What is “Public Philosophy”?

My department invited Sharon Meagher to do a seminar last Friday on how to redirect our energies towards “public philosophy.” Meagher has a great textbook for introducing philosophy through an exploration of urban issues that offers a situated approach to philosophical inquiry, and she’s done a lot of work trying to organize and advocate for publicly engaged philosophers.

What got us hung up was how much of what we were already doing was “public philosophy.” The term “public philosophy” can encompass things as diverse as doing any sort of philosophy in public (like anything in The Stone or The Partially Examined Life), doing any sort of political philosophy, or engaging the public in doing any sort of philosophy (Socrates Cafe, my own Free Philosophy Courses page, etc.)

In a banal sense, any time a philosopher publishes a paper, they’re doing doing philosophy in public just by making the paper openly accessible. Anyone with a philosophy blog or podcast is doing “public philosophy” by that definition. Even a classroom is public, after all, but teaching in one doesn’t seem to be enough to qualify.

Shy as we were to name the thing we didn’t want to be for fear of offence, we sometimes seemed to be using the term as a kind of corporate marketing speak, “re-envisioneering” ourselves into a new justification for the status quo. Rebranding is a great new use for the fallacy of the heap. Philosophers well know the kinds of problems that emerge from definition and typology, yet we easily fall into the same kinds of traps as non-philosophers when we’re not consciously practicing our metacognitive techniques. And so on Friday we struggled over whether we wanted to define public philosophy as “engaged” or “activist” philosophy, whether it would include politicized (African-American, feminist, queer, Africanist) engagement with the traditional philosophical canon, and whether the work done under this title could include difficult and often jargonistic analytic and textual scholarship.

Is “public philosophy” just “philosophy”?

The abstract, esoteric, and metaphysical disputes that are often defined *out* of public philosophy are just as often the ones that actually plague the public discourse. For instance, the political philosophy of John Rawls and Robert Nozick are often excluded from definitions of public philosophy for being abstract and irrelevant. Yet while some of the most politically contentious scholarship in philosophy has had little impact on public life, quite a lot of our public discourse still seems to be trapped by crude versions of Rawls and Nozick on just deserts and distributive justice. The same thing could be said for ontotheological debates about what it means to be human; the relationship between metaphysical, psychological, and political freedom; or the difficult epistemological questions about what counts as knowledge, whose testimony matters, and what should be taught as science.

To my mind, what makes us philosophers is the shared conviction that these detours into difficulty are the only way to resolve our disputes.

The major proponents of public philosophy, who have sought to create networks of solidarity and mutual aid with other public philosophers, would go even further: it seems that this new concentration on the public will entail either the creation of new forums outside of the university for the public to engage in philosophy (because engaging in philosophy is a public good) or philosophers aiding public advocacy by helping make arguments and articulate the philosophical foundations for social movements (because philosophy can be liberatory.) 

This specifically public approach to philosophy tends to involve a slightly more demanding sense of usefulness to the public: clarifying concepts relevant to public matters, helping social scientists navigate the tricky metaphysical and normative implications of their value-laden descriptions of the world, or doing philosophy in unconventionally politicized spaces (senior centers, prisons, high schools, elementary schools, or anarchist collectives.)

It also seems relevant to ask, here, why we need philosophers to do these things. Why not create new forums to do psychology or physics outside the university? Why can’t social scientists navigate their own metaphysical and normative implications? Why not let social movements articulate their own principles and foundations? Why not teach classics or economics in unconventionally politicized spaces?

Speaking of which: if you’re (a) in the DC/Baltimore area, and (b) interested in teaching a college-level course at a local prison, please get in touch with me! Non-philosophers welcome! The pay is $0, but it’s totally rewarding.

8 thoughts on “What is “Public Philosophy”?”

  1. Does the “why not create new forums for physics?” question need an answer more complicated than the indexical one? That is, if “we” is really directed towards *me*, then I should teach philosophy instead of physics because I’m massively unqualified to teach physics. We should also teach physics, ceteris paribus!

    I’m not sure there’s a strict distinction to be made between philosophers doing stuff and social movements articulating their own foundations. It would seem that one of the core intuitions behind the “public X” movement is that X, as an academic discipline, has become unmoored and isolated from broader social currents. So at least one way (not sure it’s *the* way) of doing public philosophy would be to be engaged in social movements as one of the people working to articulate their principles, rather than seeing ourselves as some sort of outside consultant. I guess we can’t all be David Graeber, though.

    1. Amusingly, Graeber claims his activism and scholarship aren’t linked.

      This “engaging with” language came up a lot, but then it’s not really clear, again, why a philosophy department would want to do it. It seems to say: “Philosophers are citizens. Citizens should do X. Therefore, philosophers should do X, but not qua philosophers.” If we’re not “outside consultants” then in a sense we’re not engaging qua philosophers.

      If we are acting qua philosophers, if there’s something specific to our training that gives us special tools, then we’ve retreated to a spot at least partially isolated from the broader social currents. If we’ve really found the Archimedean point from which to change the world for the better, then it’s pretty obvious that we ought to stay there and work on hefting that long, long lever….

  2. Josh: Thanks for the plug on my book! And I understand your frustration with our department meeting/discussion, as you want to map our new terrain and projects, while others seemed stuck on the ground. But I do not think that this was an exercise in branding or marketing (although a good vision statement might help your department attract more students, more community partners, and more funding). Rather, I saw that exercise as part of what is necessary in deliberation; we need to start where people are at. But we did not end there; several colleagues seemed to be moving in the directions that you outline in the this post and in the ones that follow it.

    1. Thanks Sharon. Part of my frustration is just the way in which the academy’s time-scale is much more glacial than anything that human beings might recognize. I’m sure we’re chipping away at something, but it’s hard to see the progress from this angle.

      On the other hand, I really did enjoy our discussions and that’s part of what prompted me to write this and the next few posts. It was a very productive frustration for me.

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