How Is Good Public Philosophy Possible?


“When Aristotle said that the intellectual life is one of serious leisure, I believe he was trying to avoid the Scylla of business and the Charybdis of pleasure. If philosophy offered helpful answers to the questions you were asking anyways, it wouldn’t be leisurely; if it added fun to the life you were living anyways, it wouldn’t be serious.”

So opens the inaugural column in a new series on public philosophy at The Point by Agnes Callard, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. “Public philosophy aspires to liberate the subject from its academic confines: to put philosophy into action. Is that a good thing? I’m not sure it is.”

(While some approach public philosophy believing that the institutionalization of philosophy in academia “represents one of the enduring failures of contemporary philosophy“, Callard’s default seems closer to the idea that “philosophers actually function best in universities.“)

Callard continues:

It is hard to overstate how difficult it is for a single activity to be serious, leisurely and radically open-ended in the way that philosophy is. What can look like territorialism is really a valiant effort on the part of academic philosophers to maintain the tension that keeps an almost impossible activity from falling apart—dissolving into unleisurely business and unserious pleasure.

If we characterize “business” as the efficient production of solutions, philosophy doesn’t fit that model: “philosophical expertise doesn’t lie in the character of the answers we can provide. How many philosophical questions have been answered, after all?”

What about doing philosophy for pleasure? Callard says there’s nothing wrong with “intellectually engaging fun”, 

but I think there is something wrong with calling that philosophy. Here I put forward my own unabashedly partisan view of philosophy, cribbed from Plato’s cave: philosophy does not put sight into blind eyes; rather, it turns the soul around to face the light. A soul will not turn except under painful exposure to all the questions it forgot to ask, and it will quickly turn back again unless it is pressured to acknowledge the meaninglessness of a life in which it does not continue to ask them. Philosophy doesn’t jazz up the life you were living—it snatches that life out of your grip. It doesn’t make you feel smarter, it makes you feel stupider: doing philosophy, you discover you don’t even know the most basic things.

I can’t say I quite get why Callard thinks that public philosophy faces this “business or pleasure dichotomy.” Are there really no other options? Perhaps those who do public philosophy have some alternatives to suggest. There is more—and more varied—public philosophy today than ever before and the public seems to be consuming it. That may be some reason to suspect the picture is more complex. (Also see these many posts on the subject).

I agree that “doing philosophy, you discover you don’t even know the most basic things,” but unlike Callard I don’t see this as painful or “life-snatchingly” bad. In my experience, it’s possible to find pleasure or delight in that discovery. By removing false knowledge, philosophy can produce wonder, and wonder feels good. So I suspect that the philosophy-for-fun option may have more going for it.

Like Callard, I think we have reasons to be wary of public philosophy that emphasizes answers. As she says, “Unlike practitioners of other fields, we do not agree even on answers to the most basic questions as to what our field is or why it exists… we have to ‘define’ philosophy using facts such as which building it is located in so as to leave it open to the people in that building to define it any way they see fit.”

If you’re curious, you can check out the text of a talk of mine on this subject, in which I argue that an overemphasis on answers is one way public philosophy may undermine perceptions of philosophical expertise.

We should also not neglect the way in which institutional forces affect the nature and quality of public philosophy. We’ll get more and better instances of whatever it is our employers and peers reward, and while public philosophy is getting more and more recognition, in most institutions of higher education it is not thought of as particularly important. On this point, see, for example, “Taking Public Philosophy Seriously” by Adam Hosein (Northeastern) and “Creating a Philosophical Culture of Engagement” by Kevin Zollman (CMU).

In the end, Callard admits that the history of philosophy seems to supply many counterexamples to her skeptical approach to public philosophy, so she is “unsure what to conclude”—a reasonable place for a public philosophy column to wind up. You can read the whole thing here.

Discussion on the philosophy of public philosophy, and related matters, welcome.

