The Changing Role of Philosophers As Public Intellectuals
Via a chock-full-of-philosophy-links post at the wonderful Omnivore blog at Bookforum comes “The Philosopher As Public Intellectual” by Patrick Baert, a sociologist at Cambridge University. The essay is part of a forthcoming collection, Public Intellectuals in the Global Arena: Professors or Pundits?
Additionally, “with high educational levels for larger sections of society, the erstwhile distinction between an intellectual elite and the rest does no longer hold to quite the same extent,” at least in this crucial respect: “with higher education also comes a growing scepticism towards epistemic and moral authority, an increasing recognition of the fallibility of knowledge and of the existence of alternative perspectives.” So, “speaking from above and at their audience, as authoritative public intellectuals do, is no longer as acceptable as it used to be.”
I can’t bear to read the comments/replies to the NYTimes Stone (and the like) any more but they did raise the question of how useful these moments of public voicing are, not unlike most science/health reporting, the ability to deliver material that is both accessible and still accurate is very limited and often instead feeds into people feeling more certain/authorized in their mistaken views.Report
It is hard to become as publicly famous as Russell and Satre were, but then, almost nobody ever has. Public philosophy sells well today and we have unparalleled opportunities to bring it to the people. I see no sign of the public being more open to a new type of public philosopher than an old type. What I do see is a lack of interest among philosophers in getting up off their backsides and addressing the public in ways the public can understand, as Russell did. Instead, we speak to one another in technical language and then complain that we have no public impact.Report
“What I do see is a lack of interest among philosophers in getting up off their backsides and addressing the public in ways the public can understand, as Russell did.”
You mean besides all the people mentioned here?
And besides all the philosophers who teach the public at community colleges and public universities?
Seriously, I’m all for critically examining our profession, but let’s not do it in ways that ignore the work that dozens upon dozens of philosophers are already doing.Report
I posted to that very thread to praise those people. I’m not ignorant of what they are doing. I wish there were more like them. As a profession, we are not doing nearly enough. Saying that doesn’t dishonor those folks who are doing things.Report
I guess I just don’t understand you point then. Is the claim that there is a large, still untapped market for the traditional “authoritative public intellectual,” but not enough philosophers writing for it? That seems implausible – if there were, why hasn’t more of that market gravitated to the work already being done in this vein?Report
Few people are aware that such work even exists. Of those who are aware, few understand what it is. Finally, it has to be dealing with issues that interest them in particular. A “Batman and Philosophy” book is next to useless to someone who isn’t interested in Batman. The books that are published sell well and their popularity has been growing as more books appear. Demand for writers for popular philosophy books outstrips supply.Report
As a professional philosopher (with a university job I mean) I would like to suggest not to forget the issues, the subject matter of what matters instead of only paying attention to the social debate around the issues.
We ought to be experts on the social perception of the problems and experts on the issues whose social impact we perceive if we want to have a respectful and, in a sense, authoritative well grounded opinion on the subject that matters.Report
I agree that philosophers ought to be out there making, well, as opposed to normal comments, rational and argued points. I have written and had published numerous letters to the eds in papers in my state (MI, Detroit Free Press, Detroit News, local papers, etc…and on line). The result?? Little commentary from anyone out there or, when I address academics, knee-jerk responses of “sexism”, “anti-sexism”, and a total lack of response to the arguments or issues — and liberals, as I am, you are the worst for misreading comments. Thus, what is my point? Namely, the culture and climate out there is so negative as to debate and considering alternative views as to be discouraging to endeavoring to engage in public debate and discussion.Report
Good on you for trying. I’m not surprised there wasn’t a big splash. Having an impact on society, if we can do it at all, is a grind. I’m disappointed, though not surprised, to hear of your experiences with academics. We are political creatures too and it is hard to have substantive political discussions about important issues with political creatures. It is not true in my experience that liberals are worse than conservatives for misreading comments. In fact, I think we are better, on average, than conservatives. Having said that, liberals are very bad for misreading comments and many who rightly condemn conservative bias scoff at the very idea that “liberal bias” exists.
Yes, the climate out there for discussions is terrible. That means that we are needed very badly. If we can make it a bit less terrible, that would a significant social contribution.Report
I find this discussion and the whole subject nauseating. If you have something important to say, and can say it in a way attracting the interest of gatekeepers of the media, you can be heard! Philosophers have very unique perspectives on many issues, and these can easily be stated in fresh and provocative ways. Simply calling attention to the nature of the evidence for many ideas that are current and popular can itself provide valuable food for thought for many people. However, comparing oneself to legends like Sartre and Russell is simply not helpful. Look at their messages, and note the importance and interest and relevance of their public statements! Let’s learn from the content of philosophy and philosophers’ statements, not from the impact of their panache! Those who, like Baert, try to say something about philosophy as a phenomenon, but ignore the relevant philosophical content, depart from the spirit of philosophy and seem to want to relegate philosophy to a museum of intellectual history and sociology. Doing so is pathetic and counterproductive, and is not even worthy of the discussion I have given it here!Report
You are “on to something.” I think television news media is a poor format for philosophy. The media wants quick sound bites and quippy speakers. There is little patience for artful debate and discussion. Besides, we are in a time when the “might makes right” crowd is the loudest and they are not interested in intellectualism. Meaning, the audience is lowly educated and angry. Sad times, indeed.Report
I think that too many philosophers are too willing to become propagandists for their cherished causes. That brings discredit to even the serious public philosophy that is also out there. Perhaps the most common problem I see is a complete disregard for getting the relevant empirical facts right. Quite often, I also see completely one-sided arguments (and other sorts of suppression of evidence), straw men, huge assumptions that are put forward as uncontroversial truths, obvious selective skepticism, and simple logical mistakes. Again, I have also read a lot of great public philosophy. So I don’t want to be too negative here. But if we want public philosophy to be taken seriously, we need to consistently do serious public philosophy. End of rant.Report