Manifesto for Public Philosophy (guest post by C. Thi Nguyen)


“It’s war, the soul of humanity is at stake, and the discipline that has been in isolation training for 2000 years for this very moment is too busy pointing out tiny errors in each other’s technique to actually join the fight..” 

The following is a guest post* by C. Thi Nguyen, associate professor of philosophy at Utah Valley University.


Manifesto for Public Philosophy
by C. Thi Nguyen

A student said to me: the problem right now is that if you don’t have any training and you go online looking for philosophy you can actually understand, 9 out of 10 things you’ll find are from the hate-web. They are propaganda, and not the seeds of critical reflection. What we need, if we are going to fight this stuff, is to produce public philosophy in volume.

I just spent a couple weeks at a philosophy workshop for public philosophy, and I came out convinced that most of us have an incredibly narrow view of what public philosophy could be. Like: I tended to think public philosophy was op-eds in newspapers and articles in The Atlantic, and stuff like that. But there is so much more. People like ContraPoints and Wireless Philosophy are doing philosophy on YouTube, reaching out into a much wider world. We have some podcasters, like Barry Lam and his extraordinary Hi Phi Nation podcast. Ethics Bowl folks are pushing Ethics Bowl into high schools, into prisons. There are public discussion forums, public lectures, programs for philosophy for children. This is exactly what we need—but we need so much more of it. We need to fill the airwaves with the Good Stuff, in every form: op-eds, blog posts, YouTube videos, podcasts, long-form articles, lectures, forums, Tweets, and more. Good philosophy needs to be everywhere, accessible to every level, to anybody who might be interested. We need to flood the world with gateways of every shape and size.

But there are so many barriers to entry. First of all, the disciplinary incentives don’t support public philosophy. For most of us, writing op-eds and making YouTube videos doesn’t help you get a job, get tenure, or get promoted. But it’s worse than that. Our discipline actively resists public philosophy.

I’m not saying everybody needs to create public philosophy. But I think everybody should support it—and we’re a long, long way from actually having such widespread support. Let me focus on the written stuff for a bit, because it’s what I’m most familiar with. I’ve been talking to various people who have written public philosophy, and I keep hearing the same thing. Other philosophers will attack you for being too simplistic. They will nit-pick your public philosophy. Certainly, many people are supportive and grateful and totally get what you’re trying to do. But other people look at a piece of public philosophy, and what they see is bad work by academic standards. And they ignore all the labor that went into making it public—into making the writing clear and lovely, and maybe even a little bit fun.

Writing a piece of public philosophy takes an absurd amount of effort. If you’ve been professionalized, then you probably have to fight against all the instincts that have been programmed into you, in your long voyage into being molded into a Good Professional Philosopher. You have to be big, you have to sketch loosely, you have to rush distinctions. You have to reach, hard, for those pithy crystallizations. You have to care about elegance. You have to cram a deep idea into 1000 words, 800 words, a single goddamn Tweet. And to do that, you have to simplify. You’re constantly fighting a war between precision and compression, and sacrifices have to be made. As Rima Basu put it (on Twitter), public philosophy is about beginning a conversation.

Here’s one thing our community could do about this: we could be understanding of all this. And many people in the profession are, indeed, deeply sympathetic. I should make absolutely clear: writing public philosophy has been profoundly rewarding for me. It is, perhaps, the best part of my job. Philosophers and non-philosophers alike have expressed their gratitude and support for making ideas available, for writing things that are teachable to introductory students. But other people in the profession are willing to treat your public writing as a soft-target on which to drop some easy philosophy bombs. And the prospect of that kind of hostility can create a barrier to entry, especially to junior members of the profession.

So here are my suggestions for what we could do to help each other, and to help philosophy give birth to a bigger and better public face:

1. Be charitable.

Recognize a piece of public philosophy for what it is. Recognize that the author has probably not slipped up in some idiotic way, but is probably under enormous demands to clarify, simplify, and compress.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t respond. But respond at the appropriate level. The point, in responding to a piece of public philosophy, is not to score points as you might off of an academic work. It is to demonstrate in public the qualities of good critical conversation.

So pitch your responses to bits of public philosophy at the right level. Here’s a heuristic: imagine you are doing a demonstration discussion with another philosopher in front of an intro class. You wouldn’t call them out for skipping technical fine points. You would understand that everything was down-tuned to the intro level, and you’d cooperate in making philosophical motions at the right level of coarse-grainedness. You’d perform philosophy in a very particular, and pedagogically oriented way, instead of just going full-blast into Reviewer 2 beat-down mode.

And recognize the diversity of purposes with public philosophy. Amy Olberding put it to me this way: public philosophy isn’t just about making arguments. It can also be about sowing uncertainty, creating ambiguity, complicating things, or just getting people excited to think about stuff. We’re often stuck in the mode of looking at everything as if it was an argument. But there are so many other forms of public demonstration—of promulgating the values of critical inquiry. We need to recognize that public philosophy is a different beast, often with very different goals.

2. Be supportive.

Definitely be supportive emotionally, but also be supportive in public practice. Share, retweet, post. The other parts of the humanities are much better at this sort of thing than we are. The sociologists, the social psychologists: they retweet and repost each other, constantly. And they do it even if they don’t agree with every bit of the content—especially for any publicly-oriented piece. By pooling every individual academics’ followers, these pieces climb up the Twitter algorithm and get seen by more and more people outside of their discipline.

Philosophers just don’t do that. And we could, and it would be easy.

