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Philosophy and Public Life

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Interpreting The World, Changing The World

Onora O’Neill argues for the value of philosophical research.

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 many pieces of research in a multiplicity of disciplines, and that the interval from research to innovation can be many 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.

Indeed, some discoveries and theories that are initially heralded as winners in the economic impact stakes later turn out not to be so great. Not long ago, many would have pointed to research in finance as work with a large economic impact. Fewer people point in that direction today. The same is true in the natural sciences. A lot of innovations that result from research in the natural sciences eventually turn out to be of questionable economic value. Think of the Manhattan Project; think of DDT; think of many chemical innovations that turned out to do environmental harm.

So even if we assume that the only good impact is economic impact, this will be of little help in deciding which research projects to fund. At most we may be able to conclude that certain areas of work are in a state of ferment or excitement, and that practical innovation is more likely to emerge from those areas, at some indeterminate future point. But often we only discover what is transformative decades later. Who would have guessed that the arcane research done by the small set of mathematicians and philosophers working on formal logic a century ago would lead to the development of computing, and ultimately to completely new industries, and to the reconfiguring of work and life across the globe?

Beyond Economic Value

Even people who are well aware of the economic value of the creative and cultural industries – of publishing and theatre, higher education and music – are often unsure whether there is an economic case for supporting research in art and literature, music and theatre, history and philosophy. They may feel that our lives are shaped not by the findings of research in the humanities, but rather by the objects of that research – by the music and buildings, languages and literatures, cultures and religions the academics research. Thus it is fairly easy to persuade people that literature and art, and, yes, philosophy, are valuable and should be (in part) publicly funded; but it is strenuous to convince them that research in the humanities also has value worth investing in.

My own view is that humanities research, including research in philosophy, is valuable for striking and profound reasons that go beyond economic value, and which we should not be shy of articulating. Research in the humanities has public value because it forms and transforms individuals and societies: it shapes and reshapes what people believe and do, and what they value. The changes can surprise even those who do the research, and once they happen, it is hard to remember how things used to be. We cannot now recapture an understanding of the natural world untouched by scientific research done across many generations. Equally, we cannot now imagine an understanding of the human world that is not deeply shaped by accumulated research in the humanities across many generations. Our understanding of places and pasts, and of our own place and past, and our own present, of our political and legal institutions, is steeped in research into the languages and texts, art and artefacts and arguments that now shape our memories and perception, our understanding and feeling, indeed our very sense of the human world. We locate ourselves not by citing spatiotemporal coordinates, but by pointing to human struggles and striving: the fall of the Berlin Wall; Easter 1916; the Arab Spring. We communicate our sense of the world by evoking resonant reminders: the vasty fields of France; the Beetles’ first LP; the Ode to Joy. Interpreting the world is no small project, nor is it one that can be done, dusted and set aside as complete for all time. Nor is all research in the humanities a matter of interpreting and reinterpreting, as the examples of historical and philosophical research reveal. We are riveted by tough empirical investigations into the past, like the one that showed that some recently-discovered bones were those of Richard III. We are drawn to arguments that offer reasons for taking freedom of speech seriously or challenge claims about miracle cures.

The Public Value of Research in the Humanities

As in the natural sciences, a lot of research in the humanities is empirical. It aims to establish what is or has been the case. Empirical enquiry in the humanities, as elsewhere, aims at truth; it seeks to follow where evidence leads, and to point out where evidence is absent or unclear. Like other empirical work, it is open to refutation: just as a beautiful scientific theory may have to give way to an unaccommodating fact or experiment, so a beautiful historical analysis may be undermined by an inconvenient document, for example. Historical research matters because without it societies have to fall back on received opinions or ideological dogma – this all too often meaning self-flattering and inaccurate accounts of past glories and grievances that may cast dangerous shadows on present policy-making and self-perception. Bad history, ill-considered ideology, and shoddy uses of historical evidence and argument, can damage our understanding of the past and our grasp of present possibilities.

By contrast, research in philosophy is generally not empirical. Yet it too makes distinctive contributions to the self-understanding and capacities of individuals and societies. It does so in two particular ways. Philosophy is the discipline that does most to investigate and improve patterns and standards of argument and practically put them to the test. Work on validity and proof, on evidence and standards of knowledge, is relevant throughout cultural, social and political life, and therefore has indubitable public value. Philosophy is also one of very few disciplines that investigates normative reasoning, our reasoning about what should be done (political theory and jurisprudence are others). Normative reasoning is a matter not of seeking to establish what is the case, but of identifying which standards we have the best reasons to enact. Debates by which the world is changed happen in many contexts, but reasoning about why certain changes matter and should be made, and also reasoning about standards of reasoning, are both anchored in philosophy. These are the sorts of philosophical research that have contributed to changing the world. The great constitutional and legal ideals that recur in discussions of policy are more than whim or preference, they are the present survivors of hard-fought arguments about justice and liberty, equality and democracy, in which other once-cherished ideals have failed, and which may in their turn be shown in need of revision.

Philosophy Matters

Nobody does research except in the hope that it may at some point make some difference, but that difference is often not simply a matter of economic benefit or gain. For instance, the impact of philosophical research – that is to say, the impact of the absence of philosophical research – often shows when social, political and cultural life runs aground because people are seeking a set of goals, norms or standards that cannot be jointly satisfied: for example, when people demand equal access to status-conferring goods (prizes for all!); meritocratic processes with egalitarian outcomes; freedom of choice with complete security, and many other impossible combinations. Understanding why we cannot have it all, and which changes are possible, are often philosophical tasks, and there is philosophical work to be done whenever people, institutions or governments find themselves pursuing incompatible aims and standards.

So philosophy matters. We cannot be prescriptive about the channels through which it will change the world, but we can see that changes won’t happen if we hoard philosophical research on our hard discs or in obscure academic journals. We have to engage with others. To some this seems burdensome. I see it differently. Wider discussions often lead to new understandings for all parties.

Experiences differ; but mine has been that philosophers’ contributions are neither negligible nor useless – and also that that taking part in wider debates may alter one’s view of the weight and point of their philosophical arguments.

© Professor Onora O’Neill 2013

Baroness O’Neill currently writes mainly on the ethics of communication, trust and accountability, and the role of normative reasoning. She chairs the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, and is a member of the House of Lords.


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