About the Department

The Department has four areas of focus:

1. Ethics & Technology 

Advances in technology are occurring at accelerating rates, in genomics, machine learning, bioengineering, space exploration, blockchain technology, genomics, computational media,  nanotechnology, and on. The developments are both exciting and alarming, and they are  generating pressing ethical questions at no slower a pace: about the use of predictive algorithms  in criminal justice, cloning, privacy rights, space ‘colonization,’ the use of artificial intelligence  in surgery, diagnosis, and end-of-life practices, free speech, neural implants, genetic selecting,  and well beyond. Every year, more outstanding philosophers are completing their PhDs in fields  like bioethics, the ethics of AI, computational ethics, space ethics, and the like. Against this  backdrop, some say that ethics and philosophy have never been more vital. 

2. Social & Epistemic Injustice 

Another area of rapid growth focuses on the intricate relationships between the dynamics and  structures of social injustice, on the one hand, and the phenomena of epistemic injustice, on the  other. An epistemic injustice is a wrong done to a person specifically in their capacity as a thinker,  knower, interpreter, or contributor to the social pool of knowledge—testimonial injustice,  hermeneutical injustice, and epistemic silencing, for instance. These wrongs stem from prejudice  and stereotype, and they contribute to larger, systemic structures of social injustice. “Social  injustices breed epistemic injustices; or rather, these two kinds of injustice are two sides of the same coin, always going together, being mutually supportive and reinforcing each other,”  emphasizes José Medina, a leading philosopher in the area. Philosophical research in this area is  particularly vibrant in the fields of feminist epistemology, the philosophy of race and gender,  philosophy of disability, and the epistemology of disagreement. The research is frequently  animated by a commitment to “epistemic activism” and bears directly on work in other disciplines  in Humanities. 

3. Disagreement & Rationality 

Several months after the U.S. presidential election of 2016, the editors at New Scientist published  a piece titled, “Philosophers of knowledge, your time has come.” It began: “A common refrain  heard around New Scientist‘s offices in recent weeks has been ‘episte… what?!’ Even among  educated and well-informed people, epistemology – the study of knowledge – is neither a familiar  word nor a well-known field of enquiry. But it has never been more important.” While the field  of epistemology has been a pillar of philosophy as far back as philosophy goes, a particular set of  questions have come to the forefront on account of two things: the polarizing impacts of social  media and the massive amounts of scientific research produced on social cognition, implicit bias,  and the dynamics of belief polarization. The scientific work seeks to understand, explain, and  describe human cognition. The normative implications of what is discovered, however, are  beyond the scientists’ focus. Philosophy has a critical role to play here, and adjudicating the  significance requires close engagement with issues about epistemic normativity and the ethics of  belief. What is it for a person’s political reasoning to be ‘justified’ or well-grounded (fair-minded,  responsible, sufficiently ‘critical’)? What is it for it to be problematically ‘biased’ or partisan? In  what contexts does anger contribute positively to political or ethical thinking? How should we  evaluate our own beliefs knowing that they too are impacted by echo chambers and epistemic  bubbles? What, if anything, do we ‘owe’ to those we disagree with? 

4. Public Engagement 

There has also been a major upsurge in philosophy over the last decade in the emphasis and  activities of publicly-engaged work. Many philosophy departments today are engaging in  philosophical dialogue beyond the walls of the university, and with a diversity of communities  and demographics (in prisons, at high schools, with elementary schools). These undertakings are  inspired by the idea that the discipline of philosophy can be a force for positive change in the  “real world”: not by pronouncing our expert opinions on what is right and what is wrong, but by  sharing widely the joy and power of thinking for oneself. Other activities manifest in  philosophical writing, written for the public, and other forms of media (both are currently an  emphasis at the Templeton Foundation). Another mode involves philosophers collaborating with  policy-makers, informing and advising on institutional matters beyond institutions of higher  learning. Philosophical work in these modes is the focus of the American Philosophical  Association’s standing committee in Public Philosophy, and the Public Philosophy Network. See UCSC's Center for Public Philosophy.