Manifesto for Public Philosophy (guest post by C. Thi Nguyen)
“It’s war, the soul of humanity is at stake, and the discipline that has been in isolation training for 2000 years for this very moment is too busy pointing out tiny errors in each other’s technique to actually join the fight..”
The following is a guest post* by C. Thi Nguyen, associate professor of philosophy at Utah Valley University.
Manifesto for Public Philosophy
by C. Thi Nguyen
A student said to me: the problem right now is that if you don’t have any training and you go online looking for philosophy you can actually understand, 9 out of 10 things you’ll find are from the hate-web. They are propaganda, and not the seeds of critical reflection. What we need, if we are going to fight this stuff, is to produce public philosophy in volume.
I just spent a couple weeks at a philosophy workshop for public philosophy, and I came out convinced that most of us have an incredibly narrow view of what public philosophy could be. Like: I tended to think public philosophy was op-eds in newspapers and articles in The Atlantic, and stuff like that. But there is so much more. People like ContraPoints and Wireless Philosophy are doing philosophy on YouTube, reaching out into a much wider world. We have some podcasters, like Barry Lam and his extraordinary Hi Phi Nation podcast. Ethics Bowl folks are pushing Ethics Bowl into high schools, into prisons. There are public discussion forums, public lectures, programs for philosophy for children. This is exactly what we need—but we need so much more of it. We need to fill the airwaves with the Good Stuff, in every form: op-eds, blog posts, YouTube videos, podcasts, long-form articles, lectures, forums, Tweets, and more. Good philosophy needs to be everywhere, accessible to every level, to anybody who might be interested. We need to flood the world with gateways of every shape and size.
But there are so many barriers to entry. First of all, the disciplinary incentives don’t support public philosophy. For most of us, writing op-eds and making YouTube videos doesn’t help you get a job, get tenure, or get promoted. But it’s worse than that. Our discipline actively resists public philosophy.
I’m not saying everybody needs to create public philosophy. But I think everybody should support it—and we’re a long, long way from actually having such widespread support. Let me focus on the written stuff for a bit, because it’s what I’m most familiar with. I’ve been talking to various people who have written public philosophy, and I keep hearing the same thing. Other philosophers will attack you for being too simplistic. They will nit-pick your public philosophy. Certainly, many people are supportive and grateful and totally get what you’re trying to do. But other people look at a piece of public philosophy, and what they see is bad work by academic standards. And they ignore all the labor that went into making it public—into making the writing clear and lovely, and maybe even a little bit fun.
Writing a piece of public philosophy takes an absurd amount of effort. If you’ve been professionalized, then you probably have to fight against all the instincts that have been programmed into you, in your long voyage into being molded into a Good Professional Philosopher. You have to be big, you have to sketch loosely, you have to rush distinctions. You have to reach, hard, for those pithy crystallizations. You have to care about elegance. You have to cram a deep idea into 1000 words, 800 words, a single goddamn Tweet. And to do that, you have to simplify. You’re constantly fighting a war between precision and compression, and sacrifices have to be made. As Rima Basu put it (on Twitter), public philosophy is about beginning a conversation.
Here’s one thing our community could do about this: we could be understanding of all this. And many people in the profession are, indeed, deeply sympathetic. I should make absolutely clear: writing public philosophy has been profoundly rewarding for me. It is, perhaps, the best part of my job. Philosophers and non-philosophers alike have expressed their gratitude and support for making ideas available, for writing things that are teachable to introductory students. But other people in the profession are willing to treat your public writing as a soft-target on which to drop some easy philosophy bombs. And the prospect of that kind of hostility can create a barrier to entry, especially to junior members of the profession.
So here are my suggestions for what we could do to help each other, and to help philosophy give birth to a bigger and better public face:
1. Be charitable.
Recognize a piece of public philosophy for what it is. Recognize that the author has probably not slipped up in some idiotic way, but is probably under enormous demands to clarify, simplify, and compress.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t respond. But respond at the appropriate level. The point, in responding to a piece of public philosophy, is not to score points as you might off of an academic work. It is to demonstrate in public the qualities of good critical conversation.
So pitch your responses to bits of public philosophy at the right level. Here’s a heuristic: imagine you are doing a demonstration discussion with another philosopher in front of an intro class. You wouldn’t call them out for skipping technical fine points. You would understand that everything was down-tuned to the intro level, and you’d cooperate in making philosophical motions at the right level of coarse-grainedness. You’d perform philosophy in a very particular, and pedagogically oriented way, instead of just going full-blast into Reviewer 2 beat-down mode.
And recognize the diversity of purposes with public philosophy. Amy Olberding put it to me this way: public philosophy isn’t just about making arguments. It can also be about sowing uncertainty, creating ambiguity, complicating things, or just getting people excited to think about stuff. We’re often stuck in the mode of looking at everything as if it was an argument. But there are so many other forms of public demonstration—of promulgating the values of critical inquiry. We need to recognize that public philosophy is a different beast, often with very different goals.
2. Be supportive.
Definitely be supportive emotionally, but also be supportive in public practice. Share, retweet, post. The other parts of the humanities are much better at this sort of thing than we are. The sociologists, the social psychologists: they retweet and repost each other, constantly. And they do it even if they don’t agree with every bit of the content—especially for any publicly-oriented piece. By pooling every individual academics’ followers, these pieces climb up the Twitter algorithm and get seen by more and more people outside of their discipline.
Philosophers just don’t do that. And we could, and it would be easy.
