Personal, Practical, Public Philosophy

“Starting around 2010, however, there was a striking change, surprising to someone trained in the 1980s. Some philosophy professors began to write a lot more personally; they tried to show how philosophical ideas had affected and might affect their own lives.”

[image by J. Weinberg]

That’s Crispin Sartwell (Dickinson) writing in the Los Angeles Review of BooksHe continues:

Some started writing what came to be thought of as philosophical self-help: for instance, how William James dealt with his debilitating depression and how you can too, or how a dose of Stoicism can make you less miserable. They started, as well, trying to write for general audiences, addressing the most urgent contemporary issues as they emerged, and teaching classes that would draw students from every major.

Such figures as Agnes Callard, John Kaag, Clancy Martin, Skye Cleary, Justin E. H. Smith, Kieran Setiya, and Costica Bradatan, I would say, are far more conscious and better writers than the professors of my generation who may have been their teachers. They are far more accessible writers, but more than that, they are literary stylists, still-emerging or mid-career literary stars. I don’t think you could have said that of any of the professional philosophers who, like me, are currently in their sixties. The new philosophers have, as well, returned systematically to various aspects of the history of philosophy that the 20th century tended to neglect as it drove itself forward into scientific-style progress.

Sartwell sees this “striking change” as emerging from what he describes as a “professional crisis” in philosophy:

Philosophy seemed to have been successfully professionalized and contained within academia. Most of the work published in journals in almost any style was relatively inaccessible to nonspecialists. By 2010, the jargons of continental and analytic philosophy had been elaborated and refined for a century. Philosophers couldn’t speak even to one another, let alone communicate with the public. Among other things, this might have made it hard to attract students. And if you can’t attract students, administrators won’t hire professors.

The turn towards public-facing personal and practical philosophy was facilitated, he says, by the growing popularity of memoirs and personal essays in the broader literary culture, particularly ones about personal problems and self-help, and the decade-plus run of “The Stone,” the philosophy column in The New York Times, edited by Peter Catapano.

Sartwell applauds the change, which he sees as focused on “how intellection can be integrated into life.” You can read the whole piece here.

*  *  *

I appreciate the work of many of the philosophers Sartwell holds up as exemplars of what he calls “the new philosophy,” but I’m not on the same page with him regarding the reasons for its emergence, or even on it really being new. What we’re seeing now is just the most noticeable—because most recent—elements of changes in philosophy that have been going on for at least fifty years. And rather than evidence of philosophy’s previous “insularity,” the work Sartwell praises is a clue to philosophy’s continual growth and diversification over the past several decades.

Regarding putting philosophy to “practical purpose” and taking up “serious practical matters, matters of life and death,” there are different ways to tell this story, but one might go back to the 1970s, when biomedical ethics began making inroads into academic philosophy. The 1970s also saw a resurgence not just in political philosophy but a surge in philosophy on issues of public policy. Philosophy & Public Affairs was created in 1972, and while its content has not always been as practically-minded as some might have liked, it was nonetheless a signal from academic philosophy of its interest in taking up “real-world” social and political questions. Or consider the arduous path to disciplinary legitimacy blazed by feminist philosophers, especially since the early 1980s (Hypatia was launched in 1982). Similarly, it took decades for philosophical work on race and racism to come to be taken seriously in the discipline. That those working on feminist issues and racism were dismissed for so long as working on “me studies” should be a clue that philosophers focusing on philosophy that “might affect their own lives” is not exactly new. If we’re happy about philosophers today doing this, it seems appropriate to acknowledge the predecessors whose work helped normalize it.

In addition to these gradual changes to academic philosophy, broader cultural and economic factors may have played a role in the forms of public philosophy Sartwell is writing about.

He draws attention to the more personal nature of some recent philosophy. While this, too isn’t exactly new (for example, this book is 20 years old now), certainly the creation of the internet and the rise of social media has gotten us used to sharing more information about ourselves with the rest of the world, compared to previous generations, and it’s no surprise that this has crept into philosophy. Technology has facilitated a relaxation of privacy and modesty norms and associated attitudes about what is and isn’t shameful or embarrassing; why should philosophy be immune? After all, philosophers are people, too.

As for the production of public-facing philosophy, certainly part of that is owed to the development of the internet, as well. It opened up so many avenues of communication, and philosophers have for decades now used them not just to communicate with each other (say, through blogs) but with the public (this project got started in 1999, for example, and this similar one in 2005).

