Sunday, April 23, 2017

ISO Philosophical Moonshiners

What if academic Philosophy really invested in making itself understood to the general public?

Over the last few years, I've seen the emergence of a number of initiatives aimed at cultivating what is now called "public philosophy." The discipline of Philosophy's largest professional organization constituted a committee dedicated to it (the APA Committee on Public Philosophy). There's also now the Public Philosophy Network, which organizes conferences showcasing and discussing it. An award has been established for those who excel at it (The Marc Sanders Award for Public Philosophy). There's even a (sort-of) journal for it, the Public Philosophy Journal. All of these seem to be loosely committed to some broad idea of "public philosophy"-- its practice, its cultivation, its uptake, its development and legitimization-- but there doesn't appear to be a common sense of what each of them takes to be "public philosophy," what problem "public philosophy" is meant to address or ameliorate, how "public philosophy" is done, or done well.

If we tried to identify some common argument for public philosophy running through the several public-philosophy-related initiatives floating around these days-- and that's harder than you think-- it might go something like this:
  1. The professional, academic work of researchers in Philosophy can (ought to?) make real contributions to so-called "real world" problems, conversations, ideas, etc.. 
  2. Because of the abstract, sometimes esoteric,sometimes technical nature of professional, academic research in Philosophy-- or, less generously, because of the poor writing style and/or intentionally inside-baseball disposition of its authors--much of the work produced by professional philosophers is inaccessible/unintelligible to the general public. 
  3. ERGO, there is a mutually-beneficial value to be found in diminishing the gap between professional philosophical research and the public's understanding of it.
Here's the problem: I suspect Philosophy got its cart before its horse a bit with this recent commitment to "public philosophy." There's a sort of presumption that "we all know what we mean by public philosophy," but when you get down to parsing the various mission statements of projects and initiatives like the ones I linked above, it is somewhat difficult to see exactly how they are related to one another. In fact, it becomes very quickly apparent that their efforts, separately, more or less undermine what could be accomplished by the combination of their efforts.

To wit, "public philosophy" is like the Democratic Party of professional academic Philosophy: plenty of good people with good ideas and good intentions, but terribly coordinated and organized, and so woefully ineffective.

The Idea We Needed: "Research Debt"
All due respect to my fellow philosophers, but when I find myself wondering to myself who's better at analyzing, assessing, and solving problems than philosophers?, there's only one answer.


So, I'm excited to share this piece on "research debt" by engineers Chris Olah and Shan Carter (both of Google Brain), published just a few weeks ago. Olah and Carter argue that advanced, specialized research like that produced by engineers and computer scientists (and philosophers!) is exceedingly complicated to understand even by advanced, specialized researchers, so it should come as no surprise that the same research is exponentially more unintelligible to non-experts. They compare the effort at deciphering expert's shibboleths to climbing a mountain... only it isn't a mountain of knowledge or expertise or technical know-how that must be summitted, but rather a mountain of debt. Specifically, research debt.

As Olah and Carter explain, programmers frequently talk about technical debt ("there are ways to write software that are faster in the short run but problematic in the long run") and managers talk about institutional debt ("institutions can grow quickly at the cost of bad practices creeping in"). And of course we all know about student-loan debt ("I can better my life with an education but only by shackling myself to exploitative lenders"). What we see in all of those instances is that any complex enterprise that involves multiple agents (or steps or moving parts or algorithms or operations) can easily find itself, over time, coerced into a corner by its own well-intentioned, but ultimately counterproductive, choices and practices. The thing about debt is that it compounds or, as Olah and Carter rightly argue, debt is "easy to accumulate but hard to get rid of."

(Oh, how easily we forget that the Hebrew Bible designated usury as an abomination. But that's a post for another day...)

Contemporary "expert" research is produced by its own kind of multiple-parts machines. Some of these machines are vaguely-defined ("the scientific community") or ad-hoc ("the start-up"), but the most obvious, most powerful, and most influential of these is "the University," including all of the University's constitutive parts-- the laboratory, the graduate program, the academic press, tenure protocols, grant programs, IRBs-- each of which manufactures its own inefficiencies in the form of "research debt." Olah and Carter's examples of research debt in engineering/machine-learning-- poor exposition, undigested ideas, bad abstractions and notations, and "noise"-- ought to be very familiar to philosophers, if not all University proles, as they evidence the mountain of accumulated-over-time inefficiency, inaccessibility, and obscurity that resigns so much of today's brightest and best ideas to the pejorative "Ivory Tower."

Distillation: The Missing Link
As engineers are wont to do, Olah and Carter didn't just describe the problem of "research debt," they also identified and engineered a solution for it. Olah and Carter call their solution research distillation, which they describe as "the opposite of research debt."