And if you’re worried that somebody might call you out for posting something that might be wrong, or that you might be taken to be endorsing a view, there is all sorts of standard language you can use to ward that off. “Here’s an interesting new piece by…”
3. Try new formats.
It’s so easy to get stuck in the mindset of writing and lecturing, and to do all your public philosophy in that mold: public essays and public lectures. But there are so many other formats we could use, especially if our goal is to highlight the methodology and mindset of philosophy. YouTube. Podcasts. Ethics bowls. Casual open-ended late-night chats. Ian Olasov has been setting up booths at farmers’ markets, block parties, and home goods stores, labelled “Ask a Philosopher,” stocking them with a few local philosophers, and letting anybody chat to them about anything. Several philosophers I know are getting their students involved in public philosophy with assignments that result in real live online philosophy: blog posts, Reddit conversations, Tweets, and more.
Here’s one idea: why don’t philosophers do more interviews? I mean philosophers asking questions, especially of non-philosophers, and publishing journalistic-style Q&A interviews. We could be interviewing artists, politicians, urban planners, doctors, activists, farmers, social works, and more. Because philosophers aren’t just good at arguing—we’re good at asking questions. Deep, interesting questions. There’s some irony the fact that philosophers tout the value of open-minded inquiry, but usually do so in public only by talking and writing at other people. If our goal is to exhibit the roots of critical reflection and inquiry, one of the ways we could do it is by displaying, in public, a genuinely open-minded, questioning, and exploratory attitude.
That’s what we can do as individuals. But I also think there are some systematic changes we can make. Here I’m addressing those of you with some kind of institutional power.
4. Universities and departments: reward public engagement.
This means, among other things, writing into tenure and promotion and hiring criteria language about public engagement. A few places, like the UK, have started doing this sort of thing. The academic infrastructure in the US, on the other hand, is radically lacking in anything along these lines. But doing public philosophy right takes time, energy, and soul energy. Right now, for most of us, if you’re chasing a job or tenure, then writing public philosophy won’t help you at all. From the institution’s perspective: it’s just a distraction from the only thing that really matters, which is publishing articles. If we really want to support and encourage public philosophy, we need to make it count, in cold, hard institutional currency. And some of our organizations are starting to push for exactly this—although I haven’t yet seen much actual change along these lines.
But we can think even bigger. The field of history, for example, has people—even at fancy universities—whose main job is writing publicly accessible works of history. (They even have a professional organization, the National Council on Public History, devoted to that cause.) And when you have specialists in public work, those specialists take students and train them in the ways of public engagement. Thus, all that hard-earned skill and wisdom for doing good public engagement doesn’t get lost between the generations. We need to do that too. Because writing philosophy to the public is a peculiar and incredibly hard skill, and right now most of us who are trying do it are having to reinvent the wheel, on our own.
Here’s a suggestion for a first step: we could start the practice of making “Public Philosophy” an area of competence (AOC) or specialization (AOS). If we actually cared about this kind of thing, we could put out jobs for people who did, say, ethics or whatever, but also did public philosophy. And those people could teach the occasional class on that very special skill. This would do a huge amount to help preserve and promulgate the hard-earned skills of public philosophy. And, at the same time, we can make more and better resources available online. There are some resources available online, and the occasional conference session on it, but that’s just the beginning. We need so much more.
And we need to reach beyond the limits of our profession. I recently got to attend a workshop on public writing for philosophers run by a professional journalist and editor. They ripped the hell out of papers and pointed out all the alienating bits that stunk of academic insiderism. So, to the people holding the purse-strings: fund this kind of thing! If we, as philosophers, actually care about public philosophy, it can’t just be a side-gig. It has to be systematically supported. We need public philosophy to count; we need to throw resources at it; we need to train people into it.
5. Journals: be explicit that public-facing presentations of work do not preclude its subsequent academic publication.
This is a small point, but it is representative of the kind of small institutional fixes that we will need to make, all over the place.
I’ve been an editor at a philosophy of art blog for a while, and the worry I keep hearing from my contributors is: “Will writing a short blog version of my paper about this topic endanger my ability to publish the full version?” Unfortunately, I can’t really give people an answer, because there is no standard. We want philosophers to be able to blog about their ideas or to write those pithy op-eds without worrying about losing academic publications. This is especially important for those of us working on issues like the nature of structural injustice, racism, misogyny, misinformation, and political polarization. Because if philosophy really matters, then we probably shouldn’t make philosophers wait, like, two years for their scholarly articles to get published before they can write those op-eds.
I suggest that editors of journals adopt some simple, collective standard. How about something like: “The publication or presentation of an argument in a public-facing venue does not preclude its publication in this journal, provided that the previously-published version contains less than one-fourth of the content of the version submitted to be published here (instances in which the one-fourth limit is exceeded may be negotiated on a case-by-case basis).” This way, a standard op-ed of 1000 words won’t endanger the publication of a standard journal article. And I’d bet that, if a few major journals adopted such a standard, the rest would follow the precedent.
