Since Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016, academics have turned inward to reflect on the role the academy might play, or has played, in politics. Most notably, a series of lectures given by Richard Rorty in 1998 have resurfaced in both the academic and popular eye in which he critiques the “academic Left” for retreating from national politics.
This retreat from engaged scholarship would contribute to the rise of a right-wing, populist “strongman,” resulting in immeasurably disastrous consequences for the country and the world.
At the time a master’s student in a program committed to social justice, I took Rorty’s critique of academia seriously. I also took it personally when my country voted for someone who embodied everything I was committed to standing against.
Thus, this interview is my attempt to look through the mess, rather than look away, and attempt to gain some insight from one of the most accomplished public philosophers of our time.
My goal was to learn how academics, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, might participate more proactively in public life. How might we avoid what Rorty calls the “observer role” and assume our responsibilities as “participants?”
Andrew Light has held various academic appointments throughout the U.S. He was Assistant Professor of Environmental Philosophy at New York University, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of Washington, Seattle, and he currently runs the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University.
In 2008, he took his first official steps into the public policy arena as an International Climate Policy Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. Shortly after, he joined the Obama Administration in the State Department as Senior Adviser and India Counselor to the Special Envoy on Climate Change. There, he played a crucial role in the development and signing of the Paris Agreement in 2016.
Since then, his work inside and outside academia has earned him numerous awards, including the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy’s Alain Locke Award for Public Philosophy in 2016. The International Society for Environmental Ethics has also created a award in his honor called the Andrew Light Award for Public Philosophy.
The following is a transcript of a discussion I had with Dr. Light that took place via Skype in March 2017. I wanted to give other graduate students a chance to learn from Dr. Light’s experiences and potentially forge their own paths towards publicly engaged scholarship.
Due to my own interest in the subject, I focused on Light’s connection to American pragmatism, a philosophical tradition committed to ideas that “work.” Other topics explored are the limits of academia and engaged scholarship in the Trump era and beyond.
E: You recently won the Alain Locke Award for Public Philosophy. When did you realize that you wanted to do publicly engaged work? And how heavily influenced were you, if at all, by pragmatism or American Philosophy?
A: I think my emerging desire to do something other than academic work evolved in graduate school. I didn’t have a doctrinaire education in the American pragmatists. I never took a seminar in the pragmatists or an undergraduate class in the pragmatism. But I knew there was something there in the ethos of it that was of interest to me.
I got exposed to Richard Rorty who of course is a very controversial figure in philosophy, especially among people who do classical American philosophy. I wrote one of my graduate school papers on this long debate between Rorty and Tom McCarthy, who was then the chief interpreter of Habermas in the United States.
It was a very long paper on that – terribly written. But what’s interesting about it was that they struggled with this whole issue of what is it to do philosophy that has impact?
“What is it to do philosophy that has impact?“
And Rorty had this really great insight which he more fully developed in the book Achieving Our Country years later. There you begin to see this notion that some of the substantive, normative work that will be done in public life will not be done by philosophers but by journalists, novelists, artists, that kind of thing.
It really resonated with me, and I think when I landed at A&M was the first time I had actually met people who were working on Dewey and James and Peirce and all that, and it wasn’t so much exposure to what they were doing with the classic texts, but just their sensibility, which they might have seen as quite different from Rorty’s because they all hated Rorty’s interpretation of the great masters.
But the sensibility was very similar. I think the one most important to be there was John McDurmott, who I’m friends with to this day. He once said publicly about certain ways of doing American philosophy – that too many people do it like they’re atomists. They’re just so focused on the text when of course that’s so antithetical to the spirit in which these books were actually written.
“Too many people do [American philosophy] like they’re atomists. They’re so focused on the text, when that’s so antithetical to the spirit in which these books were actually written.”
So I found that that is something I had picked up from Rorty as an appropriate aspiration for someone in philosophy and something you could do. What I took from Rorty is to communicate not in the ways that we, philosophers, are trained to communicate.
You have to learn to communicate in a completely different way, and it took me years to put myself in a position where I was slowly building the capacity to do it. But there was no substitute for being thrown in the deep end of the pool. You just gotta swim. And you just start writing that way and communicating in that way, and if you don’t then nobody pays any attention to you.
