Popular Philosophy and Populist Philosophy (guest post by Timothy Williamson)


“Philosophy is even harder than it seems; the right response to its difficulty is not to trash all the work already done by thousands of highly gifted and knowledgeable men and women.”

The following guest post*  is by Timothy Williamson, the Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. His latest book is Doing Philosophy: From Common Curiosity to Logical Reasoning (Amazon).

The post is the second installment in the “Philosophy of Popular Philosophy” series, edited by Aaron James Wendland, a philosopher at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow (who you can follow on Twitter here).


[Wayne Thiebaud, “Two Paint Cans”]

Popular Philosophy and Populist Philosophy
Timothy Williamson

Every intellectual discipline needs to speak to others as well as to itself, both to learn and to teach. If it is getting anywhere, it has something new to say to neighbouring disciplines, but also to the general public.

If a discipline has practical applications, it should communicate them where they can help. It should also provide points of entry to the curious. Its survival depends on that: if it can’t explain to the uninitiated what it is up to, how will it recruit new members? Politically, it is unwise to tell the taxpayers who fund it “Shut up and give us the money; never you mind how we spend it”.

All that applies to philosophy in particular. A civilized society has popular philosophy just as it has popular physics, popular psychology, popular history… So, one might expect the relation between popular and academic philosophy to resemble the corresponding relations for other disciplines. Thus, popular philosophy would communicate recent research in academic philosophy to a wider audience.

In my experience, a surprisingly high proportion of popular philosophy is not like that. Instead, it sets itself up as a rival to academic philosophy, which it portrays as trivial, sterile, pedantic, irrelevant logic-chopping.

This popular philosophy claims to be the real philosophy, the true heir to what was done in ancient times. It asks and answers the questions that really matter, going straight to the point by arguments that can be understood with no previous training. It speaks over the heads of the scholastics to laypeople who approach philosophy fresh and unprejudiced.

The message that with little effort one can do better than the professionals is naturally gratifying to non-professionals; it finds a ready audience. One might call that populist message the Michael Gove view of philosophy, in honour of the British politician who, when asked during the 2016 referendum campaign which economists favoured leaving the European Union, replied “people in this country have had enough of experts”—though Covid-19 has changed his public attitude to experts.

Like Gove with economic expertise, populist philosophers are uncomfortable with the idea of genuine expertise in philosophy. They may admit that there are experts on the history of philosophy, who understand numerous difficult texts hardly anyone else has even read. They may also accept that there are experts on formal logic, and expert teachers of philosophy. But such concessions are consistent with the populist idea that the apparatus of academic philosophy—all the to-and-fro of point-by-point discussion in conferences and refereed journals—contributes nothing of significance to answering central questions of philosophy, and should be bypassed.

Sometimes I encounter people who take a similar attitude to modern natural science. They say that science went wrong after Aristotle, or send me their theory of ‘qualitative physics’, which bypasses all that boring mathematics to go straight to the secret of the universe. But such ideas are not the stuff of most popular science, which has better things to do.

Philosophy is more vulnerable than natural science to the populist belief that laypeople are just as qualified as professionals. This belief derives from the ideal of the radically autonomous inquirer, who takes nothing for granted and uses nothing second-hand. In other words, such a thinker refuses to learn anything from other people. That’s a recipe for the endless repetition of the same elementary mistakes, generation after generation. Anyway, the instructions cannot be carried out; all thinking takes much for granted. The ideal of the radically autonomous inquirer is itself stale and nth-hand.

A less arrogant attitude is that we all have much to learn from other people, in philosophy as everywhere else. Philosophy is even harder than it seems; the right response to its difficulty is not to trash all the work already done by thousands of highly gifted and knowledgeable men and women. Compared to the size of the task, their contributions may have been small, and often mistaken, but that does not mean you can do better by ignoring them.

Philosophy is a collective enterprise, which has developed slowly through various traditions over many centuries in many parts of the world. It has never been just the work of a few isolated geniuses. Joining one of those traditions has always involved acquiring the relevant forms of philosophical expertise. We shouldn’t be coy about it. We need to explain honestly and openly how philosophy works.

Recent philosophical research has produced lots of fascinating new ideas, which deserve to be better known. Now there’s a task for popular philosophy.


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Fleur Jongepier
Fleur Jongepier
11 months ago

A fair criticism of a strand of populist philosophy. That strand no doubt exists – though I wonder if enough people embrace it to take it seriously – but the strand that’s more interesting it seems to me, and which also sets itself up as a rival to academic philosophy, is the non-populist strand that says academic philosophy can do better. And it can do better by integrating some more elements of public philosophy. That strand of public philosophy doesn’t claim popular philosophy is the real philosophy. But it does say there’s something to be said for academic philosophy becoming a bit more like public philosophy.Report

Eric Schwitzgebel
Eric Schwitzgebel
11 months ago

Name names, maybe? I don’t think many of the most visible public philosophers have the attitude described here — Dennett, Nussbaum, Stanley, Warburton, Lam, Rini…?

I worry that this piece suggests a false dichotomy in which public philosophers must either embrace the view critiqued or accept a role as mere purveyors of others’ technical work.Report

Smith&Jones
Smith&Jones
Reply to  Eric Schwitzgebel
11 months ago

Seems to me that Dennett sometimes displays an attitude that is in the neighborhood of the one singled out by Williamson. I’m thinking of his remarks on chmess and some complaints he makes somewhere to the effect that analytic philosophers don’t want a real theory of anything—they want a slogan that could fit on a t-shirt.

