What Would Be in a Philosophy Museum? (updated)

What Would Be in a Philosophy Museum? (updated)


How can we introduce those outside of higher education to philosophy? One little-used means is the museum.

I was not aware of any philosophy museums, but a recent news item on the Empathy Museum, ” the world’s first museum dedicated to helping visitors develop the skill of putting themselves in others’ shoes”  put the idea in mind. (The Empathy Museum is the creation of Roman Krznaric, who works with The School of Life, an organization that makes uses the humanities to help people “think intelligently about central emotional concerns.”)

There are museums dedicated to the ideas and lives of particular philosophers, such as the Hegel Museum or the Nishida Kitarō Museum of Philosophy. But unless I’m missing something (and please do let me know), there is no major museum of philosophy in existence today.

Some light Googling revealed that Pace University ran a philosophy museum in the early 1980s:

The aim of the new museum is ”to bring philosophical concepts and questions before the public, especially children, in an enjoyable and understandable manner,” according to Prof. Steven Rosenberg, the institute’s president, who conceived the idea of the museum and appointed Professor [Spencer] Schein curator…

”You have to stimulate people’s interest, and you do it by awakening their curiosity,” said Dr. Margaret E. Donnelly, adjunct professor of psychology at Pace and an adviser to the museum, as she demonstrated an optical illusion to a visitor. Such illusions, she explained, are actually illusions of the mind’s perception and interpretation, a point Professor Schein expanded on by telling the story of Bertrand Russell’s visit to the dentist: ”Where does it hurt?” the dentist asked. ”In my mind, of course,” the philosopher answered. The Locke’s Sock Paradox

One of the displays, called Locke’s Sock, illustrates the principle of identity, in a paradox posed by John Locke, the English empiricist. In each of six panels a common white sock appears. In the first panel it is pure white; in successive panels, patches are added until the sock is fully covered in patchwork. Is it still, then, the same sock?

Okay, not a bad start.

Would a philosophy museum be a good idea? If so, what should its aims be? What should be in it? I am thinking of something that combines interactive exhibits along the lines of good kids-oriented science museums, with displays of historically important documents and artistic renderings of philosophers or philosophically significant ideas, areas and prompts for contemplation, with education programs for adults and children, in a stunning modern building…

UPDATE (7/1/15): Amber Griffioen linked to an existing philosophy museum in her comment (16): DenkWelten – Deutsches Museum für Philosophie. Now, one of the founding board members of that museum, Matthias Warkus, has written me with further details:

Our museum (DenkWelten) does not aim to present exhibits on philosophers and their lives, but exclusively exhibits that model or otherwise illustrate philosophical ideas. Our museum is a project conceived, planned, operated and evaluated by academic philosophers and museologists. We keep away from all kinds of crackpottery, and we provide excellent documentation to our exhibits, including signs with short explanations, folders with longer background notes and access to all the texts that inspire them for all the visitors in a “library corner” on the exhibition floor.

These include:

  • a table with everyday objects all painted either orange or silver to demonstrate Hannah Arendt’s distinction between work and production
  • six cubic dioramas illustrating various ways of interpreting “apple” according to Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms
  • a diorama that can be viewed from two sides, showing a single LED either as the morning star or the evening star, illustrating Frege
  • large showcases with a number of objects the purpose of which is unclear without context (you are shown the context by opening a flap over a photo showing the respective object’s usage), illustrating Heidegger’s Zeug concept
  • an interactive video presentation on Kant’s Categorical Imperative
  • a large robot with a remote control and a video screen for a face that demonstrates stimulus-driven behaviour that’s completely involuntary (or is it?), illustrating La Mettrie’s “L’homme machine”
  • an interactive touchscreen-based puzzle illustrating the way various animals and humans perceive a tree according to Jacob von Uexküll
  • an abstract installation representing a living room where all objects have been replaced by white planes and parallelepipeds inscribed with statements of fact about that living room, illustrating sentence 1 from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus
  • a diorama on Christian Wolff’s 1721 take on Chinese moral philosophy
  • a number of philosophically inspired paintings
  • a digital slideshow with both dead and living philosophers of both sexes

The museum currently does not have a permanent home, so its exhibits are in storage, awaiting a future exhibition or a permanent home. A few other things to note:

  • The museum has a website. It’s in German. The museum would like to have an English language version of the site. If you are a native English speaker who could help with that project, please contact Matthias Warkus at warkus [at] denkwelten [dot] net.
  • If you would like to make a donation to support the museum, you can do so here.
  • The museum has no definite plans for its next exhibition., but Matthias says, “If someone was willing to provide a space and cover our expenses, we would be glad to bring an exhibit to the U.S., of course.”

(image:  detail of “Collection of Four Hundred and Eighty Plaster Surrogates” by Allan McCollum)

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