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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Mark David Fisher (@mdfphilpsu)
6 years ago

You make some great points, Jack. Chris Long (@cplong) and I are working with graduate students at Penn State, with the team at Matrix: Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at Michigan State (@Matrix_MSU), and with others involved in the work of the Public Philosophy Network to build the Public Philosophy Journal (@PubPhilJ) that you refer to here (thanks for the mention, by the way).

We are looking to do this in a way that will allow interested parties to address some of the challenges you mention here. Six months in to what is a multi-year development project for the journal, we haven’t yet cracked the coordination problem, the problem of expertise, or the posturing problem. They have all come up in some form or another, however, in the discussions we are having–with as many people as we can–about the host of disciplinary, institutional, and other obstacles that stand between us and the development and maintenance of the kind of community we think will be necessary to support the work of the journal.

If you would be willing, I’d love to talk with you sometime about the IPPL, your own publicly engaged work, and your sense of how philosophers of all stripes might work together to coordinate energies in addressing these issues.

Please feel free to contact me, Mark Fisher, via Twitter (@mdfphilpsu) or via email ([email protected]), if you’d be interested.Report

Noelle McAfee
6 years ago

Well, in fact public philosophers do talk with each other. At each of the past two Public Philosophy Network conferences more than 175 people came to share notes about the work they are doing in areas ranging from prisons to climate change to sustainable food. You can see the program of the last conference here: http://publicphilosophynetwork.ning.com/page/conf-program-draft. The next meeting will be June 11-13, 2015, in San Francisco. The CFP will be out in September. As for the APA Committee on Public Philosophy, you can read about the great work they are doing here: http://www.publicphilosophy.org/

I’m glad to hear there is public philosophy going on in North Dakota. But honestly there is no need to demean the good work that others are doing to make your point.Report

Lynne Tirrell
6 years ago

As the new chair of the APA Committee on Public Philosophy, I read this post with great interest. I am confused by your description of what you deem the posturing problem. I agree that what you describe is arrogant behavior, but it is not what I see in public philosophy. I see that posturing, sometimes, in teachers of critical thinking, but in public philosophy I see people who are bringing philosophical approaches and tools into conversation with non-philosophers, usually about topics of current note. They do this not to condescend, but to contribute to a discussion, with respect for what each party to the discussion brings. You and I must associate with different philosophers! Thinking of public philosophy as like selling used cars or playing a con game also strikes the wrong note: the point is to engage in open and respectful discussion, not to sell someone something with a sleight of hand. And if one needs to play tricks, then perhaps one needs to reconsider what one is bringing to the table. Philosophy has so much to offer to the world, no con game needed.

With respect to your charge of myopia, you need to explain and justify that. There are many forms of myopia, and no one is completely immune. Just today I was alerted to your own special issue on public philosophy which included NO women authors. That kind of exclusion does not apply to the APA CPC or the Public Philosophy Network. It would be worth checking out this link: http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/gendered-conference-campaign/
Some specifics about the APA CPP myopia in the past would be helpful for avoiding it in the future. I’m starting a 3 year term, and I am listening. You can email me privately if you wish.Report

Jack Russell Weinstein
6 years ago

Thank God. The three of you in one place. It’s almost as if this is what I hoped to accomplish with a sentence that mentioned all of your organizations. Thanks for taking the time; I think we should continue the conversation for quite a while.

With that said, Noelle, I’m not sure why wishing your organizations was larger is “demean[ing] the good work” you do, but if you felt that is what I did, then I apologize. I think PPN is great, but I wish it had more of a presence. That was my point.

Mark, thank you for your response. As I said, I think all of us should talk, and I don’t think it should be privately. I think the discussion should be out to be in public.

Now Lynne, who called me a sexist, demands (as the APA is wont to do) that I justify my position, and I will happily do that. But first, of course, I have to do the impossible task of defending myself against someone who accuses my work of misogyny. (Lynne, you may claim that you weren’t calling my work sexist, just myopic in one specific area, but if you did, I think that would be disingenuous. I think we all know how powerful these kinds of accusations are in the profession, right now.)

