What Philosophy Owes Society III: a New Public Philosophy

Philosophy has special civic obligations. Many philosophers agree with this, either explicitly or deep in their souls. Many philosophers became philosophers for precisely these sorts of reasons. There is a variety of ways to meet these obligations, but perhaps the most obvious and most important way is through public philosophy: stepping outside of the academy and bringing philosophical insight to the uninitiated—to the cave-dwellers, as our favorite allegory has us think.  

The issue of public philosophy is always floating around in private/academic philosophy circles. Consider posts from Daily Nous and the APA that come from a place of political uneasiness. I’m interested in the motivations and political implications of public philosophy. And how it needs to change.

Public philosophy has somewhat of a tainted image. We philosophers appreciate the people who work in the public eye so long as they also have respected ivory tower projects. You need to earn the right to go out in public. This is due to the assumption that philosophy doesn’t really happen in works for popular audiences. There may be rare exceptions to this, but it is a pretty reliable rule.

Why is the rule so reliable? There is another assumption that public philosophy is the translation of real philosophy into non-philosophical language. The better the translation (i.e. one that minimizes distortion and keeps fidelity), the better the public philosophy. Some people are good at translating and some aren’t. Hence, some public philosophy is good and some isn’t.

My claim is that we should develop another approach to public philosophy. If we think translation is the whole of public philosophy (and, to a certain degree, I think we do), then we need to expand our conception. This means that we should confront what we might call the ‘philosophical problem of public philosophy’: how to do real, non-translation philosophy in a way that is intentionally accessible and engaging to a general audience. Whatever the solution is, I’m confident that doing that type of philosophy is hard. In fact, I think it is harder than academic philosophy.  

That is two claims:

  1. We face a philosophical problem of how to do public philosophy that isn’t exclusively or mainly translation.
  2. Non-translation public philosophy is or would be more difficult than academic philosophy.

These two cannot be separated, but I’ll try my best.

I. The Philosophical Problem of Public Philosophy

So, what’s the problem? I have attempted to give an answer to this in the two previous posts of this series (Part I, Part II). First I argued that philosophers have a special duty to engage with broader society. Second, the way they have been doing it has not been effective. Philosophers have enabled an attitude of anti-elitism and they complacently call their culture ‘anti-intellectual’. The two viciously feed into each other. Philosophers need to do better. This means encountering the philosophical problem of public philosophy.

The problem is of a metaphilosophical sort, which means it has a political component. We must be conscious of the politics of public philosophy. The translation model of philosophy retains the gatekeeper mentality that infects academic philosophy: “I’m the one with the knowledge and I’m trying to give you a glimpse of life outside the cave.” Plus, for professional reasons, if we depict philosophy as the sort of thing someone can do without extensive training, we appear to open the door to claims that philosophy departments are not needed. Out of self-preservation, we want to build deference to the academics into public philosophy. I argued in Part I that this approach threatens to undermine itself.

As a result of all this, philosophers have ceded much of their public role to thinkers who don’t have training in academic philosophy (the people without respected ivory tower projects). These people are the public intellectuals. For all intents and purposes, they are our philosophers. Who does the most public arguing, debating, and promulgating of abstract ideas? It is people like David Brooks, Robert Reich, Barack Obama, Ezra Klein, Ben Shapiro, Ta-Nehisi Coates, David Brin, the Dalai Lama, Paul Krugman, the Pope, Steven Pinker, Edward Snowden, Elon Musk, Neil deGrass Tyson, Russell Brand, Deray McKesson, and Yuval Noah Harari. We could list more (which contributes to my thesis about the misuse of the term ‘anti-intellectualism’).   

II. The Politics of Public Philosophy

Why have academic philosophers ceded their role? Themes of power and politics are relevant. It’s politics all the way down. This leads to my second claim: non-translation public philosophy is more difficult to do than academic philosophy.

Why? I already said that public philosophy has something of a tainted image. So to enter the public is also to surrender a part of one’s reputation (or to make one’s reputation much more vulnerable). You aren’t doing real philosophy. The insights belong to others. You are translating them. But if the public philosophy is not translation, then there is not the requisite deference to the academics, and that doesn’t bode well for your reputation. Lose-lose. There is little to no professional respect attached to a shift into the public eye. And the less professional capital one has, the more this is true. People don’t want to translate. They want to be translated.

A simpler point: having more readers means having more critics. Widely-read thinkers frequently deal with the charge of charlatanism. Not having an audience is evidence that you aren’t a charlatan. Plus the stakes are higher in public. Writing a highly mistaken article about epistemological disjunctivism that somehow makes it into a journal does not carry many consequences. But publishing a widely-read article or book is different. You are also incentivized to make strong and radical claims. If you didn’t, why would someone publish or read it? Not everyone can take such high-level scrutiny.

There are hazards in stepping into a world more consciously determined by market forces. I have encountered them first-hand. This is another reason why writing public philosophy is more difficult than writing academic philosophy. One has to balance a concern for quality and profound argument with the profit motive of editors. Basically, there is an additional constraint on public philosophy: not only must the argument be cogent, but it must get clicks from the meandering internet mind.

The most obvious reason why non-translation public philosophy is more difficult is that there is no explicit or accepted model for it. People write academic articles that resemble the other academic articles on the topic. We wrote “S knows that p iff” because that’s what people do in ‘The Literature’ of that area. Writing an academic article is difficult enough, but at least the paradigm, style, and (to a much lesser extent) standards already exist. Just talk the way others around you talk.

This isn’t the case when it comes to non-translation public philosophy. The most plausible examples are objects of ridicule and dismissal by many academic philosophers. Consider this masturbatory self-aggrandizing “critique” of Alain de Botton—a likely example of a non-translation public philosopher. Fear of critique from a “real philosopher” is a powerful disincentive, especially when you fancy yourself a philosopher. It appears that good faith intellectual engagement is not afforded to certain intellectuals. But I’m sure the elitism feels good. (I think there is legitimacy to the idea that much of the disdain is rooted in jealousy, but I’ll leave that idea for the examination of one’s own life.)

So, to recap, there are three reasons why non-translation public philosophy is more difficult than academic philosophy:

  1. There is no accepted model for how to do non-translation public philosophy
  2. The features of the publishing market are not conducive to new and experimental, subtle and nuanced forms of expression
  3. Doing non-translation public philosophy means sacrificing one’s reputation because:
    • All public philosophy has something of a tainted image
    • Without the reference to academic philosophy via translation, academics will recoil.

There is a lot more to say. And I won’t say it all. But, as much as I like making big claims, let me end with some caveats and philosopherish qualifications.

There is still a place for translation public philosophy. My suggestion is that our conception of public philosophy needs to expand. How this expansion would work is itself a philosophical problem. Out of love for our comfortably small audiences, we don’t want to encounter it. We cannot afford to do that.

This is not to say that the way we do and present translations doesn’t need to change.

One practical suggestion. Non-translation philosophy will still include some translation, though perhaps not overt translation. Conversations generally fare better when it is only later revealed that an idea or argument came from a particular figure (if it is revealed at all).

Maybe you think non-translation public philosophy already exists. I agree, in fact. However, it is met with disdain by most academics (and some of it is actually quite bad). What I am mainly concerned with here is urging academics to make non-translation public philosophy a larger part (or the entirety) of their careers. The first step is to stop the disdain. If you think the public philosophy is terrible, do it better yourself.


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