Two Paradoxes of Public Philosophy

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Socrates_teaching_Perikles-Nicolas_Guibal-IMG_5308These days there is a nearly constant clamor among academic philosophers for more public philosophy. We've already expressed puzzlement about what public philosophy is and what public philosophers are trying to achieve. It's likely that our puzzlement has been dismissed among public philosophy enthusiasts as nothing more than the imposition of the norms of academic philosophy on to an alternative vision of philosophical activity. Clarity about public philosophy is apparently not on the public philosopher's agenda. Perhaps the idea is that we can find out what public philosophy is only by publicly philosophizing? Fair enough. But there's still a question about how to we are to publicly philosophize. What are we to begin doing that we're not already doing? Presumably, public philosophy is in part the project of bringing philosophical insight into public discussion. How can this be practically pursued? Two related paradoxes arise.

To begin, consider the fact that so much of what is called public philosophy is politically oriented. Some candidate's pronouncements may come under philosophical scrutiny, a conceptual argument for one policy or another gets given, problematic assumptions are laid bare, hidden premises are challenged, or certain norms are critiqued along some theoretical line or another. That's the philosophical part, and it is nothing new; it is the kind of thing has been done by academic philosophers since the inception of academic philosophy. The distinctively public component emerges as the commitment to philosophizing about public matters in a mode that is accessible to the public itself rather than only to academic philosophers. Public philosophy, then, is philosophy about social and political matters that is for public consumption. Put otherwise, public philosophy is political philosophy intended for uptake by the public.

So far, so good. But notice that the need for philosophical examination, critique, and elucidation is most pronounced when matters are deeply conflicted. Philosophy does its work when intellectual materials stand in need of clarification, when disagreements prevail and there is no clear or obvious way of finding a resolution. In this way, philosophy is driven by conflicts that appear to be intractable. It is the controlled attempt to rationally address conflicts that look like impasses. And the deeper the conflict, the more urgent the need for philosophers to go to work.

However, the history of philosophy shows that although philosophical discussion can clarify the contending views within such conflicts, it very infrequently yields solutions. It is said that philosophy makes no progress, because the number of views philosophers espouse often increases as philosophical examination proceeds. This seemingly boundless variety of philosophical perspectives is most certainly a boon to the academic discipline. For every good philosophical thesis, there are many formidable philosophical objections. The dialectic within a community of professional inquirers keeps our work as academic philosophers interesting. However, it is not clear that the proliferation of philosophical perspectives on public matters is a good thing for the public. Our students are frequently not only surprised to find that there are dozens of well-conceived (though not equally plausible) conceptions of economic justice in currency among philosophers; they are also paralyzed by the realization. Although in academic philosophy, the aim is to open the conceptual floodgates, so to speak, public discussion of matters such as economic justice is probably best limited to only the relatively local and practically feasible options. But these represent only a fraction of the philosophically respectable views available in the expanse of conceptual space. So the call for public philosophy is a call to philosophize about public matters under certain constraints. What, then, are the appropriate constraints? Is public philosophy a call only to those with the appropriate views to engage in public discussion? It's unclear who those people are, and there is reason to think that those who rush in do so out of ignorance or hubris. Or both.

There's a further complication in that when it comes to significant disputes over political matters, the public is likely to have little confidence in the fairness and integrity of academics. Academics are widely (and not implausibly) regarded by the public as members of a privileged social group, and the public understands that privilege is always accompanied by interests, which in turn can generate bias. Public philosophy, from the public's perspective, looks like only so much highfalutin activism. The professors deploy their social clout in the service of a politics that serves their interests, yet they present themselves as if they'd gathered honey in the mountains and are selflessly bringing it to the townspeople.

Hence the first paradox of public philosophy: The greater the need for philosophers in public discussion, the less they will be heard. At best, they will come off as well-spoken apologists; at worst, pretentious opportunists.

How may public philosophers avoid this? One way is to eschew political issues and instead pursue publicly-accessible philosophizing about the matters that concern academic philosophers. This will dispel the concerns about bias and privilege, but it is not clear who the audience for such philosophy will be. We can easily envision publicly-accessible articulations of the familiar puzzles about meaning, beauty, mortality, personal identity, and voluntary action. In a way, this is what we already do in our undergraduate classrooms. The idea of public philosophy, then, would be to take our work as professors out of the classroom.

The prospects for this program are also dubious, and for many of the same reasons identified above. Adopting for oneself the role as the public's professor provides an even greater occasion for the public's suspicion. And the trouble is further punctuated in the case of philosophers. For, unlike, say, a public historian or a public economist, a public philosopher seems to have no special expertise, no unique command of any subject-matter. In fact, philosophers like to think of what they do as simply a more refined version of the kind of wondering that people naturally engage in. But if we're all philosophers, then it's hard to see what a professional philosopher brings to the table of public discussion. Of course, as academic philosophers, we can point to the exercise of distinctive conceptual tools and methods of analysis as our expertise. But it takes a lot of concerted philosophizing to see the distinctiveness of those tools and the value of those methods. Unless the public is already interested in those academic aspects of philosophy, it's not likely that they will be interested in the public pronouncements of a philosopher.

Thus a second paradox of public philosophy: The more distinctively philosophical it is, the less relevant it will seem to the public.

Maybe Socrates provides a non-paradoxical model of public philosophy. He professed no knowledge, and he avoided abstruse inquiry. Yet he was public engaged. Perhaps, then, the current call for public philosophy is best understood as a prescription for a return to a more Socratic mode of philosophical practice? Note, however, that Socrates' dialectical methods require great swaths of time, not to mention a great deal of intellectual stamina. Note further the irony that our affection for Socrates and his mode of philosophizing arises not for our encounter with the man himself, but by way of studying Plato's texts, which we probably first encountered in a classroom led by an academic philosopher.