E: I’ve been so confused the past couple of years because it seems like a lot of what philosophers are doing, particularly those that study American pragmatism, seems kind of antithetical to pragmatism itself. I think if Jane Addams knew that philosophers were scrutinizing her texts behind closed conference room doors rather than using them to engage with the world in a new way, I think she’d be really mad. I know how other philosophy has been known to have a detached attitude, but pragmatism was always different to me. Can you talk more about how you’ve channeled academic philosophy toward solving public problems?
A: Well I started working on these other issues: restoration ecology and urban sustainability and I eventually worked around climate change. But if you look at the evolution of my work, a lot of stuff that I was writing in the State Department earlier on, I was saying, “Here’s the problem, here’s the literature on citizenship” and then I applied it to ecological restoration or something like that.
But by the end I wasn’t talking about philosophical literature at all, I was analyzing the problem. The philosophy stuff is kind of there, it’s just buried way down deep. It’s in terms of the approach to the problem, what I describe as the problem that needs to be addressed.
One example is when I talk about reconciling the United States and India in the Paris Agreement – two of the biggest, most important major parties who needed to agree to the text going in. I worked for years just trying to get these two parties to understand where they were coming from and why they could in fact get to an agreement.
Now that’s ultimately an exercise in moral pluralism, but of course there’s no theory of moral pluralism in anything I was writing. It was more like this: how do you structure these occasions where these two parties can understand that they do in fact have something in common with respect to the moral dimensions of the problem, and that there are some practical ways in which they can get to the same ends? I think there’s pragmatism in all of that, but you don’t structure it that way when you’re working on the actual problem.
E: Do you have any other examples where you had to pull on your philosophy training while you were working at the Center for American Progress or on the Obama Administration? Or is it more just a general approach you take?
A: Yeah, but it wasn’t about pragmatism, it was really about what we’re trained to do. What we’re trained to do is analyze arguments, separate the valid from the non-valid, the true from the false – it’s the basic understanding of what it means to be a philosopher of any strain.
Most of the people working in the policy realm in the United States are non-practicing lawyers, and they’re not trained to do international climate change negotiations in law school for the most part. But they’re trained how to think. And how to work through problems. And I think that’s the same kind of things that philosophers are trained to do. We just do it for longer and I think we’re trained in a much better way than they are.
“They’re not trained to do international climate change negotiations in law school, for the most part. But they’re trained how to think.”
What we’re not trained to do is how to take that sensibility and those skills and go sit in a room and do something completely different that has nothing to do with texts on a shelf and abstract philosophical problems.
So, I think the root training is perfect for this environment, but we’re never encouraged to go try it out. And then when we do go to those environments, too often we think, “Well, we have to find the philosophical problem here.” The moral problem. And I think that’s the problem. Because what we should be doing is figuring out how to solve the problems themselves while bringing our sensibilities to the table.
E: Why don’t you think philosophers are encouraged to do this kind of work? Or do you think it’s accessible and people just don’t take advantage of it?
A: In some ways, publicly engaged scholarship is accessible. But philosophy in many ways has become an elite practice within academic institutions. It’s also a stable and fairly insular world that one can have a career in. And the people who are training graduate students are people who by default have had careers in it. What they know how to do is teach people to do what they do. They don’t know how to teach people to do other things. And that’s a part of it.
The question we need to answer is: What are the skills and experiences of people who are engaged and responsible for training graduate students?
There’s a kind of unfortunate conceit in the philosophical world that “the purer the philosophy the better philosophy.” The more removed it is from the world – the harder it is and the more rigorous it is – the more it is in the paradigm of decent philosophical thought. And so you get applied ethics as sort of second-class philosophy at best.
You don’t need to go into dispute with those folks to see that that’s incredibly limiting. And the reason it’s completely limiting is ultimately in a situation where the language of values in the policy realm is almost completely owned by economists.
“The language of values in the policy realm is almost completely owned by economists.”
And now they’re making it much more interesting by adding behavioral economics that has added all these new dimensions to economic theory and economic approaches. And so it’s getting much more robust. But at the same time, it can’t possibly be the case that this collection of thinkers captures all of what counts as values in these realms that affect every single person and most life on this planet.
