Research on Public Attitudes Towards Philosophy & Philosophers

“Science communication is a profession in its own right with journals, higher degrees and careers paths,” notes philosopher Brendan Larvor (Hertfordshire). Yet there does not appear to be much of a “philosophy communication” analog. He notes, “so far as I know there is no research on public attitudes towards philosophy and philosophers.”

These remarks appear in a brief post at Professor Larvor’s blog in which he discusses, among other things, some ideas of Gail Cardew (Royal Institution) regarding the public understanding of science. He describes some of Cardew’s thoughts on the matter:

Can the public be expected to understand science, in any meaningful sense? Perhaps not, so replace ‘understanding of’ by ‘engagement with’. But engagement is a rather undemanding term that sets low and vague success-criteria. It was evident that she regards this as an unsolved problem.

She said two things that stuck with me:

  1. Science communicators are trying to move away from a deficit model in which the public are taken to be in a defective condition of ignorance and unrigour, and the role of the science communicator is to repair this deficiency. This model fails because many of the public are experts and in any case no-one likes to be patronised.
  2. Science communication bodies such as the Royal Institution do research into public attitudes towards science and scientists. For example, there is research on the extent to which the public trusts scientists.

So what is the public thinking when they think about philosophy and philosophers? How would we classify the methods that philosopher-communicators tend to use while engaging with the public? Are such methods supported by any research about their efficacy? And what are the goals of such engagement, anyway? Should we encourage the development of “philosophy communication” as a field of study?

Comments welcome, especially from those familiar with the field of science communication and those who know of any research on public attitudes about philosophers and philosophy.

from Alan Stamaty, “Who Needs Donuts?”


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Tim Zukas
Tim Zukas
4 years ago

Depends what “philosophy” means.
One definition “The abuse and misuse of language specifically designed for that purpose” would argue that public communication would not add value.Report

4 years ago

Science often has the benefit of dealing with facts, even if they’re disguised in vernacular such as hypotheses or theories that complicate communication and understanding with laymen who use the same words for very different meanings. Philosophy has few such benefits and gets little charity. Of course, I find that to be one of the fun parts of philosophy, but the public? The ones I sometimes deal with see philosophy as religion, near-pseudoscience, and/or self-help. Many conversations in Ubers and Lyfts on the way to philosophy conferences confirms this. And even fewer understand capital P Philosophy and its application to the public and their lives.Report

Brian Kemple
4 years ago

I don’t think “philosophy communication” would help much… the underlying issues behind philosophical disagreement, dispute, and therefore discussion, are typically far removed from the day-to-day pragmatic concerns of the philosophically uninitiated. Understanding the really important issues of philosophy consequently requires a deeper appreciation than can be communicated through journalistic means.

What would (will?) help is philosophically-imbued education in middle and high school, and a return of its importance and centrality in undergraduate educations.Report

Reply to  Brian Kemple
4 years ago

People seem plenty interested in cosmological questions which are equally far removed from pragmatic concerns. I think we do best not to further circle the wagons here. If we do not (or, worse, cannot) make it clear to non-philosophers why what philosophers do is valuable…what we do might not really be valuable.Report

Brian Kemple
Reply to  ejrd
4 years ago

“To think against ‘values’ is not to maintain that everything interpreted as ‘a value’ — ‘culture,’ ‘art,’ ‘science,’ ‘human dignity,’ ‘world,’ and ‘God’ — is valueless. Rather, it is important finally to realize that precisely through the characterization of something as ‘a value’ what is so valued is robbed of its worth. That is to say, by the assessment of something as a value what is valued is admitted only as an object for human estimation. But what a thing is in its being is not exhausted by its being an object, particularly when objectivity takes the form of value. Every valuing, even where it values positively, is a subjectivizing. It does not let beings: be. Rather, valuing lets beings: be valid — solely as the objects of its doing. The bizarre effort to prove the objectivity of values does not know what it is doing.”

Your position seems to presume that the non-philosophical public stand as legitimate arbiters of what should be valued; such that our work is to be judged of worth by whether or not it can be made palatable. If we do not, or cannot, make it clear to non-philosophers why what we do is valuable, this might be because they’re more interested in who the Buffalo Bills drafted in the 3rd round, or what the “secret meanings” in Childish Gambino’s latest video are, or what should be texted to that flirtatious hottie. This does not mean what we do is not valuable; it means that children, having not been brought up to appreciate thought, do not value as they ought. (Maybe someone values my sick rhymes. Probably not. That’s probably a good thing.)

