Taking Public Philosophy Seriously (guest post by Adam Hosein)

The following is a guest post* by Adam Hosein, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. A version of this post initially appeared at Philosopher, a site at which philosophers are invited to describe their work. Thanks to Meena Krishnamurthy, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan and editor of Philosopher, for permission to publish Professor Hosein’s post.

[James Rosenquist, “Stowaway Peers Out of the Speed of Light”]

Taking Public Philosophy Seriously
by Adam Hosein

I thought I would say a few words about public philosophy: a brief overview of my own work in this area, and some questions I’ve had about the place of public philosophy within the discipline.

My own public facing pieces have mostly discussed the rights of AMEMSA (Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian) people. So I’ve written about prosecution for torture committed as part of the ‘War on Terror’, how politicians in the U.S. and Europe should discuss Daesh and its relation to Islam, the morality of Hamas’ activities in Gaza, and the (in)justice of Trump’s revised travel ban. This work has grown in part out of my own direct experiences of racial profiling, fears of surveillance, and so on in the post-9/11 world. And it also came about because I was following various political debates and wanted to involve myself more in them.

I’ve also been inspired to write these essays by the significant amount of (it seems to me) high-quality public philosophy produced by many different people in recent years, combined with the greater visibility and support for that work: the creation of the APA Prize Public Philosophy Op-Ed Prize, for instance. I think these are really important developments, for many reasons. There are some more ‘pragmatic’ benefits: in a world where the humanities are frequently under attack and where student enrollment is crucial, it’s surely important for our field to be better understood and valued by the public. And philosophy, at its best, can make crucial contributions to the world outside of academia: raising the quality of political discussion, revealing the insights of various historical thinkers, helping members of the public to reflect on questions that have always troubled them, and so on.

While recognizing these great developments in public philosophy, I want to raise some questions here about the remaining barriers to spending time writing it, especially for more junior scholars. The main problem is this. Even if we as a field claim to value public philosophy, we often discount it in our most consequential evaluations of scholars: when they apply for jobs, come up for tenure, and so on. At most, work in public philosophy tends to count towards someone’s ‘service’ record, which in turn get the least weight in hiring, promotion, etc..

I think certain kinds of service should probably be given more weight. Why shouldn’t we value very highly what someone contributes to the community or does to improve the climate in their department or field? What I’m going to raise here, though, is the suggestion that public philosophy should—in some cases, at least—be relevant to someone’s ‘research’ record. Public philosophy is, after all, philosophy: writing (or speaking or whatever) on (at least partially) philosophical issues using philosophical tools. So why doesn’t it count in the same way as journal articles and so on?

One reason for discounting public philosophy is its (typically) short length. The assumption is that a short piece cannot be really getting deep into the issues.   And, of course, sometimes a short piece will be superficial. But we, as a field, have already squarely rejected view that short pieces cannot make major contributions: just look at the respect given to papers published in Analysis.

A second possibility—and I think this gets more to the heart of why people are skeptical about counting public works towards a tenure case or whatever—is that people have a particular model of public philosophy in mind. According to this model, public philosophy essentially involves taking one’s research and finding a way to popularize it so that non-philosophers can understand it. There is skill involved, but only the skill of translation, and not those of, say, critical reflection and creativity, which were engaged only in the initial phase of doing the research itself.

One response to this line of thought is to point out that ‘mere translation’ is often very difficult and involves a distinctively philosophical exercise: we teach our students all the time that taking abstract ideas and technical terms we find in various texts and finding a way to express them in simple, ordinary language is itself a crucial philosophical task.

But more fundamentally, I think the assumed popularizing model of public philosophy is out of date and doesn’t fit a lot of what is currently being produced. I value, for instance, the work philosophers have done responding to apparent tensions between religious freedom and LGBTQ rights, and the role of anger in dealing with oppression (to take just a couple of examples from a long list of work I really admire).[1] These authors haven’t mainly been engaged in just making grand theories more accessible: they have been using philosophical tools to directly address problems that arise out of current social conditions and debates. And clearly doing this kind of work engages the full range of philosophical skills, including creative, sensitive and rigorous thinking.

I’ve aspired to do work within the second model: to take some issues that came up in my personal or political life and wouldn’t let me go, and then try to use philosophical tools to address them. I don’t think of this as descending from the tower to share my results, but just trying to make interventions in ongoing public debates. (Debates that I don’t think any philosopher, or philosophers, can resolve alone, but that I hope we have something to contribute to.)

Often I’ve been very grateful for the existence of public venues not just for opportunity to reach a broader audience, but also for the chance to do some philosophy that was really important to me but quite possibly couldn’t have been published anywhere else. I had the strong view and (I thought) original argument for prosecuting those responsible for torture, for instance, but without the Boston Review I don’t know what I would’ve done with it. To that extent, then, creating barriers to doing public philosophy can block a vital outlet for our philosophical and political energies.

[1] I should say that while I’ve focused on social and political philosophy here, because it’s my area, I also think there’s terrific public philosophy being done on issues in epistemology, medieval philosophy, and so on.

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