The Variety and Value of Public Philosophy


Readers may recall our discussion last month of the column by Agnes Callard (Chicago) in which she questions whether public philosophy is good. In response, the Executive Committee of the Public Philosophy Network (PPN) has now issued a helpful reply.

As I noted in the earlier discussion, “there is more—and more varied—public philosophy today than ever before.” The authors of the reply, Nancy McHugh (Wittenberg), Evelyn Brister (Rochester Institute of Technology), Ian Olasov (CUNY), and Todd Franklin (Hamilton College) elaborate:

While the most widely recognized examples of public philosophy are pieces of writing for a general audience, public philosophy’s reach and impact extends much further than that. By our lights, it includes but is not limited to: work philosophers do with policymakers (Andrew Light at the US State Department, Zachary Pirtle at NASA, Anita Allen at the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, John Broome with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and with activists and NGOs (Hilary Greaves at the Global Priorities Institute, Adam Briggle with Frack Free Denton, Mike Menser at the Participatory Budgeting Project); professional consulting (medical ethicists’ hospital work, Todd Altschuler’s Philosophical Investigation Agency); teaching disadvantaged groups (prison education, Rethink’s work with homeless and low-income folks); general audience events (the Night of Philosophy and Ideas, SOPHIA-style discussion groups, Ask a Philosopher booths); scholarly research on applied philosophy; pre-college instruction and outreach (the High School Ethics Bowl, the Pickle podcast); TV and radio appearances by philosophers (Linda Alcoff and Chris Lebron on Democracy Now!, Achille Varzi on CNN; philosophy journalism (Olivia Goldhill at Quartz, Aeon); and multimedia work, including video series (Wi Phi), games (Something Something Soup Something), and memes (Trolley Problem Memes).

The authors note that many criticisms of public philosophy “really target one or another style of writing or lecturing for a general audience. However we evaluate those criticisms, we should be careful not to… ignore the full range of good and influential public work philosophers and their collaborators are doing.”

The authors also provide some good reasons to think public work by philosophers is valuable:

Philosophers have useful skills: They can explicate concepts, draw useful distinctions, reason rigorously, and interpret difficult but rewarding prose. A lot of public philosophy consists in offering those skills where they’re needed, whether to policymakers, professionals, or private individuals who want to pursue their philosophical questions.

Philosophers are trained to communicate meaningfully across deep disagreement. Libertarians talk with Marxists, reliabilists with internalists, realists with constructivists, and so on. Somehow, sometimes, they manage either to reach agreement or to achieve a deeper shared understanding of the basis of their disagreement. Whatever norms of discourse animate the best philosophical conversations, we should do what we can to share these norms with the rest of the world.

Philosophers do interesting and sometimes life-changing work. Other people should have a way of finding out about and benefiting from that work other than going to conferences or reading academic journal articles. More generally, the world would be better off if certain philosophical ideas, tools, and arguments were better known and people were better prepared to utilize them. 

You can read the whole post here.

Kelsey Oseid, “Creatures of the order Strigiformes”


Related: “There Is No One Thing Philosophers Should Be Doing“; “Who Does Public Philosophy?“; “Is the Public Receptive to Public Philosophy?“; “Taking Public Philosophy Seriously

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Mark
Mark
2 years ago

I also found this paragraph particularly striking:

“It is true that for many of us, part of the power of philosophy lies in unsettling strongly held beliefs, or provoking sustained, wrenching criticism of ourselves and our world. But taken generally, Callard’s view that “[p]hilosophy doesn’t jazz up the life you were living—it snatches that life out of your grip” is blinkered by privilege. For people who are living in some of the most marginalized situations, philosophy doesn’t snatch the life out of their grasp, but enriches and sustains that life. Those of us who have taught in prisons and reentry programs have found that doing philosophy can be both liberatory and, at times, deeply joyful and even fun for people who are incarcerated. Philosophy for those facing these circumstances provides a space away from their daily existence—a life that actually is snatched away, hidden from the rest of society, and devalued.”