I sent out a CFP for that issue of Essays in Philosophy far and wide. I contacted many women personally, some of whom expressed interest, and because life happens, they couldn’t submit. I offered extensions to some of them, but they just didn’t get their work in (there were men who were unable to meet the deadline as well). The question I have—and I genuinely don’t know the answer to this—is how is a publication myopic if every effort is made to include the excluded area, but through nobody’s fault, it fails?

If you look at the things I have done that I have more control over, you will see a much different result. More than one third of Why? Radio guests have been women (not perfect, but quite good). We emphasize feminist topics, but have had women guests in all subject areas, not just feminism (and “just” is not mean to be derogatory here). Our fellowships, when we had them, were two-weeks long, precisely so that people who have families could use them. Few people with children can go away for a semester.

We have about 30,000 listeners per episode and several hundred attend our film festival. Our demographic information (consistent across most IPPL events) shows that our audience is made up of about 40% women, 25% high-school students, and that we have significant presence in non-English speaking and non-European countries. We have a large Muslim audience (more Persian than Arab), and have guests and many audience members who are gay and transgender (I don’t have numbers and I don’t ask, so if they are not visibly out, they are invisible to our investigations). I’d put these numbers against the APA anytime.

I will add, before I change the subject, that women disproportionately refuse the invitation to be on Why? Radio; I don’t know the reason. Given that we are non-adversarial and are pretty good diversity-wise, if you (or anyone) has any suggestions as to how to change that, I’d be open to it. You are right, Lynne, that my issue of Essays in Philosophy was all male, but what you missed is that I was broken-hearted about it. This isn’t myopia, it’s brute failure on my part, which is a wholly different thing.

Now with that out of the way, let me respond to the actual issue. Why is the APA committee myopic? Actually, what I wrote was that it is ineffective and myopic. Why is it ineffective? Look at the links on the page:

The American Philosophical Association.
The Center for Public Philosophy.
The Public Philosophy Network
The Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA).

Two of these are not public philosophy organizations and The Center (which I admit, I have never heard of), is only a shell of a webpage with no information about it at all.

This list illustrates the lack of knowledge of the public philosophy world, and suggests a lack of effort to learn. Where is Philosophy Talk, the well-known public radio show that has been broadcasting for a decade or more? Where is my own, that has been around for six years? Where are all the blogs? The philosophy clubs? The amateur philosophy sites? These things should be highlighted, but they are not.

This is also indicative of the myopia. The committee hosts, almost exclusively, APA sessions. It does offer an op-ed contest for professional philosophers, but this isn’t enough. Where is the statement for people’s tenure files explaining how to count public philosophy in their evaluations? Where are the resources for community outreach? Where is assistance in helping people write for non-academic audiences? I could continue, but you should get my point.

In short, I am trying to make a philosophical point: talking about public philosophy is not doing public philosophy; it is doing philosophy of public philosophy. The PPN conference, just like the APA sessions, while all useful and worth continuing, are not public philosophy, they are academic philosophy. The Essays in Philosophy issue that I edited was not public philosophy either, it too was professional philosophy. (it is illustrative of our current professional crisis that the most academic of my public philosophy-related publications is also the most male.)

What I wanted to emphasize in my post was the difference between public philosophy proper and academic consideration of public philosophy. Perhaps I didn’t do it effectively enough, but my frustration lies with those who claim to value public philosophy but don’t actually do it. Public philosophy is not on the meta-level, but in public, away from the university.

Ultimately, the issue is one of audience. Again Lynne, you challenge my referencing car sales and drug dealers, but you obviously didn’t read the link the quote came from. At no point do I suggest that philosophy doesn’t have much to offer on its own terms, what I claim instead is that academic philosophy cannot be presented, in its current form, to non-academics. I would ask that you read the piece that it comes from and then comment. I’d be curious if you still hold the point of view your assert.

