Expertise and Public Philosophy


“Call me elitist, if you will. If that means a professional who knows that he knows more than non-professionals, then I’m happy to be an elitist.”

That’s Massimo Pigliucci, a professor of philosophy at City University of New York who has done a substantial amount of public philosophy. In a recent essay, “What on Earth Is Practical Philosophy?” he touches on the question of philosophical expertise in the context of public philosophy.

(image assembled by Justin Weinberg)

He takes as his foil some comments by Sharon Meagher, who was a philosophy professor and is now Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty at Marymount Manhattan College, and who was one of the co-founders of the Public Philosophy Network. Pigliucci quotes from Meagher’s 2013 report to the Kettering Foundation, “Public Philosophy: Revitalizing Philosophy as a Civic Discipline“:

Public philosophy is not simply a matter of doing philosophy in public. A truly public philosophy is one that demands that the philosopher both become a student of community knowledge and reflect on his or her public engagement, recognizing that philosophy can benefit as much from public contact as can the public benefit from contact with philosophy. The publicly engaged philosopher does not assume that he or she knows the questions in advance, but draws on his or her experiences in the community to develop and frame questions. Further, publicly engaged philosophy demands accountability on the part of the philosopher to his or her publics—understanding that philosophers are themselves members of those publics.

Pigliucci responds:

I respectfully disagree. The philosopher, as a professional, knows a heck of a lot more than the general public, and the learning that takes place—while indeed reciprocal—is not on the same level at all. To see how questionable Meagher’s position makes, imagine substituting the word “scientist” for “philosopher” and see how the whole thing reads. I find this self-denial of expertise on the part of (some) philosophers, coupled with an attitude of egalitarianism at all costs, both puzzling and irritating. Call me elitist, if you will. If that means a professional who knows that he knows more than non-professionals, then I’m happy to be an elitist. That’s why I go to doctors who know more medicine than I do.

I agree with Pigliucci that philosophers should not deny their expertise (though we may not exactly agree on the nature of that expertise), for various reasons, and said as much to a sizable group of public philosophers when I was invited to speak to them at the 2018 meeting of the Public Philosophy Network (my talk was entitled “If Everyone Can Do Philosophy… Then We’re Screwed”). But I also think that we ought to take seriously what Pigliucci mentions in passing: that the learning is reciprocal.

Earlier this year, in “Publicly Engaged Philosophy: A Dispatch,” Jennifer Morton, associate professor of philosophy at City College of New York, CUNY, wrote of “doing philosophy with the public not just because of what we think we can offer with our expertise, but because of what we think the public can offer philosophy.” She adds:

Maintaining a porous boundary between philosophy and non-philosophers is not simply about fixing our marketing problem or about bringing philosophical ideas to the public square. It is also about pushing those of us within the profession to consider a broader range of experiences in the philosophical work we do. 

She explains why non-philosophers might be particularly helpful to philosophers:

Philosophers tend to come from a narrow slice of the population. The worries about the profession’s elitismwhiteness, and maleness have been well-documented and discussed here and elsewhere. But even those of us who buck the demographic trends might find that after years of professional philosophy, we start to sound more and more like our colleagues than like the friends and family with whom we grew up. This is the predictable result of training, socialization, and years of immersion in the system of higher education. One might argue that this is the price of expertise. But it also means that even as the demographics of our profession continue to improve, our epistemic blinders might not be mitigated quite as rapidly. 

I appreciate Morton’s Millian considerations here, and, as I said, I agree with Pigliucci that philosophers should not relinquish the idea that we’re experts. I don’t think there’s a real conflict here: philosophers needn’t pretend to lack expertise in order to convey to our audiences that we can learn from them. But there are probably more and less effective ways to combine these in practice.

Discussion welcome.