Philosophers have things to say to that, but we simply don’t try to offer up anything for people except in this very second or third degree of separation. We’ll write stuff that maybe people in the philosophy realm might get inspired by. And if we’re lucky, they read it and then they’ll translate it and then sort of make it work in the real world.
Unfortunately, the ideas that we are working on are often nothing more than ideals. But the hope is that, at some point, someone will be able to look at something concrete like the new health care law or the Paris Agreement, and say, well, it doesn’t match the ideal, but “the ideal” doesn’t do a hell of a lot of good when what you want to do is create something that is just better than what might have been created otherwise.
And by ceding all that responsibility to the economists, we are giving up valuable contributions that we could be making to public life, broadly construed. This doesn’t have to be policy, it could be advocacy, it could be anything. That conceit of purity and the idea that philosophy is better when it’s more disconnected from the world is limiting.
I think it’s changed a lot, even since I was a graduate student. It’s getting more interesting especially in fields like cognitive science and other places that philosophers have been able to work with people in other fields. For the most part though, it’s still extremely limiting. I think we’re just comfortable in the little world that we’ve created for ourselves.
And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, right? Because philosophers don’t interact in those worlds, people who are hiring in think tanks or policy institutions don’t recognize an advanced degree in philosophy as something that can add something to the teams that they’re assembling to do something in the world, to solve some kind of problem.
People just don’t say, “Oh we don’t have enough philosophers, we have to go hire more of those.” It doesn’t come up. Part of my success in the policy world is that most people in the policy world don’t know me as a philosopher at all. They’re surprised when they learn it. And it’s because I worked very, very heard to establish myself and my credibility independently of that world.
L: Some people argue that academic institutions in general encourage the detached, “ivory tower” approach to knowledge, so much so that doing engaged work is even discouraged. So, a new professor gains prestige by going to conferences, by publishing papers in reputable journals, but if you do things that are more engaged you’re at a professional disadvantage.
There’s an example of a professor who developed a curriculum for sexual assault on college campuses that’s being used at the majority of college campuses across the country, yet he struggled throughout his whole career to move up in the way academics are expected to move up, via promotions, tenure, honorable designations, etc.
Do you think that the disconnect you’re talking about is happening more than just in philosophy departments? Do you think that there are actual structural mechanisms that maintain the separation between academia and the “outside world?”
A: Yeah, I think absolutely there are. It’s a broader problem, but I do think the different disciplines are handling it in better or worse ways. And they’ve figured out ways to acknowledge public utility at work.
I think a lot of people chafe at the idea that philosophers should be going out and getting grants. But at the institute that I run at George Mason University, everyone’s expected to go out and raise a portion of their salary. And the reason is because it’s not just a way of bringing revenue to the university, it’s a way of demonstrating that the work that we’re doing does have utility for something outside the university. And that’s part of our proof that the concepts we’re pursuing do have some purchase and do have an audience.
It’s a pretty big spectrum out there in general I would say that in the humanities and social sciences, not in schools of public policy but in, you know, a department of sociology or history even, we’re pretty bad at structuring the reward systems so that people get credit for doing stuff that doesn’t wind up being a book or a journal article which are the normal, typical thing. And that’s a problem. And I think different universities are struggling with it, to do that. But if you don’t build that in in the beginning, it’s very difficult to introduce later on.
E: Would you say that philosophy departments are struggling even more than other social science or humanities departments in rewarding people for doing non-traditional or publicly engaged work?
A: Philosophers have a problem with it, but I think that even a traditional department of economics or a department of sociology or a department of history has trouble with that as well. Schools that do more applied work have a better way of rewarding those kinds of things.
What I mean by that is that a school of natural resource management or a school of forestry or a school of marine sciences usually have something built in that acknowledges that kind of work and encourages it and even requires it. But it’s harder not just for philosophers but among the core social sciences and humanities when they’re not connected to a mission. It becomes difficult to introduce that if it’s not already there. Its changing but I think it’s still slow.
People have come to me and asked, “How can I do what you do in terms of international climate policy?” and my first answer is, “First step is don’t get a PhD in philosophy.” It’s a very difficult route from there to being a climate change negotiator for a major party. There are much more direct ways of doing that. But now I have a better sense that academics could be doing that from an earlier stage, depending on what they are willing to accept in terms of their relationship to the university and their conditions of employment.
