What Would Be in a Philosophy Museum? (updated)

What Would Be in a Philosophy Museum? (updated)


How can we introduce those outside of higher education to philosophy? One little-used means is the museum.

I was not aware of any philosophy museums, but a recent news item on the Empathy Museum, ” the world’s first museum dedicated to helping visitors develop the skill of putting themselves in others’ shoes”  put the idea in mind. (The Empathy Museum is the creation of Roman Krznaric, who works with The School of Life, an organization that makes uses the humanities to help people “think intelligently about central emotional concerns.”)

There are museums dedicated to the ideas and lives of particular philosophers, such as the Hegel Museum or the Nishida Kitarō Museum of Philosophy. But unless I’m missing something (and please do let me know), there is no major museum of philosophy in existence today.

Some light Googling revealed that Pace University ran a philosophy museum in the early 1980s:

The aim of the new museum is ”to bring philosophical concepts and questions before the public, especially children, in an enjoyable and understandable manner,” according to Prof. Steven Rosenberg, the institute’s president, who conceived the idea of the museum and appointed Professor [Spencer] Schein curator…

”You have to stimulate people’s interest, and you do it by awakening their curiosity,” said Dr. Margaret E. Donnelly, adjunct professor of psychology at Pace and an adviser to the museum, as she demonstrated an optical illusion to a visitor. Such illusions, she explained, are actually illusions of the mind’s perception and interpretation, a point Professor Schein expanded on by telling the story of Bertrand Russell’s visit to the dentist: ”Where does it hurt?” the dentist asked. ”In my mind, of course,” the philosopher answered. The Locke’s Sock Paradox

One of the displays, called Locke’s Sock, illustrates the principle of identity, in a paradox posed by John Locke, the English empiricist. In each of six panels a common white sock appears. In the first panel it is pure white; in successive panels, patches are added until the sock is fully covered in patchwork. Is it still, then, the same sock?

Okay, not a bad start.

Would a philosophy museum be a good idea? If so, what should its aims be? What should be in it? I am thinking of something that combines interactive exhibits along the lines of good kids-oriented science museums, with displays of historically important documents and artistic renderings of philosophers or philosophically significant ideas, areas and prompts for contemplation, with education programs for adults and children, in a stunning modern building…

UPDATE (7/1/15): Amber Griffioen linked to an existing philosophy museum in her comment (16): DenkWelten – Deutsches Museum für Philosophie. Now, one of the founding board members of that museum, Matthias Warkus, has written me with further details:

Our museum (DenkWelten) does not aim to present exhibits on philosophers and their lives, but exclusively exhibits that model or otherwise illustrate philosophical ideas. Our museum is a project conceived, planned, operated and evaluated by academic philosophers and museologists. We keep away from all kinds of crackpottery, and we provide excellent documentation to our exhibits, including signs with short explanations, folders with longer background notes and access to all the texts that inspire them for all the visitors in a “library corner” on the exhibition floor.

These include:

  • a table with everyday objects all painted either orange or silver to demonstrate Hannah Arendt’s distinction between work and production
  • six cubic dioramas illustrating various ways of interpreting “apple” according to Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms
  • a diorama that can be viewed from two sides, showing a single LED either as the morning star or the evening star, illustrating Frege
  • large showcases with a number of objects the purpose of which is unclear without context (you are shown the context by opening a flap over a photo showing the respective object’s usage), illustrating Heidegger’s Zeug concept
  • an interactive video presentation on Kant’s Categorical Imperative
  • a large robot with a remote control and a video screen for a face that demonstrates stimulus-driven behaviour that’s completely involuntary (or is it?), illustrating La Mettrie’s “L’homme machine”
  • an interactive touchscreen-based puzzle illustrating the way various animals and humans perceive a tree according to Jacob von Uexküll
  • an abstract installation representing a living room where all objects have been replaced by white planes and parallelepipeds inscribed with statements of fact about that living room, illustrating sentence 1 from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus
  • a diorama on Christian Wolff’s 1721 take on Chinese moral philosophy
  • a number of philosophically inspired paintings
  • a digital slideshow with both dead and living philosophers of both sexes

The museum currently does not have a permanent home, so its exhibits are in storage, awaiting a future exhibition or a permanent home. A few other things to note:

  • The museum has a website. It’s in German. The museum would like to have an English language version of the site. If you are a native English speaker who could help with that project, please contact Matthias Warkus at warkus [at] denkwelten [dot] net.
  • If you would like to make a donation to support the museum, you can do so here.
  • The museum has no definite plans for its next exhibition., but Matthias says, “If someone was willing to provide a space and cover our expenses, we would be glad to bring an exhibit to the U.S., of course.”

(image:  detail of “Collection of Four Hundred and Eighty Plaster Surrogates” by Allan McCollum)

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Eddy Nahmias
5 years ago

This is a fantastic idea… if it were designed right by a creative curator. Maybe the APA can think about ways to make it a reality. Four initial ideas:

1. A full-size replica of Plato’s cave where visitors go through the stages, perhaps with a modern version as well based on something like a Matrix setup with virtual reality.
2. An inverted spectrum set-up where people wear glasses that make things look different colors but somehow they can’t communicate these differences (I need to think about this one more).
3. A cool interactive exhibit on the Turing Test, maybe with visitors taking the role of interrogator and of one of the players against the computer. Plus robots.
4. Daily classes (not lectures) by philosophers. Tie it to school outreach programs.Report

Aaron Garrett
Aaron Garrett
5 years ago

Bentham in his box. Obviously. Actually that’s all that should be in the museum.Report

Jussi Suikkanen
Jussi Suikkanen
5 years ago

If I could choose four things:
1. Newcombe’s paradox kind of set up with boxes, a predictor and prizes.
2. Prisoner’s dilemma kind of interactive games.
3. Lots of trolleys hurdling towards people.
4. Dancy’s beret.Report

