What Does “Engaged” Philosophy Look Like? (Guest Post)

The following is a guest post* by Ben Baker, Louise Daoust, and Rob Willison (University of Pennsylvania) on a recent attempt at publicly engaged philosophy at the University Pennsylvania—one that others might be interested in trying out elsewhere.

What Does “Engaged” Philosophy Look Like?
by Ben Baker, Louise Daoust, and Rob Willison 

John Dewey wrote that the test of the value of any philosophy is whether it “end[s] in conclusions which, when they are referred back to ordinary life-experiences and their predicaments… make our dealings with them more fruitful.” Philosophers who aren’t self-consciously engaged in efforts to address the practical and social problems of their communities are, at best, confused about the value of their enterprise. At worst, they reduce philosophy to “so much nimble or severe intellectual exercise… a sentimental indulgence for a few.”

Bertrand Russell thought otherwise. The interests that inspire conceptions of philosophy like Dewey’s, he thought, “are so exclusively practical… that [they] can hardly be regarded as really touching any of the questions that constitute genuine philosophy… The changes suffered by minute portions of matter on the earth’s surface are very important to us as active sentient beings; but to us as philosophers they have no greater interest than other changes in portions of matter elsewhere.” Even worse, Russell thought, philosophers who use their professional competence in pursuit of moral or social edification, rather than in “a disinterested search for truth” are “guilty of a kind of treachery”: they make philosophy both insincere and trivial.

The recent Philosophy & Engagement Conference at the University of Pennsylvania was an attempt to adjudicate (or, in some cases, transcend) this tension: to articulate or to demonstrate what properly “engaged” philosophy might look like. But, more interestingly, it was, itself, an attempted exercise in philosophical engagement. Talks by professional philosophers like Kyle Powys Whyte of Michigan State and Lynne Tirrell of UMass-Boston were featured alongside presentations of original philosophical work by students from Philadelphia’s public high schools, developed in partnership with graduate student coaches through UPenn’s Philosophy Outreach Program. (Please find the full conference program here.)

The conference was interactive as well as intergenerational. Each high school presentation was accompanied by a commentary from a tenured member of Penn’s faculty, and each of the invited talks was followed by comments from a Philadelphia high school student. The exchanges that ensued were illuminating and often moving, as when Lexus Davis of the Philadelphia High School for Girls was prompted by Kristie Dotson’s criticism of the gender-exclusive focus of President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” Initiative to reflect on the inequalities she experiences first-hand between programming for young men and women; or when Zubaida Salman AlQaissi, a senior at Northeast High School whose family fled the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, responded deftly to Prof. Scott Weinstein’s worry that her presentation on the the epistemic injustice faced by students of low socio-economic status had, perhaps, placed insufficient emphasis on the need for structural, institutional change.

We, the conference organizers, are grateful for Justin’s invitation to report on this conference because we hope the general idea might be extended and improved at other institutions, in addition being continued here at Penn. But the best sense of the model’s potential comes from the conference participants’ own reflections on their experiences, a few of which we share below:

  • Zubaida Salman AlQaissi, Northeast High School:

I don’t know where to begin when talking about the experience, but every time I talk about to someone, I catch myself being unable to stop smiling. I’ve even said that this past weekend was the climax of my life because of how great the experience was.

Writing the paper took some time out of my busy schedule and was an added stress, but it was a stress I quite enjoyed. I wanted to write this paper. This was my passion and I was easily willing to sleep less and work more to complete it, and I of course wouldn’t have done it alone. (Shoutout to my grad student advisor, Justin Bernstein!)

The day of the conference, I felt a mixture of nervousness and excitement, because this was finally the time present my ideas, but I was doing so in front of a large crowd that included so many people I didn’t want to fail. (There were even some of my mom’s friends whom I had never met but intended to meet, so the first impression had to be excellent.) Since I had not-the-greatest-sleep the previous night, I decided to have some coffee that morning, but the coffee made me jittery. Being jittery made me even more nervous because I feared it would be perceived as nervousness, something I didn’t want to be part of my presentation.

I did a couple practice runs that same afternoon, so I had to miss two talks, but I calmed myself down, had lots of water accessible, and finally went into the conference room to present.

The feeling of sharing one’s hard work and strong passions is a feeling of eagerness and uncertainty, because I love what I did and couldn’t wait to show my peers, but I wasn’t sure whether it would be received well, whether people would take a little girl (I mean I look and sound quite young) seriously. There was a large risk involved, but I did it for the sake of philosophy club and for the sake of the work itself, because I truly believed it deserved to be heard.

