“What is philosophy? How does a philosopher work? And what does philosophy contribute to the world outside academic research?” These critical questions are typically asked when you tell people that you have a degree in philosophy, and even though you struggle to convince them that philosophy actually is relevant for the modern world, the skepticism is still painted thick across their faces. However, this skepticism has lately not only been related to philosophy as such, but, especially in the media, to the Humanities in general. What relevance do the Humanities have for a world in crisis that bases its hope on wealth, development, production and innovation? Philosophy in particular and the Humanities in general have, in contrast to the Natural or IT Sciences, serious difficulties demonstrating their productive contribution and answering questions like these.
Applied Philosophy – A Detour
When philosophers are put on the spot and asked questions about their relevance outside academia, a recent trend has been to introduce the notion of Applied Philosophy, as a modern and relevant revival of philosophy. Although there is no actually definition of Applied Philosophy, philosophers rely on it nonetheless, because it shows that in some cases philosophy is in fact applied to a domain outside academia and thereby does address the interest of the general public. This application of philosophy is typically seen in relation to topics within ethics (e.g. Bioethics, Medical ethics and Animal Welfare) or politics (Equality, Multiculturalism and Public Policy).
Sadly, however, a modern revival of philosophy has not yet seen its day, and its basis is not to be found in the notion of Applied Philosophy. The notion actually has a tendency to create more problems for philosophers than it solves:
1First of all, the notion seems to say that ordinary philosophical research is not applied to domains outside academia. This is a crude mistake. Philosophy is in some sense always ‘applied’ since it constantly revolves around and discusses topics such as human life, society and the world.
2Secondly, the notion of Applied Philosophy seems to suggest that when we apply philosophy, we take complete and readymade philosophical theories and then ‘apply’ or force them ‘top-down’ upon domains such as politics, ethics, religion, etc. However, many philosophers do not engage in such an unproductive research approach, given that they try to conduct philosophical research by being much more open-minded toward the input that comes from other domains outside philosophy.
3Third and last, the worry of using the notion of Applied Philosophy is that the notion becomes self-referential within the field of philosophy, which means that philosophers start to theorize about, and do philosophy of, Applied Philosophy, which makes it into an academic discipline aimed only at philosophers.
Mentioning these three points, is not to say that Applied Philosophy has nothing to offer in showing the relevance of philosophy, but another approach would nevertheless be more beneficial.
“So what is the alternative, one might ask?” The overall fear is of course that philosophers isolate themselves within academic research and that philosophy becomes irrelevant for everybody else. In order to avoid such a scenario, part of the solution is to adopt and promote a new and different research attitude toward, and way of doing, philosophy which is best defined as a Collaborative Philosophy (COPH). This way of doing philosophy draws on the academic excellence that lies in ordinary academic philosophy and combines this excellence with a more radical focus on relevance and practical solutions than seen in Applied Philosophy. Even though COPH, like Applied Philosophy, has no actually definition, a tentative description of the notion would definitely include the following:
1. Collaboration: COPH focuses essentially on collaborating with other disciplines within academia, being interdisciplinary, but focuses equally on collaborating with people outside academia (private or public) in solving important problems of common interest. This form of collaboration requires, however, that every partner in the process, philosopher or not, interact constructively, respectfully, with an open-minded, and toward a common goal. So, instead of describing COPH as being ‘philosophy of’ some public problem, e.g. Philosophy of Animal Welfare, it is more appropriate to emphasize that: COPH is always a ‘philosophy with…’
2. Relevance: one of COPH’s main goals is to make relevant contributions to solving the challenge of the future and today. In attempting to do so, COPH not only addresses issues vital for our present society, but also attempts to address these issues by producing knowledge, ideas and deliverables for non-academics. So, COPH has a ‘hands on’, practical and active perspective on philosophical research.
3. Development: by focusing on collaboration and relevance COPH tries to overcome the public skepticism towards philosophy. However, in order for COPH to go all the way, it aims, by being collaborative, at taking part in the process of development and production. This part COPH achieves by collaborating with private-public partners outside academia, which means that an important mission for COPH is to be clear and precise in communicating its concepts, knowledge, ideas and deliverables.
Overcoming the public scepticism toward philosophy, and the Humanities, is a very difficult task, but part of the solution is definitely collaborative. This is not to say that Collaborative Philosophy should take over the role of academic philosophy, since they clearly have different aims and methods. It is only say that if some philosophers learn to COPH, i.e. emphasize and use the collaborative approach, society could actually get a new piece in the puzzle called ‘innovative’ and ‘creative’ development.