* * * * *
To speak bluntly: the world is in crisis. It’s war, the soul of humanity is at stake, and the discipline that has been in isolation training for 2000 years for this very moment is too busy pointing out tiny errors in each other’s technique to actually join the fight. We’re busy fussing about jobs, publications, the review process, and all the other minutiae of the academy. Our discipline needs to step up. We need to do philosophy in the world. We need to change our musty norms to support that public engagement. Or we will render ourselves irrelevant through our own inaction.
image: photo by Nick Pacione, Explosions in the Sky series
The AOS idea is interesting but it might be a bit coarse-grained. I do quite a bit of popular communication, but it’s all on conceptual problems in physics. I’d be a very bad choice if you wanted, say, a philosopher to talk about Brexit!Report
I read that suggestion a little bit differently. I was thinking that the idea was not that the person with a public philosophy AOS would thereby be in a position to do public philosophy on any subject, but rather that they would have the skills and knowledge to teach people how to do public philosophy. (And possibly also to do research on public philosophy.) Obviously one would expect such a person to do public philosophy, too, though not necessarily on subjects outside of their other AOS’s.Report
Perhaps calling it an AOC is more accurate?Report
Great article! Nice to see mention of Ethics Bowl; participating in Ethics Bowl in high school helped stoke my interest in philosophy (and later academic philosophy).Report
Yes, public Philosophy is greatly in our contemporary age.
Philosophy is for all of humanity abd should not be chained to the prison of the academia.
We live in an information age. Scorates is an example of what Philosophy should be.
We should bring it to the public so that Philosophy can benefit the Masses.Report
Yes,I agree with your statement.
I happen to be African.In Africa and in many traditional indigenous communities(pre-industrial economic stage) that still dominate the world;philosophers are practicing their version of philosophy in the market places,in the folk dance halls,in communal and or familial gatherings.
They are residents and or itenerants as the case may be.
If you want to take an example from ancient Greece ,Socrates was a griot in a manner of speaking.
Public philosophy is democratic and readily available to the broader citizenry..All of us can promote it with differing depths and levels of proficiency.Report
Absolutely agree on all points. Years ago, philosophers basically fragmented into two camps: continental philosophers who addressed popular social/ethical/existential questions in a manner that was almost totally incomprehensible to ordinary people, and analytic philosophers who denied that such questions were even meaningful. This was an absolute disaster for our field, since we needlessly ceded a huge amount of territory to other academic fields, to the billion-dollar self-help industry and (now) to angry conservatives on Youtube.
By the way, there are many lessons here for those in our field who count themselves as strong progressives interested in real social change. From a certain perspective, it’s bizarre that progressives have crowded into research universities, satisfied in the resulting sense of political solidarity, seemingly unaware that in focusing their energy on academic activity they’ve basically abandoned the battlefield. More people will watch a Jordan Peterson video *tomorrow* than will read all of the books and papers by all of the top social philosophers for the next 25 years.
A few heroic progressive academics are clearly trying to resist this slide into social irrelevance, but it remains the case that only people like Natalie over at Contrapoints have the sort of influence that can rival a Peterson or a Ben Shapiro. Why? Well, because Natalie is genuinely funny, aesthetically creative and edgy, because she’s really good at relating academic material to social issues in a way that ordinary people can understand, and because she humbly acknowledges her own fallibility (and the fallibility of people on her side of these debates). So far as I can tell, academic philosophy contains multiple selection mechanisms which ensure that once one is institutionally secure enough to produce a Youtube video (i.e. at tenure) one is extremely unlikely to have any of these characteristics.Report
Your last line is so on point that I may have it tattooed on my arm.Report
Thank you for this article! I also wanted to mention that “1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology” ( https://1000wordphilosophy.com ) is another great forum for “public philosophy” and teaching materials. Please check it out, use the materials and contribute if you are able!Report
Thank you for writing this excellent article!Report
I think this is an absolutely necessary move that we need to make as philosophers. When I teach logic in particular I feel really uncertain about recommending *anything* on youtube, for example, because every related video is something like “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS naive leftist talking points with LOGIC.” Philosophers have really fallen behind right-wing grifters on getting these ideas into the public sphere.
That said, I’m worried that relying on tenure committees and journal editors to change institutional norms is more “fussing about…. the minutiae of the academy” as you said. I don’t think our institutions are going to save us. This isn’t so much a “reformism vs. revolution” point as it is a point about the structural role those institutions play. Whether we like it or not someone with tenure at an R1 is going to be seen as a certain kind of “academic authority” and so have a different cachet than someone who isn’t positioned that way. Do you have ideas about how we could build alternatives to the institutions we have now? How could recent grads, PhD students, and underemployed adjuncts or other off-tenure folks band together to make these institutions?
I don’t mean for this to come off as disorganizing; I think people with institutional power should use it for the greater good. I’m just hoping that those of us without that power can be doing something as well.Report
I feel like I have read more of these kinds of posts than examples of good public philosophy.
Show us, don’t tell us.Report
Nicholas, on that score I can highly recommend some of Thi’s other public-facing writing. Have a look at his webpage, especially under the heading “Short Pieces” here: https://objectionable.net/philosophy/. The Aeon article in the “Epistemology” section is also a good example, and although I haven’t listened to them, I bet the podcast appearances are worth a listen.Report
I think generosity and charity are important qualities in all philosophy, but especially in areas that need nurturing like public philosophy.
The great novelist Ken Kesey always talked about the importance of writers supporting each other, given the loneliness of the craft.
He like to say, “Just remember, it’s just as hard to write a bad novel as a good one!”Report
“You have to be big, you have to sketch loosely, you have to rush distinctions. You have to reach, hard, for those pithy crystallizations. You have to care about elegance. You have to cram a deep idea into 1000 words, 800 words, a single goddamn Tweet. And to do that, you have to simplify.” But isn’t philosophy about complicating things? And not about simplifying them? Isn’t philosophy exactly what is NOT a mass thing? Isn’t it, even in its public expression (Socrates) a conversation between two people and what they think and how they think? Isn’t it something that requires patience, and quiet, and leisure?
