Ben Phillips

How do you define “applied philosophy”?

I’m a little squeamish about definitions, but I guess I would characterize “applied philosophy” as philosophical theorizing of the sort that addresses issues arising in other disciplines, or in everyday life. 

How does your research fit within applied philosophy, as you define it? Tell us about this research. What made you want to research this topic? 

I’m currently working on some issues surrounding the nature of ingroup/outgroup thinking. For example, I’m interested in the nature of dehumanization, racial categorization, stereotyping, and bias. These are all phenomena that social psychologists study. I try to understand them by applying the sort of (relatively abstract) theorizing that many would call “philosophy” (maybe some people would call it “theoretical psychology”).  

I’ll try to briefly summarize my current work on dehumanization. So, in paradigmatic cases of dehumanization, such as the Holocaust, the perpetrators seem to think of their victims as animal-like subhumans, who lack “the human essence.” But this generates a puzzle, for the perpetrators in these cases frequently treat, and characterize, their victims as moral agents, with an array of capacities that we tend not to think of nonhuman animals as possessing. For example, the Nazis frequently characterized the Jewish people as criminals and conspirators. They also punished and humiliated them, which suggests that they saw them as morally blameworthy agents, with the capacity for uniquely human emotions, such as shame and humiliation. How does this square away with the fact that the Nazis also characterized Jewish people as subhuman creatures? This has become known as “the paradox of dehumanization.”  

Some philosophers have suggested that the perpetrators in these paradigmatic cases tacitly recognize their victims’ humanity after all. Other philosophers have suggested that the perpetrators possess contradictory beliefs—they simultaneously think of their victims as both human and subhuman. According to the view I’m developing, people tend to possess multiple concepts of humanity. For example, we clearly have a biological concept of humanity. According to this concept, to be human is to be a member of the species, Homo sapiens. I think that people tend to possess a moral concept of humanity too. According to this concept, being human involves being a moral agent with a commitment to do the morally right thing. The upshot is that there is more than one way to affirm someone’s humanity, and more than one way to deny it. When the perpetrators in paradigmatic cases of dehumanization characterize their victims as subhuman creatures, but treat them as moral agents, I suspect that this is what’s going on—they are denying their victims’ humanity in one way, but affirming it in another. 

To support my take on the paradox of dehumanization, I’m about to run an experiment that assesses whether people possess multiple concepts of humanity, and whether they’re willing to affirm/deny someone’s humanity in multiple ways. 

What made me research this topic? I’m fascinated, baffled, and horrified by the power of ingroup/outgroup thinking. I just want to get a better understanding of the root causes.

Where do you predict your research field will be in five to ten years? 

I hope that the lines between philosophy and psychology become blurrier. I think there will be more journals devoted to work that spans philosophy and psychology. I also think (hope?) that traditional psychology journals will become more open to the sorts of theoretical articles that are currently seen as more suited to philosophy journals. Maybe this is a bit of a cheeky potshot, but I think that some areas of psychology continue to be held back by a lack of sustained theoretical reflection (of the sort that is often characterized as “philosophy”).  

Does your work in applied philosophy require you to consult with or conduct research with faculty in other disciplines? Does it require you to be proficient in a field outside of philosophy- and how proficient do you have to be in your co-field? What is difficult to find experts in the field you wish to do applied philosophy? 

My research doesn’t require me to consult with faculty in other disciplines. Mostly, it involves familiarizing myself with findings in certain areas of psychology, and then developing theoretical frameworks which synthesize these findings. The sort of research I do is definitely enhanced by an understanding of how psychological experiments are designed; and how the data is analyzed.

Some philosophers get involved in designing and running psychological experiments. I’ve started doing this recently. It has involved brushing up on inferential statistics, and learning how to use software for statistical analyses, such as R. But to conduct research in philosophy of psychology/cognitive science, this isn’t necessary (I’m probably just a bit of a masochist). 

What philosopher/ philosophical School has been most influential in your research? 

Not sure! There are probably several influences …  

What would you say to a student who is considering studying philosophy to encourage them to do so? How early in one’s academic career can one start doing applied philosophy? 

Just give it a whirl and see if it’s your cup of tea. Never too early or late to start. I would just say read widely, and don’t fuss too much about traditional boundaries between disciplines. Just be curious, and see where you end up. I didn’t intend to work in an area of applied philosophy when I was an undergraduate, or even as a grad student. Actually, as an undergraduate I was obsessed with a thing called modal logic (I never think about modal logic these days). I just kept reading about whatever I found interesting at the time, and that has kept me happy. 

One good thing about doing applied philosophy early on is that it’ll help you gain proficiency in a discipline other than philosophy. That’ll give you options going forward if you decide that pursuing philosophy further (in an academic setting) isn’t your thing. 

Ben Phillips is an assistant professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies. His research focuses on a range of topics in philosophy of mind and cognitive science. He is currently working on three main projects: one is on dehumanization and psychological essentialism; one is on the origins of racial categorization; and the other is on the origins of mindreading (or ‘theory of mind’). More information about his research and publications can be found on his website.

Interview conducted by Nikita Patel.

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