Markku Roinila
Markku Roinila
5 years ago

Hume’s turban. And various armchairs by different metaphysicians.Report

Komal
Komal
5 years ago

It sounds like a great idea. Some suggestions for exhibits that come to mind:

– Activities where people have to make decisions about philosophically controversial matters, having to give reasons for their decisions (and perhaps having to persuade others). E.g. a simulated civilization where people must make decisions about social organization, etc.
– Activities where people play ‘games’ (in the game theoretic sense), to see how they negotiate such situations.
– Logic puzzles.
– Exhibits where the philosophically interesting aspects of novels, films, etc. are explored. Candidates include Alice in Wonderland, The Matrix, I Robot, Wit, etc.
– Exhibits on non-Western philosophy.Report

Mike
Mike
5 years ago

Think of the possibilities. There can be an existentialist exhibit where visitors are given a map to walk through an intricate maze. The map appears helpful at first but visitors ultimately realize it is nonsensical gibberish and there is no way out.Report

Jonathan Weisberg
Jonathan Weisberg
5 years ago

The ring of truth.Report

n
n
5 years ago

This post at PhilPercs (http://www.philpercs.com/2015/06/hope-bleakness-and-faith.html ) suggests that performance can make us suspend our current understanding of reality to achieve a utopian moment.

Perhaps a museum of philosophy could have a virtual reality set up that would put you in the speaker’s position during a great ethical speech. Imagine being in Martin Luther King Jr.’s position, giving his “I have a Dream” speech, to the packed national mall.Report

Demonax
Demonax
5 years ago

Tenure. Faculty governance. Dignified employment prospects for those with a philosophy PhD. Exhibits on all three could be located in a Hall named after the museum’s director, which not coincidentally is Schein (=semblance). You know something is finished when they put it in a museum. When I was a kid we used to play outside in parks and playgrounds. Now even kids are sent to museums so that they can play ‘safely’. Some of them even wear helmets there. The Museum of Philosophy should have a kiosk at the entrance, providing visitors with helmets, earplugs and blindfolds to make sure they get the most out of their experience.Report

Juhani Yli-Vakkuri
5 years ago

* Kripke’s lectern
* David Lewis’s catReport

John Protevi
John Protevi
5 years ago

How about consigning gratuitous gibes at continental philosophy to the museum? At least one that don’t make sense; existentialism might be melodramatic at times, but hard to understand? Not really.

Yes, yes, I’m a killjoy. “How many continental philosophers does it take to screw in a light bulb? — That’s not funny and in fact it only instantiates carnophallologocentrism.”Report

Alan White
5 years ago

Sign outside: The Official APA “This is not a Museum” Museum.Report

E
E
5 years ago

Wittgenstein’s poker.
A virtual reality version of Rawls’ veil of ignorance, where you become an abstract entity.
A place you can try on Nietzsche’s mustache for photos.Report

Dan Dennis
Dan Dennis
5 years ago

The Ring of Gyges

Nozick’s Experience Machine

Dworkins’ Island

The Ship of Theseus

A Tele-Transporter

Zombies!Report

Markku Roinila
Markku Roinila
5 years ago

An empty box with a sign: “A monad”.Report

Amber Griffioen
Amber Griffioen
5 years ago

DenkWelten e.V. has been trying to put something like this together for a couple years now: http://www.denkwelten.net/
Also, we have Carnap’s lamp here in Konstanz to contribute.Report

Eric
Eric
5 years ago

An emerald green painting titled ‘grue’ with an explanation on the placard (maybe it turns blue at a certain time on random days).

A scale sized creation of fake barn country.

Russell’s table (on a moving platform with changing light conditions).

Two audio-animatronic figures, one dressed like a prince who claims to be a cobbler, and the other dressed like a cobbler who claims to be a prince.

A BIV set-up.

Hume’s spectrum with a missing shade of blue.Report

Just a Guy
Just a Guy
5 years ago

Dramatic reenactment of Socrates’ trial. Preferably Tom Hanks as Socrates, but a local volunteer actor would work too.Report

John Protevi
John Protevi
5 years ago

Sorry for being a little snappish above. Here’s something for the museum: Nietzsche’s typewriter. http://www.malling-hansen.org/friedrich-nietzsche-and-his-typewriter-a-malling-hansen-writing-ball.htmlReport

Dan Dennis
Dan Dennis
5 years ago

Interactive features where the visitor has to make a decision can help prompt focused thinking. ‘Will you put on the Ring of Gyges?’; ‘Will you step into Nozick’s Experience machine?’; ‘Will you step into the tele-transporter? What if it would produce two versions of you?’; ‘How will you share out the resources on Dworkin’s Desert Island?’ etcReport

A lowly MA student
A lowly MA student
5 years ago

Philosophers. Living ones.Report

Dan Dennis
Dan Dennis
5 years ago
Christy Mag Uidhir
5 years ago

Two qualitatively identical spheres and literally nothing else.Report

Sylvia
5 years ago

An alethiometer.Report

dmf
dmf
5 years ago

ya mean academic philo depts aren’t museums? more to yer point how many people come away from art museums or natural science museums knowing anything substantial about what artists do or scientists or such, or even really about art or science/nature appreciation?Report

MM
MM
5 years ago

Next time someone makes an argument I really like, I’m going to punch them in the face, swing away on my bullwhip, and shout, “This belongs in a museum!” It helps that I will be roguishly handsome all the while.Report

Heathcliff
Heathcliff
5 years ago

A Chinese Room and a brain in a vat, surely. But what I’d really like to see is grains of sand slowly falling on top of each other (in some timeglass-like device, perhaps), with a plaque asking the viewer to decide when it becomes a pile.Report