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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