E: What do you mean by “an earlier stage?”
A: I think that it’s certainly possible starting as a junior professor or post-doc, even a graduate student, you can begin to do publicly engaged work and then overcome the limitations of how most of us are trained. And then you can build a career like that.
But it takes determination and it takes a very different set of expectations. It may not be the surest road towards a tenure-track job at a PhD-granting institution, but it definitely might be the road towards having a hybrid career where you’re doing some work in the university and some work outside the university and you are very fulfilled and secure.
E: Do you think that there is some value that academics add when they’re not engaged? Do you think that there is value to the traditional approach to scholarship?
A: Absolutely. I’m not one of those people who thinks that there’s a necessity for any individual person to do publicly-engaged academic work or publicly-engaged philosophy or something like that. There are some people who think that all environmental philosophy or all applied ethics needs to be publicly engaged. I don’t think that’s true at all. I think you can do purely, more theoretically-oriented stuff in those fields.
Again for me, the argument is, there’s a need out there in the policy world, broadly construed, from formal policy to informal institutions, NGO’s, activism, etc., a real need in that realm for the kinds of assessments of values and norms that our various traditions have been discussing for 10s, 100s, 1,000s of years, and it doesn’t exist there for the most part because that world is being dominated by a fairly narrow range of value models.
“There’s a need out there in the policy world, a real need for the kinds of assessments of values and norms that our various traditions have been discussing for 10s, 100s, 1,000s of years.”
And they’re not bad ones. I don’t think that cost-benefit analysis is all bad and that we shouldn’t do it or it’s corrupt. I think it’s extremely valuable and very important. But I also think that it’s limiting if that’s the only thing that’s driving the discussion of value sets in these problems.
Now do I think that pure philosophical research is important and valuable? Absolutely. I think that some of the most technical, analytic philosophy that many people in the applied world think is completely useless is extremely interesting and needs to be done. It’s just not what I want to do.
E: So what do you think that “publicly engaged” even means? Or what we even mean by “the public?”
A: I try not to theorize those kinds of problems. I just take a very instrumental view of this. “The public” is the people who aren’t in the academy and I think public philosophy is simply trying to find a role for philosophers outside of the academy.
And I know that’s not interesting theoretically, but I think that we can get too caught up in these things. I mean it is an interesting question! What is the public? There are multiple publics. All of that stuff is incredibly interesting. But I haven’t yet found a situation where I really needed to answer those questions in order to do the kind of work that I’m doing.
E: I think some academics might argue that they really are reaching “the public” or that they’re doing publicly engaged work just by teaching and by engaging with their students. Would you agree?
A: Sure, they are, but I think it’s a very limited sector of the public. You might be shaping people who are going to make big decisions in some period of years after they go to law school. But for me, the goal was in addition to that – could you actually have a seat at the table when the decisions are being made? And what would it take to do that? What would it take to arrange that kind of career or that kind of life?
Now I think a good exception to this would be someone like Bill McKibben who is an activist and an amazing writer and journalist, staff writer for The New Yorker, wrote important books, and was teaching at Middleburry College and with some students founded the activist organization 350.org. And now it’s the most important youth organization in the climate world.
But that wasn’t just Bill saying, ‘I’m going to sit in this classroom and I’m going to teach these students and that’s my contribution.’ He wanted to get out of the classroom with these students out into the world and protest the Keystone XL pipeline and all the other great stuff that 350.org has done.
E: In the Trump Era and in the future, how do you think graduate students or anyone in any stage of their academic career could start to engage with public problems? In other words, what would you tell a philosophy student like me who, when Trump got elected, felt like, “Oh crap, everything I’ve been doing isn’t enough?”
A: I’ll say this: It’s not your fault. It doesn’t invalidate anything that you were working on. It means that there was a deeper problem in society that no one really understood. I’m not even sure Trump understood it or even the people around him understood it. There were deeper problems there that we saw bits and pieces of but we didn’t understand well enough to produce a different outcome. Trump represents a problem but also an opportunity, and this opportunity starts with people who are looking for something new.
