International Conference 2012

Abstracts Detail

Can Philosophy Contribute to Cooperative Extension?

Kyle Whyte

Michigan State University

This paper addresses what philosophical expertise can contribute to real-world problems and how philosophy itself needs to change for being able to contribute. The question in this title is not meant to be realistic, but to begin a discussion. The cooperative extension refers to professionals in American land grand universities, usually stationed in counties, who seek to deliver the benefits of research to residents. The cooperative extension is entirely undervalued in research on interdisciplinarity and complex problems. Cooperative extension, going back to the early 1900s, is the original “boundary organization.” Extension specialists must bridge the worlds of science/academia and communities’ needs. Many are expert facilitators and conflict mediators. This paper will begin with a very brief description of the cooperative extension. Would a cooperative extension program, such as the extension to Michigan State University, see something in philosophy that could contribute to this kind of work that bridges interdisciplinarity and outreach?

I will respond to this question by discussing issues that have arisen in my own work with extension specialists and doing “extension” like work on one grant project in particular. Extension work raises unique questions because it is not just about disciplines working together in an academic setting, but of outreach. I will make the following points. First, we can all agree that there is a role for people with philosophical training in anything as long as the philosopher does not do or claim to do any philosophy. So it is of course the case that a philosopher, who happens to have the skills of an extension specialist, could do the same sort of work. But this says nothing about whether philosophy has a particular role to play in light of what cooperative extension does.

Second, there are some philosophers who could be housed in philosophy or humanities departments, and spend their time working with cooperative extension. These philosophers maintain their “philosophical” or “humanities” identities because they have found ways to “academically pass.” I will discuss this situation using Kristie Dotson’s theory of “academic passing,” which is an important theory to introduce into the community of those interested in philosophy and interdisciplinarity.

Third, philosophers can find ways to work like cooperative extension that do not require academic passing. This will be the heart of my presentation. What would this work look like? On the one hand, it has to be work distinguishable as philosophical in some respect from social science techniques or from conflict mediation or any other science. On the other hand, the philosophical techniques being developed for interdisciplinary collaboration, such as the Michael O’Rourke’s toolbox, are unlikely to be helpful guides for outreach to residents. I will provide some reasons why. Or is Brian Norton correct that philosophers should be in the business of developing bridging terms between scientists and stakeholders? This approach appears to sell philosophers short. After offering my own view on what philosophers can contribute to extension work, I will then cover a key challenge arising if we can determine distinct philosophical contributions: how would philosophers gain the trust of community members given there is little previous history of philosophical research in community settings?