An Unfinished Manifesto for Philosophy as Transformative Practice

Elon University’s Department of Philosophy

[Please note: this is a work in progress! It grows out of a continuing discussion in the Philosophy Department that remains rich and/but in flow on many points. This then is a draft, a provocation, a time-slice of our discussion at its present point, and an invitation to join in…]


We call upon ourselves and upon our fellow philosophers to consciously and care-fully embrace the task and the responsibility of transforming life and the world through philosophy. We aspire to this in our teaching, our thinking, our writing, and our actions. We label this task “Philosophy as Transformative Practice.” Philosophy as Transformative Practice calls us to live with larger mind, to marshal our ethical intelligence, to uncover hidden dynamics and beliefs that inhibit our understanding and compassion, and to belong in our ever-widening concentric circles of relationships with kindly acumen and reconstructive flair. In short, the task of Philosophy as Transformative Practice is to intentionally and unapologetically deepen experience and foster human flourishing.

The promise of philosophy

The brokenness of our current world is unmistakable, and we ignore it at our peril. Personal and collective tragedies – homelessness, media manipulation and commodification, spiritual starvation, religious peddlerism, global terrorism, the fracturing of community ­– pile up, all framed by almost unimaginable global environmental degradation and instability. Meanwhile, old cultural paradigms are tottering all over the map, while enormous new possibilities are opening up. But few step up to deliberately, democratically, and progressively shape what will take their place. Even the best public discussion is usually locked into narrowly envisioned alternatives, and so our most visible public intellectuals all too often are the ideologues.

Yet creative intelligence and accrued wisdom may still enhance and reframe our personal and collective lives. May not the world justly expect such things of philo-sophers, lovers of wisdom?

Although we are diverse in our backgrounds, training, methodology, and metaphysical commitments, we are united in our diagnosis of the missed opportunities in the profession of philosophy today. We find that contemporary philosophical practice, for a variety of reasons, has not honored philosophy’s ancient promise to be a source of wisdom that guides the community’s daily life. In particular, we reject the unambitious self-conception of philosophy in which its canonical founders are reduced to the original university professors, and philosophy is conceived as a purely theoretical undertaking. We wish to reclaim the spirit of philosophy that John Dewey described: as a “dramatic, restless, co-operative, inquiring” practice in which even “the highest flight of metaphysics always terminates with a social and practical turn.” We hold that philosophy as currently practiced has misplaced the function of thought by constructing it as an end in and of itself, rather than as a tool for social, civic, and personal enrichment.

Traditional philosophy’s theoretical and indeed often proud insularity from everyday problems is one reason for this failed promise to guide human life. We argue that the failure is grounded in the very same place as the pride: in the metaphysical duality between Theoria (which literally means “being an onlooker”) and Praxis. Thus we call for the return of the former to its rightful place – as a practical instrument or function for the reconstruction of daily life, as an articulation of and practice in human thriving, and as an antidote for the banality of evil. Philosophy’s purpose and promise is to render life more fully, existentially livable, richer in its possibilities, brimming with integrity and curiosity, acutely sensitive to its challenges and demands and delights.

Genuine philosophical practice originates in ordinary, concrete, and problematic situations whose transformation it seeks, and which justifies its employment. When philosophy becomes an armchair exercise in puzzle-solving rather than a democratic engagement in problem-solving – indeed, even and perhaps especially in problem-creating, in making manifest those aspects of the familiar that should, but too rarely do, trouble us – it risks becoming aristocratic and voyeuristic. Our philosophical practice should take its cue, not from the problems of philosophers, as the positivists effectively have argued, but from what the pragmatists called “the real problems of everyday life,” with what phenomenologists might call “the burden of our times.” We insist that objectivity is actually sharpened, not endangered, by continuing attention to exigent social and moral realities. We are teachers, and so we take up the challenge of radically opening the philosophy classroom out to the world, so that we are not merely applying theory to current problems but engaging our learning communities in ways that present and model philosophy as a way of life. We seek to rework our pedagogy so that ultimately all learning is service and all service is learning.

Elements of Philosophy as Transformative Practice

Many have heard the call for practical philosophy narrowly in terms of “applied ethics.” Transformative philosophy is far more extensive. We aim to develop an account of how transformation is effected, and a sense for the practices that enact and sustain it. Some specifics:

  • We celebrate reason, logic, and critical thinking, but we seek to empower their practice in a constructive, creative and imaginative manner. We aim for dialogue, collaboration, expanded possibilities, and the kind of harmony that derives only from multiplicity. We envision critical thinking as literally a practice of care.
  • We celebrate ethics, morality and other normative domains but insist that they be animated and practiced in one’s daily life. We push beyond merely learning about ethics. With transformative philosophy, the practice of virtues and wisdom should enhance one’s personal relationships and one’s community. The habits of care we awaken should extend to the more-than-human community and to the Earth itself.
  • We celebrate philosophy’s hermeneutic dimension, which enables a person to vividly occupy the perspective of another. We consistently try to move beyond present-centered and self-centered cultural blindness.