Related: “Manifesto for Public Philosophy“, “The Variety and Value of Public Philosophy“, “Who Does Public Philosophy?“, “APA Issues Statement On Valuing Public Philosophy“, “Is the Public Receptive to Philosophy?“, “Epistemic Humility, Ideological Mercy, Legitimation, and Disagreement“, “How  is Good Public Philosophy Possible?

guest
32 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Joseph Biehl
1 year ago

Massimo’s analogy is problematic, as philosophers are not (qua philosophers) scientists. Philosophical expertise generally concerns modes of reasoned engagement in discussion (and with texts). Philosophers do not, as a rule, have proprietary knowledge concerning the virtually unlimited contents that might serve as the subject matter of such reasoned engagement. Indeed, the contents that tend to make for the most robust and rewarding engagements are not the sort that allows for much in the way of ‘knowledge’ at all (hence why they retain their philosophical interest).Report

Brandon Watson
Brandon Watson
1 year ago

I confess I don’t understand Pigliucci’s response to Meagher, since Meagher’s claim is not that there is no sense in which one might call professional philosophers experts but instead that it is not constructive in public philosophy to put oneself forward as an expert because it closes down questioning, suggests a neutrality philosophers engaging with the public often do not really have, and will be interpreted by the public as an attempt to put oneself forward as superior and the public as inferior. (And the linked Footnotes to Plato post shows that Pigliucci’s own experience proves the last one, at least.) And contrary to what Pigliucci seems to suggest, a lot of scientists active in public engagement seem to position themselves in that engagement as co-explorers, not as experts, for reasons analogous to those given by Meagher.Report

Pablo Hubacher
Pablo Hubacher
1 year ago

Even if we replace the word “philosophy/er” with “science/ist” I still agree with the quote. The example with going to the doctor seems polemic: is she doing *science* when fixing your knee? Compare this with the potentailly equally polemic of William James:

“The verbal and empty character of philosophy is surely a reproach with which we are, but too familiar. If pragmatism be true, it is a perfectly sound reproach unless the theories under fire can be shown to have alternative practical outcomes, however delicate and distant these may be. The common man and the scientist say they discover no such outcomes, and if the metaphysician can discern none either, the others certainly are in the right of it, as against him. His science is then but pompous trifling; and the endowment of a professorship for such a being would be silly.”Report

Ian Olasov
1 year ago

Of course professional philosophers are experts in *some* sense. The question is just what that expertise consists in and how we should act on it. As to what it consists in, think of all the constituents of what Kitcher calls the individual practice of a scientist: her language, her questions, the corpus of statements she accepts, the explanatory schemata she deploys, her sense of who counts as a credible informant, her sense of what counts as reliable study designs, her accepted rules and exemplars of reasoning. Most professional philosophers have a richer or more sophisticated philosophical practice than most non-professionals in at least some of these senses, although some will be controversial. (A philosopher might lexicalize distinctions other people can’t express clearly or unambiguously; she almost certainly has a deeper store of questions she regards as philosophical than the average person; if nothing else, she knows what other philosophers have said about some topic; she can readily identify other philosophers who are especially knowledgeable about certain subfields in philosophy; she has a store of philosophical arguments, objections, examples, thought experiments; she might be better able to spot fallacious or non-truth-conducive forms of argument than other philosophers.) Each of these is a variety of expertise. What the practical upshot of this is, I don’t know, but I think the reluctance to treat professional philosophers as experts at anything is only appealing as long as you don’t think very hard about the variety of forms that expertise can take.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
1 year ago

I am put in the very odd position of agreeing with Pigliucci, though I do not disagree with Meagher; at least insofar as this particular passage is concerned, (as B Watson has noted above) neither does he. The focus on the reciprocity (if not equivalence) of the learning process in public philosophy is important. Being an expert doesn’t mean having all the answers in advance, though it does entail a greater basis on which to judge possible answers.Report

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
1 year ago

It is often said we need to ask ‘regular’ people about things, partially because this constitutes a great opportunity of learning.

I would really personally appreciate some examples or anecdotes of this coming to fruition. If I try to explain something to non-philosophers I know and love, both educated and uneducated, it will take enormous effort for them to even understand the question or proposition, let alone offer some valuable feedback or insight on it. This is true of even the more ‘accessible’ kinds of philosophy, like ethics. My uneducated non-philosopher parents, for instance, can only ever really raise some nonsensical objection that demonstrates an outright lack of understanding about the question/proposition, or say some version of “that’s nice, dear.”

