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A Cartography of Philosophy’s Engagement with Society

Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.

– John Dewey

Think of organic chemistry; I recognize its importance, but I am not curious about it, nor do I see why the layman should care about much of what concerns me in philosophy.

– W.V.O. Quine


Should philosophy help address the problems of non-philosophers or should it be something isolated both from other disciplines and from the lay public? This question became more than academic for philosophers working in UK universities with the introduction of societal impact assessment in the national research evaluation exercise, the REF. Every university department put together a submission describing its broader impact in case narratives, and these were graded. Philosophers were required to participate. The resulting narratives are publicly available and provide a unique resource permitting a more comprehensive, empirically based consideration of philosophy’s influence outside the academy than has hitherto been possible. This paper takes advantage of this data to develop a cartography of the ways in which philosophers engage society in their work. We identify five approaches: dissemination, engagement, provocations, living philosophy, and philosophy of X. We compare these along the six dimensions proposed by Frodeman and Briggle to characterize the ideal field philosopher. We conclude that there are multiple ways of being a field philosopher, which vary in their emphasis. This pluralism bodes well for the expansion of philosophy’s societal influence, since there are routes available to suit different preferences.

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  1. 1.

    We are grateful to an anonymous reviewer for this point.

  2. 2.

    Analogously, Meagher and Martin found in their examination of mathematics REF cases that software distribution was an emerging method for mathematicians to distribute their work more broadly (Meagher and Martin 2017).


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Correspondence to Diana Hicks.

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Hicks, D., Holbrook, J.B. A Cartography of Philosophy’s Engagement with Society. Minerva 58, 25–45 (2020).

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  • Field philosophy
  • Public value
  • REF
  • Impact case narratives
  • Societal impact