Is the Public Receptive to Public Philosophy?


It is a common refrain: academics need to get out of their ivory towers and start engaging with the general public. It can come from a place of sympathy, worrying that valuable ideas are not reaching the public, or it can come from a place of dismissiveness, implying that academic debates need to change radically to become relevant to the broader populace. But in either case, the hidden premise is that academics must propagate their work to the largest possible audience and that they are obviously failing to do so.

When I come across such sentiments, I have a variety of reactions. The first is irritation, because we live in an unprecedented golden age of public engagement by academics. Never before in human history have there been so many blogs, web repositories, periodicals and book series dedicated to bringing academic concepts and debates to a broad, educated audience. More than that, individual academics have never been so accessible for dialogue, thanks to social media. Anyone who thinks that academics are not engaging with the public is falling victim to a common pitfall of the internet age: the assumption that if something has not presented itself to you with no effort or research on your part, then it must not exist.

These are the words of Adam Kotsko (North Central College) in a recent column at Inside Higher Ed. His claim that we live in a “golden age of public engagement by academics” is true generally, and certainly true of philosophy (e.g.). “Claiming that academics are failing to engage with the general public is intellectual laziness at best and anti-intellectual posturing at worst,” he says.

Kotsko then turns the issue around and asks: “why should academics engage the general public?” He continues:

In our rush to affirm the sacred value of public engagement, we seldom stop to reflect on what such a thing would actually mean. Above all, any public engagement worthy of the name would have to be a two-way street. If academics are to engage with the public, then the public must be willing to engage with academics. I am not asking that the public blindly accept our intellectual authority but that they should be open-minded and minimally receptive. That is the condition for any conversation worthy of the name, and it is a condition that is sorely lacking in our contemporary environment.

I am tempted to agree with Kotsko in his characterization of the public—until I recall that the flipside of this being a “golden age” of academics engaging with the public suggests (though of course doesn’t guarantee) that this is also a golden age of the public engaging with academics. Someone is reading those blogs, listening to those podcasts, watching those videos, reading those sites, attending those debates, etc., and that someone is the public.

I often refer to the availability heuristic in replying to media-driven popular negative characterizations of academia, but perhaps the temptation to see the public as close-minded and unreceptive to academic expertise is also a faulty generalization based on a relatively small number of highly visible examples. I’m curious what factors are adduced to support these negative characterizations of the public. How has receptivity to expertise, and changes to it over time, been studied, and what are the findings? Philosophers who are involved in engaging the public: how is it going?

You can read all of Kotsko’s column here.

Andreas Gursky, “Cocoon 1”

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Thinker
Thinker
3 years ago

This is just speculation, but I imagine the public not being interested in what (many) contemporary philosophers have to offer might be a bigger problem than the public being close-minded or unreceptive. If such is the case, then perhaps instead of trying to sell the public on what they are not hugely interested in (and trying to articulate why they should care or being upset with them for seeming unreceptive) philosophers might do well to focus more on things that already are of great interest to people broadly.

When it comes up in conversation with non-academics that you’re a philosopher, the vast majority of the time they have little or no idea how much of an umbrella term “philosopher” is and the amount of very different areas in inquiry that fall under it (at least in my experience). Rather, they tend to think right off the bat that philosophers are people who tackle *the big questions* (you know, *the big questions*). Sure, we here might say that they’re simply mistaken about what philosophy is and what philosophers do — but I think in saying that we miss something important: that the public *expects* philosophers to grapple with the questions relevant to living a good or meaningful life. In that sense, perhaps we as a discipline are letting the public down.

This isn’t intended as a knock on people who work in super obscure (in the sense that the average person — and even many of philosophers — have little or no idea what it is that they’re talking about), but I think that — if our goal is to engage more with broad public audiences — we ought to consider what questions are really relevant to individuals’ lives and engage with the public on the basis of those questions. If we consider what the broader public expects of us (as opposed to turning our noses up at them), I think we’ll naturally be much better at engaging the public and we won’t have to convince them why they should care about what we have to offer. Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Thinker
3 years ago

Yes, we ought to ask ourselves what questions the public is liable to be interested in. Having said that, we have to do a much better job of making work on other questions accessible and interesting, to give the public the best opportunity to develop an interest in it.Report

