Public Philosophy Network

Encouraging and Supporting Publicly Engaged Philosophical Research and Practices

Despite the public perception that continues to share Aristophanes’ view that philosophers remain “in the clouds,” incapable of doing publically relevant work, at least some philosophers have remained committed to a Socratic model of philosophy that is engaged with public life.  Some key philosophical traditions, notably the American Pragmatist tradition and, in Europe, the Frankfurt School, remain vibrant and have embraced a commitment to publically engaged scholarship.  Admittedly many other philosophers (including some adherents to these traditions) have lost sight of this model and rarely engage the public.  Yet as the discipline of philosophy has been transformed—by the concern for (and growing legitimacy of) practical and applied ethics, feminist and critical race theories, and other new sub-disciplines—a new generation of publically engaged philosophers has emerged.  This is a development that has been promoted by the changing demographics of the discipline:  As more women of all ethnicities and races, more men of color, and more working class persons have entered the discipline, they have insisted that philosophy be practiced in ways that address the questions salient to their experiences and their histories.  Together with the allies they have cultivated, these thinkers have transformed the discipline in multiple ways to insure its relevance.

The meeting convened on April 2, 2010 at the Pacific APA meeting in San Francisco, a one day retreat called "Practicing Public Philosophy" began this discussion (see report here).  We have created this forum to continue that discussion.

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Dear Sharon (and all),

The website is great. I'll keep the accolades short: this project is not only overdue, but extremely relevant in probably more ways than can be expressed. With that said, let's think about the question "What is Public Philosophy?"

This question, as I see it, presents us with two related sets of problems. The first problem is contained in the question itself, 'What is Public Philosophy?' That is: the fact that there is a need to qualify a brand of 'philosophy' that we call 'public' suggests that 'philosophy-as-usual' is not 'public'. This first problem is what I call the specialization problem. Indeed, this trend runs throughout our discipline: there is Epistemology, and then there is (f)eminist Epistemology; there is Ethics, and then there is (e)nvironmental Ethics; there is Philosophy of Religion, and then there is (c)ontinental Philosophy of Religion. The specialization problem points to a problem that is internal to the discipline; it points, ultimately, to a certain division, a certain exclusive demarcation of specialized boundaries, one which divides up and orders philosophical inquiry according to a standard or norm of legitimacy. Thus, the problem of specialization raises important questions: what is the need, internal to the discipline, for such specialization? What is the basis for making such distinctions and divisions? How are these differences constituted in the first place, and why?

The second set of problems is similarly contained within our question, 'What is Public Philosophy?' Like the problem of specialization, this second problem deals with the question of division, exclusion and legitimacy, except on a larger scale. As previously stated, the fact that there is a need to insert the qualifier 'public' suggests that 'philosophy-as-usual' is not public; it is conducted somewhere other than the public sphere. Indeed, the implicit suggestion made explicit by this project is precisely that 'philosophy-as-usual' is in some way in opposition to the public and their interests. Philosophy, as an institutional and academic profession, is removed from the lives of ordinary people (the claim seems to be). This problem is what I call the problem of professionalization. This problem points us to the external problem of how we as professional philosophers view ourselves against or in light of those who are not. This, I claim, is the most important issue that is raised by the question of 'Public Philosophy'. Much like the problem of specialization, the problem of professionalization opens up questions about division, exclusion and legitimacy, except with regard to the most important distinction at issue, the amateur-professional distinction. Here, I believe, is where the big issues are. The important questions here are similar to those of the internal problem: what is the basis for such a distinction? What is the need, externally and internally to the discipline, of such a division? How was such a division constituted in the first place?

Addressing these two problems, I believe, will lead to much clearer answers to the questions that we're concerned with here. Addressing the first problem will help us answer questions such as 'What is Public Philosophy and how is it distinguished from Applied Philosophy?'. Addressing the second problem will help us answer questions such as, 'What is the philosopher's 'role' in the public sphere?' and 'How ought we as professional philosophers to view ourselves and those who are not professionals in light of these answers?'

Sincerely hoping this Foucaultian problematization gets things going,

Kevin J

Dear Sharon and all,

Here are my thoughts, as a newcomer to this network, on the question, What is Public Philosophy?  You'll see their relevance to what Sharon and Kevin have written, above. They could be subtitled, Story-Telling and the Heart.

I begin with a little personal background. I have been trying for some time to write and talk about philosophical issues in a way that will interest people, mostly non-academics, who have no prior interest in philosophy as such. In particular, I’ve given several talks and sermons at churches. Sermons are especially difficult, because much of the audience probably didn’t choose to attend because they were interested in the advertised topic. They just wanted to attend a service. So you really have to earn their interest, from scratch. Teaching required introductory humanities courses presents a similar challenge, but there at least the students are more or less pumped about being in college and being exposed to new ideas. With non-students, one can’t assume even this.

In these situations, I find that my training in analytical thinking and writing is very little help. I can’t even assume that people will be concerned about a Big Question, such as, Does God exist? The only “hook” that seems reliably to work is a story. For example, the story of how I came to believe in something that I call “God.” If I tell this story well, almost anyone will pay attention and file it away as something to think about. If I don’t tell it well, say because (as often happens) I’m distracted by my professional philosopher’s agenda of making clear what I mean by “God” and explaining how the “new atheists” are off the beam and so forth, the presentation doesn’t grab them. As my non-philosopher wife says, “You make me dizzy.”

My current theory of why things work this way, is that humans find a kind of meaning in stories that they don’t find in concepts. Why do you suppose Plato tells so many stories—stories about Socrates and the people he talks to, stories about people emerging from caves, and so forth? I doubt if anyone has ever been more interested in concepts than Plato was. But he knew that concepts as such don’t grab our interest the way stories do.

I’d hazard the further suggestion that stories speak to our “hearts” in a way that concepts don’t. It’s also well known that Plato was deeply interested in the “heart” (as “eros”). Maybe his use of stories and his concern with the “heart” are connected.

I wonder whether anyone here has had similar experiences in sharing philosophy with “non-philosophers.” And I wonder whether you see these experiences as being relevant to the practice of “public philosophy.” Presumably at least part of the job of “public philosophy” is to inspire some sort of interest in “philosophy” (“what philosophy can contribute”) on the part of a public in which such an interest doesn't already exist. 

Best, Bob Wallace

It seems to me that there are two related but distinct projects that get labelled "public philosophy". I think that both are worthy projects, but that the label "public philosophy" is good for one of them and not for the other.

Firstly, there is the project to engage the general public with philosophical ideas. What makes this philosophy "public" has nothing to do with content and everything to do with style and marketing. Such philosophy is appropriately called "public philosophy".

Secondly, there is the project to make sure that philosophy is dealing with issues of public importance. What makes such philosophy "public philosophy" is a matter of content rather than style. However, calling such philosophy "public philosophy" is unhelpful and potentially misleading, since there is little to no agreement regarding which sorts of philosophical scholarship are of public importance and which aren't. All philosophy is potentially "public philosophy" in this sense depending on what you take to be philosophically important.


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