Philosophy as a method of study is perceived as detached from reality. When we think of a philosopher, we tend to imagine him (unfortunately, we usually imagine a man) with his books, locked in a room, roaming in a field alone with his thoughts. Traditionally, philosophy is considered as a detached exercise: it is a research process between me, my books and my thoughts; at best, it is considered as an exercise of Socratic dialogue with peers and colleagues. Even in more “engaged” philosophical subdisciplines (political, social, moral philosophy, or ethics), philosophers have tended to work in a vacuum; unencumbered by the contingencies and general messiness of everyday reality, they attempt to find absolute truths about justice, inequality, the good, or society, without looking out the window to see what justice, inequality, the good or society are in real life.
While there are, indeed, benefits to armchair philosophising, I want here to briefly explore its limitations, and to encourage the use of an alternative philosophical method, especially when working on topics or issues that are relevant to our society, our political system, and our understanding of justice. Namely, I want to encourage direct engagement with our subjects of research, not only as sources of information, but as structural contributors to the development of our research projects and its priorities.
The Problems with Armchair Philosophy
There are various issues that come with doing moral, social or political research that is detached from empirical data or actual engagement with the subjects of study (see Thomas Schramme’s freely accessible work on the subject). First, armchair philosophy can have an epistemic limitation. By only looking at what other philosophers have had to say about a subject, we may be missing fundamental information gathered by researchers in other disciplines. Maybe a sociologist already disproved your theory 20 years ago and you don’t know it. Not only are there epistemic limitations linked to lack of engagement with other disciplines; the knowledge of armchair philosophy suffers, as well, from not accounting for the views and claims that the subjects one is working on themselves may have on the issue. As the proverb says: “the shoemaker can make the shoe, but only the customer knows where the shoe pinches.”
Second, it can suffer from feasibility issues. Not engaging with grassroots experts, with people who work on public policy, or who have knowledge of the real-life impact of certain decisions, can lead to developing normatively perfect solutions for an ideal world, but meaningless for real-world problems. (I encourage reading Rebecca Gutwald’s contribution to this blog, where she explores the limits and potential ways out for ethicists working on issues of global health).
Finally, there may be ethical problems with working on the plights of actual people with real-world problems without attempting to engage with them (especially if you are not a part of the social group studied). Beyond the epistemic limitation generated by not engaging with the subjects of study, there is the problem of not showing the proper respect for the fact that they are individuals with views, claims and with their own understandings of their situation. As a matter of principle, I believe, their standpoint should be taken into account when working on issues that may affect them. As John Tasioulas so rightly points out: “The knowledge needed for political and other decision-making […] is not simply the technical expertise possessed by scientists or economists. It is also the experiential knowledge of someone who (for example) bears the brunt of policies of economic austerity.”
Applied and Engaged Philosophy
In the last decades, we have seen a rise in social and political theory standing-up from its philosophical armchair, and looking at its questions and issues from a more engaged and empirically informed manner.
On the one hand, many theorists have attempted to break both the epistemic and feasibility boundaries of armchair philosophy, by engaging with empirical research on their topics, by confronting their hypotheses with findings and standpoints in other disciplines, and by shifting the use of abstract hypothetical scenarios to working through real-world cases that may exemplify the issues their dealing with. This empirically informed way of doing philosophy has gained much traction with researchers working with the capabilities approach, for example. Capability theorists regularly collaborate among disciplines to bring more comprehensive accounts of the issues at stake; most engage with the empirical literature on their subject of study (i.e. poverty, gender equality, development ethics); and some have even carried out their own fieldwork to ground their philosophical reflections (see especially, Wolff and de-Shalit’s work). Applied philosophers (working, for example, in medical ethics, poverty or migration), have also made a leap to make use of empirical knowledge in order to support their normative theories.
On the other hand, we see a move towards what Jo Wolff calls ‘engaged philosophy’. It is opposed to applied philosophy in that it does not use real-world problems and empirical data to support our already developed and neatly defined theories; but rather starts with the problems and data, and develops the theoretical framework based on what the real-world presents.
Instead of starting from a theory we start with a problem and try to understand what the dilemmas are and what values are engaged, and we build up from there. […] First of all, I try to understand the problem in all its details. What are people actually worrying about now? And then lay out with a philosophical reconstruction to get to the heart of the issues. (Taken from a wonderful interview by Diana Popescu in this blog).
Engaged philosophy goes a step further, as it encourages implementing a philosophical method that relies more strongly on our capacity to listen to others, and learn from others’ epistemic standpoints, rather than starting with us, our theory, and then adapting the world to fit our own world view. Building on this core methodological commitment proposed by Jo Wolff, I want to close by giving an example for how this shift from armchair to engaged philosophy may look like, based on my personal (and very bumpy) learning process while studying childhood from a philosophical perspective.
From Children as Data to Children as Participants
In my topic of research (philosophy of childhood) we attempt to answer questions such as ‘what makes a human a child?’, ‘what is good for children?’, ‘what does justice owe to children?’ This research aims to provide normative guidelines for the inclusion of children within theories of justice, and as bearers of rights. Surprisingly, very little philosophical work on justice for children or family justice engages directly with the very ample sociological, psychological and legal literature, and with the empirical data of researchers working on childhood from other disciplines; not to mention the lack of engagement with children themselves. (see Schweiger and Graf’s open-access book, as a valuable exception).