On the basis of my own experience, that seems exactly right. Philosophy is good for its own sake, and that goodness often becomes much more apparent the further you get from the traditional academic context. I think it’s a little unfair to describe Agnes Callard as being “blinkered by privilege”, though. As the authors of this post note (but maybe don’t fully acknowledge), she actually makes plenty of room in her original piece for the possibility of defending the value of public philosophy:

“If public philosophy is terrible or impossible, what am I doing here? The truth is that, as is so often the case, the argument I’ve just given sounds good but is open to counterexamples. For example, Plato’s dialogues are fun to read and they are also undeniably philosophical. Most of the conversations they depict have to count as public philosophy, given that Socrates is talking to people who emphatically disavow any identification as philosophers. If philosophy were restricted to intramural conversations amongst philosophers, it would have been impossible for it to get started. Or keep going: over the past two and a half millennia, many philosophers have operated outside (anything even remotely resembling) academia. I’ve described a trap for public philosophy, but it is one that my favorite works of philosophy managed to elude. So there must be a way out.”

Given that paragraph it’s misleading to claim, as the authors of the post seem to, that Callard is arguing for a negative answer to the question “Is public philosophy good?” I think she’s best understood as challenging us to come up with a good argument for the positive answer, and this post seems like an excellent step in that direction. Report

Ian Olasov
Reply to  Mark
2 years ago

Thanks for this. I can’t speak for my co-authors, but I agree with the criticism. Given the reservations that she expresses in the bit you quote, it would be uncharitablr or misleading to suggest that Callard fully believes the arguments she lays out earlier in the piece. But I do think those arguments explicate or reconstruct the reasons some people are suspicious of public philosophy, so they’re worth taking seriously, whether or not Callard (or anyone else, for that matter) *fully* believes them.Report

kailadraper
Reply to  Mark
2 years ago

Some good philosophical arguments are accessible to the general public. Thus, public philosophy can be philosophy. Most of us no doubt wince when philosophers doing public philosophy lower their standards of rigor to the level of the popular debate. That happens too much, but I have also seen a lot of public philosophy that is rigorous and interesting while not being incomprehensible to the public.Report

kailadraper
Reply to  kailadraper
2 years ago

oops I was trying to respond to JJ belowReport

jj
jj
2 years ago

I don’t think there is anything wrong with public philosophy but it should perhaps not be confused with philosophy. It strikes me that the relationship of public philosophy to philosophy is something like (although not entirely) like the relationship between painting as a hobby (i.e., painting along with Bob Ross on TV) and painting as an occupation/profession/artform (Picasso, etc.). Or perhaps it is like the relationship between “A Brief History of Time” and “The Gravitational Hamiltonian in the Presence of Non-Orthogonal Boundaries”, both by Stephen Hawking. In any case, although they look the same, they are not the same thing. When you do public philosophy, you are not really doing philosophy – you are talking about it and, sometimes, illustrating it. And that is not a bad thing, but it’s not doing philosophy. There is an instructive passage right in the opening pages of Plato’s Republic – Cephalus, Socrates’ host, is now (once old and otherwise unoccupied) quite enjoying philosophy from time to time, as a hobby. So Socrates takes him by his word and attempts to actually do some with him which almost immediately makes Cephalus take his leave. He would enjoy talking about it and all, but not being actually forced to think in the way and about the kinds of things philosopher actually does and defend what he thinks (or give it up). Cephalus would love public philosophy – attend a public discussion where he would watch some people debate something in a manner understandable to all, or listen to a TED talk…perhaps even take an advice from a philosopher on how to invest money ethically. And that is all great and useful. But it is not doing philosophy…that is, after all, a private (and often lonely) enterprise whose pleasures are accessible to very few (and even to them come through much pain). It’s not something most people would like…Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  jj
2 years ago

I couldn’t disagree more. How is the rest of the dialogue any less public philosophy after Cephalus leaves.

What we see is that Cephalus isn’t interested in really doing philosophy. Good public philosophy just is philosophy. Passively listening to a TED talk isn’t doing philosophy – public or otherwise – but of course neither is passively attending a philosophy lecture at a conference or in an academic classroom.Report

Mark
Mark
Reply to  Derek Bowman
2 years ago

Derek: I think that’s a really important point. Good philosophy requires active, critical engagement, but there’s no reason to think that such engagement can only happen within the walls of a university.

I do think there’s a deeper issue raised by jj’s point about Stephen Hawking, though, though. Presumably it’s true in some sense that one can’t “do physics” in the way that a professional physicist does without a substantial amount of specialized training. One can learn about physics, and even conduct one’s own experiments, but actually DOING physics in the full sense is probably going to require at least a PhD. I take it that the question raised by jj’s comment is: is philosophy like that?

