Popular essays, fictions, aphorisms, dialogues, autobiographical reflections and personal letters have historically played a central role in philosophy. So also have public acts of direct confrontation with the structures of one’s society: Socrates’ trial and acceptance of the hemlock; Confucius’ inspiring personal correctness. It was really only with the generation hired to teach the baby boomers in the 1960s and ’70s that academic philosophers’ conception of philosophical work became narrowly focused on the technical journal article.
Consider, too, the emergence of new media. Is there reason to think that journal articles are uniformly better for philosophical reflection than videos, interactive demonstrations, blog posts or multi-party conversations on Facebook? A conversation in social media, if good participants bring their best to the enterprise, has the potential to be a philosophical creation of the highest order, with a depth and breadth beyond the capacity of any individual philosopher to create.
So suggests Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside) in the Los Angeles Times. I’ve seen and participated in some very interesting and fruitful Facebook conversations about philosophical topics and issues facing the profession. However, participation in most such conversations is restricted to the initiator’s Facebook friends. Sometimes that is advantageous, but it is, in a way, limiting for the initial poster. It’s also somewhat exclusionary (which can be problematic for a range of reasons). I would encourage people to take these discussions to more public venues, such as blogs.
The op-ed is pretty provocative in its claims about philosophical expertise, too:
Philosophical expertise is not like scientific expertise. Although academic philosophers know certain literatures very well, on questions about the general human condition and what our fundamental values should be, knowledge of the canon gives academic philosophers no especially privileged wisdom. Non-academics can and should be respected partners in the philosophical dialogue. Too exclusive a focus on technical journal articles excludes non-academics from the dialogue — or maybe, better said, excludes us philosophers from non-academics’ more important dialogue.
And about public philosophy:
I would suggest that popular writing can also qualify as research. If one approaches popular writing only as a means of “dumbing down” preexisting philosophical ideas for an audience of non-experts whose reactions one doesn’t plan to take seriously, then yes, that writing is not really research. If, however, the popular essay is itself a locus of philosophical creativity, in which ideas are explored in hope of discovering new possibilities, advancing (and not just marketing) one’s own thinking in a way that might strike professionals too as interesting rather than as merely familiar rehashing, then it is every bit as much research as is a standard journal article. Analogously for government consulting, Twitter feeds, TED videos and poetry.
I’ve already seen a few discussions of this piece on Facebook. But, perhaps in the spirit of accessibility that animates Schwitzgebel’s piece, it should also be discussed in a more public venue. Like here.