Giant wooden megaphone in Pähni Nature Centre, Estonia

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Unknown Philosopher
Unknown Philosopher
2 years ago

Where would Callard place the development and implementation of programs that bring Philosophy to high school (and younger) students? Does that count as a form of public philosophy? Or is she thinking about only philosophical writing that is intended for consumption by the general public?

I ask these questions because I see the the potential for the sorts of hazards Callard identifies with respect to the latter, but I’m hard-pressed to see how they could arise with respect to the former. (Surely no one introduces 7th graders to the Trolley Problem in order to direct them to accept that pulling the lever is the better option!)Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
2 years ago

Not putting philosophy into action is not an option. People do moral philosophy when they decide how to live, political philosophy when they decide how to vote, metaphysics when they decide whether to prepare for the next life, epistemology when they form any beliefs, and so on. It is certainly important that we professional philosophers don’t take it upon ourselves to provide people with official answers (and that’s already a big problem in philosophy). However, I think that when people think through philosophical issues for themselves, we can help them to think things through. Certainly, if we professional philosophers don’t help ordinary people think philosophical issues through for themselves, it isn’t clear what justifies us taking taxpayers money for our work.Report

Prabh
Prabh
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
2 years ago

I don’t people are doing philosophy when they answer questions. When I lift weight at the gym I don’t xonsider my self ‘doing’ kinesiology. My activity is the object of inquiry for a certain feild. Thar matters of moral, political, epistemic, and metaphysical inquiry are present in peoples live does not mean they are engaging in such inquiry, for the inquiry itself is distinct from its objects.

As an anecdote, non-philosophers do not reflect upon the underlying assumptions of thier moral thinking and are usually resistent to such reflection. No one really cares what philosophers have to say because no one has a clue what philosophy is or how its done, not do they care to know.

Additionally, what justifies taxpayer money spent on philosopher’s work at public institutions is its contribution to the mission of that civic instution, which in some cases is, and in all cases should be, the advancement of scholarship, knowledge, and education. Failure to convince people who have no interest or need for philosophy is not a problem.

I agree that professinal philosophers can greatly help ordinary people. However, ordinary are not exactly demanding such help. The framing of a lack of public philosophy as a problem to be solved by professional philosophers is a mistake.Report

YAAGS
YAAGS
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
2 years ago

The problem is that a ton of people use religious revelations as the basis for their metaphysics and ethics, and contemporary philosophy on those subjects basically just assumes the falsity of their premises. For most of the philosophical work to be helpful to those people you’ll first have to overthrow the basic foundations of their worldview and personal sense of identity with cool, rational argumentation. Psychology and sociology are definitely in trouble, but if there’s any important result they have established it’s that you just can’t change the vast majority of people in this way. People in their social group have to provide gentle and continuous pressure, or they have to have some sort of breakthrough experience. While some people might be convinced to change their fundamental worldview from a 10 minute video on the internet, this is pretty rare. Frankly, this extends to most moral beliefs regardless of religion. How many consequentialists do you know who have been convinced to become deontologists or vice versa? For the majority of people, public philosophy will probably just be a way to further confirm what they already believe, because that’s just how people tend to work.Report

JDRox
JDRox
2 years ago

Here’s how I interpreted Callard’s perhaps overly-poetically-put point. Good philosophy is *hard*. Making careful distinctions, carefully defining one’s terms, careful reasoning, avoiding bias, being fair to other views and fairly responding to objections, etc. are just not things that “the public” enjoys. So there’s an inherent tension between doing good philosophy and doing stuff that “the public” will voluntarily submit to. If we give them what they want (“decisive refutation” of widely-believed X, or “proof” of surprising Y), it’ll basically be sophistry rather than philosophy, and one of the fundamental aims of philosophy is to combat sophistry. “Here are some reasons to think that X might not be true, but of course…” just isn’t what the public is looking for. As Callard says, in the classroom, we basically have to *force* people to do philosophy rather than sophistry. People, in general, tend to pursue things that produce some sort of tangible pleasure or benefit. For non-philosophers, in general, philosophy produces neither. And even for those people for whom philosophy is fun, Callard doesn’t think that philosophical thinking can be done in the pursuit of pleasure. Rather, “true” philosophical thinking is done in the pursuit of truth. (Mutatis mutandis for doing philosophy in the pursuit of other benefits.) While I like this, idea, I’m less confident than Callard that it’s true. But the point remains that only a very small percentage of “the public” finds good philosophical thinking fun, or stands to benefit in some tangible way from doing good philosophy.

