When Philosophizing in Public, Remember How Strange We May Seem


Philosophers have a long history of being misunderstood by others. The risk of dangerous misunderstandings have led some philosophers in previous eras to take a variety of strategies—careful phrasings, flattery, literary devices, understatement, pseudonyms, running away—to avoid getting in trouble with the masses or their rulers.

Concern with not being understood is still with us. That many people are largely unfamiliar with what philosophy is, what philosophers do, and why it might be valuable are common complaints among today’s philosophers.

Nowadays, philosophers and their work are more publicly accessible than ever before in the history of humanity, thanks to the development and spread of communications technology and increases in literacy. What counters this heightened potential for public disapprobation is a mix of factors, including how boring or useless the public finds philosophical work, how forbidding the writing style of much philosophy is to those not trained in it, and the easy and instant access people have to an astounding abundance of competitors for their attention. Most philosophy is simply unnoticed by the public.

But sometimes philosophy is noticed, and sometimes this is because it is meant to be noticed, because it’s an instance of what has come to be called “public philosophy,” a category that includes a range of activities by philosophers (mainly academics or people with at least some advanced academic training in philosophy) specifically aimed at bringing philosophy to, or doing philosophy with, non-philosophers outside the university setting.

While there has been a fair amount of discussion of the variety of forms public philosophy might take, the goods and bads of public philosophy, what public philosophy should be like, and so on, something relevant to public philosophy that I don’t believe I’ve seen explicitly addressed is just how bizarre philosophers might seem to others when they’re engaging with one another. I think we should talk about this.

One thing about philosophers is that they are capable of finding philosophy very enjoyable. In any activity, a particularly skillful or surprising move might elicit delight, an unusual strategy might be fun to try out, a vigorous volley between the participants might be exhilarating, and you might need to know a fair amount about the activity to understand what’s causing the enjoyment and why. In these regards philosophy is no different. While in other activities the moves may be made with a ball, a body, a boat, a bishop, a bass, in philosophy, they’re made with ideas. Ideas can be about anything. And so a philosopher might find themselves unable to control the smile on their face because of something someone said about a topic as dry sounding as whether numbers exist. Or a discussion among philosophers about a matter as serious as the ethics of killing might be punctuated with laughter at the ingeniousness of each other’s proposals or counterexamples.

Something else about philosophical conversation that might strike others as strange is how detached from reality it can seem. Philosophers love making distinctions, and because they’re especially adept at “suppressing contextually irrelevant default inferences from words,” we often make “in principle” distinctions between things that ordinarily are often experienced together.

For example, in the well-known opening of his book, Offense to Others, Joel Feinberg has readers imagine taking “a ride on the bus” during which they are subject to various stimuli and behavior that are possibly offensive but “harmless in themselves.” The idea is to test our taste for regulating the merely offensive, even when it’s not harmful. In one of the tamer examples, Feinberg has the reader imagine a naked person taking a seat on the bus directly in their line of sight. Is that something we can rightly demand the law prevent people from doing? When I discuss this question with students, nearly all of them answer “yes.” And when I ask them why, almost all of them think of the passenger’s nudity as harmful (or closely potentially harmful), in one way or another. This is in part because it’s normal to associate the surprising and unwanted appearance of someone else’s genitals with harmful circumstances like sexual assault, or with dangerous people. A philosopher might respond, “Yes, I appreciate that, but we just want to focus on the nudity itself, so we are going to assume you have no reason to think this naked person poses any risk of harm to you.” Some might go along with that assumption, but others might—not unreasonably—ask themselves, “why should I assume that?” And when the conversation proceeds on the basis of that assumption, it may sound alien, or insensitive, or wrong.

I’m sure there are other ways conversation among philosophers may come off as quite strange to others—feel free to share them in the comments.

I think awareness of our unusual ways, sensitivity to how we might come off to non-philosophers, and preparation in light of this awareness and sensitivity are among the responsibilities of philosophers engaging with the public. It seems to me that some controversies stemming from instances of public philosophy are in part owed to a failure to attend sufficiently (if at all) to these responsibilities. Which particular practical steps are suggested from awareness, sensitivity, and preparation may vary depending on the subject matter, but if readers have any general suggestions, it would be great to hear them.

