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Public Philosophy's Past

Originally printed in The Philosopher, Spring 2020

In recent years “public philosophy” – broadly understood as philosophy carried out beyond academia – has become a talking point amongst philosophers within universities and elsewhere, and public philosophy initiatives have blossomed. In my previous columns for The Philosopher I have made the argument that this poses a fruitful challenge to prevailing conceptions of philosophy and contributes to the health of the public sphere itself, and that attention must be paid to the actual practice of public philosophers if we are to theorise adequately about public philosophy. Here I wish to return to and develop a point raised in my first column:


“[Public philosophy] has an underappreciated historical depth. This is so if we allow it to encompass those areas of life outside of academia today and in the past where people have philosophised (and beyond just canonical figures who also fell outside such institutions).”

Investigating this past has a bearing on my previous arguments. Regarding conceptions of philosophy, this investigation tempers our ideas about who does “proper” philosophy and what “proper” philosophising looks like. It also allows us to challenge the status quo of the public sphere by considering how it has flourished before, thus highlighting those opportunities for philosophical reflection as they manifest day-to-day which have been neglected. Finally, it calls for a detailed examination of the actual practices of public philosophy in all its varied forms. I believe we should strive to understand the relationship of what we are now dubbing “public philosophy” to those things in the past which bear resemblance, because this will only improve our understanding of both, as well as their practice and the ability to embed philosophy into our lives.

Historiographical issues immediately arise, however. For a start, what exactly are we referring to by “public philosophy’s past”? If we look further back, the referent of “public philosophy” can quickly become confusing. The term itself is new to many and the usage in question newer still; some of the most high-profile previous usages have been US political philosopher Michael Sandel’s 2005 essay collection Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics and, before that, US writer and journalist Walter Lippman’s The Public Philosophy, neither of which referred exactly to the notion of public philosophy discussed here.

Suppose we fix its meaning to that I gave earlier: philosophy carried out beyond academia. Taken literally, this gives us a model of what to look for in the past but only up to a point. Initiatives to explicitly facilitate philosophical dialogue amongst the public prior to the current trend would fit the bill, but we may be too narrow in employing this criterion, since it excludes those areas of life outside of academia in the past where people have philosophised outside the university but without dubbing it “philosophy.” Moreover, we don’t escape this problem on the narrow criterion anyway, since we’d have to establish which model of philosophising is to count; just calling something philosophy or claiming to be facilitating philosophical dialogue amongst the public is not a stringent enough guideline.

This relates to a further issue of anachronism. If we strive to deepen our understanding of the public philosophical dimensions of social, political, artistic and other traditions that have not gone by the name of “public philosophy,” we risk overreaching the boundaries of the label; we risk seeing public philosophy everywhere. However, this concern is not one that should stop us from trying, since a genuine commitment obliges us not to approach the study of these traditions and their relationship to the phenomenon of public philosophy in a cursory and tokenistic way. Taking a careful approach will lessen the chances that we misrepresent implicitly philosophical traditions in their wider context, or misguidedly put something under the banner of past public philosophy which is not genuinely philosophical.

The key to practicing such caution is to keep in mind an insight that public philosophy itself brings to the fore that I have identified previously in these columns: philosophy can be a quotidian practice, something that can and does intersect with and manifest spontaneously in daily life. As such, if we keep in mind that there are pre-philosophical conditions to all manifestations of philosophy that can arise in all manner of contexts – irrespective of whether the subsequent activity is called or considered philosophy – such as the opportunity for discussion, the suspension of belief, or an openness to critique, then we will be more attuned to recognising public philosophical activity in the past.

This goes some way towards addressing the issue that it is not clear which model of philosophising ought to be our guide for classifying purportedly public philosophical activities from the past as genuinely so. Rather than requiring a certain model with a strict set of criteria, we can recognise there is an inherent fluidity to (public) philosophy’s manifestations, particularly when spontaneous, that means it will be and has been an element of various parts of life; from cafe cultures to community projects, artistic collectives to political movements.