When Professor Weinstein gave his comments, I was blown away, to say the least. I could tell that he respected me as an intellectual, and that he put in effort and time to create a rich commentary that would have me thinking. This encouraged me to simply let my mind speak of what I thought in response to what he and audience members asked about, and I don’t regret anything that I did. This is very rare, because I tend to look back on what I’ve done and think with heavy scrutiny of everything I could’ve done differently. Having had low times in the three weeks prior to the conference, I was finally feeling like a significant member of the communities in which I involve myself; the presentation and the respect everyone paid it boosted my morale significantly. The fact that people came up to me willingly to ask me further questions or give me more feedback was so incredible I can’t describe the euphoria I had the entire duration of the conference. I hate that the conference is now in the past, because the rest of my life feels so mundane after it’s ended, but I can’t be more thankful for the opportunity to engage with philosophy on a profound level. Thirteen-year-old me, preparing to leave war-torn country after war-torn country for the United States, only wanted to survive and have another chance at life, but Philosophy Club gave her future self so much more than those simple demands. Her future self can’t believe how great her life has been despite her family’s struggles–those only act as a motivation to keep going and be a larger presence.

  • Max Hayward, Columbia University (Co-Founder and former Director of the Rethink Program):

When we do philosophy, as academic philosophers, it’s often in a room surrounded only by our peers—that’s to say, faculty and graduate students in philosophy. U Penn’s trailblazing Philosophy and Engagement Conference showed that academe can afford to throw open its doors even wider, (at least some of the time); in doing so it may lose none of its rigour, and gain much in perspective.

The talks given by the Penn Philosophy Club’s high school students were presented and received as serious pieces of philosophical scholarship, ranging from recent topics, like epistemic injustice, to discussions that brought canonical figures like Plato and Aristotle in contact with contemporary issues, to an insightful analysis of the intrinsic and extrinsic values of studying philosophy. Moreover, senior presenters received thoughtful and searching commentaries from the high schoolers; my own presentation, on how to articulate the value of open-mindedness in ethical investigation, was followed by a careful and insightful comparison with Mill’s arguments for free speech delivered by Xihao Luo of Central High.

If the quality of the high schoolers’ presentations showed the rest of us that intergenerational (and transmural) philosophy can lose nothing of its thoroughness, the effect of high schoolers’ presence on the rest of the presenters showed something even more transformative. Having the next generation of scholars in the room makes us realise that we are part of a tradition, whose future must be nurtured. Open-mindedness to new questions and areas of concern is simply obvious in such a context—after all, it is these young people who will set the philosophical agenda one day, and little wonder if their interests may develop beyond ours, as ours did from the generations that preceded us. And in the presence of those who may—or may not—be our future graduate students and colleagues, it seemed doubly important to prevent debate from devolving into the combative and corrosive extremes that often serve only to alienate outsiders; the sessions combined sustained criticism and robust dissent with constructive proposals and a desire to seek common ground—a model that could serve well in other contexts.

Finally, the company of those who are taking their first steps in philosophy reminds us of the past, of why we started to care about the subject in the first place; throughout the conference, difficult topics in philosophy of language, political philosophy, social epistemology philosophy of science and metaethics were placed in the context of the urgent, fundamental questions that make these issues important. When we make sure to frame our dense and difficult debates within these overarching questions and motivating concerns, it makes the vital task of engaging with our wider society all the easier—for these are often the interests that, at some level, philosophers share with others. But it also makes for better philosophy. Rigour and attention to detail are cardinal virtues of the philosopher, but they are not an end in themselves; they are instrumental to the deeper and broader goals of answering these urgent and general questions. The greatest philosophers have often been those who were always able to remember these concerns even in the most technical aspects of their work, and if we want to follow in their footsteps we can’t let the easy habits of academic specialisation erase this skill. Holding more of our discussions in the company of an intelligent and curious public, as we saw at U Penn, seems like a good strategy for ensuring that.

