Reputational Cost of Public Philosophy?

Reputational Cost of Public Philosophy?


In his guest post the other day, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong wrote:

many top departments today view colleagues with suspicion when they choose to write accessible books instead of technical journal articles. Philosophers often risk their professional reputations when they appear on television or write for newspapers or magazines. How can they be serious about philosophy if they are willing to water down their views that much? Are they getting soft?

In a comment on that post, Jonathan Ichikawa asked whether this “sociological observation” is true, but the question did not get much discussion. It is certainly worth asking, though. Is it true, or just an academic myth?

(image: detail of “Abkhazian Viticultural Landscape on the Shore” by Adolf Hoffmeister)

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George Gale
George Gale
6 years ago

Justin, you can start with my comments about the reaction to my publishing in Scientific American. I’ve just remembered another feature of that reaction: when I came up for promotion to full, several members of my departmental committee argued that the Sci. Amer. article wasn’t “professional” and hence shouldn’t be counted. Nicely enough, they were outvoted.Report

NA
NA
6 years ago

I’m a graduate student at a university with a strong emphasis on (academic) career development, and we’ve been given the impression that outreach is really important (with a strong emphasis on the REF here in the UK). But I wonder whether public talks, the occasional non-specialist article, and work with community groups (the stuff we’re encouraged to do) is seen as different to writing a whole book. The former take relatively little time, and very specific impacts can be measured (the effect on a particular demographic for example) whereas the latter is a large time commitment and, one might think, has a fairly general impact, and only on those who have the money, time and inclination to read some pop-philosophy.Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

Work written for the public does not in general seem to be regarded as serious and important work, in the way that work written for fellow professional philosophers is. This is an odd attitude, given that it is the people outside professional philosophy who we ultimately serve with our professional work.Report

Richard Hanley
Richard Hanley
6 years ago

The phenomenon Walter describes exists, but to answer the sociological question of prevalence we need some appropriate research. A further interesting question is whether or not the suspicion is justified. If a lot of public philosophy is not very good, then public philosophy is bound to be thought of as soft, just as some sub-disciplines in philosophy are. I think professional philosophers (rightly?) have mixed feelings about such areas. On the one hand it would be good for someone decent to get in there and sort it out; on the other hand, why would anyone sensible want to wade into that mess? And when you do wade in (as I have on occasion), you take your lumps…Report

David Chalmers
6 years ago

[reposted from a facebook thread]: i’d say that popular work has major benefits for one’s reputation outside the profession and minor benefits for one’s reputation within the profession. it doesn’t actually hurt (except in the sense of opportunity cost) unless the work is awful, although it opens one up to one’s share of snarky comments. setting those things aside, it’s probably a small net positive, somewhat larger for someone with an already solid academic reputation.

20 years ago i was in the odd position of becoming known for popular work before i became known for academic work. (e.g. i published in scientific american before publishing in any top philosophy journal.) although i don’t think it really hurt me in philosophy circles at the time (beyond snarky comments), it didn’t help much either (maybe a few more invitations to speak and a few more citations, but no noticeable benefit on the job market), and i was glad that i had some reasonably solid academic work to follow it up.Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

Richard, if a lot of public philosophy were not very good, that still wouldn’t justify assuming that if a work is public philosophy, it isn’t very good. Public philosophy can be done badly or well. Perhaps more importantly, if public philosophy is a “mess”, then that should be more reason, not less reason, for philosophers to involve themselves.Report

Marcus Arvan
6 years ago

I think the real problem is that there seems to be distinct tendency–an unsurprising tendency given incentives involved–for popularizers of in other academic disciplines to (A) depart from remotely respectable standards of rigor, and (B) say increasingly outrageous things (oftentimes outside of their area(s) of genuine expertise). Although I do not read enough popularized philosophy to know the extent to which this might have happened in our field, I read a lot of popularized science and the problem is rampant, in ways that seriously mislead the public–mostly (it seems) to sell books that make the popularizers rich, famous, and constant presence on pop-science TV shows. There is nothing wrong with selling books, or trying to make philosophy clear and interesting to the layperson. But it is also important that we not sell our souls in doing it!Report

Michael Lynch
Michael Lynch
6 years ago

Before I published my first piece of more public philosophy some time ago, an editor warned me to prepare myself for “the heat to get cranked up” (his words). He was talking not only about the level of snarky comments, but the fact that outside of academia, criticism can be snarky AND much more direct and nasty (haters gonna hate after all). He was right, of course, but these minor negatives have been outweighed for me by the positives of being able to communicate to a wider sphere of intellectually orientated folks. I agree with Dave — I think that all in all, a good academic reputation helps. But I’d add that what may really matter is how interested you are in talking to people that aren’t philosophers. That’s the key for me at least. If you are interested in that, and you have something to say, then doing public philosophy can be not only fun but fruitful, no matter the minor negative consequences.Report