Sometimes, what I do find of value is philosophers speaking about matters of public interest – but that does not mean that they are doing philosophy. Or – philosophers using their background in philosophy, in a variety of ways, to do activism. That’s good too. Amazing often. But I can’t bring myself to see it as philosophy. It seems to me that we would not want to call the activity of someone who builds a house “physics” even if that person happens to be a physicist and happened to do something interesting in the house using his/her knowledge of physics. Still, he/she was building a house, not doing physics. But OK, maybe I should accept it – after all, Stoicism went quite public and is currently en vogue in public too. But is it Stoicism as self-help or as philosophy? I am not sure.
Two more points: you can, in a free market, capitalist, bla-bla world, only “flood” the airways with things for which there is demand. I don’t see any demand for philosophy. For spirituality, and such yes. For wisdom, yes. But for philosophy? For that thing that most people still do find really annoying and useless? I mean – we cannot get across to most of our fellow academics, forget general public.. I am sure there is some demand, but probably in the extent of demand for NPR or less – demand from people who are already interested anyways. Second, I can think of one change – introduce philosophy to high-schools as it is in many European countries as part of required curriculum. That might, after some time, bring a change…and maybe create a demand…Report
If someone is considering philosophical issues, weighing the case for and against, isn’t that doing philosophy? Aren’t our undergradduate students doing philosophy?
It seems to me that almost everyone is doing philosophy. Many are doing it badly and could use our help.
As for demand, we don’t know how much demand there is before we make serious efforts to tap it. We also need to think about what we should do to create demand. People can become interested in something they weren’t interested in before.
However much demand there is, we should work to fill it. What good are professional philosophers if our ideas never leave philosophy departments?Report
I’d say that is a form of philosophy. If one thinks of philosophy as the study of the normative sciences of aesthetics, logic, and ethics (a la Peirce), then philosophy is the rational, because self-critical, exercise of capacities that we possess in nascent form as the biologically sensitive, thinking, and acting things we are. So while it may be true that the kind of thing we do in philosophy is done by pretty much everyone all the time, it’s important to note that philosophy, as the self-conscious exercise of these capacities, may not be very common at all.
Where it isn’t common, and the public discourse sinks sufficiently low, there will be a need for more of that sort of thing, I think. And all the evidence suggests we’re in something like a period of glut when it comes to the supply of philosophers.
Concerning demand, I’ll echo something said a couple times already: there should be more effort on the part of the profession to fund programs sending philosophers and philosophers-in-training into the public schools. I’ve done it in three U.S. States and the Czech Republic, and there’s clearly an interest in this kind of thing, both among students and administrators. Had the APA decided to fund a project some friends of mind submitted when we were living in Pittsburgh, a program we set up in an elementary school there might still be running. And there’s social-scientific evidence that this kind of instruction, for as little as a once a week for a single school year, makes a difference in kids’ learning abilities years after the instruction has ceased. There’s plenty of reason to put more effort into these sorts of programs. I hope more of them are pursued in the future.Report
“It seems to me that almost everyone is doing philosophy” – if this is what you take to be philosophy. It’s like when I get into a taxi in Greece, and the guy tells me – in Greece, we are all philosophers! Then there is plenty of public philosophy already! I really think this is as far from truth as possible. It is true, I think, that a philosopher can see philosophical issues constantly popping out in everyday life and discourse, just like a physicists can see how the laws of physics apply to and are continuously demonstrated around us. But that does not mean that people are doing philosophy or physics. That seems to me, sorry, just a kind of nonsense. The problem is that mostly nobody is doing philosophy…even when they should.
But I am still abit puzzled as to what the big need for philosophy should be? I mean, I love philosophy. But I am not sure why I should want to impose it on general public. Why should we create demand for it? Are we some sort of capitalist corporation, trying to create a demand so we can sell our own stuff? What is the great benefit? Aren’t there many other worthwhile and life-enriching things people could/should be doing and many more that are more urgent? Is the fact that I like philosophy a reason enough to proselytize? I worry that as with many things, the general public will use it to the worst of ends. Kitsch and bad art, cheap self-help religion and quasi-intellectuals sell way more than good art, thoughtful theology or real philosophy. Or are we talking about teaching them values too? What are we trying to achieve? Just the survival of philosophy at universities? So our own self-interest? On the other hand, my general experience is that philosophy is not something public will really like anyway. They like quick, big ideas and deep sounding stuff. Not making subtle distinctions, entertaining counter-examples, and making thought-experiments. Maybe for 5 minutes, like Cephalos in the REpublic, before it gets too tiring..
In any case, I do think there is public philosophy already – as Lisa Shapiro noted. And there are other things – Carl Cranor’s work on toxic substances is a good example. It’s philosophy done for the benefit of public. Not advertisement to make philosophy look like what it is not to make it attractive to general public as being fun. I think that is a much better way.Report
Hi JJ – I can’t speak for others, but my sense of a need for public philosophy right now results from a view of the generally deplorable state of news reporting and public discourse today. I’m convinced that, given our training, we are well equipped to get into the middle of some of these confusions and try to help sort them out.
But as I see it, the issue of the demand/supply relationship is a question of how to best use the resources we produce in academia. We appear to be in the midst of a glut of PhDs in philosophy, and in the humanities generally.
It seems there’s little we can or are willing to do about the supply side of things, for instance by collectively slowing down the intake of students. Another way of raising the wages and standard of work for PhDs is to expand the demand side. One way of doing that, and which seems to help young people in their learning across the board, is to teach them philosophy.