But this attitude might stem from a real methodological divide within the profession as opposed to the popular/professional divide. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Smith&Jones
11 months ago

Dennett is not in any way opposed to expertise. He is (rightly or wrongly) sceptical that certain corners of philosophy demonstrate true expertise rather than scholasticism.Report

Smith&Jones
Smith&Jones
Reply to  David Wallace
10 months ago

I think that’s right—Dennett is not a populist. But the populists and Dennett are somewhat united in their portrayal of much academic philosophy as “trivial, sterile, pedantic, irrelevant logic-chopping.” They just find it to be so for different reasons. Report

Roger
Reply to  Eric Schwitzgebel
11 months ago

I’m not sure this refers to academic philosophers who are popular, but rather people without graduate school training who nevertheless promote themselves as philosophers. I think degrees aren’t all they are cracked up to be, but anyone who has written a thesis (a rather long book mercilessly critiqued by highly skilled critics) deserves respect.

The point about “qualitative physics” hits this. Who hasn’t received a theory of everything from someone who sold their pizza shop 2 years ago…nothing against pizza shop owners, especially the Greco-American ones in Boston.Report

Barry Lam
11 months ago

No idea who Tim is subtweeting here but my guess is Zizek or de Botton or other celebrity-like figures in Europe. Report

Ciaran Cummins
11 months ago

This saddens me. Despite Williamson’s clear efforts to engage in popular philosophy himself, it appears from this that he hasn’t really engaged with other work in popular philosophy a great deal. If he had, I don’t think he would have come to these views. Indeed, his complaint about a rivalry seems anomalous to me: In my experience, an (unsurprisingly) high proportion of its advocates don’t set popular philosophy up as a rival. They are keen to see popular and academic (and public) philosophy thrive together.

Moreover, his dig at ‘laypeople’ seems uninformed as well. Fixating on cranks and ‘radical autonomous inquirers’ – no doubt a problem but they are hardly the majority – suggests he hasn’t engaged a great deal personally with members of the public who are interested in popular philosophy

A lack of engagement also comes through in what is a frankly condescending assumption about this ambiguous mass of laypeople: “The message that with little effort one can do better than the professionals is naturally gratifying to non-professionals”. If Williamson was well versed in what members of the public interested in popular philosophy thought about professional philosophy, I don’t think he’d say this. I think he’d see that those interested in popular philosophy are a nuanced group, some overconfident about their abilities, some not. (Furthermore, it’s not always clear here if Williamson is referring at times to the deliverers of popular philosophy or the audiences.)

The equation with Gove’s quote about experts, and the odd description of ‘populist philosophy’, is also exemplary of a ‘woe is me’ attitude encountered sometimes with philosophers of all stripes who seem to know a great deal about what ‘the public’ think of the philosophy profession. If you engage with the public you’ll find the vast majority do not have this dislike of philosophers that academics worry about it. Most of the time their views are neutral, not negative. They are eager in fact to engage with humility when given the chance, not to show off or declare that philosophy is nonsense.

More generally, he seems to conflate popular with public philosophy in the form of field or community philosophy. Members of the public engaging with pop philosophy as a participant starts to shift the activity into the realm of community philosophy, or with a philosopher who is facilitating the discussion as part of research, field philosophy.

Lastly, I don’t think those doing popular philosophy aren’t working hard already to popularise brilliant academic work, moreover. Again, suggests Williamson is not engaging with those who do this work.

Genuinely interested to know what he has encountered to come to all these out of touch assessments. It saddens me that someone with his clout doesn’t appear to have engaged sufficiently with those doing popular philosophy (practitioners and audiences). People will listen to him and he’s evidently giving them an impoverished understanding of this work.Report

jj
jj
11 months ago

I too wonder who is the target here. I doubt it’s Zizek (if so, then I would certainly disagree with this characterization of what he is doing). It’s also not Comte-Sponville or Sloterdijk (whatever one thinks of him) or many others that come to mind. Maybe he has in mind the kind of self-help and/or magic “philosophy” that populated the metaphysics aisle in bookshops and sometimes reaches professional philosophers mailboxes? Report

junior phil
junior phil
11 months ago

Eric, I’m not so sure about Nigel Warburton not having this attitude. Here are some examples

“Sometimes I wonder if academic philosophy is just an ideas laundering racket.”
https://twitter.com/philosophybites/status/1262246507597750272

“I sometimes wonder if the hidden hand in academic philosophy strives to map out every possible position, no matter how trivial or absurd”
https://twitter.com/philosophybites/status/261503109002575872?s=20

“Is the boring drivel that fills most philosophy journals simply the price paid for that?”
https://twitter.com/philosophybites/status/871639165959639040?s=20

“Academic philosophy rewards trivial point-scoring and will soon wither to nothing. Did their Socrates walk this way?”
https://twitter.com/philosophybites/status/281890553812103168?s=20

“If you ever go to a philosophy conference you get to realise that some philosophers aren’t in the least bothered about boring their audiences. A Martian might believe that some actually set out to do that.”
https://twitter.com/philosophybites/status/1102152812115517440?s=20

“A confession: in my over 20 years as an academic I never believed that there was such a thing as philosophical ‘research'”
https://twitter.com/philosophybites/status/785051493531516928?s=20

“Many academic departments of philosophy might more aptly be labelled departments of morosophy”
https://twitter.com/philosophybites/status/509680280723288064?s=20

“If your philosophy is boring and dry you aren’t doing it right”
https://twitter.com/philosophybites/status/250509895261093889?s=20

“Now that I’m on the margins of academic philosophy, I find it shocking that so many waste so much ink saying so little”
https://twitter.com/philosophybites/status/644417570699874304?s=20

“What many academic philosophers really need: bigger wastepaper baskets”
https://twitter.com/philosophybites/status/644416490146557952?s=20

“Why is so much academic philosophy so boring and uninspired? Is the REF killing it?”
https://twitter.com/philosophybites/status/245496944061992960?s=20

Sure, this is cherry-picked, Nigel has done a ton to popularize philosophy and he understandably may have his own axe to grind. But still, the attitude I read when I followed Nigel on twitter is that academic philosophy is trivial pedantic drivel, often a waste of time, not real if not relevant.