Matt LaVine
Matt LaVine
6 years ago

I have no reputation to speak of, so I can’t directly address the question. That said, I think the following anecdote is somewhat relevant. Myself and a political scientist friend of mine, Matt Chick, published a paper in the Essays in Philosophy volume on Public Philosophy last year. My department chair asked me to give a talk on it to our department. The day before the talk, one of my colleagues approached me and said something like, “I’d love to hear you give a talk, but I’m not really interested in propaganda for or sociology of philosophy. Please let me know when you give a talk on philosophy next.” What was so interesting about this to me is that the person thought they were being really polite. So, this suggests to me that there are definitely some people out there who just think it’s an obvious fact that public philosophy isn’t even philosophy at all. This seems very sad to me, because I tend to have something closer to the opposite view. Work which couldn’t possibly be public philosophy in some way or another (which I think includes more than “pop”-philosophy) doesn’t seem like philosophy at all to me.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
6 years ago

I think a lot depends on the “instead” in Walter’s remark. If someone wrote only public philosophy, and no professional philosophy, I think that would be held against them. But if someone writes publicly as well as professionally and does the former reasonably well, I think other philosophers will think the public writing a bonus. There’s a kind of organic unity here. Public philosophy without professional philosophy has little value, but public philosophy added to professional philosophy can make the resulting whole significantly better.

I hope I’m not being naively optimistic, but I think that was my experience when I wrote a weekly philosophy column in a Canadian newspaper in the early 1990s — other Canadian philosophers seemed to think it was a good thing. Or consider Jo Wolff today? Do people hold his newspaper writing against him? I doubt it, since he’s also writing professional philosophy.Report

adam
adam
6 years ago

Is it easier to get away with this in the UK than in North America: Mary Warnock, Mary Midgley, Simon Blackburn, Roger Scruton, Timothy Williamson giving it a go….Report

Gideon Rosen
Gideon Rosen
6 years ago

I would be more emphatic than Dave or Tom. I’ve never heard a philosopher denigrate good public philosophy (or accessible “professional” philosophy) — not once, ever. To the contrary, in my experience those of us who have been too busy or too incompetent to do it well are filled with admiration for colleagues who manage to write well for a wider audience. If there’s a philosopher out there who’s worried about how it will look to the rest of us if he or she writes a readable book, the right message is: no one is going to hold it against you, in any way, if your book is readable. If it’s bland, boring, or (as is often the case in public philosophy) condescending to the reader, then that’s a problem. But there’s no reason public philosophy should be like that. Great historians routinely manage to write readable books that are also challenging. A philosopher who can pull this off will get nothing but props from the rest of us.Report

Jean
Jean
6 years ago

It’s fascinating to me that the higher people are in the academic food chain, the more they seem to get respected for popular writing instead of disrespected. At least, that’s the way I read the examples of Steven Pinker, Daniel Gilbert, Paul Bloom, Jonathan Haidt, Michael Sandel, E. O. Wilson, and others. When very successful people are doing the writing, there seems to be a trust that very smart and worthwhile things can be said clearly and readability. When writers are at lower levels of the academic food chain, the reaction is completely different–perhaps the skeptic’s thought is that writers wouldn’t be doing popular writing if they had anything important to say. But why should that be? Whatever the level, I’m pretty sure very smart and worthwhile things can be said clearly and readability…and that means potentially in books and articles aimed at a broad audience. I suspect the snobbery about this is especially bad in philosophy because there’s a tradition in philosophy of respecting incomprehensibility as some sort of sign of brilliance. Go Kant! A very nice development is all the philosophers writing accessibly at “The Stone” and at blogs–the tide is turning! Soon it may be possible for philosophy to have its Steven Pinker, if it doesn’t already. There are some very good accessible philosophers out there.Report

Trenton Merricks
6 years ago

My experience has been just like Gideon’s. I have not heard good public philosophy denigrated, I don’t think ever. Maybe it is useful to explicitly add: public philosophy is typically not research. So I think that, insofar as an instance of public philosophy is not research, you do not denigrate it by failing to count it as research, for whatever purpose. In this way, good public philosophy is maybe like writing a good philosophy textbook, or a good encyclopedia article, etc. (A different question, that will presumably differ among departments, is the relevant weight to give to research over other valuable philosophical activities.)Report