And if you’re worried that somebody might call you out for posting something that might be wrong, or that you might be taken to be endorsing a view, there is all sorts of standard language you can use to ward that off. “Here’s an interesting new piece by…”

3. Try new formats.

It’s so easy to get stuck in the mindset of writing and lecturing, and to do all your public philosophy in that mold: public essays and public lectures. But there are so many other formats we could use, especially if our goal is to highlight the methodology and mindset of philosophy. YouTube. Podcasts. Ethics bowls. Casual open-ended late-night chats. Ian Olasov has been setting up booths at farmers’ markets, block parties, and home goods stores, labelled “Ask a Philosopher,” stocking them with a few local philosophers, and letting anybody chat to them about anything. Several philosophers I know are getting their students involved in public philosophy with assignments that result in real live online philosophy: blog posts, Reddit conversations, Tweets, and more.

Here’s one idea: why don’t philosophers do more interviews? I mean philosophers asking questions, especially of non-philosophers, and publishing journalistic-style Q&A interviews. We could be interviewing artists, politicians, urban planners, doctors, activists, farmers, social works, and more. Because philosophers aren’t just good at arguing—we’re good at asking questions. Deep, interesting questions. There’s some irony the fact that philosophers tout the value of open-minded inquiry, but usually do so in public only by talking and writing at other people. If our goal is to exhibit the roots of critical reflection and inquiry, one of the ways we could do it is by displaying, in public, a genuinely open-minded, questioning, and exploratory attitude.

That’s what we can do as individuals. But I also think there are some systematic changes we can make. Here I’m addressing those of you with some kind of institutional power.

4. Universities and departments: reward public engagement.

This means, among other things, writing into tenure and promotion and hiring criteria language about public engagement. A few places, like the UK, have started doing this sort of thing. The academic infrastructure in the US, on the other hand, is radically lacking in anything along these lines. But doing public philosophy right takes time, energy, and soul energy. Right now, for most of us, if you’re chasing a job or tenure, then writing public philosophy won’t help you at all. From the institution’s perspective: it’s just a distraction from the only thing that really matters, which is publishing articles. If we really want to support and encourage public philosophy, we need to make it count, in cold, hard institutional currency. And some of our organizations are starting to push for exactly this—although I haven’t yet seen much actual change along these lines.

But we can think even bigger. The field of history, for example, has people—even at fancy universities—whose main job is writing publicly accessible works of history. (They even have a professional organization, the National Council on Public History, devoted to that cause.) And when you have specialists in public work, those specialists take students and train them in the ways of public engagement. Thus, all that hard-earned skill and wisdom for doing good public engagement doesn’t get lost between the generations. We need to do that too. Because writing philosophy to the public is a peculiar and incredibly hard skill, and right now most of us who are trying do it are having to reinvent the wheel, on our own.

Here’s a suggestion for a first step: we could start the practice of making “Public Philosophy” an area of competence (AOC) or specialization (AOS). If we actually cared about this kind of thing, we could put out jobs for people who did, say, ethics or whatever, but also did public philosophy. And those people could teach the occasional class on that very special skill. This would do a huge amount to help preserve and promulgate the hard-earned skills of public philosophy. And, at the same time, we can make more and better resources available online. There are some resources available online, and the occasional conference session on it, but that’s just the beginning. We need so much more.

And we need to reach beyond the limits of our profession. I recently got to attend a workshop on public writing for philosophers run by a professional journalist and editor. They ripped the hell out of papers and pointed out all the alienating bits that stunk of academic insiderism. So, to the people holding the purse-strings: fund this kind of thing! If we, as philosophers, actually care about public philosophy, it can’t just be a side-gig. It has to be systematically supported. We need public philosophy to count; we need to throw resources at it; we need to train people into it.

5. Journals: be explicit that public-facing presentations of work do not preclude its subsequent academic publication.

This is a small point, but it is representative of the kind of small institutional fixes that we will need to make, all over the place.

I’ve been an editor at a philosophy of art blog for a while, and the worry I keep hearing from my contributors is: “Will writing a short blog version of my paper about this topic endanger my ability to publish the full version?” Unfortunately, I can’t really give people an answer, because there is no standard. We want philosophers to be able to blog about their ideas or to write those pithy op-eds without worrying about losing academic publications. This is especially important for those of us working on issues like the nature of structural injustice, racism, misogyny, misinformation, and political polarization. Because if philosophy really matters, then we probably shouldn’t make philosophers wait, like, two years for their scholarly articles to get published before they can write those op-eds.

I suggest that editors of journals adopt some simple, collective standard. How about something like: “The publication or presentation of an argument in a public-facing venue does not preclude its publication in this journal, provided that the previously-published version contains less than one-fourth of the content of the version submitted to be published here (instances in which the one-fourth limit is exceeded may be negotiated on a case-by-case basis).” This way, a standard op-ed of 1000 words won’t endanger the publication of a standard journal article. And I’d bet that, if a few major journals adopted such a standard, the rest would follow the precedent.

* *

To speak bluntly: the world is in crisis. It’s war, the soul of humanity is at stake, and the discipline that has been in isolation training for 2000 years for this very moment is too busy pointing out tiny errors in each other’s technique to actually join the fight. We’re busy fussing about jobs, publications, the review process, and all the other minutiae of the academy. Our discipline needs to step up. We need to do philosophy in the world. We need to change our musty norms to support that public engagement. Or we will render ourselves irrelevant through our own inaction.

image: photo by Nick Pacione, Explosions in the Sky series


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