Res Publica: Philosophy, Scholarship, Work

In responding to my post on the topic, Peter Levine says of “public philosophy” that

I am not yet sure what it means or whether I want to be part of it.

To me, that is a major indictment. He then goes on to give a useful account of “public scholarship” that we can take as a contrast:

In general, the kind of public scholarship that interests me most is that which (a) involves research collaborations between academics and non-academics and (b) strengthens the capacity of non-academics. At its best, community-based participatory social science works that way: laypeople help define research problems and hypotheses, help collect and interpret data, and become more knowledgeable and effective as a result. This is different from “public scholarship” in the sense of scholarship that is well-known and accessible. It is also different from activist scholarship, because activism often implies an agenda, whereas public engagement implies a willingness to deliberate ends and means.

Much of what folks call public philosophy will not fit this bill, but frankly I suspect that this is the model we should strive for.

In part, Peter is inspired by John Dewey, in the sense that the goal of such collaboration is to help form a public:

it is desirable to turn a people into a public. Conceivably, a philosopher could help that transformation happen, which would be “public philosophy” in a Deweyan vein.

In part, too, I suspect Peter is channeling Harry Boyte’s conception of “public work.” Whereas Dewey (and Hannah Arendt) worry about the scholar overriding the public with her expertise, Boyte offers an account where our expertise gained through service and productive private enterprise is a virtue and a resource to be drawn upon in our lives. The goal of public life is not to bring us all together as amateurs, but to allow us to engage in a shared project.

Because we have a shared goal towards which progress is an unalloyed good, we need not demur over our talents and skills out of fear that we are trangressing on the equality that we hope to achieve. Instead, on Boyte’s view, we ought to seek ways to bring our professional skills to bear on public problems. This needn’t be textual scholarship on Hannah Arendt; it can be as simple as assisting with research, writing, analyzing statistical data, or facilitating fractious meetings. We don’t have to pretend that we’re only good for photocopying (although I’ve got some good techniques for scanning documents if you’re interested.) If we truly have nothing to offer as professionals, then we ought to ask whether we are studying “schmess.”

This conception of “public work” is a direct response to the anxiety that philosophers “engage with” rather than “consult for” social movements and organizations. While the rhetoric of “offering philosophical services” creates a distance that must be bridged, in practice our professional expertise offers us one of many intersections with matters of public concern. The tendency to downplay these skills, to present ourselves as the proverbial idiotes, private and unskilled in worldly affairs, is a large part of why we philosophers find ourselves, as Daniel Levine (no relation!) puts it: “unmoored and isolated from broader social currents.” This is surely a part of what Jerry Fodor has called the “masochistic metatheory,” that:

philosophical issues are the ones that nobody else cares about.

So long as we define ourselves by our irrelevance, I think we will find that we are.

Second Opinions