David Chalmers
6 years ago

gideon is right that accessibility per se is never a negative. but the flipside is that it brings a minefield of dangers with it: gideon mentions blandness, boringness, and condenscension, and one could add various others (cutesiness, over-simplification, self-importance, shallowness, unoriginality, and so on). it’s presumably these things that popular writers are criticized for, when they’re criticized, and it’s not at all easy to execute genuinely accessible philosophy that avoids all of them. but it’s also my sense that even when these features are present, it’s rare for them to have a seriously negative effect on an existing philosophical reputation, except perhaps in some extreme cases.Report

David Dick
6 years ago

I think it’s important for us to remember who the audience is for public philosophy both when we are creating it and evaluating it. In my very first media appearance, I sweated and strained to craft a nuanced and hedged reply to the question I was called in to answer, thinking that I would die if my colleagues heard me saying something even slightly oversimple. To my dismay, this resulted in my interview being entirely misunderstood and for the entire day, every hour, the radio portrayed me as holding precisely the opposite view than the one I’d meant to convey. Since then I have tried to keep my work aimed at the public to be as simple and clear as it can be without being misleading. Philosophy aimed at a professional audience perhaps should be nuanced and perhaps must be so careful and hedged within enough qualifications that it is invulnerable to objections. But we make a mistake to think a piece of public philosophy has failed if it communicates its message accessibly, albeit in a way that a professional would be able to object to.Report

Jean
Jean
6 years ago

Agh. Readably!Report

Craig Callender
6 years ago

What Tom Hurka said is right in my experience…if you do both there isn’t much of a problem. But what George said is true, too: don’t expect it to COUNT for anything when it comes time for promotion, etc. At UCSD, where step increases can sometimes be a bit bean-counterish, one divides work into A (primary creative work) and B (whatever). Scientific American, New York Times, etc, all go in B. But category A butters the bread (even if the university likes to trumpet stuff in B). I’m sure it’s the same, formally or informally, at many places. That’s fine and maybe even how it should be. Plenty of other reasons to write pop phil or pop sci exist. Just don’t have the expectation that it will matter for promotions and such and you won’t be unpleasantly surprised.Report

Ant Eagle
6 years ago

Just following up Craig Callender’s comment and preceding, on whether public philosophy will count for anything for promotion, etc. In Australia, the government collects annual data on research publications by researchers at universities through its HERDC scheme (https://education.gov.au/higher-education-research-data-collection). In every Australian university of which I am aware, the internal promotions system, as well as other more direct things like eligibility for small grants for teaching relief, depend on how many eligible research publications you author, on average. (Here at Adelaide those whose average number of HERDC-eligible publications falls below certain rank-dependent thresholds are loaded up with extra teaching, and I’m sure other universities have similar schemes.) Other publications – textbooks, edited books, and ‘articles in newspapers and popular magazines’ – are explicitly excluded from the Government definition of research. So at least in Australia there is government-mandated and university-reinforced incentive not to engage in popular philosophy.

The AAP at least is interested in countering this, with its media prize for professional philosophers (http://aap.org.au/AAPmediaprize), but it’s obviously an uphill battle.Report

Patrick Stokes
6 years ago

I’ve never seen philosophers criticized for doing public philosophy and I’ve never copped any flak for doing it myself. As a few people have already noted it doesn’t count as research, but in my experience universities like having their people popping up in the media, so it can have non-research-related professional benefits too. The main downside is criticism from outside the profession (there’s a certain subset of website commenter who has a keyboard shortcut set up for the phrase “I find it hard to believe this piece was written by a so-called philosophy professor”) but the good discussions more than make up for that.Report

Patrick Stokes
6 years ago

I did actually hear someone from the ARC say they’re working on some way to count media articles (iff research-related) in HERDC but have heard nothing since; it may have been more thought-balloon than actual policy though. The impression given was that a suite of such articles might count collectively as one publication. I don’t reckon we should hold our breath…Report

Elizabeth Picciuto
Elizabeth Picciuto
6 years ago

I write popular philosophy and science articles for The Daily Beast (although planning to branch out to other publications). Or at least, articles that all have some philosophical content to them (for example, an article I wrote recently dealt with the social model v. the medical model of disability). A few observations, pro and con: A) Of course it’s not research, and I never thought it should be counted that way. I was expecting more snarky comments from philosophers upset that I didn’t deal with objections X, Y, and Z or that my language was less precise than ideal. Very rarely happens, and I’ve gotten far more compliments from philosophers (thank you!) than insults. B) Tens of thousands (once even hundreds of thousands) of people read my public philosophy articles. Far more *philosophers* read my public philosophy articles than my philosophy. C) I was on the job market this year. One of my interviewers mentioned it as a positive. It was not otherwise brought up. As the job market season draws to a close, things have not yet fully shaken out yet, but it looks like I’ll spend another year as an adjunct. Certainly not a *very* impressive part of my CV. D) As part of my job, I get to call up philosophers and scientists who work in related areas and ask them for their thoughts and about their work. Which is a wonderful philosophical opportunity, and has taught me a lot. E) I imagine I’ll feel differently if I land that TT job. But right now, this is the most philosophically interesting part of my work. And frankly, I make twice as much as I would if I were only adjuncting.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
6 years ago

