On Norms for Public Philosophy
In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Anastasia Berg, assistant professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an editor at the ideas magazine The Point, lays out what she thinks good public philosophy will do.
Good public philosophy, according to Professor Berg, will:
- Guide readers through “matters of great concern”.
- Communicate to a range of people and not just to those who might be expected to agree with the author.
- Show readers “that intellectual and moral insight might be uncovered where we least expect it.”
- Challenge readers “to expand our intellectual communities beyond those of ‘similar mind’.”
- Encourage readers to consider opposing viewpoints or experiences that don’t fit with the author’s analysis and remind readers of “how much we have to learn from others, even from those we fear most”, instead of encouraging them to think of those who disagree with the author as helplessly ignorant or evil, and so not worth communicating with about the topic.
- Be honest about which of the author’s points are supported through philosophical argument and which are just “personal opinions”.
- Avoid flattering the prejudices of its readers.
- Encourage readers in “continuing in the task—Sisyphean though it may sometimes seem—of determining their collective fate together.”
Professor Berg doesn’t put her elements of good public philosophy exactly in this way. The foregoing list is pieced together from a mix of positive claims by Professor Berg about what public philosophy should do, and advice inferred from criticisms she voices of some of the public philosophy work of Kate Manne, associate professor of philosophy at Cornell University, particularly her books Down Girl and Entitled.
I doubt Professor Berg would see the above list as exhaustive, or that she would insist on the robust presence of all of its items in a piece of public philosophy in order to deem the piece good public philosophy. There are myriad forms of public philosophy, but even if we were limiting ourselves to articles and books, there are probably multiple ways for them to be good examples of public philosophy. Nonetheless, the list may be a useful starting point for discussion: what would you add or subtract to it?
Because the list as a whole is not exhaustive nor all its items strictly necessary, I will say it seemed odd to focus on Manne’s work as examples of bad public philosophy. Not having read Entitled, I can only speak to Down Girl, but that book certainly hits most, maybe all, of the items on the list. Even if there is a passage or two in the book whose language seems to run contrary to some items on the list (I don’t recall), that doesn’t tell us all that much in comparison to the book as a whole hitting most or all of those marks. If, as Berg suggests, Manne at some point in Entitled advises her readers “to give up on communication” with those who disagree with them, that may be too bad, but even so it seems to be a rather minor message in comparison to the one sent by authoring two books which have communicated quite successfully philosophical arguments for controversial ideas to various kinds of audiences in a culture primed to be hostile to them. Even if one objects to Manne’s arguments—and Berg does offer some interesting criticisms in her article—I do think one should recognize Manne’s work as a tremendous achievement in public philosophy.
as values/preferences are not the sort of thing that can be discovered (being matters of contingent socialization and psychology) I don’t see how this can ever amount to more than promoting one’s own interests….Report
I find this post a little confusing, because if Berg is right, Manne’s work fails on points 2, 4, 5, 6 and 8. Those failings are either contained in or clearly implied by what Berg says.
Anyway, I think a more productive way to engage with Berg’s piece would be to note that she leads with one overarching claim: “At her worst [the public philosopher] gives her prejudices, and by extension those of her audience, the guise of philosophical insight.” That is plainly the overarching message of the piece (one might even say, its “thesis statement”…). So the question is not of how many boxes can be ticked from points gleaned, but whether the pessimism that pervades “Entitled” is the result of a gut prejudice or the result of philosophical insight. And here, I have to say that while other critiques of Manne have been less effective and even unfair, Berg lands a heavy blow. Manne’s pessimistic public predictions (not just in the book, but elsewhere) often turn out to be incorrect. For example, she publicly professed her belief that Joe Biden was guilty of sexual assault; to her credit, she wisely recanted, but this is an extraordinary error on a question of vital importanc (https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/tara-reade-biden-allegations/). And as Berg notes, “Entitled” contains very pessimistic predictions about what many people “will” do in response to various things, i.e serial rape charges (i.e. instinctively reach for ways to pardon the *serial rapist*, a jaw-dropping claim that flies in the face of all common experience… rape culture there may be, but it is clearly not so cartoonishly vile as this). This is not “a passage or two”, this is a persistent pattern in the work of a public intellectual purporting to guide us on important issues.