Report

Eric Schwitzgebel
Eric Schwitzgebel
Reply to  junior phil
11 months ago

Thanks for that interesting set of quotes, junior phil! In my interactions with him, I haven’t noticed Nigel Warburton derogating philosophical expertise, and in Philosophy Bites he insightfully interviews a wide range of terrific specialists, amplifying their voices rather than sidelining them. I can imagine these quotes being expressions of frustration, or targeting some common vices rather than the discipline as a whole, not representing the view of philosophy that one would derive from his work as a whole.Report

junior phil
junior phil
Reply to  Eric Schwitzgebel
11 months ago

I agree: the quotes sit uncomfortably with his work. But the message of his tweets seems to be distinctly that academic philosophy is in good measure “drivel”. Whatever other professional ills and vanities there might be that Nigel also speaks out against, this is a clear strand in his sentiment. It should be noted that he indulges in such public reflections with some regularity and over a decent period of time.

Note also his tweet on this present DN post:
“Or, as some might put it: ‘it’s not the case that academic philosophy (AP) is pedantic per se, nor have popular philosophers (PPs) attacked anything but a strawman, ipso facto AP merits being explained to hoi polloi – QED’”
https://twitter.com/philosophybites/status/1270013937367613440Report

Robert A Gressis
Robert A Gressis
Reply to  junior phil
11 months ago

I’ve listened to Philosophy Bites a lot, so I’m surprised by Warburton’s attitude to most philosophy. But I don’t think his attitude to most philosophy is in tension with his work on Philosophy Bites. I would imagine that Warburton picks, or at least has some discretion over, the guests he interviews. His view of philosophy could be that most of it is terrible owing to institutional forces,* but that some people manage to produce interesting work despite that. Presumably, those are the people he chooses to interview.

If this *is* his view of philosophy, I wonder what he thinks the alternative is? Does he think that if we changed this institutional forces, we’d get a lot more good philosophy? I doubt that — it’s not like good philosophy is all that easy to produce. My guess is that he thinks that the vast majority of philosophers should write a lot less philosophy, and that many shouldn’t produce any philosophy at all — they should just teach, or write op-eds, or whatever. Might be an improvement!

*–How peer review works, the formulaic nature and jargon of most analytic philosophy articles, the epicycles upon epicycles of conceptual analysis resulting from the pressure to publish, the you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours or score-settling nature of book reviews, the editorial gatekeeping that results in certain views getting popular and others meeting resistance, and so on.Report

Barry Lam
Reply to  junior phil
11 months ago

Nigel doesn’t like a lot of academic philosophy, but its not on the grounds that he eschews expertise and important expert insights. Its because he believes that most of what is published is nothing of the sort. Report

JTD
JTD
Reply to  Barry Lam
11 months ago

“I don’t deny there is genuine expertise, I just believe that most of what people in field x are saying is not expertise” is a standard line of those taking an anti-intellectual/anti-elites stance. Therefore, pointing out that someone is merely taking this line does not get them off the hook.Report

David Owen
David Owen
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
11 months ago

I wonder though if this is just a version of tension within philosophy between a humanistic orientation and a scientific orientation that would distinguish between virtuosity and expertise as two distinct type of intellectual excellence. I admit I tend to think about philosophy in terms of virtuosity rather than expertise but that probably betrays my own biases – I guess the line from Quine would probably speak more to expertise-talk. Report

lecturer
lecturer
11 months ago

I’ve heard Stefan Molyneux disparage academic philosophy along “populist” lines. Sorry I can’t provide exact quotes–I don’t have the stomach to listen to Molyneux right now.Report

Ian Olasov
Ian Olasov
11 months ago

My $.02:

Williamson makes two good key points: it’s false that everyone who does philosophy does it equally well, and it’s false that being a truly open-minded freethinker requires you not to engage meaningfully with what other people have thought.

Williamson is wrong to attribute these beliefs to “a surprisingly high proportion of popular philosoph[ers].” If anything, in my experience, they’re more prevalent among “outsider” philosophers – non-academics (or academics outside of philosophy departments) who write or talk a lot about philosophy. Think: Bill Nye, Stephen Hawking, cranks who send their theories of everything to professional philosophers for comment. (Of course, there are lots and lots of good outsider philosophers out there, and it’s a really interesting question how public philosophers should work with them.)

Williamson might misattribute these beliefs to a surprisingly high proportion of public philosophers because there are a lot of beliefs in their vicinity which actually are common among public philosophers: that professional philosophers should work collaboratively with outsiders; that professional philosophers should be in some sense accountable to outsiders; that professional philosophers have a lot to learn from outsiders; that professional philosophers aren’t experts in philosophy, or aren’t experts in the same ways that professional chemists are experts in chemistry; that everyone can and should do philosophy (even if not in the same way or with the same level of rigor/focus/intensity/whatever) as professional philosophers. But these ideas are all, with some qualifications, true, and Williamson’s criticisms don’t bear on them.Report

Lurker
Lurker
Reply to  Ian Olasov
11 months ago

This seems about right. If you peruse amazon or other websites, the top popular philosophers at present apparently include at least: Jordan Peterson, Eckhart Tolle, Dalai Lama, Elon Musk, Ben Shapiro, Marie Kondo and Jonathan Haidt. Now, some of these are probably unaware (and won’t care) that professional philosophy even exists, but yeah, if *these* are the kind of writers you’d put under the heading “popular philosophy” – and some of them are certainly engaged in activities that might be characterised as trying to do philosophy – then Williamson’s criticism might not be completely off target.