I’m not “circling the wagons”. I’m saying that our education has already failed to the point that communication of “what philosophers do” to the public would require a preparatory education for that public. Philosophy entails a different way of thinking than is generally taught today. Without that way of thinking being learned, “philosophy communication” will need such extensive translation into “natural language” that all the philosophical import is lost; or else not be understood at all.Report

Reply to  Brian Kemple
4 years ago

Clearly you’re not the man for the job! 🙂Report

Guido Blondelle
Guido Blondelle
4 years ago

Think of the French!
Camus and Sartre wrote novels and plays which provoked lively discussions among ‘ordinary people’. The way to go, in my opinion.
Guido BlondelleReport

4 years ago

I’ve written about this with slightly greater depth and coherence elsewhere [1] but some very quick points:

1. Philosophers have to start thinking about this whether we want to (and many of us do!) or not.
Even those philosophers who are skeptical about the value of philosophy as a way of life would acknowledge the more prosaic fact that the discipline depends for its survival on the goodwill of administrators, policy makers, and the general public. Creating and sustaining that goodwill requires engagement. One could further argue that those of us in public institutions have some non-trivial obligation to the people who pay our salaries to explain what we do with their money and why it matters.

2. Moreover, surely most philosophers do actually think philosophy has something to offer of enduring human value. (We generally don’t get into this game for the money or the power…). Explaining/demonstrating that value is challenging, but worthwhile in many ways.

3. I think there is much more philosophy communication happening now than at any previous time, and that’s great! But we need to start articulating much more what we’re doing and what we’re trying to achieve. The work several of us have tried to do at conceptualising the difference between philosophy communication and public philosophy is one example, but there’s considerably more to do. The avenues for empirical research on attitudes to philosophers that Brendan proposes seem promising to me, though I doubt we’d find much comfort in the results…


4 years ago

From my understanding of science/engineering communication – which is supported by the idea in the original post that such communicators are moving away from the ‘deficit model’ – is that the real value of such communication isn’t ‘teaching’ the public. Rather, it is getting the public involved, or at least feeling involved, in the process. So it is not so much about specific outcomes necessarily – increasing public understanding of science, etc.

But I think this is in large part because science and engineering have a very direct and felt effect on everyone’s lives and so there is a social obligation to attempt to involve the public in deliberations about science and technology. It is, in this way, quite similar to modern representative democracy. Many decisions are still ultimately made by those in power, but we have various institutions or processes set up so that people at least feel like their being taken into account. The justification is largely procedural, rather than substantive.

And if this is broadly an accurate picture of the purpose of science/engineering communication, then it isn’t as clear that philosophy communication is needed, except perhaps as it relates to science and technology (i.e., ethical concerns with biotechnology).

This, of course, is not to say that something else – which we can still call ‘philosophy communication’ – wouldn’t be valuable and could have a different, more substantive aim. For instance, we may think that some level of public philosophy is valuable for actually trying to help people see that philosophical methods can lead to clarity on certain issues. But, if that is what philosophy communication is about, then it would be different from science communication (as I described it above).Report

Phil Tanny
4 years ago

This is a great topic and conversation, thank you.

First, I should define myself as a member of the public, not philosopher or scientist. I am however very interested in topics like this and have been exploring them online for years.

In recent months I’ve been investigating academic philosophy culture on the website of the American Philosophical Association (APA). The editors are great people in my experience, but I must sadly report that APA members seem to have almost no interest in engaging the public, or even each other, at least in the context of the APA blog.

I do feel academic philosophers could play a very valuable role in helping both the public and the scientific community better understand the simplistic, outdated, and dangerous relationship with knowledge which defines modern civilization. But after years of trying to find such intellectual elite leaders, I must report that I see little evidence that philosophers or scientists are either willing or able to conduct such an all important investigation/communication.

As example, the most engaged article on the APA blog (currently with 45 comments) addresses the subject of diversity within academic philosophy, apparently a hot button topic of great interest. However the vast majority of articles on the blog receive no comments at all, and the crucial subject I referenced above is no nowhere to be found, unless I wrote about it to an empty room.

My experience has been that scientists are very capable at developing new knowledge and providing technical information about what has been discovered. I see little real interest on science blogs in trying to deeply probe where science is taking us.

This would seem to be a very appropriate job for philosophers to take on, but again, I see little interest or ability in doing so, despite the fact that most philosophers I’ve read are very intelligent, educated and articulate.

The view from this corner of the public is that intellectual elites are basically asleep on the subjects that matter most. As evidence, the APA has been publishing articles about twice a day for two years and it’s only this month, and only at my ongoing insistence, that they finally published a brief article on nuclear weapons. As expected, the article has received only one comment other than my own.

In my view, philosophy which does not address the most pressing challenges facing the human race is not really an act of reason.Report