It is hard not to turn all of this into a disrespectful ad hominem, but this, again, is the price of doing public philosophy, one opens oneself up to these sorts of charges. Berg is simply saying that there is abundant evidence for a pessimistic prejudice here. Anyone who can seriously write–of apparently around 75% of the human race–that all we can say about them is “fuck ’em”, is clearly at least *courting* the charge of prejudicial pessimism, right? So if this work really is a “tremendous achievement”, and not a series of distractingly pessimistic analyses, then we have to either reject Berg’s central claim or argue that Manne is not unduly pessimistic. I don’t think an unsubstantiated “this work is tremendous” will quite do the job here.Report
I’m thinking of the significant cultural impact of Manne’s work over the past few years, especially Down Girl, relative to other philosophical writing produced during this time. Her ideas were discussed, taken up, criticized, etc., in the broader culture to a degree we rarely see among contemporary philosophical work, reaching an impressively wide audience.
There is no doubt that she (1) guided readers through “matters of great concern” — misogyny. More than most philosophers, she (2) communicated to a range of people and not just to those who might be expected to agree with the author. I mean, she wrote books for popular consumption that were, for their type, hugely successful, and she participated in various forums to discuss this work. That is communicating, and it was not just to people who could be expected to agree with her. She was not only criticizing the broader culture, but other particular feminist takes on that culture. She uses a variety of resources (including real world events, stories, poetry) to (3) show readers that intellectual and moral insight might be uncovered where we least expect it. By writing a book intended to persuade others of a novel and hence not popular view, she through example (4) challenges readers to expand our intellectual communities beyond those of similar mind. As for (5), it’s not as if she fails to consider and address objections and counterarguments…
I’m not saying her work is flawless. I’m not saying there aren’t any good objections to some of her arguments. But I am saying that in assessing how effective a book is at being a work of public philosophy—how well it communicates its ideas to the public—we should pay attention not just to occasional passages here and there, but also things like how many books were sold, who read it, to what extent and where its ideas were discussed, and so on. And it just seemed strange to me think, “Kate Manne has a seemingly unprecedented number of people talking about misogyny but is not a good public philosopher because she is dismissive of some people.” No one’s perfect—fortunately, you don’t have to be in order to produce good public philosophy.Report
I am sympathetic to Berg in my personal practices, as it fits better with my own dispositions, orientation, and tastes in intellectual activities and as a consumer of content. But I don’t think they ought to be prescriptive. In fact I think that if they were prescriptive, it’d be a recipe for quite boring formulaic content; “oh look here comes the public philosopher again, what nuance did we less insightful minions miss this time around?” I read the review, and I’m familiar with both of Kate Manne’s books, and I just don’t think there is such a thing as THE job of a public philosopher. There’s as much a place for the public philosopher who is incredibly good at polemics, who offer arguments and conceptual analysis and categorization for phenomena in the news and culture that speaks to people paying attention to that news, and who refuses to dignify positions she deems undignified. I might not agree with the analyses or the stances but to say this practice is beneath a philosopher is too far, stifling, and a little elitist. Also choirs need preachers, and it is not an intellectual vice to be a very good preacher for yours. Its requires talent and skill, and your choir may very well be the one who needs a new a good preacher. Yet, I don’t think every or even most public philosophers should be Kate Manne. But the same is true of anyone else; not everyone should be Myisha Cherry, or Massimo Pigliucci for that matter, who I have not heard anyone complain about. The prescriptions Berg makes amount to one species of good public philosophy; its converse does not necessarily make for a species of bad public philosophy.
I do think that Berg makes a very unfair charge about that Manne “exploits her disciplinary authority to hawk personal opinions under the guise of philosophical insight.” First, let’s not overestimate ourselves. I hate to break it to people but much of the public doesn’t give two shits about our disciplinary authority, and even if they did, I don’t know anyone, not least of which Manne who says “hey look at me, Ivy League Professor, listen to be because of this”. Secondly, this is a highly petty and contentless charge for a philosopher to attribute to another; we all know and teach that personal opinions can have better or worse philosophical arguments in support of them, and that the quality of those arguments do not rest on whether the opinion or the argument came first in one’s epistemic life. Someone may not succeed in their arguments or analysis, and those are legitimate criticisms from Berg, but it is not a further complaint to say “oh and by the way, this is just a personal opinion under the guide of philosophical insight.” No one charges Pigliucci with hawking self-help under the guide of philosophical insight with his Stoicism work. In any case, I think its time to just do the work without prescribing what we think public philosophy ought to be; that attitude hasn’t really worked well for philosophy proper.Report
Thanks Justin, this is an illuminating way of framing the exchange, and it helps zero-in on what the public intellectual is or ought to be. Considering the issue de re, I think points 2 (speaking across boundaries), 5 (helping people adopt the points of view of those we disagree with, in the interest of better understanding where they’re coming from) and 8 (fostering the collective will to shape our fate together) are particularly important.
