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 … Continue reading How Is Good Public Philosophy Possible?