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.

Andreas Gursky, “Tote Hosen” (detail)

Good public philosophy, according to Professor Berg, will:

  1. Guide readers through “matters of great concern”.
  2. Communicate to a range of people and not just to those who might be expected to agree with the author.
  3. Show readers “that intellectual and moral insight might be uncovered where we least expect it.”
  4. Challenge readers “to expand our intellectual communities beyond those of ‘similar mind’.”
  5. 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.
  6. Be honest about which of the author’s points are supported through philosophical argument and which are just “personal opinions”.
  7. Avoid flattering the prejudices of its readers.
  8. 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 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.


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