What Olah and Carter's "distillers" do, to borrow a graphic turn-of-phrase from my grandfather, is "cut away the fat, pull out the bones, and get to the meat" of research. In this way, the work of research distillers is very similar to the work of professors in their role as teachers: filter, refine, condense and cool. Now, as we all know, some top-rate researchers are also very good teachers, but many are not. Olah and Carter's claim is that contemporary researchers need a separate group of people who are capable and willing to do the work of "distillers," i.e., people committed to not simply polishing up the prose or compiling glossaries of contemporary researchers' products, not simply removing the "impurities" from raw new ideas or scraping the rust off old ones, but actually transforming those ideas by refining and explaining them. It's important, I think, not to miss the fact that the work of distillers is "original" work; it is its own product, distinct from the work of researchers and no less important. Only other experts can be distillers, of course, because one must first understand an idea before one can make it intelligible to another, but it remains the case that the work of a distiller and the work of a researcher are different productions, which require entirely different sets of skills.

Olah and Carder created a site called Distill to provide a platform (and tools) for the work of distillers. It's amazing; you should check it out. Which got me to wondering two things: (1) who are Philosophy's distillers? and (2) what could the discipline do to actively invest in their work?

Wanted: Philosophical Moonshiners
Who are Philosophy's distillers? One need look no further than the philosophy blogosphere to find models of research distillation in Philosophy. (I'll call them "philosophical moonshiners" because I'm from Tennessee.) See, for example, Eric Schliesser's blog Digressions and Impressions, or John Danaher's Philosophical Disquisitions, or Adriel Trott's The Trott Line, or Adam Kotsko's And und für sich, all of which exemplify the very best of skilled research distillation. Beyond the blogosphere, and in an even more publicly-accessible space, there are things like Philosophy Matters (on Facebook) or Existential Comics (on Twitter, Facebook, and the web), which both distill and disseminate distillations of contemporary research. (I would put Public Philosophy Journal, which is really just an aggregation site, in this group as well.) There are also a number of excellent YouTube channels maintained by Philosophy moonshiners, like Philosophy Tube, 8-Bit Philosophy, or Cori Wong's Thinking for a Change.

But alas, all of the work of all of the distillers above are labors of love. There is no professional support for philosophy blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, or YouTube channels. In fact, there are more than a few disincentives for all of these.

So, what could the discipline do to not only recognize the importance of and support, but also actively invest in the work of distillers? I've got some ideas.

First, we need some old-school organization and mobilization, That's going to mean finding  the people in charge of all these scattered "public philosophy" projects, initiatives, conferences and committees and bringing them together with all the rogue philosophy bloggers, YouTubers, Tweeps, and Facebookers... and then locking them in a room, shoving a few sandwiches under the door, and guarding the exit until they devise a plan to cooperatively pool their resources and talents.

Second, the rest of us plebes need to organize, as well. We should get "The Question of Public Philosophy" on every single APA (and SPEP, and SAP, and IAPL, and AAPT, and SAAP, and etc) agenda for every single conference for every single year for the near future.

Third, we should insist that our respective professional organizations (see list above) commit a portion of our membership fees to collaboratively developing a publicly-accessible platform and tools for the creation, promotion, and dissemination of public philosophy (a la Olah and Carter's Distill).

Fourth, and most importantly, we need to find a way to formally recognize the skills, the work, the talent, and the contributions to the profession of our present-day Philosophical "distillers." Maybe we could petition the APA to issue a statement to that end, but I don't have much hope for that suggestion at the moment. In the meantime, though, each and every one of us can be locally proactive (at our Universities, within our sub-specialty organizations, in our immediate departments) and make an effort to ensure that our colleagues, our Chairs, our Deans, and/or other career-determining evaluators recognize that the work of "research" takes many forms. We ought not make the mistake of treating our profession's distillers like the state has always treated "moonshiners," i.e., some gang of backward, unskilled, rogue outlaws who do not care about the quality of their product. Those manufacturers of white lightning have always possessed a unique set of talents, they do work that is not only not incentivized but disincentivized, they provide a product in great demand, and-- c'mon, let's admit it-- the "public" would be better off if we stopped traipsing through the mountains looking to bust-up philosophical moonshiners' stills and instead just took a moment to appreciate that the work they are doing benefits the least among us.

And we, professional philosophers, would be better off, too.

1 comment:

Peter Jones said...

No doubt this all good sense. But before trying to help the public to understand philosophy shouldn't we understand it ourselves? A good marketing plan starts with the product design. What are we presenting to the public? A muddle of ideas that don't work. As an occasional ex-marketing consultant this approach seems unbusinesslike to me and deeply flawed. What the punter wants is answers, not just questions and problems. The marketing problem is not a communication issue but a problem with the product. Fix the product and students will be beating a path to the enrollment desk.