Pablo Hubacher
Pablo Hubacher
3 years ago

I think of Sartre as the perfect example of engagement with the public, and that’s how I would like my philosophy professors. This might be an unfair comparison, but this contrast is what motivates the call for more engagement. If my ethics teacher has blog, that is nice, but some part of me wants to see her at the demonstration, representing philosophy in the middle of the political action sphere. Or is it just a matter of degree between blogging and shouting on the street? Or could it be a matter of degree that matters? Or is it the case that the change in how we de and live (or live not) has changed so much that the possibilities Sartre had to engage with public are not comparable to the possibilities my ethics professor has? But why not? What has changed?Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
3 years ago

Judging by the 600 or so pieces of hate mail I got for “Trump Won Because Voters Are Ignorant, Literally,” I’d say yes.Report

Eric Thomas Weber
3 years ago

Since starting the Philosophy Bakes Bread radio show and podcast in mid-January of this year (http://PhilosophyBakesBread.com), we’ve had 21,500 podcast episode downloads from 92 countries, as well as letters, emails, tweets, facebook messages, and voicemails. People seem to dig it.

I’d note, though, that the two-way street notion is right, but in two senses not acknowledged in Kotsko’s piece: 1) The two-way notion should have also to do with the the fact that we learn from the public too (not necessarily from the hate mail, but maybe). We’ve gotten rich feedback from listeners and I’ve gotten great insights from people about my public writings;

2) When Kotsko says that the public needs to be receptive, we mustn’t forget the extent to which how we present ourselves affects receptivity. If we don’t make the effort to be accessible and relevant, and to rise above the noise, to capture people’s attention, bemoaning a lack of interest is silly. People need to understand what we’re talking about, why it matters, and why they should pay attention. When we work to make those things clear, often people do choose to pay attention.

One more point: 3) If you think you’ll get great engagement from one or two occasional contributions to the public, good luck… Contrast that with regular engagement, and you’ll find that community comes from regularity and familiarity. Just as advertising works best when it’s regular and frequent, public engagement begets community, friendships, and followers from regular engagement with the public. Report

Beth
Reply to  Eric Thomas Weber
3 years ago

All of this absolutely reflects my own experience too.Report

Beth
3 years ago

Throughout the academic year, we run weekly discussions that feature academic philosophers. The events are free to attend and open to all. At the moment, we simply cannot keep up with the demand, and even when we have 400-seater theatres, we have to turn people away. In the last few years, interest from the general public in philosophy seems to us to have exploded.

We gather stats about our audience: Though the events are held in the LSE, those who attend are, in the main, neither students nor academics; most haven’t studied philosophy and a substantial minority haven’t attended university in any capacity. Podcasts of our discussions can receive upwards of 50,000 downloads. On the other side of the coin, most academics seem only too happy to be invited to participate and, at the very least, are polite enough to appear to enjoy the experience.

I’m always miffed when people bemoan the lack of public engagement by academic philosophers, or the lack of interest from the general public in philosophy. Seriously, I’m completely over-worked here just trying to keep up (send coffee). Pubic philosophy is thriving!Report

arnold
arnold
3 years ago

…One way to look at it, for say the next hundred years–in love of wisdom…
Could philosophy–continually–as a Enterprise–Adapt religious thought to scientific thought, and vice versa, Adapt scientific thought to religious thought…

Moving humanity to understanding–sustaining life on our planet….

Report

dmf
dmf
3 years ago

audience for even the more successful outreach efforts are minimal by most media standards of popularity, but I think the question being posed is the wrong one and we should be asking instead what would it take for academic humanities folks to prioritize pressing public needs over their own internal and or idiosyncratic interests, how many academics even consider the public good when picking research projects? Report

Edward Teach
Edward Teach
3 years ago

I feel like both characterizations are true. We’re in a golden age relative to previous areas, in that there’s much more total engagement, but we’re also woefully behind relative to some standard of what could easily be possible / some standard of where we should be making contributions. My impression is that there’s massive variation, in that some philosophers seem to be doing a lot whilst most do practically none.

I also feel the complaint that the public isn’t willing to engage is the equivalent of ‘I gave them the readings but they didn’t do them so they mustn’t want to learn’. Teaching is about much more than giving the readings and explaining them, and so is public philosophy. Except instead of forming lesson plans etc. the leg work is done in contacting editors and working your way up onto popular platforms. The public engages lots, it’s just that they’re engaging in certain areas philosophers usually aren’t found, and it’s journalists and bloggers who are doing most of the philosophizing. The onus is on us to invest time to get into those spaces.

