My Work in Philosophy

I begin unavoidably with a brief description of my own relationship to philosophy. Since my graduate studies at Harvard in the early 1970s I have been fascinated by the relationship between philosophy and the social sciences. The title I chose for my academic blog in 2007, Understanding Society, captured that fascination well. Eventually I became a philosopher of the social sciences and, well before receiving my Ph.D., I understood that good work in the philosophy of social science demands deep and respectful engagement with the theories and reasoning of good social scientists. My goal has always been to identify interesting theoretical or methodological issues in the social sciences for special study, and to do my philosophical work in a way that interacts usefully with debates in relevant areas of the social sciences. A good example of this approach is my book on the ethics of economic development, The Paradox of Wealth and Poverty (Little 2003), which was the result of extensive interactions with development economists and development policy-makers to try to sort out the way that development economics thinks about poverty alleviation, and how it should think about poverty alleviation.

What is common in my work in philosophy is the idea of taking seriously the methods, theories, and research programs of working social scientists, and trying to identify topics where a philosopher can make a valuable contribution to the conduct of scientific research. Further, in each instance the most fruitful engagements came from direct person-to-person interaction, rather than simply engaging with the scholarly writings of other researchers. Each of these interactions helped me see specific problems of social science research in a new light, and helped me to formulate some hybrid philosophy and social science ideas that I would never have come to through isolated philosophical reflection.

I mention these research areas to illustrate a particular approach to philosophy. Other philosophers of my generation have had much greater impact within the discipline of philosophy. My writings often have the characteristic of being on the periphery, partly in philosophy and partly in another academic sphere—Asian studies, technology studies, simulation and complexity studies, development studies, and the like. I prefer to develop topics for my own research and writing in a way that derives from engagement with nonphilosophers, in the idea that the worth of philosophy is best cultivated through such efforts. This is not to disparage the value of “pure philosophy.” It is simply to affirm the notion that philosophical ideas and modes of thought have a positive value when brought into conversation with practitioners of other disciplines and efforts, and this is where I have always felt I wanted to contribute.

Since becoming engaged with the concrete issues of racial equality raised by the history and current realities of the city of Detroit, I have struggled with an interesting fact. The most impactful contribution to the theory of justice in American philosophy is John Rawls’s work and, in particular, his book, A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971). I studied this book carefully in 1971, and served as Rawls’ teaching assistant, but in 1971 I never noticed what is highly conspicuous nearly 50 years later: the absence of any discussion of race. It is surprising to realize that this issue is not raised once in the book’s 600-plus pages. I know that Rawls cared about racial equality. But given the purely philosophical orientation he brought to his philosophical theory of justice, the question of race disappeared. If philosophy at Princeton in the 1950s and 1960s had been more engaged in the concrete realities of New Jersey, then it is more likely that racial inequality would have appeared in A Theory of Justice.

I cannot say that I had the aspiration to become an administrator or academic leader in the first 20 years of my career. I was very satisfied with the challenges and joys of the intellectual life of an active faculty member and philosopher, and had little concrete notion of what deans, provosts, or presidents of universities contributed. It is only once I began doing this kind of work—first as a department chair, then as an associate dean of faculty, and later as a provost and chancellor—that I came to see the opportunities for engaging work and positive contribution that dedicated individuals in those positions of administrative leadership could create. I also realized that there were areas of skill I lacked if I were to be successful in doing that kind of work. Becoming a senior leader allowed me to see my work and engagement in a different way, and it led me to develop a new set of skills of problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and leadership. It was a source of meaningful growth in moral and social capacity for me. This is a good illustration of the philosophy of Bildung—the idea that human beings realize their talents and capacities only through life experience. When one lacks a certain kind of experience altogether—whether working with tools and wood like a carpenter or with groups of faculty and collaborative projects like a department chair—inevitably there are aspects of one’s potential that are never cultivated or materialized. Becoming an academic administrator and leader had exactly this benefit for me. Philosophy did not lead me to administrative work, but it allowed me to thrive and develop through the experiences and challenges I encountered by taking the plunge.

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