Maybe I’m not talking to the right people. But it seems to me such a general claim about the value of talking to people who are excluded from the valuable shared bodies of knowledge and training in inquiry requires either a good deal of tempering or some serious evidence.Report

Junior
Junior
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
1 year ago

I don’t think the links deliver what Grad Student4 asked for. Morton is interested in learning about others’ experience to help answer a question on which there was little philosophical knowledge (the ethics of upward mobility). Grad Student seems to ask instead for examples that illustrate the value of learning from non-philosophers about questions on which there is a good amount of literature (and, dare I say, philosophical knowledge—whatever that may consist in).
Are there examples of *that*?Report

Nicole
Nicole
Reply to  Grad Student4
1 year ago

I agree that in dialogue with total philosophical laypersons, who have only rudimentary knowledge of any particular topic being discussed, there is not much for the trained and seasoned philosopher to gain regarding philosophical insight. Perhaps s/he learns more about teaching, interacting with laypersons, how best to communicate with someone who doesn’t know the basics, etc. But after you’ve talked to enough laypersons, you realize, they’re, at the very best, coming to the same basic conclusions that greater minds have come to for thousands of years already.

The only exception would be, and that is touched on (though not articulated in this way) in the article Justin links to, having an exchange with a philosophical layperson, but one who has other sources of relevant expertise or experience. Hi-Phi Nation often interviews people who have that latter attribute, which indeed is a source of a lot of generation of good conversation and ideas. Barry Lam (imho) often fails to rise to the philosophical occasion, but I guess his goal is more neutral, to get people thinking than to come to any grand insights.

But that’s really more of an argument for more rigorous interdisciplinary efforts versus totally “public” philosophy in any sense that suggests a “free-for-all.”Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Nicole
1 year ago

That’s absolutely not my experience (and I work in very technical areas). The task of having to explain something to the lay or relatively-lay is, at least for me, incredibly clarifying as to where the points of weakness or inclarity are in my own grasp of the subject. It’s not that lay people (or indeed undergraduates, or grad students, or anyone who’s not an expert) is going to spontaneously come up with an entirely novel contribution; it’s that intelligent and engaged interlocutors really lead you identify the gaps in your own clear understanding.Report

Rollo Burgess
Rollo Burgess
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

That makes perfect sense, but I think that it is a slightly different point than what some people here are claiming, or than I read Meagher as saying.

Clearly even (perhaps especially) an expert in a technical field may improve their own understanding by explaining their ideas in simple terms, and by being questioned by intelligent but non-expert interlocutors, who may (for example) challenge or question assumptions and approaches that are so familiar to the expert that they have become invisible to them, force the expert to come up with imaginative and insightful analogies, etc. This is, I think, basically a dialectical process whereby the process of explaining and clarifying and responding to questions hones and improves the expert’s thinking.

But I don’t think that that is really a matter of the expert gaining knowledge from the non-expert, in the sense that Meagher seems to be claiming when she says that as a public philosopher a person should be a ‘student of community knowledge’.

Example: I’ve read your book, I understood quite a bit of it, but some bits went over my head or exceeded my amateurish technical grasp of the material. If I had the opportunity to question you on this, I’d learn lots, this would be a straightforward transfer of knowledge from you to me. The process of explaining to me and answering my questions *may*, as you say, enable you to clarify some aspect of your own understanding, but I don’t think that this would constitute a transfer of knowledge from me to you; it would be rather a process of you coming to achieve a clearer understanding of your own knowledge, or working your way to new knowledge…

I guess that the classic example of this process is Socrates, and his comparison of himself to a midwife of knowledge, who didn’t himself know anything…Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Rollo Burgess
1 year ago

Yes, I think that’s right: I was responding to Nicole’s post in its own terms. She says “in dialogue with total philosophical laypersons, who have only rudimentary knowledge of any particular topic being discussed, there is not much for the trained and seasoned philosopher to gain regarding philosophical insight” and that’s what I wanted to disagree with. I don’t think what I have in mind quite fits what Meagher is considering (I think it matters that he has in mind rather different sorts of philosophical topics from what I work on!)Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

he -> she, sorry. Mixing up the cast in the OP.Report

Nicole
Nicole
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

I agree with Rollo, that the insights you’re talking about are just realizing gaps in your own understanding and not really helping you gain or formulate new ideas per se.

Furthermore, I don’t quite see why this process is layperson-specific. Why wouldn’t a good conversation with another philosopher lead me to just as much, if not more insight into my own gaps?