I don’t think it’s very hard to see how this might go. It doesn’t take much work to set up programs that offer k-12 teaching opportunities for students in PhD-granting departments, and more departments are doing so. Programs like this both provide PhD students an opportunity to apply their skills outside the academy, and provide a service to local communities. Insofar as philosophers can transfer that skill-set to endeavors that fall outside the academic job track, this will ease up pressure on the supply-side of the market by increasing the demand side.
And I can’t stress enough how rewarding it is to share Plato’s account of justice in the city and the soul, or Aristotle’s theory of virtue as a ground for the flourishing of rational agency, with young people. We need philosophy in the way a plant needs water.Report
1) “my sense of a need for public philosophy right now results from a view of the generally deplorable state of news reporting and public discourse today. I’m convinced that, given our training, we are well equipped to get into the middle of some of these confusions and try to help sort them out.” I recognize this view, I don’t really share it (in the sense that I find philosophers neither better nor worse at this kind of thing than linguistis, political scientists, sociologists, or psychologists, or mathematicians, or people who are neither, just generally well-educated and sensible). You are in Czech Republic where most liberal arts students have to study some philosophy, including journalists. Does it make any difference? Maybe, I am not sure. I am not sure that people who did not go through such education are worse than those who did. But, in any case, is that a reason for public philosophy, or for philosophers to engage in public affairs? It seems to me the latter (again, in Czech Republic, there are some well-known examples from T.G.M. and Patocka being the most well-known).
2) I am not sure about the raising of demand.strategy. HArd to evaluate. But I agree about too many PhD’s – but not only because there are not enough jobs. I think there might be too many philosophers!!
3) “We need philosophy in the way a plant needs water.” – Sure, but do we need philosophy, or do we need to know, as Aristotle would put it. We need art and science. WE need to be creative and understand things. Neither of these things is particularly the sphere of philosophy.
I have a view of philosophy as a kind of luxury enterprise of rich societies, with strong middle and upper class who have enough financial security (not perhaps individually, but in terms of their social circles, society). I DO NOT BELIEVE (pace Schwitzgebel on the other post) that we need diversity and equal representation in philosophy, even less from less elite institution – it’s pretty awful idea I think, very corporation like. I believe that what we need is to tackle poverty and wealth distribution. I think we need to find ways for people from poor backgrounds to improve their material lives. and for that goal to make such education available to them that enables them to earn decent living. Simultaneously, we need to fifht for much better wages for farm and factory workers, and many others so that those jobs enable good living too. That’s where your diverse society exists already. In poverty. When they have less to worry about whether breaking leg will bankrupt them, or whether they can afford another set of glasses, then they might be interested in whether water is H2O necessarily or not. To argue that we should open their ways to philosophy is, to my mind, irresponsible and escapist, kinda self-congratulory off-shoot of Aristotle’s best life beign the one of contemplation. It’s what philosophers come up because they are philosophers and like what they do. Note your last paragraphs – it’s about what you like, not what is good for the students.Report
Yeah JJ, it does seem our divergence comes down to a different conception of what philosophy is. If one sees philosophy as a luxury enterprise of rich societies it will certainly sound irresponsible and escapist to think that the large numbers of underemployed philosophers can or should be put to use in grappling with the problems of contemporary public discourse, or introducing philosophy into the schools outside the academy. I can see how someone with that view would come to that conclusion.
On the other hand, if one sees philosophy as the study of the normative sciences, in the sense of Peirce that I mentioned above, then philosophy is not simply a luxury enterprise for the rich and privileged – it’s the rational (because self-critical) exercise of capacities to sense, think, and act that we possess as the natural things we are. On this view, philosophical inquiry into the beautiful, the true, and the good is the purview of the privileged few only where the study of philosophy is restricted to the privileged few. It may be that the people recognized as philosophers tend to live lives of luxury in rich societies, but the thing those people are engaged in need not be so conceived. And I think Peirce (and Plato, Aristotle, Kant, etc.) give us a better view of what we’re up to, one that’s grounded in an understanding of the human organism as the kind of thing it is.
Anyway, the data on the impact of early philosophical instruction suggests that it does make a difference in learning indices across the board, for years after instruction has ceased (my remark on how rewarding I find the teaching was not supposed to be “what it’s about” for me, though I do think the joy of teaching is an intrinsic good). I’ve discussed some of this data here:
I hope this proposal gets the uptake it’s asking for. There is a growing population of underemployed philosophers. If provided the training and opportunity, they (we) could make a meaningful effort to set up and sustain lines of intelligent public conversation. I’ve begun introducing topics of contemporary public concern into my critical thinking classes, and it’s pretty clear that people want to talk about these things, and to do so clearly and carefully.
Venues like Aeon and Quillette offer promising models for public engagement, and at least a few philosophers are taking advantage of them. When it comes to motivating the academic respectability of the public-facing philosophical essay, the Heterodox Academy has done some of the preparatory heavy lifting. The reading list for their conference this June includes a number of essays that speak to the concerns that public intellectuals must face today, at least in the United States.
The conference also included talks with titles like “The Role of Liberal Education in Discerning the Truth in a Post-Truth Era” and “How a University Shaped My Soul”, and panel discussions over subjects like “Which Ideas Gain Entry into the Academy? Who Decides? How?” and “Critical Questions about the Relationships among Viewpoint Diversity and Other Aspects of Diversity”. Given the worries that philosophers sometimes voice about these issues, more interaction with the Heterodox Academy would seem in order.
