How Is Good Public Philosophy Possible?

“When Aristotle said that the intellectual life is one of serious leisure, I believe he was trying to avoid the Scylla of business and the Charybdis of pleasure. If philosophy offered helpful answers to the questions you were asking anyways, it wouldn’t be leisurely; if it added fun to the life you were living anyways, it wouldn’t be serious.”

So opens the inaugural column in a new series on public philosophy at The Point by Agnes Callard, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. “Public philosophy aspires to liberate the subject from its academic confines: to put philosophy into action. Is that a good thing? I’m not sure it is.”

(While some approach public philosophy believing that the institutionalization of philosophy in academia “represents one of the enduring failures of contemporary philosophy“, Callard’s default seems closer to the idea that “philosophers actually function best in universities.“)

Callard continues:

It is hard to overstate how difficult it is for a single activity to be serious, leisurely and radically open-ended in the way that philosophy is. What can look like territorialism is really a valiant effort on the part of academic philosophers to maintain the tension that keeps an almost impossible activity from falling apart—dissolving into unleisurely business and unserious pleasure.

If we characterize “business” as the efficient production of solutions, philosophy doesn’t fit that model: “philosophical expertise doesn’t lie in the character of the answers we can provide. How many philosophical questions have been answered, after all?”

What about doing philosophy for pleasure? Callard says there’s nothing wrong with “intellectually engaging fun”, 

but I think there is something wrong with calling that philosophy. Here I put forward my own unabashedly partisan view of philosophy, cribbed from Plato’s cave: philosophy does not put sight into blind eyes; rather, it turns the soul around to face the light. A soul will not turn except under painful exposure to all the questions it forgot to ask, and it will quickly turn back again unless it is pressured to acknowledge the meaninglessness of a life in which it does not continue to ask them. Philosophy doesn’t jazz up the life you were living—it snatches that life out of your grip. It doesn’t make you feel smarter, it makes you feel stupider: doing philosophy, you discover you don’t even know the most basic things.

I can’t say I quite get why Callard thinks that public philosophy faces this “business or pleasure dichotomy.” Are there really no other options? Perhaps those who do public philosophy have some alternatives to suggest. There is more—and more varied—public philosophy today than ever before and the public seems to be consuming it. That may be some reason to suspect the picture is more complex. (Also see these many posts on the subject).

I agree that “doing philosophy, you discover you don’t even know the most basic things,” but unlike Callard I don’t see this as painful or “life-snatchingly” bad. In my experience, it’s possible to find pleasure or delight in that discovery. By removing false knowledge, philosophy can produce wonder, and wonder feels good. So I suspect that the philosophy-for-fun option may have more going for it.

Like Callard, I think we have reasons to be wary of public philosophy that emphasizes answers. As she says, “Unlike practitioners of other fields, we do not agree even on answers to the most basic questions as to what our field is or why it exists… we have to ‘define’ philosophy using facts such as which building it is located in so as to leave it open to the people in that building to define it any way they see fit.”

If you’re curious, you can check out the text of a talk of mine on this subject, in which I argue that an overemphasis on answers is one way public philosophy may undermine perceptions of philosophical expertise.

We should also not neglect the way in which institutional forces affect the nature and quality of public philosophy. We’ll get more and better instances of whatever it is our employers and peers reward, and while public philosophy is getting more and more recognition, in most institutions of higher education it is not thought of as particularly important. On this point, see, for example, “Taking Public Philosophy Seriously” by Adam Hosein (Northeastern) and “Creating a Philosophical Culture of Engagement” by Kevin Zollman (CMU).

In the end, Callard admits that the history of philosophy seems to supply many counterexamples to her skeptical approach to public philosophy, so she is “unsure what to conclude”—a reasonable place for a public philosophy column to wind up. You can read the whole thing here.

Discussion on the philosophy of public philosophy, and related matters, welcome.

Giant wooden megaphone in Pähni Nature Centre, Estonia

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