Public Philosophy – the Idea and the Challenges (Guest Post by Jack Weinstein)

Jack Russell Weinstein is a Professor of Philosophy and the Director of the Institute for Philosophy in Public Life at the University of North Dakota. He is the host of the radio show Why? Philosophical Discussions about Everyday Life and the author of its blog, PQED. He generously agreed to author a guest post* on the meanings and methods of public philosophy. Comments welcome!

Public philosophy as a sub-discipline is in an exciting, but chaotic time. Changes in technology and funding models, combined with an effort to democratize philosophy, have inspired many academics to venture outside the ivory tower. They take their first steps enthusiastically and then…what? It’s hard to acquire and retain an audience; it’s even harder to stay motivated, and it’s virtually impossible to get research credit for the work. These are not new issues but things are better than they used to be.

One remaining problem is that there is little or no coordination. Public philosophers aren’t talking with one another. The Public Philosophy Network and the new Public Philosophy Journal exist, but few philosophers engage with them. The APA Committee on Public Philosophy is as ineffective and myopic as the rest of its parent organization. Even my own institute has done little to coordinate its events with others, although we have, in the past, offered paid fellowships to interested philosophers.

Another problem is that it is unclear, in the current context, what an “expert” in public philosophy would be. Very few professionals consider public philosophy to be an area of specialization, and many of us would be hard-pressed to define what that would mean. Is it someone who has written theoretical work on public philosophy, as did the contributors to Essays in Philosophy’s special issue on the subject? Or, is it someone who is skilled at engaging a non-academic audience? Should public philosophy organizations strive to create conferences and sessions at the APA, or do they need to establish events for the interaction between professional and amateur philosophers? These are questions that are still on the table.

Finally, a third problem is simply the posturing of philosophers. Most people who do public philosophy hope, for lack of a better metaphor, to be the agent that drags others out of a cave. They are shocked at what poor reasoning people use and are baffled by their lack of intellectual discipline. (The philosophy blogosphere would be much less robust if we removed all the derogatory comments about non-philosophers.) Maybe this attitude is deserved, maybe not, but as I write elsewhere, public philosophy isn’t this kind of teaching. It’s more like selling a used car or engaging in a first drug deal—getting people interested often begins as a con game.
We may also be tempted to think of public philosophy as being Paulo Friere to academic philosophy’s Plato, but the issue goes beyond pedagogy. As I outline elsewhere, public philosophy has its own internal goods, and they are different than the goods of educational institutions.

When Daily Nous asked about people’s public philosophy experience I was pleased (hence the post), because I have indeed been doing public philosophy as an area of specialization for seven years; I’m excited to see a surge of interest. But even I, as a director of a public philosophy institute, and someone with public philosophy written into my contract, have to have another, more traditional specialization to bolster my legitimacy, and this comes with a significant price. Doing public philosophy means all the other stuff takes a lot longer to get done, and because of this, public philosophy often gets designated as “service.” As we all know, almost everywhere, service just doesn’t count.

I do not mean to discourage anyone who has an interest in public philosophy. I think it’s a wonderful vocation, and it has brought me much pleasure and no small amount of attention. But I ask that those who are genuinely interested not think of it is an occasional attempt to present their research to a wider audience. Giving lectures at local libraries or participating in activities intended to recruit future philosophy majors are important and necessary activities, but they are not public philosophy. They are simply doing philosophy in front of the public. In both of these cases, we are giving courses by other means; we have taken the university outside of its walls rather than philosophy outside of the university.

I define public philosophy as “doing philosophy with general audiences in a non-academic setting,” adding that “while it is often said to play a role in democratic education, public philosophy is its own enterprise. It is philosophy outside the classroom, a voluntary endeavor without course-credit, assignments, or even a clear purpose.” I have little doubt that every one of you is going to find fault with this definition, but I ask that we walk away from that debate for the time being to consider, instead, what it means to commit to a new sub-discipline, rather than make the sub-discipline a tool for already existing research.

I wrote once about the “war” between philosophers and everyone else, a rich topic that almost all of us have bemoaned. But the battles for the legitimacy of public philosophy are a component of a war within the profession itself. If we want public philosophy to “count” for tenure, for merit pay, for respect, and to contribute to our own happiness, we have to approach it the way we approach all other areas of philosophy—as if it’s a good in itself and a subject that is inherently worth committing to.

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