Philosophers help public answer: 'What are we doing?'

Professional thinkers -- people with the time and training to take a new look at civilization's oldest questions -- are unpacking their briefcases in prisons, a state legislature, and luncheon meetings of farmers and homemakers.

Philosophers increasingly are leaving the cerebral groves of academia to help sort out some of the complex ethical issues involved in public policy. By drawing on sources in literature, history, art, and anthropology, they attempt to discover just how socially effective institutions are. One, as an aide to a US congressman, is drafting a bill on animal rights. Another has weighed the ethics of a hospital consent form.

The Connecticut Department of Corrections will announce the hiring of a philosopher on May 25. The PhD chosen for the 10-month appointment is not expected to assume the curled posture of Rodin's bronze sculpture ''The Thinker, '' but to regularly visit inmates in all 11 prisons in the state system, sit in on staff meetings, observe training, and perhaps stay in lockup overnight. The philosopher's $20,000 salary is to be paid by a grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council.

Robert J. Brooks, chief of program development, decided to apply for the grant because prison officials ''had some misgivings about the social usefulness of incarceration and questions about whether it has anything to do with deterrence.''

Like those in many states, Connecticut's prisons are overcrowded, seem to lurch from crisis to crisis, and officials have ''given up'' on rehabilitation, according to Mr. Brooks. The state's prisons ''have been studied by all kinds of behavioral scientists, sociologists, psychologists. None has been able to answer questions of the social utility of a prison system,'' Brooks says.''

Prison officers often work overtime, and ''you are not going to do a lot of thinking if you are working 14 or 16 hours in a day,'' says Brooks. He hopes the philosopher will have the ''time to reflect that we don't have.''

Time to reflect is just what has often eluded New Hampshire's state legislators during the past two years Ronald Jager has been philosophizing among them. As humanities consultant at the capitol, Dr. Jager found the politicians keeping a ''manic schedule'' of overwork.

Dr. Jager says he came ''not as a wise man,'' but as one ''used to thinking hard.'' He drafted a report on toughening the state's certification of teachers. He recommended the Legislature take up less work and consider it more thoroughly , with only committees permitted to introduce bills.

''One advantage a philosopher has is training in reflection, analysis, argument, weighing, judging,'' Jager says. But the qualification that has put philosophers in current demand is their ''considerable experience in dealing with ethical issues,'' Jager says. They are used to tackling ''the whole history of meaning of qualities such as wisdom, care, mercy, thoughtfulness.''

But the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which has partially funded these state projects, is currently debating whether its Humanities Scholars in Residence should move away from research in areas of public policy. Instead, they would urge delving into literature or history for its own sake.

This is considered by some as justifiably beneficial to society -- and by critics as an attempt to avoid controversy. Congress dropped the ''public policy'' requirement in 1976 and the new NEH chairman, William J. Bennett, ''is urging states to do much less public policy'' residencies, according to Steven Weiland of the National Federation of State Humanities Councils.

Not all residencies are in institutions. Norman Davis has given people pause to consider ''who they are, where they came from'' and how this local heritage might aid in reaching a decision about issues such as small-town growth. Dr. Davis addresses service clubs, veterans, county homemakers, historical societies , university women, and farmers' cooperatives. He travels to towns that are hoping the local economy will ''turn around with one big industry'' or that are concerned about a big reclamation project, the plight of the small farmer, or the impact of synthetic fuels. Dr. Davis sees his presentations as supplying ''a little ballast, a little stabilizing'' influence.

Dr. Jager in New Hampshire says he wanted to ''do what one can to span the gap'' between academia and the public. In so doing, these scholars seem to agree with Thoreau's definition that ''to be a philosopher is . . . to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.''

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