As the authors of Habits of the Heart note, it is the “practices of commitment that keeps a community alive.” Thus, in addition to all of the above, philosophy as transformative practice includes a set of commitments or practices that constitute, sustain, and nourish community. We emphasize three strands in “transformative practice”:

  • The practice strand – in this sense, transformative work is manifest in action, where, scandalously enough, belief or “position” might not even matter, as long as it manages to stay out of the way of effective, wise, constructive, or inspiring work in the world: teaching, organizing, unsettling or re-settling.
  • Inner work – the transformation in question is partly toward a larger mindfulness, claiming for ourselves some freedom from habitual internal self-constraints and less constructive ways of framing problems and opportunities. Perhaps – cautiously and with care – we could speak of “spiritual transformation” here, as a movement or emergence from part to whole in the self or community in which the whole is so unlike the partial predecessor that it might even be described as, in a sense, miraculous or transcendent. It does not, however, bring with it all the doxastic consequences we have learned to associate with the religious. Indeed, centering in transformative work as such is by nature anti-orthodoxy. Spiritual transformation can speak deeper words without saying the last word. It can be shared without becoming generic or homogeneous. As William James put it, every thinker calls some part of the existing world into question, and there is no telling what will end up taking its place.
  • Outward re-imagination – transformative practice is completed by an outward-looking re-imagination of the social and natural worlds we inhabit, winning ourselves some communal freedom from the “spell of the actual” and the imaginative limits of the world as it is (or appears to be). Here especially we need to remember to speak in adjectives and adverbs – “transformative” and “transformatively” – rather than the static noun “transformation”. For we are after something more like a change in process: becoming more open, more fluid, imaginative, “edgy” in the sense of working at margins of things, regions of fertility and encounter, a more dialogical and dialectical way of going on. We highlight and promote a practice of opening things up. And then, opening them up again. This is critical, constructive and deconstructive work, all at once.

What is the end?

We are not demi-gods. We do not seek to reshape our students, ourselves, or our world into specific, prefabricated forms; to do so would be again to opt for an illusory certainty rather than the hard and invigorating work of becoming. We find ourselves quite unsettled—there is no escape from the merely appearing world into the “Real” world —and yet we are unwilling to give over to the present state of things either. We must be worldly while criticizing the world of which we are part and to which we have contributed. Philosophy is neither a means to an end (not to knowledge on one side or social activism on the other) nor an end in itself, if that end is an unworldly, otherworldly, anti-worldly end. We don’t tell our students how to live, and yet we consider ourselves unsuccessful if they slide back into some unconsidered cultural default. Our role is to seek mindful and open-ended authenticities with our students and with our colleagues, and to ask them to seek the same with us. We embrace and engage not a static set of values, but a process, or better, a host of processes: a constant dialectic of challenge and deepening, a persistent broadening of concerns, a creative re-framing of the given, a holistic engaging with worlds of all sorts.

To take up such processes is, in short, to become responsible for making meaning. We envision philosophy, then, as a form of meaning-making that simultaneously gives rise to and presupposes (but does not directly fabricate) self-awareness, social responsibility, and community engagement.

Philosophy in this new key occurs between living, questioning, finite beings, embedded in a network of relationships ranging from the rational and emotional to the ecological. This insight illuminates that the particular site of philosophizing is crucial to the taking up of the task. Transformative philosophy requires that we attend to the structures and habits of communities, including the often-neglected community of the academic department. How we are with each other is both the ground and the purpose of philosophy as transformative practice. So we gladly trade the role of philosopher-king for that of philosopher-citizen, and hold our work accountable to a high standard: how is philosophy showing up in our being-with others? How are our classrooms, our town halls, our daily interactions informed by our philosophical work – and how is that work informed by those spaces and experiences?

Final Call

This may be an axial time in our culture’s evolution. We are teaching a generation who must re-think and re-imagine many aspects of our world. This is not a time for timidity or technicalities! As teachers, we cannot settle for merely filling our students’ heads with informational knowledge. We must be practitioner-guides who help novice practitioners on their road to wisdom and a flourishing life. We call upon philosophers to rejoin the world and to recommit to the practical passions that make wisdom precious.

Nim Batchelor

Ann Cahill

Martin Fowler

Yoram Lubling

Stephen Schulman

John Sullivan

Anthony Weston