This isn’t to say that there can’t be good public or popular philosophy. Just that producing it will be extraordinarily difficult, and we shouldn’t expect philosophers to be able to do it. It’s like pop-physics or pop-mathematics: they exist, but only a very small percentage of “the public” seeks them out, and only a very small percentage of physicists or mathematicians are capable of doing them well.

A natural objection would be that ordinary people are much more interested in philosophy than in physics or mathematics. I think that’s true, in a sense. People are certainly interested in thinking and arguing about philosophical ideas. What I’m saying is that philosophy isn’t just a matter of thinking and arguing about philosophical ideas. Sophists do that. Philosophy is a matter of thinking and arguing *well*. Sadly, that’s *not* something the public enjoys.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
2 years ago

I think this post is unfair to Callard. The picture it suggests is that she’s making a case against public philosophy, with only a brief acknowledgement at the end of the uncertainty that is her ultimate conclusion.

As in a Socratic dialogue, she starts by trying to get her audience to seriously question something they unreflectively assume they already know: that public philosophy is good/possible. She then spends some time developing the argument that it is seemingly impossible, because of the tension in attempting to combine the seriousness of “business” and the open-endedness and leisurely pace of “pleasure.” But she does not end before contradicting her own argument by pointing that the argument itself is open to counterexamples. This shows that it must go wrong, but where – how is it possible? She suggests some possibilities, but emphasizes that it is an open question, and she ends her discussion in aporia. Is it – as it seems – possible? If so, how?

The many counterexamples you offer are no objection to her argument. They are part of her argument! (“Perhaps those who do public philosophy have some alternatives to suggest. There is more—and more varied—public philosophy today than ever before and the public seems to be consuming it. That may be some reason to suspect the picture is more complex.”)

And your suggested explanation of how these counterexamples are possible (“In my experience, it’s possible to find pleasure or delight in that discovery. By removing false knowledge, philosophy can produce wonder, and wonder feels good. So I suspect that the philosophy-for-fun option may have more going for it.”) are not very different in kind than hers (“Perhaps I am underselling the public in assuming that you want answers or entertainment. Perhaps some of you also want what I want, which is to think through the most important questions in the best way human beings have come up with: together.”), though of course you are more confident and she more skeptical of the suggestion. Here at last we have the beginnings of a disagreement. But it’s best understood as a disagreement within the framework she has set out. Surely you acknowledge there is a tension here. Surely you agree that philosophy done well is hard and that genuinely challenging our received beliefs is painful, even if there are compensating pleasures.

Finally, I don’t think it’s accident that she uses Plato’s dialogues as the model for a way out of the tension she identifies. If good public philosophy is possible, it cannot take the form of philosophers delivering answers to a passive public – just as a good undergraduate philosophy class cannot consist of students correctly repeating things we’ve told them on an exam. Both succeed only if we get our interlocutors to themselves engage in philosophy. Plato’s dialogues can do this in part because they are not treatises – they are conversations and debates the reader is invited into. Similarly, Callard’s piece ends not with a conclusion but with a question – and an invitation to join her in asking it.Report

Led
Led
2 years ago

She attributes this to Aristotle: “If philosophy offered helpful answers to the questions you were asking anyways, it wouldn’t be leisurely.” But how can that be right, if “all humans by nature desire to know?”Report