The Variety and Value of Public Philosophy

Readers may recall our discussion last month of the column by Agnes Callard (Chicago) in which she questions whether public philosophy is good. In response, the Executive Committee of the Public Philosophy Network (PPN) has now issued a helpful reply.

As I noted in the earlier discussion, “there is more—and more varied—public philosophy today than ever before.” The authors of the reply, Nancy McHugh (Wittenberg), Evelyn Brister (Rochester Institute of Technology), Ian Olasov (CUNY), and Todd Franklin (Hamilton College) elaborate:

While the most widely recognized examples of public philosophy are pieces of writing for a general audience, public philosophy’s reach and impact extends much further than that. By our lights, it includes but is not limited to: work philosophers do with policymakers (Andrew Light at the US State Department, Zachary Pirtle at NASA, Anita Allen at the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, John Broome with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and with activists and NGOs (Hilary Greaves at the Global Priorities Institute, Adam Briggle with Frack Free Denton, Mike Menser at the Participatory Budgeting Project); professional consulting (medical ethicists’ hospital work, Todd Altschuler’s Philosophical Investigation Agency); teaching disadvantaged groups (prison education, Rethink’s work with homeless and low-income folks); general audience events (the Night of Philosophy and Ideas, SOPHIA-style discussion groups, Ask a Philosopher booths); scholarly research on applied philosophy; pre-college instruction and outreach (the High School Ethics Bowl, the Pickle podcast); TV and radio appearances by philosophers (Linda Alcoff and Chris Lebron on Democracy Now!, Achille Varzi on CNN; philosophy journalism (Olivia Goldhill at Quartz, Aeon); and multimedia work, including video series (Wi Phi), games (Something Something Soup Something), and memes (Trolley Problem Memes).

The authors note that many criticisms of public philosophy “really target one or another style of writing or lecturing for a general audience. However we evaluate those criticisms, we should be careful not to… ignore the full range of good and influential public work philosophers and their collaborators are doing.”

The authors also provide some good reasons to think public work by philosophers is valuable:

Philosophers have useful skills: They can explicate concepts, draw useful distinctions, reason rigorously, and interpret difficult but rewarding prose. A lot of public philosophy consists in offering those skills where they’re needed, whether to policymakers, professionals, or private individuals who want to pursue their philosophical questions.

Philosophers are trained to communicate meaningfully across deep disagreement. Libertarians talk with Marxists, reliabilists with internalists, realists with constructivists, and so on. Somehow, sometimes, they manage either to reach agreement or to achieve a deeper shared understanding of the basis of their disagreement. Whatever norms of discourse animate the best philosophical conversations, we should do what we can to share these norms with the rest of the world.

Philosophers do interesting and sometimes life-changing work. Other people should have a way of finding out about and benefiting from that work other than going to conferences or reading academic journal articles. More generally, the world would be better off if certain philosophical ideas, tools, and arguments were better known and people were better prepared to utilize them. 

You can read the whole post here.

Kelsey Oseid, “Creatures of the order Strigiformes”

Related: “There Is No One Thing Philosophers Should Be Doing“; “Who Does Public Philosophy?“; “Is the Public Receptive to Public Philosophy?“; “Taking Public Philosophy Seriously

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