What is it that we overlooked? What is it that we didn’t know that could have helped us to prevent the election of someone who seems to have complete disdain for the institutions of civility and the norms of international comity? I don’t want to say order, just the idea that in this world, you can’t just go it alone and expect your own people to be safe. We do actually have to work together and work to common ends and it’s not enough to just get in there and throw your elbows and say “America First” and stuff like that. It’s not a nationalist versus globalist framing, it’s just that the approach that this administration is taking is fundamentally bad for Americans.
I think that the opportunity here is that people are looking for something that can be a different message, that can be a different way of thinking, that can break through. Instead, we have what appears to be a concerted effort to sell a very narrow vision of what counts as “the good society” for Americans.
“We have what appears to be a concerted effort to sell a very narrow vision of what counts as ‘the good society’ for Americans.”
This is the time when we have to try to take the kind of stuff that we were trained to do and the kind of work that we’ve done and the traditions that we come from and translate them into something that people can look at as potential solutions to these problems.
I think that’s sort of what Rorty was talking about in Achieving Our Country. The problem that Rorty looks at there is the problem of academic leftists. He says that we’re observers, we’re not participants. And it’s not just the academic leftists that were the problem, it was the “New Left” that was the problem. They disengaged from the world and went off in a particular direction and stopped thinking that America could be a good place. They weren’t trying to celebrate and work on it in the same spirit that you see in Whitman or others.
I re-read that book and I substituted in my head “academic leftist” for “environmentalist.” How are we going to convince people that Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement was a really bad thing? And I think that Rorty’s book holds up because the environmental community can easily slip into what Rorty was calling the “observer” role rather than the participant role.
People complain and say, “Oh, it’s so messed up, humans are just greedy, they’re egotistical, they don’t care about the planet,” and that’s it. And you can slip from there even worse to misanthropy – all humans are bad, they’re awful, they’re a cancer on the planet and we need to get around them. And that doesn’t get us anywhere in terms of solving the problems and living up to our responsibilities as a species or as a country.
So it’s not just a problem of academic leftists, it’s a problem with anyone in America who wants to see this country be better. We’ve, at a certain point, lost our ability to communicate with a big swath of the population and demonstrate to them that they could have a future, that the future that we were building was not one that was necessarily going to leave them with nothing.
One example is with the people of Appalachia. It’s astonishing there. Both of my grandfathers were coal miners in West Virginia, so this is a part of the country that I know. And what outrages me is that Trump is selling these people a basket full of lies and saying he’s going to bring all these jobs back by bringing back coal. He’s not going to do either of those.
Now, Hilary Clinton, the first – and this isn’t an argument for Clinton, it’s an argument for what you need to do – so the very first position paper that the environmental team on Clinton’s campaign produced was a giant basket of programs for Appalachia. Half of it was stabilizing the social safety net for the miners and the other people…this was an 80 million dollar plan, half of it was retraining, shoring up the social safety net for people in Appalachia. Another half was creating new jobs and creating training programs for the next generation so they could do something other than coal mining and other fading industries. And you think about this, this is aimed squarely at a set of states that Hilary Clinton was never going to win. And to me that means it’s not a left versus right policy. It was a policy that was good for this country because there’s a lot of pain and suffering there.
It also represents a symbol for this divide between different parts of America. For example, on climate change, climate change is branded as a war on coal. So that justifies people ignoring the problem and trying to roll back all the solutions that we created in the Obama Administration both domestically and internationally because somehow it’s going to further harm these people who are already suffering so much.
So you can’t get to a national consensus like there is in almost every other country in the world that we need to do something about this problem until you can get rid of this “war on coal” narrative.
So, just take that problem alone, and it shows that we need to figure out how to do everything from shape the right narrative to create the right policies to deal with that problem in a real way rather than the fake way that Donald Trump is dealing with it.
That’s the opportunity that Trump has created because he’s simply lying to these people who he claims to care so much about. Trump has got a real close connection in his head with the mining community and he’s not doing a thing to help them. So that creates the opportunity. That’s what Trump has given us.
And now, I don’t think the way you approach it is by saying, “The problem is that you’re not listening to philosophers.” That’s not going to work. What is going to work is to take our ideas, our substantive ideas, and turn those into usable proposals and usable narratives that convince people that we can help.