I attempted to break with this modus operandi during my PhD dissertation, reading beyond the philosophical literature, avoiding abstraction from the real-world circumstances of actual children, or discussing my work with researchers in other disciplines. It was hard. The moment you leave the armchair you realise that most of your ideas are either already common knowledge in other disciplines, lacking any substantive empirical evidence to support them, or entirely out of sync with the reality of children’s lives. Then, one starts longing for the comfort of the armchair; living in blissful ignorance of the heterogenous reality outside.
I left the philosophy Department looking to work at a research centre that was focused on my topic (childhood) rather than my discipline. The objective was to absorb from researchers working on the same questions, but through a different lens. I wanted to learn how to make my philosophy better grounded; to explore the issues from a more ample perspective, and understand how to embed empirically-sound research into a philosophical structure. The intention was to make the leap from armchair to “engaged” philosophy, as Jo Wolff calls it, by using and producing empirical data, introducing legal boundaries, and theoretical insights from other disciplines into my normative work. I was interested in exploring how the voices, interests and views of children themselves could be included into my theoretical research on childhood and children’s rights.
I was shown, however, that, at least in research on childhood, merely including them as sources of information was not enough. While it occurs in all disciplines, philosophy, in particular, suffers from two perils when making use of empirical sources, and working with the subjects of research: confirmation bias and tokenism.
Philosophers already tend to have moral intuitions behind what they want to say even before they start working. They have normative inclinations, and a political ideology which frames their work. This means that by introducing empirical sources (first or second-hand), one can easily fall trap to cherry-picking the input that supports one’s research while not fully engaging with all concerns (tokenism), and it may fall trap to reinterpreting whatever is mentioned in a way that fits one’s intended normative position (confirmation bias). I have personally fallen trap to both issues while doing my research. Be it by actively looking only for empirical data that supports what I already know I want to say; or by cherry-picking the particular perspectives, voices and views of sections of the subject population which already agree with my claims. This is highly problematic as it makes a mockery out of the whole rationale of creating more epistemically reliable, feasible and ethically respectful normative philosophy.
How to avoid falling into this trap? I believe a mistake we make when we try to do more inclusive philosophy is considering the subjects only as sources of information to support our own research, but not as participants in the research process itself. All alone, we develop the research question, the hypothesis, and the theoretical arguments to support the hypothesis. Then we look for participation. I want to suggest the inclusion of the subjects of research throughout the whole process: from setting the priorities, to interpreting the data, and disseminating.
The Centre for Children’s Rights (Queen’s University Belfast) where I currently work, is committed to making children and young people active participants of the research process from beginning to end. It relies on a rights-based methodology for research with children in which their recognition as valuable collaborators in the research process is taken as a priority. What if we include children in the development of the research plans from the beginning? Why not start the project with the participation of the subjects? The main aim of including children throughout the whole process is to avoid the threats of tokenism and confirmation bias, by leaving our hypotheses open to adaption and change based on the epistemic insights from our subjects.
To give an example, we are currently in the mist of a large-scale project (#COVIDUnder19) that aims to analyse the impact of COVID on children’s lives and children’s rights globally. A survey was developed between a small group of children’s rights experts and 270 children from 26 different countries. This children’s advisory group was structural to defining the priorities that the survey should explore, the objectives to be achieved, and, later on, their were active contributors in analyzing the data that came from the more than 26.000 responses, and in interpreting the information in a way that could lead to normative guidelines for the priority issues for children during the pandemic, and how to address them.
My experience contributing to this project showed me that, as a researcher, I could gain invaluable insights from children’s views, opinions and claims, not only on the issue under scrutiny (life during COVID), but, most importantly, on the research process itself. The advisory group not only proposed priorities which the children’s rights experts hadn’t thought about, they also showed that their epistemic standpoint allowed them to interpret the data, and propose normative guidelines that we had not taken into consideration when discussing the data among ourselves.
Engaging with our subjects of research throughout the whole research process surely makes the research job a bit harder, but I believe it is worth the while. It is an especially valuable process as it forces us to do something that we are not particularly good at: listening rather than talking. As Jo Wolff said in his above-mentioned interview:
The first thing philosophers have to do is learn to listen rather than talk. Many of us have grown up thinking we have this special capacity for thought, and some philosophers even think that they are personally the smartest person they’ve ever met and they have nothing to learn from anyone else. But the thing I’ve learned is that our talents are much more limited. It may be that things that go down well in philosophical circles don’t always go down so well outside. And people outside philosophy, if they’ve been working in a policy area, will have very nuanced views, very often philosophically sophisticated views. They might not be fantastic in expressing them, but they very often do have things to teach us even about philosophy. So that’s the first thing, be open.
NOTE: I’ve consciously only provided links to sources which are accessible to everyone: either open-access papers, or public sources. I’ve thus omitted all sources which are only accessible to the academic community (such as paywalled academic publishers). This is done in order to ensure that everyone can follow the debate.