I want to put a slightly different spin on this. I agree that, to the extent these barriers exist, philosophers should work to replace them with productive channels through which public philosophy can flow out from the academy. But learning what I have about the job market over the last few years, I’m of the mind that most of us simply should not put so much stock in the tenure-track route through the discipline. And the public-facing philosopher is one means of putting the education we’ve received to good use. If the discipline doesn’t recognize the value in that, so much the worse for academic philosophy – but we who are toiling away at the edges of the academy should, I think, be engaged in the project regardless. Nothing in the OP contradicts any of this, but I wanted to bring it to salience in light of the worry that public philosophy may not help us get tenure.Report
Here’s some public philosophy Thi omitted. #6: If you’re a true philosopher, as much as possible, live an ethically sound life. A minimal condition would be to not publicly promote the consumption of meat. I can’t take philosophers who purport to be concerned for the public at large seriously who ignore the obvious and egregious environmental and ethical harm wrought by the meat and dairy industries.Report
I suggest rule #7: do not assert that a claim is obvious or uncontroversial when many intelligent, informed people disagree with it.Report
I want to quibble with the claim that philosophy has been in “isolation training for 2000 years”. It has not. The history of philosophy is FULL of people doing what might be legitimately be called public philosophy. I’m going to start in the 17th century because that is what I know best, but I know the Renaissance if full of publicly engaged philosophers. I would count Montaigne and Descartes among these people. Montaigne invented a genre — the essay — to convey a humanist core to the masses; Descartes’s Discourse on Method was written for a popular audience (in French) and it was the first thing he published. There are a slew of public philosophers in the Montaignean and Cartesian traditions — many of whom are women and who are arguing for equality of the sexes (Gournay, Poulain de la Barre) and for women’s education ( van Schurman, Poulain again, Madame de Maintenon, Astell), and that’s just the 17th century. The long 18th century brings further public philosophy in defence of rights, of all human beings, and in particular of women. (Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Mill and Taylor). And of course the 19th century is full of arguments for abolition and women’s rights, and for social justice more generally. We just don’t tell our history of philosophy in a way that highlights that some real philosophical achievements are undertaken through public engagement. We ought to start doing that more. Philosophy has always been publicly engaged…we just need to recognize that.Report
This is true, and a correction of some of the remarks I made above. I do find, once one puts it this way, a lot of public philosophy (for example the writings of Conte-Sponville, or novels of Musil or Kundera). But my understanding is that what now gets pushed as public philosophy is not that since that is still too slow, too intellectual, too complicated and requiring patience and reflection beyond listening to a 15 mins Ted talk, quick podcast or reading a tweet. If public philosophy is what you are talking about (Lisa S.), It’s already there and it’s great even now…Report
I agree with all the sentiments here, but I still need to quibble. Every one of these paeans to public philosophy I read has a paragraph like this.
> First of all, the disciplinary incentives don’t support public philosophy. For most of us, writing op-eds and making YouTube videos doesn’t help you get a job, get tenure, or get promoted. But it’s worse than that. Our discipline actively resists public philosophy.
And I don’t remotely see the evidence for it. I’m pretty sure my pre-tenure career wouldn’t have gone as well as it did without public facing work. And I don’t think I’m making a huge mistake when I include long descriptions of the public facing work Michigan grad students do when I write reference letters. It’s impossible to do apples to apples comparisons, but I feel Michigan’s placement has overall gone better since we’ve got away from pitching our graduates as just being excellent teachers and journal article writers, and towards stressing how many different ways our students contribute philosophically.
Of course the job market is random and capricious. Some people do great public facing work and don’t get professional rewards. Some people write amazing journal articles and don’t get much reward. More people are amazing teachers and don’t get much reward. But that’s very different from saying it is actively resisted, or even that it is ignored. On average, I think the job market does reward public facing work – in its usual unfair, opaque, idiosyncratic, random ways.
And this matters, because it matters how students and junior faculty think about the incentives they face. I think a lot of grad students (and post-docs) are underestimating how much these non-traditional things matter. At a certain point in the hiring process, everyone has some good papers in good journals. Spending your time adding an n+1’th article in an ok journal to the CV isn’t actually that helpful. What is helpful is standing out – setting up an Ethics Bowl; teaching philosophy in prisons or to at risk youth or to elementary school children; having a successful podcast, or YouTube channel or Instagram feed (or whatever the kids use these days now that Facebook and Twitter are for olds). Could this stuff be rewarded more than it is? Sure. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t rewarded at all, or that it is even punished.Report
I completely agree. It’s a myth that our field resists or punishes public philosophy. I don’t know where it came from, but I hope it doesn’t make younger philosophers wary of doing it.Report
I’m glad that you’ve never seen resistance to public philosophy. That has not been my experience at all. I’d like to hear what other writers of public philosophy have to say.Report
A very belated thought on this manifesto and Brian’s comment. “Public philosophy” is such a heterogeneous category that it is not that useful to make a univocal generalization either way with respect to academic career incentives. At least as I see it:
There’s a class of “public philosophy” that is clearly career-wise good, formally and informally, when they are “public intellectual” sort of things. While philosophers and academics may not be the only target audience, they are still amongst the target audience. This class includes pieces in NYT, TLS, Aeon, etc., being quoted in similar venues, or appearances on NPR, ABC, Philosophy Talk, etc.
There’s a class of “public philosophy” that has some informal benefits, like raising one’s profile, but no formal benefits. Blog, youtube videos, etc. seem to be in this category. But they can move up or down depending on, well, their audience size and composition.