Gideon Rosen and others are forgetting their philosophical history. Surely the very paradigm of a philosopher who combined technical writing for the cognoscenti with a public philosophy for the hoi polloi was Bertrand Russell. And it did do him damage at least in some quarters. Witness Ray Monk’s Life of Wittgenstein. ‘Wittgenstein detested the popular work that Russell had published since the 1920s. ‘Russell’s books should be bound in two colours’, he once said to Drury:. . . those dealing with mathematical logic in red – and all students of philosophy should read them; those dealing with ethics and politics in blue – and no one should be allowed to read them.’ Ray Monk shares some of Wittgenstein’s snootiness: {in 1944 Russell] brought back with him the manuscript of his History of Western Philosophy, which, although it enjoyed a huge commercial success (it was for many years the main. source of Russell’s income), did not improve his reputation as a philosopher. (Duty of Genius: 471) Then there is the small matter of Russell’s losing that job at CCNY in 1940 and being nearly reduced to destitution in consequence. If being a public philosopher is a less costly exercise nowadays then things are looking up.Report

HMN
HMN
6 years ago

If reputation would the goal of philosophy…

So, being a public philosopher is not already a step forward to being reputable? Or, are to dismiss popular appreciation as being inadequate? Even if it does not reach the depths and slumbers of academic research it still has meaning, purpose and target. As long as philosophy-world is a very uptight group, it is self-indulgent for its members to distribute and redistribute rewards among themselves. But philosophy has a broader aim (I call it life), than academic research (a mode of living). The popular image of the philosopher is a mere caricature. Whilst the scientist renders his discoveries for the benefit of the public, the philosopher stores them in libraries and locks them with cryptic vocabulary. The scientist speaks in public using the tools available to him to deliver the message available for a broad group of people. The philosopher narrowcasts.

If philosophy is an end in itself, why bother about reputation. If philosophy is also about reputation, then narrowcast it towards those which have “reputable opinions”… If philosophy is about finding good jobs, then improvement of working skills is necessary…Report

Daniel Levine
Daniel Levine
6 years ago

As someone who’s done “public philosophy” of a slightly different sort, I’d like to add in a bit about my personal experience with it. The work that I’ve done was not “public” in the main sense being described here (where it means something similar to “popularized” – not meant as derogatory, just for a wide audience), but was primarily done in the context of, and directed at, a community of policy practitioners and specialists.

In my particular case (mostly work on peacekeeping), this meant that I had a fairly good network and a small but mostly-positive (I hope!) reputation among government officials, NGO researchers, military officers, and the like. I was never worried about being denigrated for my work by philosophers – my work just meant that almost no academic philosophers have any idea who I am!

However, when it came time for my tenure review, I was told that I needed to find all but one of my referees from among traditional academics, and in particular that military academics (e.g., faculty at military academies or peacekeeper training centers) did not count. This ended up being something of a nasty surprise, and the difficulty of finding academic philosophers or political scientists who would write on my behalf was, I am told, a significant factor in my failure to get tenure (I don’t want to make it sound like it was the only thing).

So, I would just add to this discussion (no one should particularly care if this was just me airing my grievances), for folks doing interdisciplinary or policy-relevant work, that there can be pitfalls you need to be aware of even in work that isn’t necessarily going to be subject to the charge of dumbing-down that “public philosophy” in the main sense under discussion here is. Especially for folks who are trying to land jobs, or are on the TT, it’s worth thinking consciously about how best to leverage the kinds of networks in which you’ll be developing a reputation, on top of what kind of reputation you’ll be getting (more than I did!).Report

Peter Jones
6 years ago

For what it’s worth, as an outsider I struggle to understand why there should be any significant difference between public philosophy and whatever the other sort of philosophy is. I tend to care whether it’s good or bad, and I see no evidence that the latter is an improvement on the former. My guess is that good philosophers will write and think well in both areas, (DC), while poor ones (Russell was mentioned) will not do both these things in either area. After all, pro philosophers ARE the public. I remain to be convinced that the pros are even ahead of the game, and it even makes me mad that they so often think that they are. On average it seems to be a tie.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