What special perspective/understanding of the world do laypersons have that the professional philosophers have lost and have magically lost all independent access to? Seems like an epistemologically flawed tacit premise here.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Nicole
1 year ago

I don’t think I recognize the distinction, at least in philosophy, between “realizing gaps in your own understanding” and “gain[ing] or formulat[ing] new ideas”.

Beyond that, what the lay person (or more accurately the non-specialist) brings is a lack of immersion in the established literature. Most developed fields have a lot of common ground such that it’s often easy to miss tacit shared assumptions.

(For me, the sweet spot has usually been good undergraduates, who have some physics/philosophy training but aren’t familiar with the details.)Report

Nicole
Nicole
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

I guess if you’re a Kantian and you’re talking to another Kantian, for example, you might be prone to miss some tacit shared assumptions. But if you’re a Kantian talking to a, oh I dunno, Wittgenstein-ian, or Derrida-ian, you’re going to have your basic tacit assumptions questioned a-plenty. And, I assume, more thoroughly than any oh-so-bright-shining-star undergraduate could simply because they just don’t know enough yet.

But, hey, we’re just shooting off in to the abstract here and theorizing on the basis of our own limited direct and vicarious experiences and really, what we’d need to prove either side is some hard data. Since I’m unaware of how or where such data could be gathered, I’m happy to call a truce at this point.Report

Barry Lam
Reply to  Nicole
1 year ago

Maybe I’m just a bad philosopher. We need better ones who do rise to the occasion.Report

Nicole
Nicole
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
1 year ago

I’m not saying that in a “Barry Lam is a bad philosopher” kind of way. But, Barry, you’re not really trying to “rise to the occasion” either. Hi-Phi gets conversations started and opens up questions. It doesn’t really try to answer them. Not in any comprehensive sort of way, in any case. It’s good for what it’s trying to do, but doesn’t go further than that. Which is fine, because in trying to popularize philosophy, maybe you can’t go further without alienating lots of listeners, but we needn’t pretend that “amazing” equals “reaching a new level of philosophical analysis and insight” in the way that I think the podcast could, if the priorities were different.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Nicole
1 year ago

I assume Socrates didn’t rise to the occasion either, in your view…Report

Nicole
Nicole
Reply to  Joe
1 year ago

Hm… well, I can certainly see why you’re making the connection between the styles of Socrates and Barry, but really, they’re very distinct in both methodology, goals, and results in many ways.

Most importantly, Socrates is trying to get at a specific Truth/s through questioning, whereas Hi-Phi is really creating more questions and pointing in the direction of other fruitful avenues worth exploring. Very important work, but not quite the same thing.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Joe
1 year ago

Nicole: I do not think there is a general agreement about what Socrates method precisely aimed at besides that it aimed at testing the coherence of the interlocutor’s beliefs by attempting to refute their claims. And I think most people would agree (and it is often said) that enterprise aimed at something like “creating more questions and pointing in the direction of other fruitful avenues worth exploring.” Whether or not Socratic dialectic could even aim at some specific truths is a matter of dispute. And I would certainly not like to deny that Barry Lam avoids aiming at truths, in some general way at least, one that might well be compatible with Socrates.Report

Nicole
Nicole
Reply to  Joe
1 year ago

For example, Joe, the Republic is very clearly saying things about what Socrates (at least through Plato’s depiction) thinks the state and good citizens should look like and why.

“He will look at the city which is within him, and take heed that no disorder occur in it, such as might arise either from superfluity or from want; and upon this principle he will regulate his property and gain or spend according to his means.”

Seems pretty straightforward to me.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Joe
1 year ago

I think whatever else scholars think about the historical Socrates, they do agree that the positive doctrines of the Republic, Phaedo, or, say, the Sophist are not his but Plato’s own. At least I never heard anyone claiming that and Aristotle contradicts such possibility too. I think Socrates’ philosophical practice – as portrayed say in Euthyphro is more akin to what the historical person was doing (or so I have been taught). In which case, it’s not straightforward. I do think that if one accuses others of not rising to the occasion, one should rise to the occasion (of, say, discussing historical figures in philosophy) oneself.Report

Nicholas Tampio
1 year ago

I like working with editors who don’t care about your degrees, alma maters, books, reputation, or anything.

