Many in the halls of Congress do not even know the scholars are there. Though nearly every form of human life has been represented in that legislative arena, hearing the profession of these two--philosopher--there is often a moment of puzzlement, a stare.
"I think people expect I should be wearing a toga and saying wise things about Life," Dr. Connie Kagan says, while Dr. John Hare, who did his dissertation in Greek mythology, admits, on both sides, to culture shock. "I have to deal with a lot of incredulity," he says.
Nonetheless, they draft legislation, therefore they are.
They are on the staff of congressmen, therefore they are.
They are not paid in federal monies--they are technically Congressional Fellows, working under a private grant--and yet Drs. Kagan and Hare, both serious philosophers, have been working as legislative assistants on the Hill for nearly a year. Hare, with a special interest in arms control and Central America, works for Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.); Kagan, on the staff of Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) has been working on animal protection legislation.
What can a philosopher contribute in Congress? The answer may take some time, for as Kagan says, conversation in academia, from which she hails, tends to be a bit more lengthy than conversation in Congress.
After 15 minutes, in academia, one has merely said, 'Hello.'
However, simply put, a philosopher is trained in the "skill of logic," and so can understand, when there is a disagreement, "whether it is simply kinetic or in fact a matter of principle."
A philosopher--this from Hare--is "a good generalist, trained to seize the heart of an argument."
A practical application? Consider Kagan's specialty, epistemology, particularly the theory of knowledge as applied to state of animals, and her project, a bill on animal rights.
Her background, she says, enables her to understand both sides, the research scientists and the animal protectionists.
"I'm not a scientist, but they are concerned with theories, and I know how to put theories together," she says.
"I understand their language. The animal rights community are using a different kind of language, but they are concerned with pain, how to determine if an animal is feeling pain. As a philosopher, I know how to do that."
The skill of philosophers, as "generalists" whose skills can be used in public life, is a phenomenon that is more and more visible.
The philosopher-in-Congress program, technically a Congressional Fellowship sponsored by the Mellon Foundation under auspices of the American Philosophical Association, is now in its second year.
But the past decade, according to John O'Connor, executive director of the association, has seen a move of philosophers from the ivory tower and such arcane concerns as the philosophy of language to fields like business and medicine and politics and the examination of the ethics of modern life.
Hospitals around the nation have been using philosophers in daily operations; the Connecticut Department of Corrections is interviewing for a "philosopher in residence." At the Center for Neurological Study at San Diego, a philosopher was hired to help patients with an ultimately fatal progressive disease prepare for death.
A number of states, including New Hampshire, Connecticut, Georgia and Washington, have placed humanists in the state legislature, under National Endowment for the Humanities grants.
Why the move of philosopher from classroom to public life?
According to O'Connor, the causes have been "partly internal, partly external."
"Up until the mid '50s, or even the '60s, the dominant strain was concerned primarily with theory of knowledge, philosophy of language, logic," he says.
"Philosophy was concerned with reconstructing the foundations of knowledge, a theoretical task primarily, dealing with human concerns didn't come into it. A lot of people didn't buy this, just like there was a period when all painters were not painting abstract expressionism, but that was where the action was.
"The breakdown came in the '60s. There was a feeling that social events like the Vietnam war were not being handled well by philosophers. New journals started in the areas of public affairs."
There was, at the same time, a demand from the public.
"Society seems to be aware of the fact that we are facing some hard choices," says O'Connor.
"In medicine, for example, we have the ability to keep people alive who aren't people anymore. The threats of destruction produce questions on values and bring up moral questions."
"It's like what Alexander Solzhenitsyn calls the double crisis of our civilization, the spiritual and political order," says James Harrod, former humanist in residence and "Socratic gadfly" for Maine's Departments of Corrections and Mental Health.
"Since the '60s, there's been a reexamination of what we do, our government, our economy, the traditional way we've delivered social services."
That questioning, according to Robert J. Brooks, program development chief for the Connecticut Department of Corrections, was behind their advertisement for a philosopher in residence.
"The Quakers set up the first prison as we know it in the 1770s, in Walnut Street, Philadelphia," says Brooks, a slight man in a yellow turtleneck sweater, who had been 25 years in corrections, and quotes Thoreau.
"They were the first to confine people as punishment for an offense, not simply as a holding pen for debtors or political prisoners, and their idea was to put them into solitary confinement until which time they became penitent, therefore the word 'penitentiary.' They gave up the idea years later because it didn't work; men didn't become penitent, they just went mad, became disabled as human beings.
"By that time, the system had spread. The Quakers, though, had a philosophy, and since that time we haven't; we've had the same practice without any substantial underlying rationale or any proof that the system works.
"A philosopher has the ability to frame questions I don't have time to frame," Brooks continues. "What are the social expectations of the institution? What is the nature of the institution?"
And what of the questions that critics may frame--the usefulness of spending $20,000 from a Connecticut humanities grant on a philosopher in residence?
"For $20,000 I couldn't even hire a guard," he says.
In the setting of Congress, Hare echoes the need for taking the time to form questions. He has been concentrating lately on nuclear arms, he says, and it seems to him that beneath the debate there are philosophical questions, for example, what is the meaning of victory in event of nuclear war? He also allows that in government, there is pressure of time.
"I try to keep the top of my notebook for philosophical jotting," he says. "Congress is very often concerned with responding to yesterday's news. There isn't very much time for reflection."
He also notes, with some amusement, that it was a bit of shock for him to learn in Congress that "questions of policy are not debated as often on their merits as they tend to be in the academic community."
"When I first got here, for example, I was told that the Congressional Research Service would give you arguments and evidence in favor of any position. In academia we're trained to look at the evidence, then reach our conclusion, not reach our conclusion first."