I do not know, Lynne, what public philosophy experience you have. I looked at your faculty page at U. Mass Boston, and public philosophy has no presence on it at all. (I do not mean to delegitimize the work you do; the stuff you write on looks incredibly important and interesting. You have obviously been very successful and I admire what you have done.) So, I don’t know what experience you have in front of a non-academic audience. But if any of us—me, you, Noelle, Mark, other readers of this overly-long response—think about what it was like to be in a genuine public-humanities audience, then we will remember that the language, the gestures, the attitudes that we rely on in the classroom and at conferences are not transferable. This is why I used those comments about car sales and drug deals, and I stand by that point of view.

In any case, I thank all three of you for commenting on the post and I hope that whatever points I made can be useful in the future. I would like very much to continue this conversation and I knew that if I did not mention specific groups by name, this post would have drifted off into oblivion.Report

Noelle McAfee
Reply to  Jack Russell Weinstein
6 years ago

Full disclosure: I’m the co-director of the Public Philosophy Network and I served on the APA Committee on Public Philosophy (CPP) for its first three years so I may be a tad prickly when these two groups are demeaned. But I am also highly attuned to misrepresentations.

I’ve got three concerns about your (Weinstein’s) reply: first, PPN has quite a presence (800 some people have signed on and meetings gather between 175 and 200) and it is growing so I don’t know what you can possibly mean by your first claim that it hasn’t much of a presence; second, Lynne never called you a sexist — she just pointed out your own myopia when it comes to what is an acceptable journal issue; and third, the role of any APA Committees on x, y, or z is not to DO x, y, or z but to educate, advocate, and investigate x, y, or z. So your complaint that the Committee on Public Philosophy does not DO public philosophy is just silly. And it is really offensive to get into whether Lynne has or has not done this work or not. Clearly the APA leadership has confidence that she is the right person to lead this committee now.

All the reasons you cite as an excuse for having a journal issue come out with not a single woman author are inadequate. They remind me very much of this satirical post: https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2014/02/11/on-a-lighter-note/ A journal editor should before going to press decide that it has adequately gotten it right.

And as for what is or is not linked to on the CPP website is good, I am sure the members of the committee would welcome thoughts via email.

If this was your way to start a conversation then you need to maybe learn some more about the arts of conversation.

And I truly am doing my best to follow the guidelines for comments on this most wonderful DAILY NOUS!Report

Jack Russell Weinstein
Reply to  Noelle McAfee
6 years ago

I’m not sure you actually read my post carefully enough. I acknowledged complete and total responsibility for the failure of diversity in the Essays in Philosophy issue, but I was the guest editor, not the editor, and I didn’t decide the publication schedule. Running a journal means following a time schedule; four times a year means four times a year. You may run journals differently; we can disagree. Let’s just decide not to run a journal together.

We may also disagree about the nature of public philosophy, that’s fine too. Intelligent people have different points of view. I would be curious to see a guest post outlining your philosophy of public philosophy. I have been publishing mine for years and I linked to many of them. I welcome your detailed comments.

There is a more significant issue, though. The APA is a representative body, one that I paid dues to for close to twenty years, even when I could barely afford rent. They are supposed to be leaders in the profession, yet I offer one criticism publicly and the legitimacy of my work is attacked. And, not only was it attacked, but it was attacked using the most potent form of criticism in the field today. No matter how much you play semantics, the tactic was clear, and you continued to hammer the criticism even after I acknowledged it’s legitimacy. Well done.

I think neither of you understand what it means to represent people, but this is endemic of the APA. It is why I no longer pay dues and why I don’t think I ever will again. This exchange confirms my decision.

As representatives, the proper response to criticism is “I’m really sorry you feel that way. Can you be more explicit about your concerns and we’ll see if we can address them or clarify the problem?” And if the person is mistaken, as you claim I am, one responds (after hearing them out) by providing evidence, but taking seriously the perception problem. You provided evidence about PPN’s size and I’ll repeat what I already wrote in my response: I think it should be bigger. But if you think it is big enough, that’s fine by me. I won’t suggest anyone else join.

