What happens to philosophy when we liberate it from the Ivory Tower and from the confines of coursework, academic publications and specializations that can feel like falling head-long down the rabbit hole? What does a philosopher become when she isn’t simply a teacher of curriculum, evaluated and validated by measurable outcomes? What is to be done when the hand-wringing and concerned looks of parents and friends turn into real questions like how in the name of all the esoteric nonsense will the rent get paid? Or more to the point: what are you going to do with this training?
Not to worry. When all else fails there’s always a coffee bar (been there). Or a low-level editorial job at a local newspaper (done that). And if the Gary Larson cartoon my mother sent to me years ago when I declared my intentions showing a “Philosophy and Bait Shop” is any indication, entrepreneurial opportunities abound. But all kidding aside, there is a reason that thousands (yes, thousands!) of us choose this route and my reasoning may be a little surprising: I am a philosopher because I want to be of service. The question of what becomes of philosophers and philosophy when we cut loose from careers that can be easily described and universally understood becomes yet more pronounced when we think about philosophy as a public profession. But there is rich precedence for this and I follow in the wake of great practitioners.
One such colleague is the 19th century philosopher William James who argued that the pragmatic (philosophical) method is a useful way to gain greater understanding about the world. For example, one perennial question that reaches into the culture of crime and punishment is whether we have free will or whether everything, and thus all of our behaviors, are predetermined. Another contemporary favorite played out in the vicious discourse between science and religion asks whether the world is material or spiritual? Philosophers in the pragmatic tradition continue to assert that we can use pragmatic principles to get a handle on what the practical consequences would be, if one or another of these claims about the world are true. But what comes after this “all the way down” thinking that we owe to James is where it gets interesting, and where the contribution of a public philosopher can be seen. Once we have traced the practical consequences of an idea and we have a working understanding of what those consequences mean for humanity, for environment etc. then philosophers are obligated to do something to advance whatever we resolve to be right or good! Only when we see the method through to its end, have we done justice to the term pragmatism that is from the Greek pragma meaning action, practice or practical.
This is on my mind because I’ve just returned from a conference dedicated to the work of American pragmatic philosophers. Here most of the attendees were “theoretically” committed to what could be called practical philosophy or philosophy that is focused on questions of agency and experience including what compels us to act in the face of injustice or conflict, what happens in that moment when we are not merely thinking but acting according to an ethical or moral code? Why do we sometimes fail to act and when we do (or don’t) what criteria can we measure our behavior by? As an applied and a public philosopher myself, I had high hopes for this crowd. From my work in the Adirondacks for the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry I take a mandate for action seriously. I’ve learned to appreciate the urgency of real situations that don’t present a clear path of right or wrong, of yes we should or no we’d better not. I understand that more often, like any complex set of realities, the way forward doesn’t resemble one well-marked trail and indeed the closer we look, the more possible directions are revealed.
If this kind of work is undertaken with and for the benefit of a range of communities, and if it is done in service to the public good, what does it look like for us in the Adirondacks and for me in particular? The answer is simple and I think, powerful. SUNY ESF owns more than 20,000 acres of land in the Adirondack Park, with an institutional mission to support research dedicated to advancing the scientific knowledge of Adirondack ecosystems. Through close collaborations with a variety of government and non-government agencies and organizations, ESF has had extraordinary success putting scientific data in the hands of policy makers. Policy makers have translated these findings into guidelines and strategies that continue to direct the future of the Park. With this kind of influence comes a three-fold responsibility: to ESF students dedicated to the pursuit of science, that they understand how their work will guide practical decisions on the landscape; to the Adirondack community who will be impacted by the policy implemented based on the findings generated through ESF; and to regional agencies and organizations, that they understand the ethical considerations involved in using this information to enact regulations that impact the complicated balance between culture and nature in the Park. SUNY ESF is on the leading edge linking good science with care for the communities that it impacts through a commitment to provide a representative entrusted with addressing the range of human impacts of this unusual partnership between scientific research and the policy that it advances.
During the conference I had a chance to talk about my work at ESF and the variety of publics that I interact with. In the process I realized that we at ESF, and in the Adirondacks more broadly, are doing what many in attendance and across the discipline are merely talking about doing. As the conference drew to a close, the Society’s President urged an audience of hundreds of academic philosophers to become involved in public discourse, to bring the philosophical method to bear on practical questions of ethics and moral right-doing, to reach out to communities in an effort to bring them into discussions and deliberations and to enrich the public space through competent and thoughtful facilitation of contentious issues. In effect, what William James said of Pragmatism can be said of the practice of philosophy, that it unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work.