  • Tevin Julien, Northeast High School:

What is philosophy? In the beginning I wasn’t really sure, but after the conference I knew the answer: Nobody knows. During the conference, I was blessed to be able to give comments for Dr. Ira Harkavy. Even though I was super nervous my peers gave me the confidence to do my best. While giving my comments I felt everyone was engaged as I spoke with wisdom. When I spoke my final words, I was greeted with a firm handshake from Dr. Harkavy, who said I’d made powerful points that he’ll take into consideration in his future work. Throughout the day, I was engaged with many philosophers who spoke with passion while they presented their research. I’m convinced that this experience allowed me to express myself truly and effortlessly. I wasn’t afraid to socialize during the conference dinner, I felt like myself for the first time in months. I’ve spoken with many amazing individuals such as M.G. Piety, Janeé Franklin and Cameron Fitz: we discussed movies, politics, and superheroes. By the end of the night, I realized that these individuals are just like me, people doing what they love. That night it became clear to me that I’ve officially become a philosopher.

I submitted an abstract to the Philosophy and Engagement conference because the topic intrigued me—although I thought that the question about whether or not we should be engaged was wrongly framed—and because people I like and admire were among the keynote speakers. But I wasn’t prepared to be blown away by the work the graduate students are doing with Philadelphia high school students and by those high school students—who get up early on Saturday mornings to participate in Philosophy Club. Their own presentations and their comments on faculty presentations were stunning, and I was overwhelmed by their reflections on why and how philosophy matters to them—the delight they took in thinking hard, the opening up of realms of questions, their enthusiasm and hopefulness, their willingness to question and challenge, their confident claiming of space for their voices and perspectives, the knowledge that they are valued members of this ancient, too often elitist and exclusionary, practice.

  • Alexis Cerezo, Bodine High School:

Being in a room full of people who just wanted to learn about interesting topics and share their own wisdom made this space very special and inviting. Everyone’s input brought a new and fascinating perspective. A perfect environment for everyone, not just philosophers!

  • Antwain Golson, Bodine High School:

Having participated in this conference, I have truly learned to embrace the energy in philosophy. Critical thought and analysis are a part of my everyday world. The conference surrounded me with intellectual people who wanted to see me do well and to share their own thoughts. It’s inspiring, even miraculous, to see young people my age come together and present their ideas effectively, and then to be able to reciprocate and exchange those ideas with faculty and students, not only from Penn, but from around the country.

It was great to have different kinds of engagement—moral, metaphysical, social & political, scientific—all matter.  So often philosophers hear ‘engaged’ and they think ‘applied’ and then limit the range of areas with which we can be engaged. The preparation and enthusiasm of the high school students was terrific, and I think it was important that they were on the program as both speakers and commentators. Also important was that Penn faculty also were commenting, so the usual hierarchies were broken up and turned around in various ways.

The tone was constructive throughout, the atmosphere collegial, and it was very clear that the Penn folks felt very comfortable with each other—the Philosophy Club members, the grad students, and the faculty who participated. That speaks so well for all the background work the organizers did to make this possible. (I took a lot of pictures in part because I thought the kids deserved to have a visual record. I don’t usually do that, but this was a milestone for them, and they should be proud!)

Programs like this teach high school students so much more than philosophy. They were poised and excited to share their ideas. That was wonderful to see. They will carry that with them whatever they wind up doing, and they will remember the respect they earned and received while at the conference. Teaching/Doing philosophy outside the  university, in the community and especially with K-12 students, has the potential to improve many lives, influence the culture, and maybe even change the way our society views our discipline. (Maybe on that last one!)

Presenting your research to an intergenerational audience and people of different backgrounds and interests, it’s so important to be clear and direct. All the talks were accessible, interesting, and gave me a lot to think about. I thought the conference was special.

(image from the Philosophy and Engagement Conference poster)

(image from the Philosophy and Engagement Conference poster)

Use innovative tools to teach clear and courageous thinking
Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
8 years ago

Very inspiring, thank you. It has rejuvenated this jaded academic’s belief in the value of philosophy (more than any of my metaphilosophical arguments) by reminding me of when I too was a young high schooler, awestruck by its power.

8 years ago

Truly an inspiration! Congrats on the success of this program. It really has made me want to explore ways to make my own philosophical life more engaged.

M.G. Piety
8 years ago

Many, many thanks to Ben Baker, Louise Daoust, and Rob Willison (University of Pennsylvania) for allowing me to be a part of this event. It was deeply moving. It’s easy to be cynical about the future of humanity, but seeing those young people so deeply engaged with philosophy, and those professional philosophers so deeply engaged with important social and political issues was inspiring. I think it should be an annual event!

Eddy Nahmias
8 years ago

Sorry this post and thread is getting buried here. It looks like it was a fantastic event, one which other programs should be emulating (e.g., mine if we can rally the necessary troops).