More perniciously, Williamson’s criticism also seems to fit a pretty prevalent view of philosophy you’d encounter in lots of other humanities departments and (European) sociologistsReport

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Ian Olasov
10 months ago

Hawking didn’t write “a lot” about philosophy. He made occasional, ill-judged comments about philosophy in the process of doing popular physics.Report

Vincent
Vincent
11 months ago

I’m sorry, but I think that one has to be quite out of touch not to be familiar with the attitude that Tim is describing. (It could only be to analytic philosophers that Dennett, Nussbaum, Stanley, Warburton, Lam, and Rini all count as amongst the most visible popular philosophers; and in any case, at least Warburton does have this attitude.) It may not be held by all popular philosophers, but I’m not really sure how one could ever attend popular philosophy events – or, say, talk to colleagues in literature departments – without drawing a similar conclusion to Tim.Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Vincent
11 months ago

Dennett does appear in every non-specialist bookshop in the English speaking world, and was prominent in the “New Atheist” thing that there was such a fuss about c.2005-12. Report

Vincent
Vincent
Reply to  David Mathers
11 months ago

For sure!Report

Barry Lam
11 months ago

I’ll bite Vincent. I’m completely out of touch. Which talks, which public philosophers exemplify this? As someone who helped to oversee a Public philosophy award, and am now overseeing an entire initiative at a nonprofit Foundation dedicated to public philosophy, and makeA the only show on a major network on public philosophy, and referees grant applications for public philosophy projects for NEH and other granting agencies, it’s important for my job that I not be out of touch, but I genuinely don’t know who or what Tim is referring to. Point me to some names and talks and I’ll look into them to get myself up to speed.Report

Lowlygrad
Lowlygrad
Reply to  Barry Lam
11 months ago

I actually don’t mean to be snarky but Vincent mentions names other than yours… Also a good amount of content on, say, Aeon is of this type. Admittedly too lazy to look examples currently.Report

Lowlygrad
Lowlygrad
Reply to  Barry Lam
11 months ago

I should add that Aeon often has work of the other type as well.Report

Vincent
Vincent
Reply to  Barry Lam
11 months ago

Barry – Thanks for your reply. ‘Quite out of touch’ is of course context-sensitive; I don’t doubt that you’re much more in touch than I am in plenty of ways. Still, I’m not exactly sure what you’re claiming here. For instance, the quotes from Warburton exemplify precisely the disparaging attitude towards professional philosophy that Williamson describes; Bryan Magee explicitly had a similar perspective; and it would depress me to think about how many books Alain de Botton (a parade case) has sold. More generally, aren’t we all familiar with the idea that philosophy should be relevant, accessible, helpful, in a way that science need not be? Or that philosophical progress and knowledge are vanishingly rare? Since it’s not uncommon to find versions of these claims within academic philosophy, it would be outright odd for them not to occur in popular philosophy too, which is one reason that I’m a bit surprised by the avowals of unfamiliarity on this thread. But it might help to give me a sense of where you’re coming from if you could mention a few popular philosophy books that you think genuinely popularise recent philosophical ideas and questions?Report

Barry Lam
Reply to  Vincent
11 months ago

Kate Manne’s book, Gina Rini’s essays, C. Thi Nguyen’s work, Amia Srinivasan’s essays. Kieran Setiya’s book on mid-life crises. John Kaag’s book, Aaron James’ books, Nigel Warburton’s books. Also, let’s not be print-biased. Print is what gets you a mark on a CV and what academics value because its what they’re good at. Most of the rest of the world is consuming their content on audio and video mediums, and lots of people are doing in-person interactive content. Shout out to Amy Reed-Sandoval, Ian Olasov, Briana Toole, all the people who do Ethics Bowl like Kyle Robertson and CPP, I can go on and on. Report

Paul Wilson
Paul Wilson
11 months ago

“Unless names are invidiously named, sermons like this one tend to cause less offence than they should, because everyone imagines that they are aimed at other people.”

Timothy Williamson, from his “Afterword: Must Do Better” in _The Philosophy of Philosophy_ (Blackwell, 2007), p. 291. Different context, of course, but apropos.

I was inspired by the link above to read this morning Williamson’s excellent primer on philosophic methodology, _Doing Philosophy: From Common Curiosity to Logical Reasoning_ (Oxford, 2018). Short, affordable, accessible, and with helpfully select annotated references and further reading. Highly recommended.
Report

HeyNonnyMouse
HeyNonnyMouse
11 months ago

It would be a terrible mistake for popular philosophy to dismiss academic philosophy. Having said that, it shouldn’t be surprising to find this attitude among populist philosophers given how many professional philosophers believe that philosophy has nothing important to offer the general public. I find this view much more often among those who don’t engage in popular philosophy than among those who do.Report

Alan White
Alan White
11 months ago

I wrote two chapters for works directed to “pop culture” philosophical analyses of The X-Files and Spielberg’s films edited by Dean Kowalski, who also has good textbooks on philosophy and film. I found the challenge refreshing and invigorating. In one I argued that Mulder and Scully reflect how some particular philosophical disagreements–I treated free will–break along similar lines of reflecting generally held world-views, and are subservient to them (and how the X-files eventually showed a possibility for reconciliation). In the other I saw that it’s possible that Spielberg’s AI might be interpreted as a case for the incorporation of a sense of social bonding as a necessary condition to make AI even possible. Ground-breaking or inventive? No. But good exercise for both me and I hope some readers. Yeah I’m proud of having stuff in some “big” journals–but I’m as proud of those chapters as anything I’ve done in peer-reviewed journals, just to try and connect my ivory-tower crap to the shadowy screens in everyone’s version of Plato’s cave.Report