Concerning 2: According to Pew Research Center data, since the mid-1990s the U.S. has been going through a period of increasing political polarization, and there’s a real danger that the extremists are doing too much of the talking today. I suspect that when enough people get up the gumption to start participating, we’ll see that most people reject the rhetoric one gets from both the extreme left and the extreme right today. I’m sure that, at least in the United States, there will always be a place in public discourse for screeds along the lines of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. But as Rorty points out in Achieving Our Country, there is a complementary current for this American sentiment that has been passed along under the guise of a forward-looking, progressive, and collective effort to make something better than what we were given when we got here.
The neglect of that countercurrernt (on both the left and the right) has developed in step with a closing off of our willingness to talk to and try to understand one another—instead, we act and react on the conviction that what “we” do is right and what “they” do is wrong. To combat that extremism, we need people who are willing to speak across boundaries in the interest of helping us understand one another.
Concerning 5 and 8: It follows that public intellectuals, at least in the U.S., have a duty today to try to help their audience understand the points of view of people who disagree with them over the shape the Republic should take. I mean this as a generic claim rather than a universal generalization—there will always be a place for a Jonathan Edwards in American public discourse (as there should be, if the promise of the project is to be kept). But in the last three decades we’ve come to understand that the ability to take on the affective, cognitive, and practical standpoints of other people has been something like the defining trait of our evolutionary ancestry for likely hundreds of thousands of years. We are the animal that adopts the points of view of its conspecifics, argues with them over those viewpoints, and then cooperates with them to get things done.
Americans used to be really good at that, and American philosophers used to be more actively involved in it. I think it would be good of American public intellectuals to put more effort into reflectively taking part in this sort of thing today. And it’s not as though we aren’t in possession of a bunch of new tools to do so.Report
I think the only “public philosophy” that is truly public and truly philosophical is something along the lines of “philosophy for children”. The rest is just advocacy performed by philosophers, read and understood by people who already have the education to read “real” philosophy instead. There’s nothing wrong with philosophers wanting to engage effectively with public discourse, but they should just accept that such activity is a practice of rhetoric and not philosophy. If they want to change the broader world (in their lifetimes) by applying their professionally specific toolbox, they chose the wrong profession. Good philosophy that earnestly tackles real-world problems is necessarily esoteric because of its complexity and difficulty, and cannot be vulgarized without losing essential information.Report
As someone who has done some public philosophy, I appreciate Berg’s piece for the provocative questions it asks, but like Barry above I find the critique unsatisfying for similar reasons. When I was working on my book the most critical question I had to ask myself was: who is the audience? “The Public” is not an audience. “People who read the Chronicle of Higher Education” is an audience. My target audience was higher-ed administrators, people working in higher ed, student service professionals, and first-gen students themselves. I had to think about that audience in deciding how to write the book, but also in where I talked about the book. My goal was trying to convince my audience to notice an ethical aspect of the first-gen experience that they might not have attended to. Was I preaching to the choir? It might seem that way when I was talking to community college students. So many of them told me that my work resonated with them. But when I have giving the same talk at more elite places, the reaction was markedly different–more surprised than affirmed. There is no ‘public’ to whom we deliver ‘truths’. It’s not true of philosophers and it is not true of Ta-Nehesi Coates or
Zeynep Tufekci. We share our insights with those audiences with whom we want to be in dialogue. If we do it well, they engage with us. If we don’t, they simply do not read us. Berg’s critique seems to be that Manne should have picked a different audience. But that critique seems to me neither here nor there.Report
This sentence bothers me: “Because the list as a whole is not exhaustive nor all its items strictly necessary, I will say it seemed odd to focus on Manne’s work as examples of bad public philosophy.” I think it would have been even more odd NOT to focus on Manne’s work, given that Berg was writing a review of Manne’s work.Report
Ha. Fair point. I should have found a better way to say that the list, given its incompleteness and looseness, doesn’t provide much of basis for concluding that Manne’s work is bad public philosophy.Report
This comment doesn’t concern the particular book or author in question but rather your (Justin’s) first comment about evaluating of public philosophy. You mention several features that can be used to assess whether or not a work of public philosophy is effective—number of books sold, number of readers, the extent to which its ideas are discussed, communicates its ideas well, cultural impact (both objectively and relative to other work).