We could put this question in the form of a dilemma for the defender of public philosophy. Either doing philosophy (as opposed to simply learning about it or playing at it) requires specialized expertise or it doesn’t. If it DOES require expertise, then whatever happens in public philosophy programs is not philosophy in the same sense as what happens at a professional conference. If it DOESN’T require expertise, then public philosophy can be philosophy in just the same sense as what happens at a professional conference, but that reply seems to raise a further question, i.e. if you can do philosophy without any specialized expertise, why are we spending so much time and effort on training PhD students in philosophy?

For what it’s worth, I’m very happy to grasp the second horn of that dilemma, but I do think (we) defenders of public philosophy owe an explanation of why specialized expertise is not necessary for doing philosophy in the fullest sense of the term, but is nevertheless worth acquiring (at least for some people). I have some ideas about how to answer that question, but this is already too long of a comment as it is.
Report

jj
jj
Reply to  Derek Bowman
2 years ago

The discussion is then held among people who would count as professional philosophers today – a sophist and Plato’s brothers – slowly turning into a one person performance (i.e., Socrates). It is held in a private home, etc. There is nothing public about it. But even if one thinks of Socrates discursing in the agora – it’s always engagement with particular, private people, not with the public. The only time you see him doing something public, truly so, is in the Apology and there is a lesson to be learned as to what the public thinks of it…(and how it all ends). In any case, I do not want to deny the value of public philosophy – just I do not think that if it is to actually appeal to wider public, it can remain philosophy in the sense in which we practice it. Plus I fear that public philosophy, in the sense in which it can appeal can easily turn into something less than desirable (Ayn Rand anyone?).Report

James S.J. Schwartz
2 years ago

Speaking up for public philosophy here. I started in philosophy of mathematics, but quickly became enmeshed in ethics of space exploration and now work exclusively on issues related to space science and policy. While space topics are slowly making inroads into traditional philosophical circles (you’ll find a spattering of papers in places like Environmental Ethics, Ethics & the Environment, Journal of the APA), most of this work is done in interdisciplinary circles and for interdisciplinary audiences. For instance, I am more likely to publish in journals like Space Policy, Advances in Space Research, or Acta Astronautica, than I am to publish in philosophy journals. And while I count many philosophers among my colleagues, I also work routinely with friends in the natural sciences, engineering, political science, anthropology, NASA, etc.

My work, then, is at its best, when it comes off as relevant and engaging to individuals from a broad array of disciplines. The reason for this has primarily to do with the *aim* of this kind of work, which is to positively impact thinking about space policy, space science goals, etc. There is no question in my mind, however, that myself and like-minded colleagues are doing *philosophy*. We engage in conceptual analysis, construct and object to arguments, etc. While many space policy questions fall under the purview of applied ethics (bioethics, environmental ethics), others concern normative and meta-ethical issues (the moral status of microbial life, for instance), and still others call on philosophy of science and epistemology. While working on a book-length treatment of the value of space science, I had to delve into the epistemic value debate (to produce a substantive argument for the intrinsic value of scientific knowledge and understanding), as well as social epistemology and philosophy of science (to discuss how scientific progress can be construed as instrumentally valuable). The goal here was not simply to apply existing results to the case of space, but to use space a milieu to *advance* the conversations on both fronts. That is the hallmark of good philosophy of space exploration, in my estimation.

And for the most part, this job can’t be done (well) by anyone but philosophers. Consider the question of whether we should settle Mars. You will see a marked difference in the quality of argumentation supplied by philosophers vs non-philosophers. That isn’t to say non-philosophers aren’t capable of constructing good rationales (some of the best space policy papers aren’t written by philosophers), or that philosophers always construct good arguments (some of the worst space policy papers were written by philosophers), but there’s a certain attention to detail and mindfulness regarding assumptions that philosophers, on average, are better equipped to deal with.
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Evelyn Brister
Evelyn Brister
Reply to  James S.J. Schwartz
2 years ago

I agree with James here. There are many different forms of public philosophy, with various purposes and audiences. The analogy with science can be expanded. Science education occurs at different levels, citizen scientists collect data, scientists communicate with the public, science influences policy. If scientists published in their own journals behind paywalls without doing any of these things–and especially if they didn’t share their findings with researchers in other fields, with practitioners, and with technologists, then science would not have the influence and import it does.
A key idea here is framing philosophy for audiences other than people in our specialized subfield. Whether philosophical work is framed for space scientists or for a public audience at a Science Museum, effort goes into thinking about how to communicate philosophical ideas in the most engaging and appropriate ways.Report