Gideon Rosen on the Humanities’ PR Problem

Any educated person can rattle off a list of the great achievements of science and technology in the past 50 years: the Big Bang, cloning, the Internet, etc. People who have no idea what the Higgs boson is or why it matters still can tell you that it was discovered in July 2013 by a heroic team of scientists and that the discovery reveals something deep about the universe. What does the average educated American know about the great scholarly achievements in the humanities in the past half-century? Nothing. And this is no accident.

Gideon Rosen (Princeton) reflects on the public and political perceptions of the humanities.

 So where are the breakthroughs in metaphysics and epistemology and ethics in the past half-century, and why don’t you, educated reader, know all about them? Again, I could list dozens of important books, and I could start to tell you why they matter. But I predict with great confidence that you would not be impressed by any quick summary I could give. The reason is that the value of great philosophy hardly ever lies in the punch line. It lies in the arguments — intricate, detailed arguments. And the sad fact is that this sort of thing cannot be conveyed in headlines, or even in a 17-minute TED talk. Like discoveries elsewhere in the humanities, discoveries in philosophy are incompressible: Their interest can only be conveyed at length by taking one’s interlocutor through the argument.

Read the rest here.

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Rachel McKinnon
Rachel McKinnon
9 years ago

With all respect to Gideon, I think he’s wrong. Lots of people in the humanities are participating in, for example, TED talks about their research, or things like the Three Minute Thesis and doing great, accessible presentations of their research. There isn’t a problem with what we do, per se; there’s a problem with how we convey what we do. We’re not very practiced at is, as a profession. That’s our fault. That can change.

This might also suggest that perhaps we should either put more focus on topics that matter to non-philosophers, or treat those who do such work with equal professional respect. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that when philosophy gets practical, many philosophers either say that it’s not “real” philosophy, or say that it’s not as rigorous as, say, working out a better possible worlds semantics. That’s got to stop.

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
9 years ago

I think it would be a mistake to conflate skepticism about TED-talks with hostility or lack of professional respect for outreach or for applying philosophy outside the seminar room.

It may be that I just haven’t seen the right TED talks, but the few that I’ve seen (none by philosophers) have all felt like attempts to take complex phenomena and reduce them down to simple take-home lessons that can be complacently absorbed in the course of 20-40 minutes. But philosophy at its best is often more about shaking up complacency than producing it. And, as I always tell students taking their first philosophy class, philosophy is something that can only really be learned by doing. To get something out of philosophical thought, people have to engage in it, not just hear about it. I’m not saying that can’t be done in a TED-style talk, but I think that’s a case where the medium often works against the message.

On the other hand, there are lots of good outreach efforts that don’t have this problem, such as philosophers who engage in public debates or dialogues on ‘blogging heads,’ the philosopher interviews at 3AM magazine, and websites like

I haven’t looked at many of them, but the Three Minute Thesis project strikes me as better than the TED-talks, because they’re less likely to give their audience the illusion of having learned more than they have.

(I’m also hesitant to refer to outreach as reaching out to ‘non-philosophers.’ If those efforts succeed in getting others to think seriously about philosophical problems, without settling too quickly on easy answers, it’s not clear to me that any of the parties to such an exchange are non-philosophers, however each of us makes our living.)