None of these are features are, in and of themselves, virtues of public philosophy. They aren’t for the same reason that character traits like cleverness and perseverance aren’t virtues. Good ol’ Aristotle states why clearly “ There is a faculty which is called cleverness; and this is such as to be able to do the things that tend towards the mark we have set before ourselves, and to hit it. Now if the mark be noble, the cleverness is laudable, but if the mark be bad, the cleverness is mere villainy; hence we call clever both men of practical wisdom and villains.” If someone’s ends are bad, whether they are fully aware of it or not, we should hope they aren’t clever and won’t display perseverance.
So if a work of public philosophy is, in fact, largely promoting poorly grounded and false prejudices to those already inclined to accept them and, in so doing, makes its readers worse off than they would have been had they not read it, we should hope it isn’t widely read and discussed at all. [[Again, this has nothing to do with this book, which I haven’t read and am not judging.]]
So I think that “being effective” is something to praise only if “being good” is already taken care of. And I suspect you actually agree with this; would you praise a public intellectual qua public intellectual whose work you thought was fundamentally flawed and potentially harmful, say, Jordan Peterson, using the same criteria you’ve just used. I mean, he has sold a lot of books and started a lot of conversations.Report
Thanks, Chris. I agree with the main thrust of your comment, or maybe a more relaxed version of it. There’s some pluralistic threshold of quality—on my view quite shy of truth or flawlessness or even the absence of some bad ideas—the content of a work must meet in order for it to count as good public philosophy.
I’d also say (and I think you’d agree) that there’s some kind of threshold for the “public” part of “good public philosophy” that does concern communicative effectiveness, and so indeed “number of books sold, number of readers, the extent to which its ideas are discussed, communicates its ideas well, cultural impact” might well matter on that score.
In the present case, I took Manne’s work to quite clearly meet the content quality threshold, even if it turns out some of Berg’s substantive criticisms hold up, and so I just discussed the communicative factors.Report
There are two parts of the article that seem a bit off to me.
1. ‘As delusional as Rodger was, there is little reason to think he took his act to actually advance any practical goal.’
Kate Manne argues that misogyny isn’t a matter of the misogynist’s intentions, beliefs, or goals; it’s a question of whether the person creates an inhospitable climate for women by their own lights. Do incels? Yes.
This objection seems to misunderstand Manne’s argument, & it gives epistemic authority to the incel (by accepting his testimony & point of view), which is precisely what Manne is trying to avoid.
2. ‘Who if not a philosopher should be responsible for keeping the faith that intellectual and moral insight might be uncovered where we least expect it?’
I would argue that Manne’s pessimism is part of a longstanding philosophical tradition. Many philosophers think people hold dogmatic beliefs due to false consciousness or bad faith or deformed desires (etc.). Marx, for example, was skeptical that proletarians could settle class differences in a debate with the bourgeoisie due to competing class-based interests.Report
I disagree with all of these suggestions. Why? Because they are principles that ought to shape a philosopher’s thinking before she ever thinks about writing public philosophy. If they do shape her thinking, I expect it will come through in her public-facing work. I find this indirect way of criticizing Manne for philosophical vices by urging her to correct those vices in her readers… off-putting.
For a positive proposal: public philosophy has all the norms of the subset of top-shelf philosophy that some subset of intelligent non-philosophers might be interested in. That means you *probably won’t reference contemporary philosophical literature much, and you will *probably take more time to illustrate and beautify, less to multiply technical subtleties, among many other possible relative differences.Report
Reply seems not to be working, so this is in response to Mike. I suppose we could have a conversation over what “public” and “philosophy” mean, but I don’t see why the only thing that merits the title is philosophy for children, with everything else counting only as advocacy. After all, if there are valuable things that children can learn from philosophy, I don’t see why the public can’t be introduced to them as well. And one aim in doing that is to help expand people’s points of view, to help them see the world and the people around them in a new light. Is that advocacy?
