How do you define applied philosophy?
I actually think that “applied philosophy” is a terrible name for a field. On the one hand, I can report from experience that many people equate applied philosophy with applied ethics. On the other hand, “applied philosophy” can easily suggest that all the real philosophy gets done first—that is, one first creates a philosophical theory—and then simply applies it in working out an answer to some question concerning every day phenomena. Quite a lot (perhaps most) work in applied philosophy isn’t like that. Think about nonideal theorizing in political philosophy or ethics. Nonideal theorizing requires bringing in a lot of empirical information about our actual social situation, actual psychology, and the like, beforeone starts theorizing. That’s because getting a philosophical grip on what is going on and figuring out how to deal with the real world typically requires creating some new conceptual tools. This is a point that Charles Mills elegantly made in his famous essay, “’Ideal Theory’ as Ideology.” If you’re not thinking about on-the-ground socio-political problems, then you, as a political theorist, are unlikely to think that developing a theoretical account of what oppression is is important. But if you are thinking about on-the-ground socio-political problems, then you’ll find yourself needing to generate some new conceptual tools, such as account of oppression, microaggressions, implicit bias, aversive racism, and so on.
So there’s one problem with the contrast between theory and application that the name “applied philosophy” suggests. A second problem is that it suggests that one is either doing theory or doing application. I think a lot of really interesting work in philosophy isn’t doing either one. For example, I’m a big fan of “What is…” questions. What is civility? What is forgiveness? What is contentment? Sometimes answers to “What is…” questions do look like a theory—for example, a theory of knowledge or a theory of justice. But if the phenomenon you’re trying to get a grip on is something quite specific—say, contentment—the account isn’t going to look much like a theory that you could then apply to other phenomena.
So what then is applied philosophy? I frankly don’t know, and I think that the line between applied and non-applied philosophy is quite fuzzy. But here would be a suggestion. Applied philosophy starts from a concern with some specific real-life phenomenon or problem and then draws on or creates whatever tools are useful in shedding light on that phenomenon or problem. The tools might not be local to philosophy. Experimental philosophy, in my view, counts as applied philosophy even though the tools that such work applies are social science’s experimental methods.
How has your research fit within applied philosophy as you define it? Tell us a little more about this research. What made you want to research these topics/topic?
As I suggested above, I’m a fan of “What is…” questions. Since a lot of my work is in ethics and moral psychology, the “what” in “What is…?” has for me included: intimidation, civility, common decency, forgiveness, contentment, hope, meaningful living, moral failure, boredom, integrity, and moral shame. In almost every case, I was led to take up these topics because there was some experience, or set of experiences, that led me to want a clearer picture of what was going on. For example, my parents often seemed to me to be chronically discontent and I acquired that disposition. It seemed to me that there was something wrong with being prone to discontentment and its attendant criticisms of even quite good things, but I didn’t know what was wrong or even what contentment is. So, I set out to think about this as a philosopher.
Some of my work has fallen more in the domain of non-ideal theorizing. I’ve written a book about lesbian and gay subordination. I was moved to do so because in mid-life I switched (and I mean that literally) sexual orientations and discovered that my knowledge of feminist theorizing about gender oppression really wasn’t helpful in understanding a whole new set (for me) of experiences of lesbian/gay subordination. How, for example, could one complain about being subordinated if simply by staying in the closet one could entirely evade bad treatment? To answer that, I had to think differently about what rights are fundamentally important—not just rights not to be discriminated against in jobs, housing, and so on, but a right to publicly occupy one’s actual identity rather than having to adopt what I call a pseudonymous heterosexual identity as a condition of full access to the public sphere. This is why I think “applied” philosophy is so important: you just can’t, as a political philosopher, be assured that you’ve got a grip on what rights are fundamental or what goods are basic until you start looking at specific social groups.
Where do you predict your research field will be in the next five to ten years?
I have no idea. I’m an essayist. That means that I just travel from one topic to another. Right now, I’m working on a set of essays on responsibility where I’m trying to capture ways that we think about responsible persons in everyday life that don’t have to do with holding them accountable for failures and blaming them. For several years now, I’ve been toying with trying to create a new field of moral philosophy that I’m calling “positive moral philosophy” on the model of the newish field in psychology called “positive psychology.” I think moral philosophy (other than virtue ethics) is overly focused on obligation—on what we must do and can be blamed for not doing. So, a huge range of really interesting and valuable work in moral philosophy comes to seem (wrongly, to my mind) peripheral to moral philosophy—trust, gratitude, appreciation, taking on responsibilities, supererogation in its many forms, and the like.
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?
I don’t conduct research with faculty in other disciplines, and I have no proficiency in fields outside philosophy. However, I have often ended up reading literature outside of academia and finding it super useful. For my work on marriage rights, I read the Congressional Record; for my work on civility, I read Miss Manners; for my work on intimidation, I read around on the internet including a site that gave instructions for how to be intimidating; and for my work on boredom, I read a fair amount of psychological literature. I have a strong preference for working on topics where there is very little philosophical literature, and that generally forces me to hunt around to find something to read that might help me generate ideas. I think it’s great fun, even if very hard work, to go where other philosophers have not yet gone.
What philosopher/ philosophical School has been most influential in your research?
Like I said, I’m an essayist. So, the influences vary by topic. But I suppose there are two philosophers whose work is often in the back, or front, of my mind. Those are Immanuel Kant and P.F. Strawson.
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?
If you enjoy thinking about ideas in the way philosophers do, then by all means you should study philosophy. Don’t believe the “common sense” view that philosophy is impractical and bad for your future job prospects. Obviously, no job will ever require that you know any specific thing you learn in your philosophy classes—say, Hume’s critique of induction. But, my goodness, that’s true of virtually any major. There’s a lot to be said for the utility of acquiring clarity of thought, shamelessness about saying what you don’t understand, an ability to boil down a disagreement to the essentials, and habits of plain, non-rhetorical speaking and writing.
How early in one’s academic career can one start doing applied philosophy? Well, that all depends on the topic and the skills and knowledge base relevant to that topic. That said, we all learn how to do philosophy by just trying to do it. And that means starting now.
Cheshire Calhoun is CLAS Trustee Professor of Philosophy at Arizona State University. She works in the philosophical subdisciplines of normative ethics, moral psychology, philosophy of emotion, feminist philosophy, and gay and lesbian philosophy. She has recently published a collection of previously published essays under the title Moral Aims: Essays on the Importance of Getting it Right and Practicing Morality with Others, and a new book titled Doing Valuable Time: The Present, the Future, and Meaningful Living. She is also the author of Feminism, the Family, and the Politics of the Closet, the editor of Setting the Moral Compass: Essays by Women Philosophers, and the co-editor with Robert C. Solomon of What is an Emotion: Classic Readings in Philosophical Psychology. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Science in 2020.
Interview conducted by Ashwin Ravi.