Philosophy Snobbery and Communication

Scientists came to realise the media had an important role to play in communicating science. The media could not only inform the public of new discoveries, but it could educate them about the scientific method, and it could boost the visibility, esteem and trust of science as an institution. Then came the advent of “science communication” as a profession unto itself. These were scientifically literate communicators whose sole purpose was to bridge the gap between academia and the general public. There is now an entire industry around science communication, with post-graduate degrees, and science communicators are employed in most major scientific research institutions.

I’d suggest philosophy needs a similar awakening to the importance of outreach, and a similar commitment to what we might as well call “philosophy communication.”

That’s Tim Dean, a philosophy and science journalist (with a PhD in philosophy) and an editor at The Conversation, in “Why We Need Philosophy Communication: An Open Letter To Philosophers.”

Dean laments the absence of philosophers from public discourse:

When was the last time you read a snappy op ed by another philosopher surgically dismantling a topical issue or slamming a public figure for shoddy reasoning? Yeah, I can’t remember either.

He thinks philosophers could “offer a breath of reason that can bring genuine progress to stalled debates” and have several public roles to play: the “opinionator,” the “clarifier,” the “stirrer,” and the “thinker.” Why do so few of them take up these roles? Part of his answer has to do with the culture of philosophy:

There is still a culture within academic philosophy that dissuades many philosophers from engaging with the media or the public directly, and that needs to change. I have noticed something of a cultural resistance to the “vulgarisation” (to use the literal term, in the sense of making something appeal to the “common folk”) of philosophy. An ivory tower mentality that can see any attempt to make the inevitable complexities of philosophy accessible enough to the masses as a debasement of philosophical standards. Those philosophers who do walk the grounds beyond the tower… are often lambasted by thinkers as being frauds or lightweights.

We’ve explored this attitude previously here at Daily Nous. It was suggested as a problem by Walter-Sinnott Armstrong here and skeptically discussed here, for example. Further thoughts on that matter, as well as the idea of “philosophy communication” more generally, are welcome.

Towards the end of the piece (in the “Doing It” section), Dean provides some welcome practical advice for philosophers seeking to engage with the public. It’s worth checking out.

Relatedly, no philosophers were among the winners of NEH’s recently announced grant program, The Common Good: Humanities in the Public Square.

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