I think Charles Pigden’s point is a good one. Here’s a nice snippet from one of Bertrand Russell’s own essays: “I am allowed to use plain English because everybody knows that I could use mathematical logic if I chose. Take the statement: “Some people marry their deceased wives’ sisters”. I can express this in language which only becomes intelligible after years of study, and this gives me freedom. I suggest to young professors that their first work should be written in a jargon only to be understood by the erudite few. With that behind them, they can ever after say what they have to say in a language “understanded of the people”. In these days, when our very lives are at the mercy of the professors, I cannot but think that they would deserve our gratitude if they adopted my advice.”Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
6 years ago

I, for one, take Charles Pidgen’s interesting point about Russell and Wittgenstein differently than he does. Rather than take it as evidence of a problem with public philosophy, I take it to be further evidence – and Monk’s book as well as reflections by Norman Malcolm, G H von Wright, and others include other evidence – that Wittgenstein was kind of a dick.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
6 years ago

To Matt McAdam.
Well Matt, you won’t get an argument from me .. I too think the problem is with W & his attitudes rather than with Russell’s public philosophy. My point was that Russell’s forays into public philosophy WERE bad for his reputation amongst professional philosophers (at least in certain quarters) not that his snooty colleagues were right to be disdainful.Report

Dale Miller
6 years ago

I think that Trenton Merricks raises the crucial question, which is to what extent we count “public philosophy” as research, as opposed I suppose to service. This is a question that my department has grappled with over the last year or two. I seem to find myself sitting uncomfortably on a fence on this question. On the one hand, I don’t want to rule out in advance the possibility that accessible work published in a venue that allows it to draw a wide audience (like a “Philosophy and Popular Culture”) title might be worthy of being considered “research.” On the other hand, I’m not ready to treat that sort of work exactly on a par with work published in refereed journals, especially when it comes to publishing by junior faculty. At the very least, when I see someone untenured publishing in journals, even if I’m not an expert in her area I can have some confidence that people who are see merit in her work. So I can judge that she’s making good progress toward tenure. On the other hand, when her work is appearing in venues that don’t do some sort of peer review, if I don’t feel able to assess it myself then I may have to suspend judgment on its quality or originality until it gets sent to external reviewers. Which means that if I’m asked whether she’s on track for tenure I may not have an answer.Report

Bob Kirkman
6 years ago

Perhaps the categories used for annual reviews, tenure and promotion are too narrow, with everything sorted neatly in to boxes labeled Research, Service and Teaching. I have recently had some conversations with faculty at an institution that instead places the activities of a particular faculty member on a Venn diagram. I don’t recall precisely what labels they put on each of the circles, but might I suggest: Contributions to Human Understanding, Contributions to the Institution [e.g., department, college, university], and Student Development.

So, if I develop, say, a novel way of teaching ethics that appeals to students who will never be professional philosophers – bless them! – and develop curricular materials, assessment instruments, and a body of design research that reveals something about human moral cognition, then that work might be placed in the region where Contributions to Human Understanding overlaps with Student Development.

Or if a colleague working in philosophy of technology has articles published in the popular press about human experience of communications technology in particular, drawing from more theoretical work along the same line, that might be in the overlap between Contributions to Human Understanding and Contributions to the Institution, as the latter includes activities that draw favorable attention to the work of the department and the college.

If I were to write such articles – and I might, yet! – about ethics education for technical professionals, such work might be placed right in the middle of the diagram, where the three circles overlap.

On this model, there is certainly a place for more purely theoretical research and writing, and for more run-of-the mill service on the University Paper-Shuffling Committee, but lots of interesting things can happen in those overlapping regions.Report

Tamler Sommers
6 years ago

I do a fair amount of public work and don’t get any flak for it, aside from the occasional good-natured condescending remark or joke. For my tenure review, my book of interviews with philosophers and scientists (published by McSweeney’s Press) was taken into account, but didn’t count for very much (2 articles maybe?). If all or most of my work had been geared towards wide audiences, that would have been a problem. But that’s probably as it should be. Actually, if anything, I’ve run into problems not with my own department but with other faculty on internal or external review committees for grants or leaves. If people don’t know you, they’re more likely to take a snobby attitude about a trade press or popular magazine article. But faculty who know me know that my work in scholarly articles and popular venues is more or less the same. (I’m too superficial for journals, too rigorous for magazines.) Now if I can only get them to start counting podcasts for merit reviews….Report