International Conference 2012

Abstracts Detail

What exactly does it mean to address “real-world problems”? A case study comparing Rawls’s idea of an “overlapping consensus” and a problem-driven collaboration on social cohesion.

Michael Hoffmann

Georgia Institute of Technology

The PIN-net initiative is partly motivated by the idea that philosophy needs to change to address real-world problems. This idea itself can be challenged, as Philip Balsiger plans to show in his presentation. To get a better understanding of what is at stake here, I will compare in my talk what can be called a “theory-driven” approach to problems and “problem-driven interdisciplinary collaboration.” I will argue that the main difference between the two can be seen in the respective roles played by academic disciplines. Whereas theory-driven approaches to problems frame these problems from a given vantage point which is predetermined by a certain institutional context and a specific history, everybody who tries to be determined rather by the problem itself than by given theoretical perspectives should be open to interdisciplinary collaboration. Whereas theory-driven researchers are always free to reject certain demands formulated by others as irrelevant for theory development, problem-driven work needs to focus on what is required by the problem.

We have to acknowledge, however, two things: First, so-called “real-world problems” do not present themselves in the clarity of textbook tasks; most of the time they are neither pre-defined nor structured but, as Rittel & Webber, 1973 put it famously, real-world problems are “wicked” problems that can legitimately be framed from varying perspectives. That means, secondly, that anybody who approaches a real-world problem will need certain background assumptions and expectations. Most of the time, those background assumptions and expectations will be informed by disciplinary perspectives and theories, but also by values and world views. If there were no such background assumptions and expectations, a perception of a problem as a problem would not even be possible. There is no “frame-neutrality,” as Schön & Rein, 1994 put it, since “the very task of making sense of complex, information-rich situations requires an operation of selectivity and organization” (30; 35). However, if we accept both these points, then the distinction between “theory-driven approaches” and “problem-driven collaboration seems to be reduced to a question of attitude. Either researchers are open to acknowledge their own limitations and ready for interdisciplinary collaboration or they are not.

If that is indeed the case, and whether the suggested typology of approaches is helpful or not, can perhaps be decided based on a case study. In my talk I will use this typology to compare two different approaches to what can roughly be described as the problem of a plurality of world views in democratic societies and the corresponding problem of societal stability. As a representative of a “theory driven” approach to this problem I will discuss John Rawls’s considerations about the need of an “overlapping consensus” that he published—22 years after his Theory of Justice—in his book Political Liberalism (Rawls, 2005 <1993>). For Rawls, the purpose of this concept is to correct certain limitations and resolve inconsistencies in his earlier Theory of Justice.

In contrast to this theory-driven approach, I will try to show what might happen when a philosopher attempts to address the underlying problem itself. One form in which the underlying problem presents itself in a current discussion in the United States can be seen in concerns that the ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats and their followers all over the country fundamentally endangers social cohesion. When ideologies that are shared by huge parts of a society are drifting more and more into the extremes, a set of question arises: How much social be shared to guarantee stability and a sustainable political order? What can be done to restore an overlapping consensus?

Rawls, J. (2005 <1993>). Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.

Schön, D. A., & Rein, M. (1994). Frame reflection. Toward the resolution of intractable policy controversies. New York: BasicBooks.