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slartibartfast
slartibartfast
3 years ago

I take a dim view of the public. Mostly just a mob brandishing pitchforks ready to attack people who say things they disagree with. Actually I guess they are not so different to philosophers after all.Report

slartibartfast
slartibartfast
3 years ago

If you’re looking for me, I’ll be in my barrel. Report

Barry Lam
3 years ago

Public philosophy is fine. Private philosophy kind of sucks. Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

Both the claim that this is the golden age of public engagement and that academic philosophers are disastrously failing to engage with the public are true. There is no contradiction here, any more than there is in noting that we live in a golden age of equality and that we have failed disastrously to bring equality. We can be doing better than ever before and also shamefully failing to do enough.

As for the question, “why should academics engage the general public?”, the answer we give will depend on exactly why we think philosophy is valuable for the general public. If we think it has no value for them, then we ought to stop taking their money to support out research. On the other hand, if our work has value to them, it must presumably be by providing them with ideas, which is going to require engagement.

It seems to me that not enough philosophers ask themselves what the benefit of their work is outside of professional philosophy.

If we find the public uninterested, or insufficiently interested, then we have to work harder to be more interesting to them. While it may well be true that the public ought to be interested and attentive than they are, it remains our job to benefit them.

For more on this, I urge people to take a look at Essays in Philosophy’s special issue on public philosophy (Vol 15, issue 1, 2014) for a debate on the issue.
Report

dmf
dmf
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

” If we think it has no value for them, then we ought to stop taking their money to support out research. On the other hand, if our work has value to them, it must presumably be by providing them with ideas, which is going to require engagement.” this is key, the nonsense of knowledge for knowledge’s sake has to be dropped or the public will keep dropping the people who insist they are serving some higher cause than the well being of the polis.Report

Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

Forget the normative question, “Should academic philosophers engage with the public outside classrooms?” Better to focus on the predictive question, “If academic philosophers don’t engage with the public, will philosophy departments dwindle?” Or more trenchantly, “Even if academic philosophers engage with the public, will philosophy departments dwindle ?” Sad answer for both questions: yes.

A natural disaster hits a state; or money is tight because US is at war with North Korea. State funded departments lose philosophy positions. Without those positions, departments at private universities can’t place most of their PhDs, so they dwindle. Wouldn’t be surprising if in a decade academic philosophy is a third of what it is now.

When this happens, who in the public will stand up for philosophy departments? Many conservatives won’t because to them phil departments compete in their mind with churches. Many liberals won’t because phil departments remained too Eurocentric. The profession shrinks while professors talk about how the public should respect them. Then philosophy, shedding its industrial age home, finds new ways to flourish in the information age.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

I agree that if philosophy does not do a better job of reaching the public, we can’t expect the public to keep supporting us. I also agree that we can’t expect support form many conservatives. Too many of them view all humanities departments as leftist conspiracies. However, I disagree that liberals think philosophy departments are too Eurocentric. Coming to that opinion generally requires having taken several philosophy classes and seeing a pattern. Rather, I think the reason we can’t expect liberals to support us is that they have no idea what we do, apart from talk to each other in incomprehensible jargon.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

When there is a public debate about whether philosophy departments should be funded – and that time is coming – eurocentrism in academic philosophy will be the albatross around its neck. Conservatives will use it to say liberal professors are hypocrites. And liberals will be hard pressed to know how to defend academic philosophy.

Before then, academic philosophers better think about their own blindspots. And quick.Report

dmf
dmf
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

can you offer any examples of where this has been the winning complaint or are you just trying to capitalize on a coming disaster to press yer own interests? I have heard the complaint nonny mouse raises from members of the public and some concerns about too many white men from students but never heard of your concern from people outside of the field. The weakness I see is that academic philosophy hasn’t been shown to make people better at doing anything (over other ways of learning) other than doing academic philosophy. Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

I am not saying the public is already talking about eurocentrism in academic philosophy. I am making a prediction about what will come.

The prediction is based on a simple idea: the hot button issues within academic philosophy are _parallel_ to the hot button issues outside academia. In both cases, there is an increase in diversity at the same time there is a crunch in economy and jobs. In my opinion, most philosophy professors seem content to accept eurocentrism in academic philosophy, but – as liberals – push against nationalists and for greater diversity in the society at large. This asymmetry is a losing proposition, endearing academic philosophers to no one outside academia.Report