Then, there’s a class of “public philosophy” that does seem to me not properly rewarded, like doing ethics bowl for high school students, teaching in prisons, or even talking to children about philosophy at Saturday storytimes. At least my impression is that the majority of people do this really cool and really necessary work without much props coming their way, at least compared to the public intellectual class of public philosophy. Sure, sometimes people do get profiled in NPR or whatever (but that often depends on their existing institution prestige), and maybe graduate students get some mentions in their letters (as Brian says), but I think they are exceptions.
And it’s my hope that, insofar as we’re trying to ameliorate the incentives system for public philosophy, it is this last class of people and work that we focus on.Report
Outstand article. I couldn’t agree more.
For more debate on this, I recommend Essays in Philosophy, vol. 1, issue 1, 2014, which is devoted to the issue.Report
Supporting public philosophy is an excellent idea. The world would be a better place if many more people adopted a philosophical spirit of inquiry. The more we can promote that by introducing philosophical thinking to the public, and by trying to serve as positive role models for would-be inquirers, the better.
There are some ways in which we can be effective in our public philosophizing: we can become better at remembering that lay readers have limited patience for articles that require them to wade through pages of subtly different definitions before they get to the meat of the issue, and that they may find a reliance on jargon and name-dropping rather tiresome and alienating. (Actually, watching out for these things might be a good habit for more professional writing, also!) But it seems to me that there are other ways in philosophers might miss the chance to give the right impression in their public writings.
In our increasingly politically polarized culture, many laypeople (and perhaps some philosophers) have little appreciation of the value of disinterested, honest inquiry. Rather than patiently investigating issues, they form their opinions in advance and read and write what they do solely to find people to applaud, copy, mock, or attack. Even a perfectly good philosophical argument, when presented to such people, becomes nothing more than a club with which to bash their opponents’ heads. The philosopher’s work is then digested as nothing more than useful sophistry.
If we are to help provide something more than weapons in a fight between two factions that never seriously question their allegiances or even care about fighting fairly, it would be good if we could provide a taste of actual philosophical practice? How? Here are a few rough ideas, which I invite others to add to and criticize.
1. Be scrupulous in representing interlocutors fairly. If those of your own sociopolitical allegiance sees you making a case against the other side but carefully pointing out that another common attack against that side is a fallacy that a serious arguer ought not stoop to, they will see what they may not have seen before: someone who is more interested in arguing fairly than in making every possible cheap shot. Meanwhile, those on the other side may see that they have more reason to listen to you.
2. Convey the correct impression that you see your interlocutors as indispensable allies in the quest for truth and right conduct. Players who speak well of the worthiest people on opposite teams show that they are principled lovers of the game and of good sportsmanship rather than just fanatics or one-sided orators, and convey the impression that honest inquirers learn from their encounters with their ideological opposites.
3. When possible (as often), bring clarity to an issue in an unbiased manner.
4. Even if there really is nothing you can think of saying in support of the other side of the matter, there are ways in which one can convey a spirit of fair inquiry rather than dogmatism. For instance: “In this article, I have argued that everyone committed to A must also be committed to either B or C. I have also argued that B and C both have unacceptable consequences. Therefore, if the reasoning I’ve presented here is correct, A, despite how commonly it is held, is indefensible. While I cannot yet see any way that my reasoning goes wrong, it remains possible that it does, and I invite others to show exactly where it does. Unless and until such an error can be shown, however, we seem tentatively warranted in rejecting A.”Report
I’m very sympathetic to these points, but I worry that your two lines of advice are in conflict.
The lack of patience that you identify in your second paragraph puts a severe limit on how much of your numbered point (1) we can do. How much patience is such an audience likely to have for distinguishing fallacious argument A1 from flawed argument A2 from strong argument A3?
In online conversations with relatives, I find it hard to even get them to stick with their own line of argument long enough to examine it. I can’t fact-check false claims about Congressional votes on immigration or even ask for evidence in support of wildly implausible claims without the conversation immediately turning to an unrelated discussion of something from AOCs twitter account, how bad the economy was under Obama, or how Democrats are in favor of infanticide. (Lest this be interpreted as purely a malady of the American right, it should be noted that more liberal friends of these relatives then eagerly join in with the mutual insults and nonsequiturs, making it formally indistinguishable from a college football rivalry.)
For such an audience, any attempt to model good discourse is impossible, since there isn’t even an attempt to examine or evaluate the form of reasoning – only to agree or disagree with the conclusion. Even those who show some nominal commitment to ‘reason’ are easily satisfied with ad hominem dismissals of evidence or arguments that don’t support their point and happy to fix on any plausible sounding argument that supports their position. Such people are easy prey for debater-style sophists. But of course the difficulty of distinguishing philosophers from sophists goes back to the beginnings of our philosophical tradition.
Finally, I worry that the attempt at disinterested honest inquiry about certain issues can itself be alienating. My touchstone for this is a passage from Frederick Douglass’s 4th of July oration in which he rejects the demands for dispassionate argument from abolitionists. Taking up a dispassionate stance is not always an exercise in polite neutrality – sometimes it involves treating the basic humanity and social standing of one’s interlocutors into question. Should we really be dispassionate about the forcible separation and detention of immigrant families? Should we really be dispassionate about whether American Muslims should have the same rights and freedom as other citizens? (Again, this isn’t just a left-right issue. How can I begin to engage my anti-abortion friends and family in reasoned discourse when they think that what we are talking about is no less than the mass murder of babies?)Report
Hi, Derek. Thanks for your note.
You raise an interesting point at the beginning. I concede that, as you say, that asking laypeople to be patient as we lay out some philosophical groundwork is difficult whether one is taking the time to distinguish thirty four different definitions of democracy or, say, clarifying a distinction between an interlocutor’s actual position or argument and a straw man. However, I don’t think the second kind of thing tends to require quite as much patience; and more important, I see the second sort of thing as being almost indispensable to proper philosophy.