If your argument is strong and you have sources to support your facts, then the piece moves forward.

Saying “but I’m a philosopher!” won’t impress them much.Report

David Doyal
David Doyal
1 year ago

The general public and “public philosophers” don’t seem to know that Wittgenstein and friends have relegated philosophy to clarification and assigning questions to the appropriate branch of science.Report

djr
djr
Reply to  David Doyal
1 year ago

Anscombe doesn’t seem to have known that either.Report

David Doyal
David Doyal
Reply to  djr
1 year ago

Actually, she did know, and she practiced clarification (philosophical analysis) and seemed very aware of the futility of moral argumentation. She consigns the study of morality to psychology……and she describes moral argumentation rather than engaging in it.Report

Bharath Vallabha
1 year ago

Pigliucci is right about nature of academic phil. Grades, jobs, tenure review all assume asymmetry in expertise. If a professor should learn with non-academics as equals, why not also learn with her students as equals? Some profs claim to do that, but really, there is a reason one person is the prof and the student is not.

Meagher is right about one major kind of philosophy that society needs: collaborative phil done between purported equals. If the aim of phil is to help people think for themselves, they cannot do that if they have to always defer to experts even in philosophy. That is as conceptually confused as claiming teachers and students are equals.

Conclusion: there is atleast one form of philosophy which is not best pursued from within academic phil.

Phil is not one thing. It is many different, family resemblance activities. Hard to do Kant scholarship outside academia. Hard to do collaborative phil from within academia. Not impossible. But hard.

Society needs more collaborative phil. If you are inspired to do that, keep open leaving academia. Become an equal to the non academics – give up the asymmetry implicit in being a professor or a dean. Engaging collaboratively isn’t a matter of intention or desire. It is a matter of being with, working with and struggling with.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
1 year ago

Ps. Not denying being an academic can be a way of being with, struggling with. Absolutely can be.

But for atleast one form of philosophy, the mode of expert backed by degrees instantly gets in the way. The struggling with I meant wasn’t mainly economic, etc but the angst of feeling unmoored and lacking in knowledge of how to live, what matters, the meaning of ones life. Sharing in that lack of knowledge can be powerful. Sharing that my degree and expertise doesn’t really help with this, which we share as just humans and must face as just humans.Report

Kelby Peeler
Kelby Peeler
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
1 year ago

I’d also go as far as saying that the distinction between philosophy as a mode of discourse versus philosophy as a way of life matters here. The professionalization of philosophy has turned it into a discipline of “knowing-that”. In this regard, professors are better positioned to be experts, to know more than non-philosophers about a subject matter. However, once we step into philosophy as a way of life, as a way of living in the world, public engagement becomes paramount in the quest for the melioration of social problems. And when this occurs, we find ourselves stripped of expertise in the face of public struggle.Report

Joe
Joe
1 year ago

It seems to me that perhaps the quote from Meagher (I only read the quote) is not so much about talking to or addressing or what have you ‘public’ in general or lay people but more about communities – such as various indigineous people, or women, or black people in America, who have been – in a variety of ways – historically and systematically excluded from being parts of and contributing to (academic/professional/preserved in libraries/universities) philosophy all the while they themselves have nevertheless engaged in reflection about themselves, the world, and themselves (and people in general) in the world and developed bodies of knowledge that one could (or perhaps should) call philosophical. And the idea seems to be that this exclusion still continues. I do not myself hold any particular view of this matter but this seems to me entirely different issue that the one discussed in the comments since it is not about whether or not they can contribute to philosophy but about whether or not academic philosophy is not inherently, as practised today, exclusionary (racist, sexist, etc) enterprise.

The issue discussed in the comments seems to me also rather strangely positioned, and I wonder if this is due to USA’s particular entertainment driven culture. There are plenty of philosophers who have been doing public philosophy – meaning – work oriented directly so as to contribute to public good (working on issues such animal and human rights, envinromental and health control of industrial and agricultural production, and so on). Many of them get completely missed by the “top” movers and shakers in the field. What these philosophers do not do, as a rule, is to advertise themselves to and entertain the public via various social and other media, making them “think” or what have you. But this seems to me to be what now public philosophy is becoming, a “new trend” of how to make philosophy seem relevant. So I don’t really object to that, but I find it a bit strange.Report