Public philosopher
Public philosopher
11 months ago

In spite of all their attention to detail, philosophers do tend to equivocate. Public philosophy isn’t necessarily the same as popular philosophy. As for their relationship with academic philosophy, for both, it’s a bit strained—as it should be: https://link.medium.com/XW7en6jla7Report

Christian Helmut Wenzel
11 months ago

Timothy Williamson writes:
“A civilized society has popular philosophy just as it has popular physics, popular psychology, popular history… So, one might expect the relation between popular and academic philosophy to resemble the corresponding relations for other disciplines. Thus, popular philosophy would communicate recent research in academic philosophy to a wider audience.
In my experience, a surprisingly high proportion of popular philosophy is not like that. Instead, it sets itself up as a rival to academic philosophy, which it portrays as trivial, sterile, pedantic, irrelevant logic-chopping.”

I think there is indeed a difference between philosophy and many other disciplines that matters for what Timothy Williamson expresses. Philosophy often deals with issues that most human beings are deeply concerned with, while many other disciplines do not. Kant said philosophy is about what can know, what we shall do, and what we may hope. This is something that most people are deeply concerned with at various points in their lives, while what physicists and chemists usually do is not something most human beings are deeply concerned with at various points in their lives. I myself moved from mathematics to philosophy. While working in mathematics, people I encountered in daily life and who were not specialists in mathematics did usually not ask me what I am doing. But when working in philosophy, people who are not specialists in philosophy often did ask me what I am doing. It is then not easy to satisfy their interests and concerns, especially if they expect an answer within a few minutes. This, I think, is a difference between philosophy and many other disciplines, and this difference might underlie some of the concerns Timothy Williamson is expressing. I do not know whether popular philosophy is doing better or worse than popular writings in other fields, such as physics and chemistry. I think there are many good examples in all these fields, including philosophy. But I believe it is particularly difficult to write popular and satisfying philosophy, due to a difference in expectation.Report

VKR
VKR
Reply to  Christian Helmut Wenzel
11 months ago

This is a good point. I think equating popular philosophy and popular-other scientific disciplines is problematic. I think the difference lies in what exactly needs popularizing. In the natural and even social sciences, it is the content (results) of the research that needs popularizing. On the other hand, when it comes to philosophy, it is the method of doing philosophy that needs popularizing. That way, popular philosophy is akin to popular medicine or popular psychology. It’s not the theoretical results that matter in public domain, it is rather the practice of philosophy that takes the front seat to be in the popular sphere.Report

Andri Ksenofontov
Andri Ksenofontov
Reply to  VKR
10 months ago

It looks like you are underestimating ‘content’ of philosophy and ‘method’ of sciences. Both philosophy and science have to exercise some kind of rigour of thinking. But they are dealing with different contents. The content of science are things in nature, things in the world, and the content of philosophy are things in human mind, including the reflections of the things in nature. I also think that the preference of the results or the practice of various disciplines is mostly a matter of taste of a curious mind.
Report

Hugh Barnard
11 months ago

This is a v. worthwhile thing to ‘dig in to’, thanks. However, there’s a man of straw in there, in that ‘popular’ in the essay is portrayed as just one thing a) big difference between accurate explainers and mindful mush. b) people need on-ramps, they can decide on the length of the journey c) Many philosophers write badly, with long complex sentences, passive construction thus promoting the ‘obscure as learned’. Cf Russell,. Ayer as contrast, for example, not lightweights either.Report

Siddharth Muthukrishnan
Siddharth Muthukrishnan
11 months ago

I think Tim Williamson is largely right. In America, if you ask people who are interested in philosophical issues who their favorite contemporary public-facing philosophers are, I suspect you’ll get answers like Sam Harris or Jordan Peterson or Tim Ferriss or Ryan Holiday or someone in that vein. The closest they’ll come to a professional philosopher is probably Noam Chomsky. Actual professional philosophers like Daniel Dennett or Kwame Anthony Appiah probably won’t even make top ten.

This to me is an astonishing state of affairs. You just can’t imagine something like this happening in the sciences. For instance,the most popular public-facing scientists are also excellent professional scientists: Brian Greene or Neil deGrasse Tyson or the late Stephen Hawking in physics; Richard Dawkins in biology; Paul Krugman in economics; and so on.

Philosophers have ceded a tremendous amount of ground in public forums to non-philosophers. While I think there’s a welcome corrective movement that’s gaining ground, I think philosophy really has a long way to go. For instance, Neil deGrasse Tyson regularly goes on the most popular TV shows and discusses physics. I don’t see a professional philosopher occupying a similar role anytime soon.

One unfortunate consequence of this is that philosophy will struggle to attract talent. I grew up (not in the US) reading all kinds of popular science books and watching popular science documentaries, which got me really excited about science. It was only much much later, having finished college, largely by accident, did I even encounter philosophy as a fascinating and productive contemporary discipline. I was able to transition into philosophy, but I suspect that a lot of people who have an inclination and talent for it, never really even find it.Report

Pat
Pat
11 months ago

I felt that Williamson captured the strangeness of populist philosophy really well, and I’m surprised at how surprising this is to others. I’m an undergrad, and from my skewed experience, when people I know engage with “philosophy” they do so with figures who are “outsiders” who are completely dismissive of academic philosophy .

