Public Philosophy Network

Encouraging and Supporting Publicly Engaged Philosophical Research and Practices

As a graduate student in philosophy, I am still looking towards an undetermined future in the discipline. I am passionate about my work and completely dedicated to the idea of doing philosophy more publicly. I want to do philosophy that is accessible, relevant, thoughtful, and refined, but I wonder what other people think about the possibility of doing this kind of philosophical work. In particular, I want to know what philosophers think about pursuing philosophy in this way.

 

Does it threaten to become "pop" philosophy? Is that undesirable? Is it assumed that "public" philosophy somehow dilutes the integrity of the philosophical work? (If so, how does this relate to attitudes that the "real" work of philosophy occurs through journals, books, and other publications? What kind of value judgments are in place about the academy and non-academic philosophy?)

 

Through what avenues can/has one do/done public philosophical work? How do people feel about their experience writing philosophically-related blogs and weekly columns? What other means are available? Any success stories or insights?

 

 

 

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I think of "public" as it is used in "public policy."  I believe philosophy must engage public policy and policy makers.  Philosophers must contribute to think tanks and engage in policy discussions.  We need to attend professional conferences on vital issues – education, crime and justice, urban planning, economic development, housing, digital media.  Philosophers talk to each other almost exclusively and this is not good for the vitality of the discipline.  In the US, the anti-intellectual tradition is alive and well; but we can't give up.  It is a challenge but not insurmountable.  Philosophical presuppositions already exist in all the fields above.  It is our duty as citizens and scholars of elucidate and critique those presuppositions.  In so doing we might allow new solutions.  Ethical positions abound in policy disputes – utilitarian, social liberal, libertarian, communitarian, conservative.  Critical theory is needed and sometimes welcomed by members of the professions.  Race theory is very obviously relevant.  As is feminist and queer criticism of culture. 

 

It is a struggle to introduce oneself as a philosopher in policy discussions and then have something engaging to say.  We are all trying to figure out how to do this or to do it well.

Thanks very much for the response, Stephen. If I may ask some follow up questions, what have your own personal experiences been in trying to engage public policy makers? How have you been received by others who don't identify as philosophers? How do you get in touch with think tanks in the first place?!? And obstacles have you faced, perhaps other than figuring out how to introduce yourself and say something engaging? In particular, I wonder how much support you have received from your own institution and/or department in terms of reaching out to and participating with others outside of philosophy--have you found the time to do this as part of your work or is it assumed to be what you do on your "own time"? 

 

I apologize for the list of questions, but I really am interested in hearing from others who have done more of this kind of work. I want to hear about their unique struggles and successes. So, thanks again for the response. I hope that others will add to this conversation!

I do not think that philosophy for non-specialist audiences has to be dumbed down in any way. It obviously did not have to up to, er, I am not sure when, but Ayer, R M Hare, P F Strawson, Wittgenstein and Bernard Williams can all be read and appreciated by the intelligent and cultured general reader, even if he or she would not dissect Wittgenstein (the obvious example of these five) in the same way that academic philosophers often do. So I don't think that philosophy beyond the walls of the academy need be pop philosophy. It can still be pretty academic.

What we have seen in recent decades is a growing tendency of some philosophers to get very technical, to draw distinctions that do not come naturally to most people even when they think carefully about the topic, to wheel on the apparatus of modal logic, and so on. But I think one can deal with that in two ways. The first is to give creative explanations that get the essential points across, without attempting to give the full picture of the technical theory that is being used. It is perfectly possible to do this without distortion at the level of technicality of philosophy. It would not be possible at the level of technicality of contemporary mathematics, or physics, but that is not our problem. The second approach is to choose the questions that you explore carefully. For example, I am giving a talk on scientific realism and anti-realism to a general audience tomorrow. I shall build everything around the theme of whether photons, the gravitational field and the like are real. That is only one take on the problem of realism, and you could say that it misrepresents the issues by being such a narrow take on the problem, but it should work, without dumbing down (at least, I hope it will).

Another issue with public philosophy is, what does it do to your CV? If it starts to crowd out work on technical papers in peer-reviewed journals, will you get credit for it when applying for jobs? I don't know. I make my living mainly from a couple of days a week working on tax policy, not from philosophy, so I am not bothered by such considerations. But others may not feel the same way.

The engagement with public policy that Stephen mentions in his post of 22 January is another matter. I agree that it is a very good thing if we can get philosophical thinking involved in the policy-making process. In the UK, it is certainly much easier to do this through think tanks than by a direct assault on the policy-makers in government. But the latter is perfectly possible too. Governments have over the past decade got increasingly into the habit of holding public consultations, to which anyone can respond. And I would certainly encourage philosophers to do so.

 

Hi, Richard. Thanks so much for your response. I agree that in many instances people in more general, non-academic audiences are more than capable of understanding and appreciating thoughtful, philosophical discussions and that one does not need to "dumb it down" but rather find different ways of communicating the main ideas. In fact, so far I have received great feedback from people on the internet who seem hungry for more thought-provoking material. Providing it for them and in such a way that maintains the integrity of the ideas while at the same time engages the audience without leaving them behind seems to be the task for those who wish to present philosophy to such wider audiences. It also seems to me, though, that many academic philosophers are less adept at this kind of public communication. As educators, I think that most academic philosophers probably have experience in their own classrooms of relating ideas to students in different, unique, and creative ways, but not everyone is interested in carrying those kinds of conversations outside of the classroom. For those of us who are, I think we still need more training on how to do so (which is already one of the recurring themes in this thread).

