Public Philosophy?

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Rembrandt_-_The_Philosopher_in_MeditationNot long ago, a few philosophers went out for lunch at a small café. As they ate, they argued about the morality of infanticide. Eventually another patron of the café approached the table of philosophers and asked indignantly, “What’s wrong with you people?”

Philosophers have always cultivated an antagonistic relationship with the society in which they work. But recently many philosophers, along with the American Philosophical Association (the principal professional organization for philosophers in the United States), have begun to clamor for philosophers to go public. Within the profession these days, the call for “public philosophy” is loud, but not clear. That is, it is difficult to discern precisely what is being called for, what it means for philosophy to be “public.” Here we want to identify a few possibilities.

First, the call for more public philosophy might be a call for philosophy in public. This would be the suggestion that philosophers should simply take themselves out of their offices and into more public settings. They should go about their usual business, but create and participate in forums where their academic work can be accessed by the general public. Our lunchers above were engaged in public philosophy in this sense. The result was not especially encouraging.

So it seems that the call for public philosophy is not simply a call for a change of scenery. “Public philosophy” must be a different kind of philosophy. Hence the idea that philosophers must go public is the idea that they must do something different from what they currently do. But there are many different kinds of thing that philosophers currently do. What must change in order for philosophy to be “public” in the requested sense?

One thought would be that public philosophy is repackaged philosophy. On this view, public philosophers do roughly what nonpublic philosophers do, but they strive to communicate in ways that seem less strange and alienating – or more inviting and relevant – to non-philosophers. Doing philosophy in a way that makes its content more accessible to an audience of non-philosophers may indeed have its benefits, both to the philosophers and to the non-philosophers alike. But the truth is that many important areas of philosophical inquiry cannot be packaged for popular consumption. Fundamental problems within Epistemology, Metaphysics, the Philosophy of Mind, and the Philosophy of Language are highly technical, requiring mastery of complex analytic tools – modal logics, two-dimensional semantics, and the like – that cannot be substituted with simplified proxies. And furthermore, many central philosophical problems do not have an immediate relevance to non-philosophers. In short, a lot of philosophy cannot be repackaged in the way suggested. On this interpretation, then, the call for public philosophy is a call for philosophers to abandon topics and problems that have centrally occupied the discipline since Plato. That sounds unpromising.

Maybe the idea is that philosophers should not attempt to repackage all areas of their discipline, but only those areas whose subject-matter is naturally connected to everyday lives. The claim here would be that “public philosophy” is moral, social, and political philosophy repackaged in ways that make it accessible and attractive to the general public. A problem emerges, however, once it is realized that the fundamental issues in, say, Ethics are no less complex and complicated as those in more seemingly detached areas such as Metaphysics. In fact, the technicalities in any one area often spread to many of the others. Consider that the very idea of moral responsibility instantly invokes questions about agency, intention, rationality, knowledge, and freedom of the will. No less is true about Political Philosophy. Although there is a division of labor within philosophy by which some of us specialize in, say, Metaphysics and others in Political Philosophy, the discipline itself does not neatly divide into distinct subject-matters. Unavoidable technicality is pervasive in philosophy.

Consider a closely-related further possibility. Maybe the claim is that philosophers ought to more frequently apply the conceptual tools they have mastered to topics of public concern that are not of the kind traditionally addressed within philosophy. On this version of “public philosophy,” philosophers should spend less time thinking about The True, The Good, and The Beautiful, and more time addressing the specific problems that face their society. This is public philosophy understood as plain old philosophy, but deliberately addressed directly to pressing matters of public concern. But this view of public philosophy overlooks the fact that much of philosophy is already public in precisely this sense. A cursory look over some of the most prestigious journals in the profession reveals articles on immigration, the biological reality of race, internet privacy, human enhancement technologies, the nature of lying, the permissibility of torture, and much else that is undeniably addressed to pressing matters of public concern.

So this thought again must be that “public philosophy” applies the tools of philosophy to matters of public concern in a way that the public can understand. So we’re back to the idea of repackaging philosophy for general consumption. But maybe we are also in a position to see a more promising version of that thought. What is needed is for philosophy to be made popularly accessible without too much loss of the precision and rigor that characterizes philosophy at its best. On this version of “public philosophy,” what is called for is not a change in what philosophers do or in the topics they address; rather the call for public philosophy is call for better spokespersons for philosophy. It is a request that those who are especially skilled at presenting complex and difficult ideas come forward and speak publicly for the discipline. It is also a call for the profession at large to acknowledge the need for such spokespersons, and to find ways to recognize the scholarly importance of public outreach. But, importantly, it is also implicitly a call for those philosophers who are not very good at representing the discipline to go back to their offices.