So here are the two lessons I learned from this conversation: (1) dealing with the APA continues to be the unpleasant experience it has always been and it’s leadership continues to be concerned solely with their own self-image. It is, as it always was, a waste of money. And, (2) when I talk about the PPN I will say, “it’s a HUGE organization, VIBRANT and EXCITING in every way, but don’t ever claim it could be bigger because it is already perfect.”

I can’t tell you how depressing I found this exchange, but this is the philosophy profession we live in today. What an unfriendly place it has become.Report

Petar Pajević
Petar Pajević
6 years ago

Why not task phd candidates with managing undergraduate-led public discussions? Everyone gets practice, universities get exposure, philosophy gets stature, and the public gets philosophers in training to bounce their heads against.Report

dmf
dmf
6 years ago

over the airwaves down in Memphis: http://wknofm.org/term/counterpoint
hard to imagine anyone is doing a better job at the moment taking philosophy public than the motley crew of http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/
maybe something to their being ABDropouts?Report

Noelle McAfee
6 years ago

To Jack, I am really truly sorry that we got off on such a wrong foot. I hope we can work it out some time. Please know that I don’t pretend to represent the APA; I was just pointing out that its committees have a different charge than one you would call for. That is certainly a reasonable disagreement worth continuing discussion. As for the PPN, of course we would love to keep growing. I hope you’ll join us at our meeting next June 11-13 in San Francisco. –NoelleReport

Lynne Tirrell
6 years ago

Many of the things you are wishing the APA CPP would do are already in the works, so others have proposed them and the process is moving along. As for the rest of your commentary, ad hominem arguments are never worth a direct reply.Report

Patrick Stokes
6 years ago

Despite the apparent problems noted in Jack’s post, I’m heartened to learn this discussion is even going on at all in the States.

Outside the US, I’m afraid we don’t even seem to be having this conversation, certainly not down here in Australasia at any rate. Last week I used up my one shot at addressing the profession here to call for a conversation on how we might professionalize philosophy communication in these parts: http://www.patrickstokes.com/?p=740. (Using the possibly fraught term ‘philosophy communication’ on partial analogy with what the natural sciences have done with ‘science communication’: a practice with evolving internal norms, professional frameworks, reflective practitioners, and an increasing evidence base to draw upon). Early days, but the response from colleagues down here thus far has been heartening, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing where things go from here.Report

dmf
dmf
6 years ago

gee can’t imagine why the public isn’t rushing to follow the example of academic philosophers when it comes to working out our civic issues/conflicts/interests…Report

Michael
Michael
6 years ago

I wanted to take a moment to note one robust area of public philosophy in our country–pre-college philosophy, or philosophy with/for children–and the import of uniting as a group of philosophers interested in advancing public philosophy.

It is important to note pre-college philosophy work and its variants for several reasons: for one, it is publicly engaged work that is often led by (and has been for many years) young, emerging professional philosophers. As an example: as a graduate student I co-founded Philosophical Horizons in Memphis, TN, (http://www.memphis.edu/philosophy/philhorizons.php) and there are many other programs across the US that have been led by/involve the work of young philosophers (see also programs at UNC-Chapel Hill, NYU, Columbia, University of Washington, and many other locations). So, there is a core of emerging professionals who are interested in publicly engaged philosophy and who continue to build programs, even without a great deal of institutional and professional support. Many of these individuals choose to do their publicly engaged work in K-12 schools. I have worked with these graduate students at a number of institutions and I continue to take inspiration from them and the fact that they work to have a place in their communities and to practice philosophy with others both within and beyond the academy (in some cases, doing so against resistance from other philosophers who regard this work as a mere “distraction.” Indeed, I have heard this line many, many times over the years and it is incredibly short-sighted, both in regard to what counts as real philosophy and what counts as a distraction for graduate students).