E: In Achieving Our Country, Rorty argues that one of the problems with the academic “New Left” is that they don’t interact with labor unions anymore. I would argue that the New Left is actually ignoring more than labor unions; it’s alienating poor whites in general and the white working class. Is that the group that you’re referring to when you talk about Appalachia?
A: I think it’s one example, but I wouldn’t say that that’s the problem in America now, that that’s the only community that hasn’t been reached. It’s not just non-college educated, white working class folks that won the election for Trump. It’s the people who didn’t vote, it’s all the communities that didn’t come out in the numbers they did before. So it’s not just the fact that Hillary lost that segment. It’s also that there wasn’t sufficient motivation in some of the other segments.
I think that the campaign did not do nearly enough to capture the youth vote using climate change as the argument. I travelled a lot before the election and I would go to college campuses and people would say, “We don’t even know what the difference is between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on climate change!” And they didn’t bother to look.
There was one big rally in the summer with Al Gore in Florida that Clinton did and a lot of organizing done by a political action committee set up by Tom Steyer, which is good, but it wasn’t enough. You needed to have the candidate out there talking about this to the youth. And that didn’t happen not because Hillary Clinton doesn’t care about climate change, it was because the campaign started running against the person, not the policies.
We need to speak to the needs of millennials in a way that I think neither candidate was. And that’s its own set of problems. And I think it opens up this world of possibilities once we realize that whatever traditional basket of policies and stories and approaches and disciplines we were using before is insufficient.
There’s a deeper problem going on when the youth vote for Clinton was virtually the same as the youth vote for Obama, but that segment of the electorate was actually much larger in 2016 than it was in 2008. And the growth of the electorate was not reflected in the total proportions of that vote that Clinton got. So that means we didn’t capture the demographic advantages that were created between 2008 and 2016. I think that happened with a lot of other parts of the population.
E: Thanks for that analysis. I agree that it’s important to not focus on one section of the population and consider all the groups Clinton’s campaign may not have reached. We have time for one more question. Since this interview is tailored towards graduate students, what would you say to a PhD student or a perspective PhD student who wants to be a publicly engaged scholar but isn’t sure that an academic career is the right path?
A: First of all, I would say that it’s good to have doubts. I think that anyone who’s absolutely certain that they want to have an academic life and an academic career is probably setting themselves up for disappointment.
“I think that anyone who’s absolutely certain that they want to have an academic life and an academic career is probably setting themselves up for disappointment.”
It’s like the undergraduate that says, “It’s all Nietzsche! Nietzsche solved it all!” No, you’re going to figure out that that’s just not true at some point. So I think that the most important thing is to get a variety of experiences. Even if it’s an investment that you have to make. It’s critically important to do that.
I think that the way to do that is to take some time, it could be a summer, it could be an academic year, where you’re doing internships, you’re doing some other jobs in the realm of public life that you have an interest and a passion for. And see if you like that day-to-day.
Academic life is incredibly seductive, and we’re introduced to the cloistered world of academia when we’re graduate students, mostly doctoral students, when we’re teaching assistants or whatever. And we see this kind of life where you’re an independent operator, you don’t really have a boss.
So I think the important thing is to get out there and have experiences and internships where you can see other ways of expressing the passions that you have other than in academic forums. And part of that could just be that you don’t need to be in a rush in the steps from undergraduate to masters and masters to doctoral work. That there is time in there to do other things and that in fact, if you decide to be an academic, you’re going to be a better academic if you had some of those experiences along the way. So, it does actually work out for the better in the long run. Spreading it out can actually be a good approach.
The other thing is, whether you have a traditional academic career, or one that’s sort of a hybrid, or one that’s outside of the academy, becoming extremely well versed in an area of public life that you care a lot about is going to be important just to be a good citizen, let alone a good whatever-you’re-going-to-be, academic or non-academic.
Too often people will give up on that or they let it happen by default. But they don’t realize that they can be an informed voice on some issue of public health without going to get a graduate degree in the school of public health. You can. It can be something that you make meaningful contributions to. And I think that the good part of having some training as a philosopher is that you have these fundamental skills that will help you do it better than most people can do it.