From Applied to Translational Philosophy

When philosophers think about engaging more fully with the “real world,” often the first thing that comes to mind is the concept of applied philosophy. This is, indeed, an important mode of philosophical work. Often unfairly caricatured as mere application of some extant theory to an issue in the world (“What would a utilitarian or Kantian say about famine, abortion, climate change?”), applied philosophy is richer and more important to the discipline than that.

Very roughly, applied philosophy can be thought of as philosophy that is interested in finding insight from, and contributing insight into, specific empirical phenomena, in ways that are particularly richly beholden to factual adequacy conditions. Applied philosophy involves making direct (rather than merely conditional) philosophical claims, about empirically real (rather than merely idealized) things in the world, and taking epistemic and moral responsibility for the implications that acceptance of those claims would carry for that world. The core claims of applied philosophy are ones whose success—as diagnostics, explanations, truths, or prescriptives—are strongly dependent on getting a rich set of facts right. The facts in question may be scientific, cultural, material, or institutional in nature. To be responsibly discharged, then, such work has to proceed with a credible understanding of salient facts, not just an intuition about what those facts might be, and a genuine literacy (at least) of technical, institutional, social, or other factors that saliently define the phenomena at issue.

Such work is deeply important. It ensures the discipline is concerned not only with formal models, but with assessing the adequacy of such models for explaining and navigating real-world phenomena. It ensures the discipline is fed not only from the power of idealizations and generalizations, but from a granular and empirically robust appreciation of fact and context. It serves not only as a corrective to test the intuitive adequacy of received concepts and frameworks, but as an engine for developing novel ones.

Applied philosophy, then, is as critical to the discipline as its more theoretical counterpart. Having said that, it is a different mode of expanding philosophical inquiry’s connection to the “real world” that we are interested in. Borrowing a distinction well known in the sciences, we do not want to distinguish between theoretical and applied work, but between applied and translational work. Let’s take a look.

The concept of translational work is familiar in the sciences. As the National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines it, translational science is about moving novel discoveries from basic research into new interventions in the world. Its National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, established in 2012, has the mission of supporting the translation of health-related discoveries: “turning observations in the laboratory, clinic and community into interventions that improve the health of individuals and the public—from diagnostics and therapeutics to medical procedures and behavioral changes” (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, 2019). The National Science Foundation also has special translational programs, which support the “conversion of ideas into useful products and services” (National Science Foundation, 2010, 1).

Put in teleological language, the end goal of translational science is not about understanding something new about the world, but about creating a practical intervention to address a real-world problem. The goal is to make effective progress in a way that can have a direct impact on people’s lives. The telos is fundamentally practical rather than epistemic.

This is hardly to say that translational work is free of epistemic labor—after all, it essentially involves novel inquiry. To give an example from the NIH’s remit, moving from a new biological discovery in the lab to a new vaccine delivered to millions requires a great deal of research, including animal studies to test and clinical trials to confirm that the vaccine meets thresholds of safety and efficacy. Here, one is still in the knowledge creation business, including paradigmatic examples of applied science. That said, translational science is different from applied science, and in two ways.

First, the specific research questions involved in translational work are strongly shaped by and answerable to the needs of the practical goal. Which pieces of knowledge are to be pursued is a matter fully in service to what is needed to take the next step in finding and building the solution. The epistemic agenda is a highly tactical one, chosen for its utility in pursuing an ultimately non-epistemic goal.

Second, translational work is not exhausted by the endeavors of inquiry, even highly pragmatically shaped endeavors. After all, the aim is to get to “useful services and products.” This means that, at some point, someone needs to make something. It is not enough just to understand a viral mechanism and its vulnerabilities; at some point, a vaccine needs to be produced, scaled, delivered. It’s not enough to know about the efficiency factors of a given algorithm to make an autonomous driving vehicle; at some point, a machine learning model needs to be built and trained, tested, and iterated. In the familiar phrase, translational work is comprised of research and development (“R.&D”). Translational work, in short, moves beyond inquiry to invention.

By using the term “invention,” we do not mean to suggest something that has to involve patents! Some translational work does: a new machine, a novel protein. But translational work extends to developing more abstract products and tools, including protocols, guidelines, and models. What distinguishes translational versions of these from their more academic cousins is the degree to which they are built for use in the real world, sensitive to and shaped by the realities of an actual implementation context. For instance, a white paper about broad ethical frameworks for new digital realities lies more on the applied side. It becomes translational when it moves to guidelines shaped to fit the constraints of a specific context and set of actors.

To summarize, translational work involves novel inquiry in the service of developing a tool or intervention that is built for use in a real-world context. Now, as reference to “ethical guidelines” begins to indicate, this concept of translational work is not limited to the sciences. Philosophy (as well as other humanities disciplines) can contribute richly to translational efforts. For one thing, philosophy can be the source of the novel discovery or insight that is the impetus for translation. Here we think of the work of Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen: they have complemented their novel theoretical work on a capabilities approach to justice with translational work, developing it into concrete economic policies and metrics for international development.

Philosophy can also be a collaborating discipline in translations of novel discoveries or developments originating in other fields. Examples can include ontologists and philosophical linguists working with computer engineers to develop better speech recognition algorithms, epistemologists working with policy makers deciding a responsible approach to a new technolog}' that carries poorly characterized risks, or ethicists working alongside engineers at Google Al on the plethora of normative issues and choices encountered in the process of developing autonomous vehicles. Such philosophers are working as genuine “translational practitioners,” we would say, when their intellectual labor goes beyond disseminating extant theory (providing a “philosophy briefing”) to actively engaging in novel inquiry, and contributing their skills and expertise in service to the ideation and development of the intervention.

We see deep overlaps between our category of translational philosophy and this volume’s category of field philosophy. That said, we use the term “translational” to avoid certain connotations the term “field” can carry. In the physical and social sciences, fieldwork involves going into the world to confront and study first-order phenomenon outside a lab setting. The biologist goes into the forest to study patterns of acorn hiding among squirrels; the anthropologist goes to a border town to study the effects of increased refugee migration. This can make it sound as though field philosophy is characterized as embedding in the environment of the problematic (say, volunteering with sex workers to explore issues of consent), while the philosophical work we aim to highlight is work that can be done in guidance committees or product development teams. It can also make it sound as though field philosophy may concern itself purely with theory building, while the philosophy we are describing is centrally committed to the development of an intervention. A philosopher who does go into the field to develop a new normative theory of consent based on her experiences volunteering with sex workers is doing a (particularly cool) species of applied philosophy; a philosopher who uses that understanding to help develop a new policy, app, or practice for empowering that consent is expanding into translational philosophy.

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