Naming names, I am thinking in particular of figures like Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris. Perhaps it doesn’t make much sense to call these figures philosophers, as their work is often not very philosophically rigorous or engaged with contemporary philosophy. But, still, from what I can tell these people sell their works as philosophy, and to the people who read them, they are often understood as major philosophers. They are also hugely popular, especially among young people, and young men in particular. It took many years of engagement with academic philosophy before I found good sources of Popular Philosophy, like the Hi Phi Podcast or Martha Nussbaum’s work. But even then, I learned about these sources from professors, not on my own. If I had relied on myself, I’m sure I would have been sucked into Peterson or Harris’ work and decided that they represented the pinnacle of philosophy. These are people who go on talk shows, are mentioned on the (non-academic) internet, and are constantly getting recommended on YouTube. My friends, like it or not, these people are the competition! Maybe this is a perennial issue, or maybe it is not an issue at all, mostly I just wanted to express my surprise that these people aren’t on the radar of academic philosophers and see if anyone had thoughts on whether that’s or whether that matters.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
11 months ago

This is terrible on multiple levels. For one thing, as many other people have noted Williamson is incredibly unclear here. Not only does he not name names he doesn’t even discuss what methodological mistakes “popular philosophy” makes or how expertise in philosophy would guard against them. So I have to confess that I’m really not even sure what he’s arguing for or against. However, it seems to me that he’s arguing for something like the following model: Experts in philosophy dictate the results, popularizers explain it to the public, and the public shuts up and listens. And neither the popularizers nor the public should suppose that they have anything to add much less that they can dare challenge the experts in philosophy. If that is what Williamson is arguing for then I think it’s not only deeply wrong but that that attitude is deeply harmful to philosophy both as a search for truth and as a viable academic discipline.
Let’s start with the vagueness. It should be beyond dispute that this is unclear and vague since different readers have filled in the blank of what “popular philosophy” means in such wildly different ways. The answers range from Jordan Harris to Martha Nussbaum to Peter Sloterdik and everything in between. One of several bits of irony here is that Williamson’s jibes about “popular philosophy” remind me of nothing so much as a populist politicians or pundits railing about vaguely sinister forces like “the left” or “the elite”. Now as the success of populist politicians like Trump and Johnson and pundits like O’Reilly, Carlson, and many other Fox News talking heads attests this is a wonderfully effective rhetorical tactic since the reader or listener is free to fill in his or her own favorite bugbear (as some readers here have happily done) but as rational argument it’s no good. There’s a huge irony– one might even say hypocrisy– about faulting others for sloppiness or ignorance of the basic methods of philosophy while not even clearing the bar of clarity and rigor that we would expect of a paper in PHIL 101.
But now on to why this attitude is so damaging to the discipline. To see why this is we need to think about why Williamson’s comparisons to areas like physics do not hold up. In physics there are methods and results that every competent practitioner agrees on. If you asked 50 physicists from all over the world about both the methods of physics and the most important results of physics in the last 100 years I bet that you would get quite a lot of consensus. Would you get anything like that consensus if you even polled 50 American philosophers at random? What about if you polled 50 philosophers from all over the world? We don’t even agree amongst ourselves about what the methods of our field are or what’s important in it. If we can’t agree with one another about what methods or results are important how in the world can we fault the public for not knowing about the right methods or results?
But even if we had complete agreement about the methods of philosophy what I take to be Williamson’s model would be wrong and dangerous. For one thing, as Williamson notes contempt for the public doesn’t wear too well on the public and the public are the people who ultimately pay our salaries through tuition and taxes. Perhaps more importantly this model is bad for philosophy if it is supposed to be a search for truth and not just an intellectual game for gentlemen of leisure. That’s because philosophy, or at least philosophy as it’s mostly practiced in the Anglophone world, relies so heavily on “intuitions” “considered judgments” or whatever fancy name you want to give for “stuff we are all really sure about.” (I’ve a certain fondness for “clear and distinct ideas” myself.) And no matter how good your method might be if you start with “intuitions” that are wrong you’re not going to get true results. Or as my engineer great uncle was fond of saying when people faulted computers for huge mistakes in their code or data entry “garbage in garbage out.” And many of the intuitions philosophers feed in to their theories are to my mind often garbage, but if you want to be a bit more moderate it’s fair to say that they’re at the very least parochial or idiosyncratic. I’ve seen more than a few metaphysicians and epistemologists draw grand conclusions about subjects like truth or the existence of material objects on the way that “we” supposedly use an English word when what they meant by “we” was “the guys whose papers I’ve read and who I expect to read this.” If we’re going to rely on intuitions then at the very least we should make sure that they are in fact widely shared or obvious. I think the best way to do this is to enter a dialogue with the larger public and see if they do in fact share those intuitions and the reflective equilibrium we supposedly reach in weighing them against each other. In my experience not only do philosophers tend not to do this, but when the average person doesn’t share our “intuition” we’re all too ready to dismiss them for just not understanding what’s going on. This sort of dismissal is nothing but an intellectual prejudice and one that’s usually pretty closely tied to some pretty ugly class prejudices as well. Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Sam Duncan
10 months ago

In fairness, Williamson has written elsewhere (in The Philisophy of Philisophy)against precisely the critique of ‘intuitions’ your making here, so he has *thought about* the critique of his way of thinking about this subject and given a substantive response. (His complaint is basically that ‘intuition’ doesn’t pick our a well-defined subclass of judgments but seems to be used to cover any judgment about what is true in a described scenario, which means in his view that claims that relying on intuitions isn’t reliable swiftly commit one to an implausible general scepticism about the ability of human beings to apply shared public concepts accurately. He also defends at length the view that philosophers should be expected to be even better at applying concepts in hypothetical scenarios, basically because we just have much more practice.)

I agree though that he has (ironically!) fallen far below the standard of clarity you’d usually get from him in his serious work, and should have named the people he is targeting.

