Here's an example of a topic suggested by a member of my discussion group. A member of the group suggested that we talk about eugenics. He wanted to know if we should genetically design humans to be more intelligent. As the librarian-facilitator of the group I did some research on the topic and discovered that there exists a philosophical literature on the ethics of reproductive genetics. I put together a brief packet of readings (less than seven single spaced pages) and prepared a short list of questions that might provoke thought and discussion, including these: Are we morally obligated to select those genetic traits which offer our children the best chance to lead the best lives? Do we have a right to alter our children's genes in any way we wish because they are our children? Are we guilty of hubris--do we overstep the bounds of human fallibility--by trying to make humans better than what are by nature? What are the social implications of breeding "superior" human beings?
Most (not all) of the people who come to my philosophy discussion group are senior citizens because they're the ones with the most leisure time. So when someone suggested that we talk about aging, it seemed appropriate. I found an article by George Stapleton about Cicero's classic essay "On Old Age" that calls into question our assumptions about youth and aging by highlighting the benefits of aging. I also found a funny and thought provoking blog entry by a 61 year old baby boomer psychotherapist who imagines a dialogue with his 19 year old self and in the process questions many of our cultural assumptions about youth and aging. Discussion questions included: If we could shake off our social expectations about aging, how would we choose to age? How can we age well? What are the benefits of growing old compared to being young? What are the differences between how the young and old conceive the purpose and meaning of life? What can the old teach the young about how to live? Note that the focus is on practical wisdom, a focus that can also be found in Hellenistic and Roman era philosophy.
My particular philosophy group often raises questions about the role of religion in public life. One classic question along these lines is whether religion is necessary for morality. I found an article by Slavoj Zizek that addresses this question in his usual entertaining and provocative manner.
Often, members of my group want to talk about their own personal issues. A person who suffers from anxiety wants to talk about fear. A person whose sons work as police officers worries about guns on the street and wants to talk about the need for gun control. A lonely person wants to talk about loneliness. Without turning the group into psychotherapy, it is possible to examine such issues in a philosophical manner, by raising more universal philosophical questions related to them. For the loneliness topic, I raised the question as to whether humans are social animals or if we can exist in isolation. I provided reading material on some of the classic responses to this question by Aristotle, Descartes, Hegel and Spinoza while also providing an intriguing article about the damaging effects on personal identity and thought processes of solitary confinement.
One of the most popular categories of topics to discuss with the general public is politics. Since there is an entire field of philosophy--political philosophy--devoted to politics, it's not difficult to find philosophical ways to discuss it. For example, in these weeks leading up to the the presidential election, we have talked about President Obama's political philosophy, which, some have argued, is a type of civic republicanism that combines elements of communitarianism and pragmatism. So, while choosing a topic of popular interest, it is possible to introduce lesser known political philosophies.
We've been discussing major figures in the history of philosophy in my group. Instead of giving members of the group only copies of a short secondary article on Descartes, I decided to get them copies of Descartes' Meditations and Discourse on Method, because I thought they might appreciate Descartes' beautiful literary prose. (How interesting it is that Descartes, the philosopher of mathematical clarity, wrote in a narrative style with such rich metaphors and imagery!) As a librarian, I have special ways of obtaining books from the library, and yet after three weeks I was only able to obtain three copies of Descartes' writings--this from one of the nation's largest public library system. This is not due to any secret demon whisking away copies of Descartes' books, but due to the library's circulation-driven collection development policy--in other words, due to the lack of interest on the part of the public. I cite this example only to report one symptom of the current status of philosophy in the public sphere so that those of us trying to bring philosophy to the public can better understand the challenge we face.
Some members of my public philosophy discussion group wanted to learn more about postmodernism. In my search for an accessible article on postmodernism I discovered postmodern psychotherapy, an approach to treating mental illness based on postmodern philosophy. An article by psychologist Mike Walker outlines the history of postmodern philosophy in exceptionally clear terms while showing its relevance to mental health care, a topic which is also of great interest due to the high level of mental illness found in public spaces such as those where my group is held. A related critique of conventional mental health care can also be found in Depression and the Limits of Psychiatry, a New York Times editorial written by philosopher Gary Gutting.
One good way to instigate philosophical discussion with the general public is to bring philosophy to bear upon popular culture. Lately I have tried to do this with two popular movies: The Life of Pi and Lincoln. The Life of Pi purports to be an allegory about a young man's search for spiritual wisdom which concludes with the claim that spiritual truth is whatever story you find morally acceptable. There are many philosophical studies of the Life of Pi available on the internet, several of which claim that Life of Pi is a symptom of the postmodern character of contemporary culture:
This last one comes from the World Socialist Web Site and in good Marxist fashion debunks Life of Pi as so much New Age distraction from real world social problems:
For the movie Lincoln I chose an essay by Morris Berman that takes a view contrary to the popular stereotype of Lincoln and popular interpretaions of the Civil War. Berman, a northern, liberal, former academic, takes the view that the victors miswrite history:
Using popular culture as your starting point has the obvious advantage of starting where it is most easy to engage the public. If you stopped there you would, of course, not be helping people to make the turn towards philosophical reflection. It is, however, often possible to help people make the turn towards philosophical reflection by introducing unconventional interpretations of popular culture that shift the public's understanding and offer a moment of illumination that illustrates the power of philosophy.
Another great movie to use as a take-off point for a philosophical discussion is the academy award nominated "A Royal Affair" about the royal court in Denmark during the eighteenth century Enlightenment. The movie vividly portrays the effect that Enlightenment philosophers had on an eighteenth century monarchy and the role Enlightenment philosophy played and continues to play in progressive social reform.
Current events often provoke good philosophical discussions that the general public can engage with. Recently we've talked about gay marriage and Edward J. Snowden's leaks in my group. Snowden's leaks concerning widespread US government surveillance of electronic communication tie in very nicely with Michel Foucault's classic studies surrounding his book Discipline and Punish about the role of surveillance in modern societies and institutions. Thus a particular current event incident can be used as an entry point into a discussion about wider philosophical claims and concepts.