 

I also find it interesting that both you and Stephen have not been doing strictly academic philosophy. This raises another related question, "To what degree does public philosophy take one outside of Academia?" I would really like to continue hearing thoughts on this from people who have stayed in the Academy and those, like yourself, Richard, who make a living doing other things but manage to keep a place in your life for philosophy. For those who are academic philosophers, is the public work mostly "on the side"?  What are the forms of this public work--regular community meetings? self-published work? etc...

Hello Cori

I agree that some academics are better at talking outside their professional setting than others, although I suspect that when they are not good at it, this is independent of the fact that they are academics. Any sort of speaker, on any subject, can be a good, or a bad, communicator. And yes, a little bit of guidance on what to do, and what not to do, can go a long way. The cruellest, but probably the most effective, method of training is to be filmed while speaking, and then to watch the film afterwards while someone else points out what worked and what did not work.

On the academic and the public, I think it is worth noting a distinction between "academic" meaning "within an institution of a particular sort (such as a university)", and "academic" meaning "having a certain content, for example tackling problems that are current in the learned journals, in the style that professors normally adopt, referring to works that are recognized by professors to be significant, and with all the footnotes". It is an obvious distinction, but I think it is helpful to be reminded of it. A work can very well be academic in the second sense, without having being produced within an academic institution. One of the questions that arises out of what you say concerns the converse: can something be produced within an academic institution, without being academic in its content? Of course it can be produced by someone who is a professor, but would he or she do so as part of his or her life in the academy?

I have no answer to that question. I rather feel that it ought not to matter, because the value of work, and by implication the validation of the author's life, ought to depend on the work's content, not on whether it can be associated with a particular type of institution. I think this is especially so in the humanities, the professionalization of which is a phenomenon of the last two or three centuries, and may not last. You might rate Kant above Hume, but if you did, it would not be because Kant worked in the academy and Hume did not.

Another point is that the walls of the academy are permeable. Here in London, for example, quite a lot of university philosophy seminars and conferences, aimed at professors and postgrads, are open to everyone. This does not in any way detract from the level of discussion. People who do not have the expertise tend not to turn up.

You might like to take a look at the sorts of event pitched at the non-specialist that go on here. If you go to http://www.rbphilo.com and click on Societies, you will find several links. The ones aimed particularly at non-specialists are Big Ideas, Forum for European Philosophy, Institut francais, Philosophy for All and Royal Institute of Philosophy. I am involved in running Philosophy for All, so do let me know if you would like more information on what we do and the types of audience we get.

Richard,

 

I am sorry for such a delayed response, but thank you for what you wrote above! I especially appreciate the distinctions you made and the link that you shared to the philosophical societies.

Hi Cori,

In 2010 I started writing newspaper articles on a somewhat regular basis.  I do think it is important professionally to write for academic audiences in establishing your tenure case and in strengthening your own grasp of your discipline.  At the same time, I think that work for wider audiences can carry a lot of weight in several ways.  For one thing, in my case, pieces I have written have gotten the attention of my department chair, other chairs, my dean(s), the provost, and the Chancellor.  So, even if public writing is not treated the same as peer reviewed articles, it is wrong to think that they are not valued.  Public writing combined with academic writings show both credibility and public interest.  

 

To your point about how to do it publicly, here are some writings I put out last year and a bit this year:

http://www.ericthomasweber.org/engagement.htm#publicwritings

 

Beyond writing for newspapers, consider magazines and trade book publishers.  Harper's or the Atlantic take submissions.  Also, anyone can approach literary agents to try to go the book route for wider audiences.  It may make sense to publish an academic book first, but there are lots of careers that are not just the typical tenure-track one.  If you land a big book contract, you can probably do it again, and then maybe you'll reach more people and make more money than the average prof.

 

Beyond writing in general, however, consider that scholarly meetings need not always be insular.  That's the point of SOPHIA, the Society of Philosophers in America - to open up new ways of doing philosophy and of engaging the public.  We hold town hall-like meetings that are conversational, guided by scholars, but engaging the community on issues of importance, and/or issuing continuing education credits, such as in ethics.  Here's some info on SOPHIA:  http://www.philosophersinamerica.com/.  Check the "Events" page.

There are surely other ways to get publicly engaged, but these are a few.  Others that are exciting are too many to list, but include for example folks who bring philosophy into the public schools (k-12) or ethics panels for hospitals, etc.  Good luck with your public philosophical efforts!

When I think of "the public" I don't think about elite policy makers but about the general public--the mass of individuals walking the streets, engaged in public activities of all kinds. And while lectures and publications may be an effective way to communicate to the general public, it is also possible to communicate with the public more directly, in face-to-face conversation. To invoke the authority of an ancient precedent, this is the model of "public philosophy" that Socrates seemed to embody when he provoked the citizens of Athens in the marketplace with those irritating questions. Though according to the historical record Socrates was not a fan of democracy, at least as it was practiced in ancient Athens, the model of public philosophy that he practiced is the one that is most compatible with a radical form of democracy, one based not on elite policy makers supposedly acting on behalf of the general public, but one based on the direct participation of every member of the community in a public conversation--such as the general assemblies used by the Occupy Wall Street protesters, to cite a recent well-publicized example. For those interested in engaging the general public in this way, I would recommend the use of your local public library. Most libraries have meeting room space available for free for a variety of programs and activities, including those organized by members of the public. With the help of your local friendly librarian you can set up a regular discussion group in your local library and start engaging members of the general public directly in face-to-face philosophical conversation on topics of public interest. Anyone interested in doing this sort of thing in Brooklyn, New York, can contact me and I will be happy to try to help you get started.

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