I’ve had some success introducing middle schoolers to Aristotle’s notion of the soul as a princple of activity for living things, Kant’s understanding of rationality as autonomy in the sense of governing oneself by rules one recognizes as binding, and Sellars’ understanding of the moral point of view as an exercise of shared intentionality across person, space, and time. None of that need involve advocacy, so far as I can see. And I don’t think we vulgarize the content or lose essential information when we frame it in a way that is fitting for a middle school audience. Mutatis mutandis for the presentation of those ideas in a public forum, it seems to me. Given the plethora of new technology tools and resources at our disposal today, and given the amount of time people sink into distractions like twitter and facebook, this looks like a real opportunity for philosophers to contribute to public discourse in a way that crosses political boundaries.Report
I believe strongly in the importance of public philosophy. The biggest problem I’ve seen with public philosophy is that in some works, the author seems less concerned with helping the reader to think through issues for themselves, than in supplying them with what the author believes to be the correct doctrine. This relates to Professor Berg’s points 2, 4, 5 and 6. As someone who works in public philosophy, I find it very easy, when I feel passionate about something, to enter into proselytization mode, and I’m not alone in that.Report
I haven’t read either of Kate Manne’s books *Down Girl* and *Entitled*, so I’m not in a position to say anything about their quality. In my humble opinion, both *Why I Am Not a Buddhist* by Evan Thompson and *Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers* by Kwame Anthony Appiah are excellent works of public philosophy (and of academic philosophy, too).Report
In reply to Preston: I think we broadly agree. The examples you offer fit within the scope of “along the lines of ‘philosophy for children'”, in that they involve a captive audience of developing minds, are asymmetrically educative rather than discursive inter pares, and are principally focused on introducing concepts and strategies of thought rather than addressing topical content. (I presume these examples come from a school setting, my apologies if I presumed wrongly).Report
Thanks Mike. I think I see where you’re coming from. Just to be clear, I’m maintaining that there’s a mode of apolitical public philosophy that is as similar to a university survey course in philosophy as it is to a course in philosophy for children. In each case (public, university, children) we’re presenting people with viewpoints and conceptual resources for thinking about our place in the world–and at the edges we might be lucky enough to help them discover new truths. I don’t find a reason to think that doing so in any case necessarily involves “vulgarizing” the content or losing essential information. What’s essential about Plato’s account of justice in the city as an analogy for justice in the soul, for instance, varies from pedagogical context to pedagogical context. None of this speaks against the possibility of other forms of public philosophy, of course, and I appreciate that this discussion over Berg’s review of Manne’s book has helped to illuminate some of the different aims and methods we might associate with public philosophy.
But I’m sensitive to claims that public philosophy is somehow less philosophically precise or valuable than academic philosophy, and that all public philosophy ends up being ideologically motivated, so perhaps I read to much into your language. If so, I apologize.Report
This discussion has led me to wonder whether one can articulate the heart of public philosophy, or judge whether it is done well or not, until one can define philosophy. If philosophy is purely an academic exercise then, doing public philosophy would entail perhaps making the ideas of various writers or positions clear to non-specialists. Many podcasts do this. but this leaves out a different meaning of ‘public’ where the enacting of public philosophizing would entail engaging in concerns relevant to that public. I think Mann is trying to do this. But, here we then have another issue not yet stated, how to distinguish public philosophy from other intellectual approaches or even advocacy? Are all public intellectuals writings public philosophy and is all analyses philosophical analyses? It is in this sense that I am not even sure what Mann is doing is philosophy. It seems to have an agenda, to present a way of looking at things in an unqualified way, and unself-critically overstates its case. It also is unclear how many of its claims aren’t better characterized as psychological, sociological, or political, rather than philosophical as such. But, again, here we have a matter of definition. When I think of public philosophy I would think the best examples would be efforts at illumination of what ideas, arguments, or positions are already in the public, in an effort at clarifying the confused and mediating the misunderstandings and oppositions in the public debate.Report