Institutionalizing Public Philosophy

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Enthusiasm for public philosophy, and public-facing scholarship more generally, is pervasive. As active contributors to the “public philosophy” genre, we hold that it’s valuable for academics to reach out to broader audiences. It’s good to think deeply about the issues central to living a meaningful life, and this activity shouldn’t be confined to the halls of academia.

Yet the practice of public philosophy occasions problems of its own. To start, there is the tendency towards cheapening and deforming philosophical reflection, which comes with selling philosophical programs as “life hacks” and self-help regimens. This tendency is often accompanied by an effort to monetize philosophy, which in turn of course makes it less “public.” We’ve already written on this problem (here and here). Setting this aside, there is an additional problem. Enthusiasm for public-facing work among professors has recently begun percolating up into university administration. This, in part, has been fueled by the insistence among the professoriate that public scholarship ought to be “institutionalized,” counted alongside strictly academic work for purposes of promotion, merit assessment, and other forms of advancement. In short, college administrators have begun warming to the idea that faculty ought to develop a profile of public outreach. In some institutions, that faculty will contribute public-facing work is a more-or-less explicit expectation, often tied, albeit vaguely, to benchmarks for promotion and other institutional rewards.

We’re suspicious of the proposal that public-facing scholarly activities should be institutionalized.

To repeat, we think that public academic engagement is generally valuable. We also think that for academics with certain kinds of expertise and capacities, public-facing work is imperative, perhaps rising to the level of a civic duty. But not everything that’s valuable can be assessed in terms of professional advancement. And not everything worth doing as an academic can be transferred into the currency by which colleges and universities recognize and reward faculty. In our view, there is important civic work that academics may be required to perform for which there could be no institutional credit. More specifically, we believe that philosophers should resist the institutionalizing of their public engagement.

To get a sense of what we think should be resisted, consider the American Philosophical Association’s “Statement on Valuing Public Philosophy”:

The APA encourages departments, colleges, and universities to recognize public philosophy as a growing site for scholarly improvement. To that end, the APA encourages institutions to develop standards for rewarding public philosophy in decisions regarding promotion, tenure, and salary, so that faculty members who are interested in this work may, if they choose, pursue it without professional discouragement or penalty.

Surely faculty should not be penalized for contributing scholarship that reaches out to nonacademic audiences and the general public. However, the injunction to abandon the view that public philosophy isn’t worth doing differs from the proposition that “institutions to develop standards for rewarding public philosophy in decisions regarding promotion, tenure, and salary.” The danger of the latter proposal is that, once a faculty member’s public-facing work is folded into the usual schemes of recognition and reward, its quality will become a focus of professional assessment. However, most public-facing scholarship is not subject to peer review, and thus its content often does not have the endorsement of the scholarly community to which the faculty member belongs. What this means is that, in crediting public scholarship, administrators will need to apply their own conception of the relevant metrics for evaluation. The danger is that, once it is introduced into the formal channels of professional advancement, one’s contributions to public philosophy will be assessed according to administrators’ ideals concerning the branding and public face of the university.

Imagine a Dean who is considering a tenure and promotion case in which the faculty candidate has made several contributions to public philosophy, in addition to their standard package of teaching, research, and service accomplishments. The strictly academic publications have passed peer review. So, if the Dean doesn’t think so much of the candidate’s research program, that’s beside the point – longstanding principles of academic freedom protect faculty from that kind of caprice. But with public-facing work, surely the Dean gets to judge its quality. That’s partly what it means for the scholarship to be public, after all. Now, if the Dean thinks the candidate’s public work is silly, superficial, politically risky, or out of step with the Dean’s own vision of the university’s brand, that’s relevant. Because now it’s the administration that’s the judge of the philosophical quality of the work.

As is often lamented among faculty, universities increasingly are keen to cultivate and protect an image. The idea that colleges and universities are fundamentally brands, and thus need to be managed and curated is not far off the mark. This is partly why professors are regularly reminded, often in official documents, that they are at all times representatives of their universities. Although public-facing scholarship that cultivates that image and affirms that brand will certainly be appreciated. But what about work that causes a stir, perhaps with donors, alumni, or the broader community?

In asking colleges and universities to give faculty official credit for public scholarship, we also invite those institutions to assess our contributions. And here the norms and standards for evaluation are not only unclear but very likely will be alien from the perspective of the usual markers of quality that apply to strictly academic work: peer-review, citation metrics, and the like. In short, the movement to introduce public-facing scholarship into the usual scheme of academic evaluation and credit risks commodifying that work in ways that make it hostage to the commercial interests of colleges and universities.

Perhaps it goes without saying that this danger is especially pronounced when it comes to public philosophy. Philosophical thinking often requires one to take seriously strange ideas, remote possibilities, and disconcerting theses. Sometimes, these are offered for the purpose of defending counterintuitive claims. But, perhaps just as often, they are introduced for the sake of initiating a kind of reflection on the seemingly ordinary and obvious ideas we inhabit in day-to-day living. Public philosophy is in this sense different from, say, public physics. The latter is typically a matter of popularizing physics in ways that make difficult concepts accessible to nonacademic audiences. Public philosophy isn’t simply popularizing philosophical ideas (though it typically involves that). It is more often a matter of instigating a kind of thinking, a kind of thinking that can be disorienting, heretical, and frustrating.

When done well, public philosophy presents a challenge for anyone seeking to protect the university’s brand. Consequently, the proposal that such work be credited alongside other scholarly activities that are already governed by strong norms of academic freedom should be rejected.