relevant.

But still, such a view would not hold a special place for academic philosophy in discovering the standards of societal relevance. Any scientific discipline might, on this view, uncover truths about systemic relevance. Again, philosophy may have opened our view to a possible conception of the origins of standards for systemic relevance. Still, philosophy itself does make an appearance as systemically relevant in that picture.

The third and final conception of standards for systemic relevance cannot save the day either. The third conception quite radically asserts that there are no normative truths at all. Not, at any rate, normative truths in a peculiarly weighty and important sense – quite unlike truths about mathematics or science, but much more like truths about taste. The view that the standards for systemic relevance are determined by a popularity contest falls into this category. In this case, we’d have an empirical question to answer: What do people think about academic philosophy? Do they consider it systemically relevant? I could only speculate how academic philosophy would fare in a popularity contest. Probably, it would not do very well, along with much if not all of academia, given widespread distrust in science and other products of academia.

Therefore, there is no a priori argument that academic philosophy is of systemic relevance. That does not mean that academic philosophy isn’t or even couldn’t be of systemic relevance. After all, we have only been looking for positive signs in its favour and found none. But it does mean that, wherever the standards of systemic relevance come from, there are doubts that academic philosophy makes the cut.

Interestingly, insights from academic philosophy have helped us to that conclusion. If the critical lens of philosophy is turned inward, it does not show much to recommend itself.

But that sceptical result is instructive, and it points to a role that academic philosophy might have to play after all. Philosophy’s way of thinking about airy concepts like ‘systemic relevance’ will be of use in the broader debate about systemic relevance. Philosophy tends to complicate things that initially seem straightforward. Systemically relevant professions might indeed just be those that somehow matter for the system. But when push comes to shove, we can’t do with a handwavy somehow relevant, and we can’t content with things that seem to matter. We better seek justifiable and more concrete standards. That these are hard to come by is a thing we learned by following philosophy’s way. It’s a valuable lesson to remember when weighty and consequential evaluations, such as those about who is or is not systemically relevant, are settled all too easily.

Perhaps academic philosophy can function as searchlight in the broader debate about the standards for systemic relevance. That might be its place if we have reason to think that there are objective truths about systemic relevance in the two senses discussed above.