It needn’t be long and tedious, either. For instance, suppose I’m arguing in favor of abortion rights. I can point out quite quickly that the glib line ‘Don’t want an abortion? Don’t have one!’ is facile and misses the issue, as does the attempt at mind-reading that goes, “Anyone who opposes abortion is only interested in taking power away from women”. If, rather than abortion, we were to argue for the right to kill one’s inconvenient five-year-old children, would we really defend the practice by these means? But to most of those who oppose abortion, there is little moral difference between killing an embryo and killing a five-year-old. It adds clarity and focus to the debate to acknowledge that there are principled reasons why someone might think this, but that there are also reasons for thinking that embryos and five-year-olds might not be morally in the same category. That’s the sort of thing I see as a useful contribution by philosophers-qua-philosophers to the public debate. Will every lay person have the patience to read it through? Probably not! But some will, and some can be coaxed into it. And we only need a few.
You ask a second point: is it really right to demand of anti-abortionists that they try to listen dispassionately to arguments from pro-choicers? Was it really right to demand of abolitionists that they try to listen dispassionately to arguments from defenders of slavery? Yes, that is exactly what philosophy demands of us, and it is just that sort of self-discipline that I think we need most. Some people might find themselves constitutionally incapable of exercising that sort of patience when the issue is too close to home, and they might find that they lack the inclination to condition themselves to be able to do that. All right, philosophical reflection is not for them, at least there. But if society, and even philosophy(!) were to give a free pass to any anti-abortionist who said, “Sorry, I’m not going to listen dispassionately to your argument for the permissibility of abortion: I know in my bones that I’m right and you’re wrong”, what exactly would become of the world? What terrifying alternative means of conflict resolution would you advocate?
I think that many today find it easy to be permissive with those who refuse to listen dispassionately to those who hold alternative views. But these same people are surrounded by like-minded others, and are embedded in institutions that support and promote their same views. Douglass could afford to take the view that he did because he could see the direction in which general public opinion on slavery was going. But what if the pro-slavery forces had been in the ascendancy, and it had been the slave-owners who had been saying, “Sorry, I can’t be expected to listen dispassionately to you abolitionists as you oppose our way of life.” Would he have felt that was a good general principle then? Or would he have demanded, as I think he should have, that people take the time to consider whether he might be right after all?Report
What a cool read! I’m a poet with an interest in the philosophical, and I think that the literary and philosophical fields suffer from the same problem. Largely, I think we get cooped up in academia and forget how we can range into the civic arena. Festivals or less academic focused conventions seem to be popping up more and more. Like the Divedapper Poetry Carnival, or Stoic Con.
Another great example of a current figure is Peter Rollins, regardless of if you agree with him. He hosts regular live events, runs a podcast, etc.
I’m interested to see how both disciplines progress into the future.Report
Thanks for this rousing and insightful manifesto! 25 years ago, I felt exactly what you describe and left a wonderful position as professor of philosophy at The University of Notre Dame to launch out in an adventure as a “public philosopher” – a self imposed label, rare at the time, that generated a lot of perplexity and fun loving digs. Ralph Waldo Emerson did it a long time ago, without university affiliation, going to where people were, in civic groups, churches, and business meetings, to bring needed wisdom into people’s lives. I thought, “We have lots of great philosophers in classrooms, maybe we need a few on the loose to go to where people are,” so I “gave up” my guaranteed job-for-life to go explore the world. But you don’t need to leave academia to have a public impact. You just have to connect with people who aren’t professional academics, where they live, and with the interests and needs they have. After a dozen or so university press books with Oxford, Cornell, Notre Dame and the like, I started writing public philosophy in books like True Success (Putnam), If Aristotle Ran General Motors (Henry Hold), If Harry Potter Ran General Electric (Doubleday) and Philosophy for Dummies (Wiley). Then I began the unexpected adventure of writing philosophical novels that no agent wanted to see, so I created my own publishing group and imprint (go see http://www.TheOasisWithin.com for the results), and now I’ll be publishing the work of a few other public philosophers. It’s hard, it’s demanding, and you have to be comfortable operating far outside the proverbial zone, but it’s greatly rewarding when you see your work make a difference for people struggling to live good lives in a world going crazy. If anyone wants to see my little part of this world or ask for advice, I’m at http://www.TomVMorris.com. I encourage all of you who are considering a more public role to go whatever you can to bring our tradition of clear thought and ethical concern to a world that obviously needs it!Report
Reflecting on Justin Kalef’s remarks: one option for collectively fostering public-facing philosophy is to target a journal or other venue for conversing with one another and getting our ideas out to the public. On that front, Civil American looks promising. It was founded after SOPHIA (the Society of Philosophers in America) restructured in 2015 so as to focus on the role of philosophy in the community, and it’s pitched as something like a philosophical equivalent to Scientific American.
They see the journal as:
They’re looking for essays of 700 – 3000 words. The publishing context is American, but they say elsewhere that SOPHIA is international in scope and membership. If we had a critical mass contributing to a venue like Civil American, we might be able to drum up more support for the sorts of things people have been recommending here.
And since I’ve already mentioned C.S. Peirce twice upthread, it’s worth pointing out that Peirce, James, and Dewey each published in Popular Science Monthly. It’s really a bit of a sociological quirk that contemporary philosophical research in the U.S. is so divorced from public interest.
Anyway, Happy 4th of July to all the Americans!Report