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Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  David Mathers
10 months ago

My objection isn’t that intuitions in the sense of widely shared concepts are unreliable (as a matter of fact I’m somewhat skeptical about whether they are but that’s another issue). Instead, my main objection, or perhaps I should say worry, here is that what philosophers baptize as “intuitions” are often not in fact widely shared concepts. So even if Williamson were right that doubting widely shared concepts involves an implausible skepticism that wouldn’t mean that doubting philosophers’ “intuitions” would. One way to make sure that our “intuitions” really do hook up with widely shared concepts would be to bring a wider audience into the conversation, but Williamson’s whole model seems to narrow the conversation and prevent that. And I don’t at all see why philosophers would have any expertise in applying concepts to scenarios in ways that help us reach truth. If Williamson means that we’re especially good with the kind of hypothetical scenario one finds in philosophy then I suppose we might be but the question then is what, if anything do those hypothetical scenarios, tell us about reality? Even if they can tell us something might not scenarios more grounded in reality often have more to tell us? And if so wouldn’t people with actual familiarity with those scenarios or specialist knowledge relevant to them be better at both applying the relevant concepts and constructing the scenario in the right way? This all seems to be going towards some very grandiose claims of what philosophical expertise is and can do, and one that I don’t for a second find plausible.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Sam Duncan
10 months ago

Williamson, iirc, is fairly assiduous about not appealing to “intuitions” at all, and fairly scathing about those who do. He has a very systematic account as to the methodology of analytic philosophy. (Which, to be sure, one can accept or reject – I am skeptical on several aspects of it – but he really isn’t appealing to the kinds of intuition-based arguments you’re referencing.Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  David Wallace
10 months ago

It’s true that he doesn’t like the term ‘intuition’, but he spends a whole chapter of The Philosophy of Philosophy arguing that X-Phi attacks on the work that is *usually described* as relying on intuition is misguided, and defending reliance on philosopher’s judgments about thought experiments as one valid methodology in philosophy (even if like everything it has to be used with care.) Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  David Wallace
10 months ago

What I suppose he probably does reject is ‘intuition’ when it refers not to judgments about cases, but just the flat-out claim that a particular view in metaphysics says is itself ‘counter-intuitive’ and therefore must be rejected. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Mathers
10 months ago

That sounds right to me. A slightly caricatured form of the usual intuition-based argument in analytic metaphysics is: “X is intuitive; therefore, X”. Williamson completely rejects that argument form. Report

ehz
ehz
11 months ago

A philosopher writes in an unclear manner that makes their precise meaning indeterminate. Readers speculate as to what the philosopher could possibly mean. Arguments ensue. Years later: papers are published, tenures are awarded, new philpapers category: Williamson and the populist/popular distinction.Report

Barry Lam
11 months ago

I’ll just say my last words on this since enough of you have clarified that you did have Harris and Peterson and the IDW crowd in mind, or have otherwise called for the philosophy equivalent of deGrasse Tyson. Fair enough, a lot of academics doing public philosophy aren’t famous. But I don’t think the question is “why don’t Public Philosophers just become those guys”, it is, why aren’t the people doing quality public philosophy not as big and prominent as those types. The answer is that many industries individuals and organizations are trying generate the success of those people, if anything just to take in the revenue. There is no formula, these are celebrities, with the talents, attractiveness, work habits and judgments of successful celebrities. If you think it’s just the content of what they deliver, I can point you to 2000 other podcasts that do their content better. They also swim in controversy in just the right way. If you think this is easily replicable with just a little effort on the part of academic philosophers, I’ve got a hundred failing public intellectuals I can point you to.

Finally, all of you are stuck thinking incredibly hierarchically, and subject to “print bias”. I don’t fault anyone for this. If you’re Tim Williamson, you’re going to be thinking about the other most prominent figures in some field to try and figure out what to say about it, including public philosophy. And that’s going to be the celebrities. You’re just following the academic model, (who are you responding to on grounding, the Berkeley people or the Boise people?) But there are dozens of people reaching smaller more local audiences, who are not limiting themselves to writing an essay, who are building something sustainable also. The fact that it’s invisible to the higher echelons of academic philosophy who are just now starting to think about this stuff does not mean it doesn’t exist and account for 90% of public philosophy. Now back to work, I have a season to finish.Report

Bharath Vallabha
11 months ago

“This popular philosophy claims to be the real philosophy, the true heir to what was done in ancient times.” – Yes, some popular phil does this. But why? Because it is actually academic philosophy that claims to be _the real_ philosophy. That is already implicit in Williamson’s use of “expertise in philosophy”. It is also obvious in the fact that academic philosophers don’t engage with non-academic philosophers, and also claim to speak to what the famous non-academic philosophers of the past (Socrates, Descartes, Nietzsche, and so many others) _really_ meant. If academic philosophers are open about the fact that they are just one tributary in the broader river of philosophy, there wouldn’t be the need for non-academics to try to claim some “realness” for themselves.

Also, the contrast between “popular” philosophy and that of the experts presupposes a now fantasy world where the experts get to stay in academia. But as philosophy departments shutter and more and more grad students can’t get jobs – and also as many leave academia because of its various institutional problems – more and more “experts” are actually outside academia. The idea that those who are finally-free-of /aren’t-able-to-do the journal writing style of phil should nonetheless spread “the fascinating ideas” of “recent philosophical research” (i.e. the very kind which they can’t do) strikes me as callous. Not Williamson’s intention, I am sure. But people can say insensitive things without meaning to.

