[Reprinted with permission from Blogue de philo pratique: click here for the original French version]

What’s the contribution of the philosopher in contemporary democracies? This bilingual panel, moderated by Matthew Sample (Pragmatic Health Ethics Research Unit) and Andréanne Veillette (Université de Sherbrooke), brought together a wide range of thinkers to discuss what it means to do philosophy in and for society.

  • Françoise Baylis (Dalhousie University) communicates her work in bioethics to a broader audience and frequently contributes to policy debates in Canada and internationally.
  • William-Jacomo Beauchemin (Exeko) draws on social epistemology to design experiments in social inclusion with Montreal communities.
  • Valéry Giroux (Université de Montréal) co-coordinates an interdisciplinary research centre on ethics (CRÉ) connecting researchers across universities and conducts research on animal ethics.
  • Alexandre Lavallée (PetalMD) works in digital marketing, ran a web campaign Ensemble Contre La Philophobie, and will work next on the marketing of philosophy initiatives for elementary schools.
  • Alain Létourneau (Université de Sherbrooke) focuses on issues of environmental governance, currently co-leading an action-research project on and with the MRC Memphrémagog in southern Québec.
  • Brooke Struck (Science-Metrix), Senior Policy Officer, develops new ways to measure scientific activity, contributes to policy-making, and runs the ScienceMetrics blog.


Philosophical Expertise as Skillful Dialogue, Not Authority

It may be tempting to reduce expertise to authority (or in Foucault’s terms “knowledge/power”). However, panelists described philosophical expertise in terms of the skills and methods, and not as a form of authority. Promoting inclusive and reason-based dialogue, for instance, was a frequently cited skill that philosophers can leverage for the public good. Struck suggests that remembering the social role of Socrates can be instructive. Likewise, Beauchemin observes that philosophers are able to ask good questions and identify nuances. Overall, philosophical expertise is not seen as a power to be wielded over others, but rather as a tool that can be used to close the gap between different people and start a productive discussion.

Baylis and Giroux both suggested the very possibility of expertise might need to be defended in the current social climate. Philosophical expertise is often dismissed in favour of implicit relativism; after all, everyone is a “moral expert” or capable of thinking, so the argument goes. In response, Baylis defends philosophical expertise by clarifying what is meant by “expert”. Specifically, a claim to expertise is not a claim of privileged access to truth. This distinction is important in regards to moral expertise.

If not access to the truth, what differentiates an expert from a lay person? Baylis highlights that philosophers have one essential resource that most lack: access to time. In short, philosophers have the time to concentrate on problems that others are too busy to solve.

Theories Aren’t Everything

When asked about what philosophical theories they use in their work, some philosophers had favorites. Létourneau references critical theory and pragmatism. Both theories allow for detailed analysis of cultural space. Beauchemin emphasizes the utility of social epistemology, which makes it possible to connect with marginalized groups. Lavallée consults work in philosophy for children, which places emphasis on dialogue. All these theories have something in common: they emphasize the importance of the context in which the philosophical analysis takes place.

Other panelists, in contrast, weren’t sure that the question properly framed the problem. Baylis warns that the question of theory, if taken too far, can distract from the core purpose of philosophy for society: “talking with” publics rather than “talking for” them. Similarly, Giroux emphasizes the interesting points that come to light when engaging with activist groups and social movements. The benefits of collaboration with people directly involved in the problems philosophers are attempting to solve might outweigh the benefits of relying on more traditional theory.

Keep an Eye on Impact, But Don’t Get Lost in the Metrics

In keeping with their commitment to doing philosophy “in and for society,” the panelists emphasized the importance of genuine impact, but were wary of the limitations of superficial definitions and formal evaluations. Struck directs our attention to cases where impact is so vague as to be empty. Létourneau, in addition, reports that impact can also be overly strict, often because of research funding is involved, or diversely defined, if one is participating in a collective process with more than one stakeholder.  When this is the case, it can become easy to mistakenly equate success with meeting the existing requirements, which may be insufficient to detect concrete effects on society.

Another instance in which panelists suggest caution is when using tools or analytics that make it very easy to quantify success. For example, the number of likes on a Facebook post or the number of retweets on Twitter make it misleadingly easy to track “success”. However, this does not mean that those types of metrics portray real impact or that we should rely on them to determine our success. Not everything that is measurable is worth measuring.

Giroux and Lavallée highlighted another interesting point in regards to measuring success. According to them, it is at times, strictly speaking, impossible to measure direct impact. This can occur when, for example, goals consist of long term change, as is the case with problems in the field of animal ethics, or when the aim is to change perceptions regarding philosophy graduates, as was the case in the campaign Ensemble contre la philophobie.

Institutional Support Is Crucial, But Frequently Lacking

What resources does one need to conduct societally-engaged philosophy? While multiple speakers highlighted the importance of social media for starting a conversation outside of academia and recognized it as a powerful tool, the panelists made sure to communicate that it is not sufficient. Cultivating good relationships with journalists and radio show hosts was recognized as another way to reach the public who use more traditional media.

Unfortunately, perhaps the most important resource is also the most lacking: institutional and disciplinary support. One of the main obstacles mentioned in getting socially-engaged philosophy projects off the ground was funding. Obtaining academic funding for traditional projects is already somewhat difficult. When projects deviate from tradition, it can become exceptionally challenging. Beauchemin gives the example of Exeko which, as a non-profit organization, was not eligible for the two biggest academic governmental grants; the organisation had to struggle to fund the research that made their activities possible. Many panelists highlighted the importance of steady funding to make it possible to interact with those outside university spaces, which, Baylis asserts, are not necessarily welcoming to members of the general public.

Importantly, Giroux stresses that the overly individualist or isolated character of philosophical research can occlude productive connections between researchers and broader society. To change the way researchers work, Giroux suggests taking concrete steps. For instance, Giroux and other researchers at Centre de recherche en éthique recently founded a research group whose goal is not only to encourage collaborations between its own members, but also to organize conferences for the general public.

Philosophy for Better Collective Futures?

Looking ahead, will philosophers really enable better lives and societies? According to symposium participants, philosophers are well-positioned to enable collective deliberation not only because of their training and skills, but also because of the time that they dedicate to reflection and research. Simultaneously, the concrete obstacles to societally-engaged philosophy demand a realism among philosophers and philosophers-in-training; conducting philosophy for the public good will require ambitious reform in research culture as well as in the funding structures that make it possible.

The full symposium recording is available for streaming online.