Second, this is work in which professional philosophers are already successfully working with those beyond the academy, including young students and teachers and administrators of K-12 schools, among others. The Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) is a great example of a national organization that is committed to public philosophy and which has a membership composed of academics and practitioners. I encourage you to take a look at our upcoming conference CFP: http://plato-philosophy.org/third-biennial-plato-conference-june-2015-call-for-papers/. Professional philosophers, K-12 teachers and administrators, and undergraduate and graduate students will attend this conference to give talks, engage in discussion, and attend workshops on practical elements of doing philosophy in schools.

My hope is that those of us committed to pre-college philosophy can begin to join forces and resources with those of you (Jack, Noelle, Mark, and others) interested in advancing public philosophy in its various manifestations. In addition to my work in schools I have also spent significant time doing philosophy with groups in prisons and retirement communities, among other places. I believe that all of this work is important, whether we are focusing on working with children, the imprisoned, or other communities that often lack access to philosophical resources. In many ways we are working toward the same goal(s) and I hope that we can work together going forward.Report

Richard Baron
6 years ago

I have found this discussion rather late in the day, but would like to offer a few thoughts, based on my experience as one of the three people who run Philosophy for All ( http://www.pfalondon.org/ ) in London. What we do fits the proposed definition, “doing philosophy with general audiences in a non-academic setting”, pretty well. Each month we have a lecture followed by discussion (under the banner Kant’s Cave, but there is no Kantian theme, we just thought that if Plato had a cave, so should Kant), a seminar on a short text, and a film followed by a reasonably philosophical discussion of it. There are other events, such as debates, which are really large seminars, from time to time.

My main thought is this. If you want to do this sort of thing, just do it. It is easy, and it is not too time-consuming if you just say no to administrative strictures and structures. Persuade a bar or a college to lend you a room for free or for very little, find speakers who will work for dinner and their travelling expenses (and plenty of good speakers will), then charge some minimal fee if you need to do so to make the books balance. (We ask for £2 – about $3 – for our monthly talks, and nothing for the other events.)

It can work out really well even if you do not spend time debating approaches to public philosophy with colleagues, forming committees within departments or philosophical associations, and so on. It is great to share ideas about how to make these things work well, but I don’t think the gain from that sort of additional procedure is likely to justify holding back from getting on with running a group. And even if the lack of prior discussion means that a group works out only moderately well, you will still have raised the profile of philosophy, and increased both the level of participation in Mill’s higher pleasures and the happiness of the population.

It is remarkably popular. We regularly get 60 or 70 people coming to talks. In Britain, it is quite unusual for people to have done any philosophy at high school, and many of the people who come to our events have not done any at college either – so perhaps we give them what they have always being missing. Population density matters, of course. London has 8 million people, with millions more who commute into London and can easily get home after an evening event. Not every city has that weight of numbers, but there are groups elsewhere – Liverpool, for example, has 1.4 million people in its metro area and a large number of philosophy in pubs groups.

One thing we have found does get the numbers up is a Meetup group (cost $72 per six months). We started ours about three years ago, after our organization had been running for 13 years. It brought in a lot of new members, and more join every week:

http://www.meetup.com/Philosophy-For-All-London/Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

I’m probably jumping in far too late for anyone to read this, but here goes.

I would like to start by thanking Jack, the APA Committee on Public Philosophy, and the PPN for the important work they do.

I do think that the APA committee should become more engaged with public philosophy as it is being practiced. When I’ve visited the webpage, I’ve seen nothing about radio programs like Jacks or popular books on philosophy of the sort you can find in any major bookstore. I would also like to see the committee address the importance of public philosophy for promotion and tenure, and ways that professional philosophers can be encouraged to address the public. Perhaps it would be useful to have a forum of some sort in which committee members, public philosophers working at the coal-face, and other philosophers can discuss public philosophy.

I’m a member of the Public Philosophy Network, but I agree with Jack that there isn’t enough engagement. The online forums could hardly be deader.Report