Williamson’s general point would be more moving if he showed people how to do it, rather than telling from afar, as if he were a general trying to motivate the troops. What does a popular philosopher’s exegesis of, say, “Knowledge and its Limits” look like? One doesn’t have to be a Wittgensteinian to wonder if that is possible. The fact that it is a wonderful book doesn’t carry on its sleeve how/why lay people should care about it. One can wonder similarly about Cavell’s “The Claim of Reason” or McDowell’s “Mind and World” (to choose others works I like a lot). Hand people protesting police brutality Williamson’s intro books “Doing Philosophy” or “I am Right, You’re Wrong” and say “Use this to think more clearly, so you can create better change.” My guess is most would say, “no thanks”, and not because they are philistines.Report

G
G
11 months ago

I do not know what “popular philosophy” Williamson is talking about here, but his discussion reminds me of many interactions I had with people in other disciplines. In my interdisciplinary program, I work with quite a few people who claim that their works are related to philosophy, such as people from media studies, cultural studies, critical theory, comparative literature, political science, climate science, sustainability, criminal justice, etc. My work on philosophy of language and free will, for example, seems to be different from what they take philosophy to be. A film studies scholar once told me that what I was doing was not the real philosophy because it had nothing to do with politics. In our essay competition, a paper that includes a careful interpretation of Plato’s work was thought to not deserve winning because “people just do not care about the conclusion.” Another good paper on Kantian ethics and animal rights did not win because people thought it failed to provide some practical solutions at the policy level. Report

Andri Ksenofontov
Andri Ksenofontov
10 months ago

I agree with the article and with most of the comments.
I think that the most urgent intellectual issue nowadays is narrow intellectual specialisation. Expertise has become a fetish, this is why everybody claims it and rejects it simultaneously. But this is exactly the task of philosophy to bring all different intellectual discourses into one shared intellectual space. In this task contemporary philosophy, from academic to populist, including the academic and populist, has failed.
A little sting, not meant unfriendly: the author talks about responsibility to tax payers who supposedly fund philosophical research. Do they really? Economists disagree with each other in this issue and I personally agree with those who point out that taxes do not pay for things but delete excessive currency. We can leave it to the economists to debate about. What is important is that the tax collecting and money printing authority is the one who funds philosophical research. He who pays the piper calls the tune. The problem of contemporary philosophy is not in the different degrees of professionalism but in its submission to political power.
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Paul Taborsky
Paul Taborsky
10 months ago

I would speculate that most commentators here can remember the UK book series Pelican books, popular paperback books meant for the general ‘intellgent layman / laywoman’ that explained issues and controversies in academic subjects to the general public in a non-technical manner. Though not particularly focused on philosophy, there were a few such titles such as Ayer’s ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ and John Passmore’s “A Hundred Years of Philosophy’. These works were continuous with academic philosophy, but could also be popular, evidently, being published in a ‘popular’ series.

Pelican books disappeared in the 1980s, (though I hear it has recently been relaunched). Perhaps with it went the intelligent layperson and the idea that the general public could be interested in the things that academic philosophers read and thought about, that there needn’t be a gulf between the popular and the academic. Perhaps something like this state of affairs is what Williamson has in mind. Report

Laura
Laura
10 months ago

Can anyone fill me in on what the “populist philosophy” described above is, or who does it? I mean the stuff that “sets itself up as a rival to academic philosophy”, with practitioners who are “uncomfortable with the idea of genuine expertise in philosophy.” A few examples of well-known figures who fit this bill would be helpful. This is a sincere question; I’ve been busy with other things and not following popular philosophy much.

I’m assuming other kinds of “popular” philosophy exist that are neither “populist” as described above, nor “popular” in the specific sense noted above, which communicates “recent research in academic philosophy to a wider audience.” In other words, popular philosophy exists that is (a) not trying to communicate recent research, much like popular science magazines translate recent research into terms that the layperson can understand, and (b) not dismissive of academic philosophy or the recent research therein. Is this true, or am I confused about what occupies the field of so-called “popular” philosophy? Report

Andri Ksenofontov
Andri Ksenofontov
Reply to  Laura
10 months ago

Populist philosophy, as I understand it, serves purposes of propaganda among masses or targeted groups. Usually it is a set of dogmas that seem convincing. Populist philosophy is sincere when its promoter believes it, but frequently it is commissioned by various interest groups.Report

Matthew
Matthew
10 months ago

It’s frustrating that the target isn’t made clear and without knowing the target I can’t decide what to make of the claim. For one unsystematic data point, try looking at the philosophybooks hashtag on Instagram. What come up is a very mixed bunch, but Sam Harris, Ryan Holiday, Jordan Peterson are regulars. As are the Stoics, Nietzsche and the occasional standard classic (e.g. Descartes and Plato). But much as I get frustrated by people thinking philosophy is whatever Jordan Peterson is doing, I don’t often come across popular writing critical of academic philosophy. More often, they just ignore it. (I mean popular in a statistical sense – the bestsellers and what people most often think of when they think of philosophy – not what I would count as good popular philosophy – e.g. the Oxford Very Short Introductions, Peter Adamson, Nigel Warburton.)Report

Laura
Laura
Reply to  Matthew
10 months ago

When I think of “popular philosophy” my mind goes immediately to things like The Good Place tv show, or Peter Adamson’s podcasts that are so deservedly popular outside academic philosophy. Both of these do seem to fit Williamson’s idea of popular (but non-“populist”) philosophy that translates philosophical work for other audiences. This is why I’m puzzled about what counts as “populist” in the sense presented for criticism here. I thought Jordan Peterson was a troubled psychologist who used a smattering of advice borrowed from the Stoics, Aristotle, and others to write self-help books, but not a critic of philosophy per se? Sam Harris, new atheist – maybe he is a critic of academic philosophy? Honestly don’t know. The reason I wonder is that I would very much like people outside of academic philosophy to see its value and, where possible, engage with it and read philosophy authors. Some philosophers write books that are of widespread interest outside of philosophy, or write in other formats (besides books and articles) that could reach a wider audience. I took this to be a generally good thing, so that’s why I wonder if I am missing something?Report

juli3
juli3
2 months ago

A philosopher only has value to the extent that they have power. Report