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No problem

I am inclined to think that people trained in some abstract area of philosophy should stick with that. There is nothing wrong with doing such work. And I think people who work in applied areas often have a false sense of the value of their research. Most of it has no value beyond what value it has among other researchers. Not to get too personal, but I have found it distressing how many people I know who work in ethics, for example, who cannot even treat their colleagues with decency. So the idea that these people are going to have any deep insight into morality is quite far fetched.

Assistant Professor

I am inclined to agree with No Problem that it is worth sticking to what you work on, assuming you like it, care about it, and are good at it. However if treating colleagues (let alone others beyond colleagues) with decency were a recognized metric to assess value and contribution of scholarship, the entire field of philosophy would quite different than it is. Not that we shouldn't hold our colleagues accountable in their behavior, and consider this in hiring decisions, promotion in the field, etc., but I am not clear why philosophers' personal shortcomings negate their philosophical contributions.


I think it's important to remember that our professional activities are only one part of our lives. There are lots of ways to be engaged politically and socially outside of working hours, and - as others have noted - many of these ways (e.g., straightforward activism) are more likely to have an impact than a journal article. Even if the broader community were moved by peer reviewed articles, the time it takes to get through peer review makes it a really suboptimal venue for addressing the immediate political/social situation. Public philosophy is probably better positioned here, though I don't know what the data say about its impact. But one can write public philosophy on issues other than one's main research interest. Now, if you simply can't get yourself to focus on abstract topics with all that's going on, then by all means follow Marcus's recommendations (1 and 3, especially). But, if you find other outlets for your social and political concerns you might well find that you are better able to focus on the abstract stuff and that doing so also helps to recharge your batteries. Activism burnout is real. Also, abstract work is cool and valuable even if it doesn't have any impact on social and political affairs.


If you don't see how work on your philosophical topic is related to the world's current level of rationality (or some such), you're doing it wrong.

Teeth Cut

I'd like to offer my perspective as someone who, prior to coming to philosophy, spent over a decade doing social justice and anti-poverty work. If the OP is interested in impacting other people's lives in the way of say, a social worker, civil rights' attorney, nurse, or teacher, then they should get out of philosophy stat. Helping people in these ways is enormously important, especially now, and the world can use as many on the front lines of social change as possible.

That said, there is a value to philosophy, and perhaps different values to different kinds of philosophy. Whether philosophy is of practical importance is contentious, but it's also contentious whether you have some sort of obligation to do things of practical importance.

In my opinion, the worst strategy is to 1) do analytic philosophy while 2) thinking that your work is impacting people's lives in the manner gestured at above. As I've seen it executed, this strategy guarantees you the worst of both worlds, as it fails to grasp the true value of either one.


Philosophy of language can have practical usage. You can write about the benefits and risks of rhetoric when used in the political realm. You can discuss the lack of truth conditionals in people’s speeches and why they matter. There’s a lot you can do with phil. of language.

One thing that a lot of lay people and even academics take for granted is the usage of the terms “capitalism” and “socialism.” Indeed, people both inside and outside of the academy like to describe our society is being strictly capitalist or strictly democratic or strictly republic even though specifically we’re a capitalistic constitutional representative democracy with socialist programs to be as precise as possible.

I think the realm of language and semantics has a lot of ethical and political implications. Speech and language are not immune from moral and political evaluation insofar as speech and language are part of an agent’s actions and behaviors.



Prof L

It’s good to reflect about the value of what you are doing—but social/ political value is not the only kind of value. So sure, do something worthwhile, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that progress on social and political issues are the only worthwhile things.


Some thoughts, not in in any particular order:

We may never know the impact of our lives and work, and further, what we do may have consequences long after we die. (How will our students live and shape the world, for instance?)

What counts as "relevant"? Sometimes work in one area may turn out to be related elsewhere, so that restricting ourselves to only what we know (or think we know) is relevant may not be the best method for making an impact.

Acquiring a new area of competence or shifting to a new AOS is possible, but one may find the same frustrations in that new area--how much political philosophy is making a "direct impact" on the world today?

There's a need for editorials, public philosophy, teaching people media literacy and critical thinking, along with a host of other projects that one's research might influence both in content and in method (one hopes that the practice of academic philosophy develops other virtues).

Finally, when I get concerned about the relevance of my research (which is not obviously directly connected to the contemporary moment), I remind myself that am not my research. While I hope my work has some broader impact, I also hope that my relationships with human beings and the rest of how I live does, too.

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