Additionally, economic factors might be spurring philosophers to branch out beyond the academy. Though there have been some ups and downs, professors in the U.S. on average are making about as much as they were about 20 years ago (in inflation-adjusted dollars), yet the average salary across all jobs in the U.S. has gone up by over 20% during that time. Since cultural impressions change more slowly than economic realities, it may be that academics, including philosophers, have expectations for their lives that are increasingly disappointed by their paychecks, and there’s a stronger motivation to get a professional foothold outside of academia to improve one’s economic prospects.

Certainly a lot more could be said about these developments and their causes. Discussion welcome.

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Matt L
11 months ago

I guess I find the idea that “public facing” or “practical” philosophy got going in the 70s or 80s as also ignoring an awful lot. To use two examples, Bertrand Russell wrote _a lot_ of “public facing” philosophy, on a really wide range of topics. He often said he didn’t really consider it philosophy, but I think that, if he meant it, he wasn’t right. (And, much of it is a lot better than it’s often given credit for being. I’d recommend Charles Pigden’s contribution to the Cambridge Companion to Russell on this topic.)

Further back still, Henry Sidwick wrote regularly on practical ethics and popular topics (including a whole collection, _Practical Ethics_) in addition to his wide-spread activist work on various topics. This all despite writing what is often considered the first truely academic book of ethics.

So, this all seems like a regular re-discovery of something that happens fairly regularly, more than a new movement. This isn’t to say anything bad about those doing such work today, but it’s not especially novel.

Timothy Sommers
11 months ago

I don’t want to offend and won’t generalize, but to the extent that “applied ethics” counts as public philosophy (I think it does), I will say this. Back in the 1980s medical ethics was already huge, but business ethics was still getting going. I knew several people that moved into business ethics or switched to it entirely, and, frankly, they all did it (as they said themselves) for the money mainly (workshops, consulting, etc.) Make of that what you will. Admittedly, I only knew a small number of the many people who got involved with business ethics.

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
11 months ago

I understand that there’s something important for it’s own sake about not being wrong about stuff, but other than that I’m trying to figure out why it matters whether you, Justin, or Sartwell is right about this. Do you see something larger at stake here other than a disagreement over the causal history of a certain kind of current popular philosophy?

Matt L
Reply to  Matt McAdam
11 months ago

I’m not completely sure if this is addressed to me or not (I’m not sure who the “you” is) but since it could be addressed to me, I’ll reply. The first answer is that I don’t think that there is anything very large at stake. I do think that getting history right is important on its own, but not _all that_ important. But, I do also think there’s some practical pay-off here. I think we can better understand our own situations if we see how the are similar to, or different from, the past. And, I think we’ll do better philosophy if we understand how what we are doing is similar to, or different from, what’s been done before. Beyond that, I think it helps us have appropriate intellectual humility if we have a better understanding of what our predecessors were doing. And, I think that this sort of intellectual humility is often useful for us. That doesn’t mean most people need to spend time on history, but beyond that, it just annoys me when people claim something is new or striking (in a general sense), when what they are, at best, justified in saying is that they didn’t pay attention to some things that were happening before. (I don’t mean to criticize Justin here – he’s right to point out that it’s odd to say that it would be surprising to someone trained in the 1980s to see people see people doing “public facing” work, given the work that was actually done close to that time. I just wanted to point out that it wasn’t even radical or new in the 70s or 80s, either.)

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
Reply to  Matt McAdam
11 months ago

One of the claims Sartwell made is that the personal turn happened because of the stagnation of impersonal philosophy. But if the personal philosophy has been there all along, then maybe impersonal philosophy wasn’t stagnating.

11 months ago

Growing up, my exposure to philosophy was limited to memoir-style writing that namedrops some cool-sounding names, which was not to my taste. (Unfortunately, I did not have access to more opinionated authors such as Russell.) For that reason, I had very little interest in pursuing philosophy as a major until I came across more ‘non-personal’ philosophy, which made me realize that philosophy is not just a memoir. In fact, reading Quine’s own take on the need for philosophy’s public-facing role deeply consoled me when I was thinking hard about whether to pursue postgraduate studies in philosophy or not.

Of course, I am not claiming that the philosophers Sartwell mentioned are comparable to the authors that I read growing up; I certainly enjoyed and benefitted from reading these recent public-facing works by the Anglophone philosophers. Moreover, for the very “professional crisis” reason Sartwell pointed out, I’m feeling more and more pressured to develop such a public-facing aspect as a junior scholar. Well, this may be a good thing for the profession. Nonetheless, I cannot help but think that there might be a teenager like me somewhere who would find more joy in ‘non-personal’ philosophy.