 

guest
9 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Paul Wilson
7 months ago

Perhaps introducing a potentially controversial or contrarian viewpoint with a prefatory phrase such as “for the sake of argument, let me play the devil’s advocate and say …” would be accessible to laypersons and help engage them in the debate.Report

Last edited 7 months ago by paulscrawl
Steve
Steve
Reply to  Paul Wilson
7 months ago

I generally do this when talking to non-philosophers and I think it usually convinces them that I don’t believe, eg, that it’s okay *for you* to get on the bus naked. But it doesn’t seem to solve the problem of appearing insensitive and detached from realityReport

Pavek
Pavek
Reply to  Paul Wilson
6 months ago

At the risk of sounding insensitive, I worry about this strategy for the following reason: While philosophers are quite adept at abstract thinking, employing hypothetical language and recursion, non-philosophers are not so adept. Once one builds in too many qualifying or hedging statements into her speech that render her speech more abstract, it becomes more difficult for non-philosophers to follow the logical thread. This, in itself, seems to provoke hostility and, in effect, poison the well of discussion in my experience.Report

WonderingPhilosopher
7 months ago

I believe that this post exhibits many of the reasons why philosophers are not taken seriously by the public. It is not because “we” are so different, whatever this “we” is (philosophy is quite a broad church). It is because of how some philosophers fashion themselves socially, that they create an “us” (we, the highfliers, who live in the community of Socrates, Spinoza et al and have to respond preemptively to the issues they had) versus “them” (the common people who cannot understand us because we are so special). This is, in my opinion, an arrogant attitude (sorry Justin) that contributes to many of the problems philosophy has. Remember the study about Gender Ratio in Philosophy by Katharina Nieswandt? Positioning oneself outside the society is a social version of the brilliance belief that might be a main reason why fewer women begin to study philosophy. So, simply take a step back and accept that we philosophers are common people too and that there is as much variety in interests, humor, and style of reasoning among all others as there is among philosophers. Moreover, think about how our profession actually works at departments, conferences, on hiring committees etc. and you find all the petty motifs at play that you find everywhere else.Report

Gave up
Reply to  WonderingPhilosopher
6 months ago

I’ll be the first to admit there’s a lot of arrogance in academic philosophy, but it’s totally unsurprising that years of graduate education will produce certain differences in how people approach certain questions, and I don’t see how it’s arrogant to recognize those differences. For instance, non-philosophers often don’t get that you can simply stipulate whatever you want into a case and will balk at the assumption that, say, a naked man on the bus poses no risk to you (to stick to Justin’s example). That’s not to say non-philosophers are stupid (it’s a very understandable reaction) or that philosophers are somehow special (stipulating stuff is our bread and butter). But there is a difference, and that difference can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings. Don’t really see how it’s arrogant to say that.Report

V. Alan White
7 months ago

Philosophy is from the western perspective a meta-pursuit for truth about any X. To philosophize on X presumably requires deep knowledge of X, or at least inquiry into X that reflects a passion for such. Deep knowledge requires devotion to an X that in turn requires a gift of curiosity assisted by either the luxury of time afforded by privilege or daringly and then only luckily carved out by its insatiable pursuit. By the overall situations of life relatively few can achieve either of these. This will place any who succeed in promulgating philosophical views on any X before the audience of the less privileged and less lucky (even if curious) majority ready to be cast as an elite minority simply by numbers, and the present internet/media is such that self-perceived grievance and tribal identity dominate those numbers, offering significant resistance to the minority. These numbers then translate into political voices, and as we see political systems can sometimes further translate those voices into laws that are inimical to anything like impartial visions of the pursuit of truth. All this is a wordy way to say: nothing has changed since the days of Socrates, and I don’t expect it to change for the better (by philosophy’s ideal perspective for the search for truth) foreseeably. It’s the case that we better see that this is our station if we (can) choose it; it’s a Sisyphean task at best, noble or not.Report

Katarina
7 months ago

One day at a restaurant I told a colleague that I was not a vegan and that my cannibalism boiled down to eating eggs. Other non-philosopher friends at the table were startled. And another philosopher friend then said: she is just drawing a logical consequence from Darwinism. Those who weren’t from philosophy, at the table, couldn’t believe if we were joking or being serious. And we were only informed of this astonishment the next day. I love Feinberg’s work, btw.Report

Gave up
6 months ago

Seems right. I think this sort of reaction (“why should I assume that?”) is ultimately misguided, stemming from unfamiliarity with philosophy, but I see little point to fighting. Best to choose a different example. More generally, there’s a lot of philosophy you can do without alienating your audience.Report

Renato Bulcao
Renato Bulcao
6 months ago

I´m the philosophy course coordinator of a private university in São Paulo, Brazil. The program of philosophy of science inspired by the books and internet lessons of Jennifer Nagel.  As soon as the introductory textbook was ready to print, the so-called Quality Commission led by a biologist and a master in communication denounced me for teaching unproven scientific ideas… They wrote a 70 pages manual stopping at Wittgenstein. Gettier’s problem and the discussion cases were condemned as scientific blasphemy. 

Prof. Doctor Renato Bulcao de MoraesReport