These manifestations have occurred when the pre-philosophical conditions were right, conditions that could include the aforementioned but must also be sensitive to the case at hand (consider the place of philosophising in a religious setting, for example: theological discussion amongst a congregation could set the scene for a delve into the philosophical, or could move in the next moment into an act of confession). This will strike some as an attempt to sidestep the issue of fixing criteria for classifying activities in the past as public philosophy, but I believe this is a mistake and highlights again the need to question conceptions of philosophy as public philosophy’s variety of forms invites us to do.

As I noted in a previous column, philosophy is in a way deeply interstitial: it can and does occur in the times and spaces ​in-between ​those which we might formally designate are the “proper” times and spaces for philosophising. Moreover, as Kilian Jorg of the public philosophy network Philosophy Unbound (PU) suggested to me in an interview, PU encourages “philosophy’s ancient plurality of form and media” at its events because, “philosophical ideas exceed [...] the scope of the medium of paper.” If the times, spaces, and forms in which (public) philosophy is “supposed” to occur can be and are upended, this is as true of the past as it is of the present.

The foregoing has suggested there are pre-philosophical conditions conducive to philosophical activity manifesting, and that with an eye sensitive to context we may be able investigate historical cases which arguably fit the bill of public philosophy. I will not begin to offer anything like a general theory of such preconditions or an extensive overview of cases (though for a landmark attempt at the latter, see Connected Communities: Philosophical Communities by Jules Evans). However, it is worth noting that any extensive study of the history of public philosophy will require an engagement with a number of overlapping fields. This includes subfields in history including, of course, the history of philosophy, but also the history of ideas, and the histories of the various institutions of the public sphere (such as the ever popular example of the Enlightenment coffeehouse), as well as engagement with subfields of anthropology, sociology, social psychology, comparative philosophy, and more. Crucially, it is worth adding that any understanding of public philosophy drawing on other fields must be especially attuned to what they can tell us about the social dimensions of intellectual life.

In short, when it comes to the history of public philosophy, we must recognise we are only just starting out. In lieu of such an extensive programme, I will instead attempt some brief forays to highlight the kinds of things we can learn and what there is still to be learnt about public philosophy’s past.



Education, be it formal or informal, child or adult, offers an obvious starting point for considering the history of public philosophy. Not only does philosophy, academic or otherwise, have a deep association with learning and teaching, but a particular area of philosophy outside of academia is well established in this field: philosophy for children (P4C). P4C offers a rich, historically charted tradition of facilitating philosophy outside of academia.


Whilst it shares certain roots with formal philosophy education as a whole (hence why it may be one of the more established areas of public philosophy), many of its practitioners today root their work in that of Matthew Lipman and Ann Sharp at the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC) at Montclair University, New Jersey, founded in 1972. Over the past few decades, the ideas of the IAPC and the P4C community (sometimes referred instead to philosophy “with” children, in reference to a slightly different tradition from that of Lipman/Sharp) have blossomed into an established network of conferences, societies, journals, accreditations, and so on.

One reason P4C has excelled is because it represents such a concerted effort to nurture philosophy elsewhere than in academia. P4C practitioners construe their facilitation of philosophical dialogue with young people as an explicitly philosophical endeavour even if they have other, wider pedagogical motivations, and they have refined their practice in a more substantive way as a result. For example, as Steve Williams, a member of the UK cooperative has written, when P4C grew in the UK in the 1990s the “Teaching Philosophy with Picture Books” programme created by Karin Murris became well established, building on Lipman’s “Philosophical Novels” pedagogical tool. As Williams notes, the success of this resulted in teachers “experiment[ing] with their own choices of story, with short films, images, objects, role-play and drama”.

The result of this and other innovations is that P4C has a refined and advanced understanding of how to engage in philosophy with children, how this relates to broader questions in education, and how P4C can be understood in relation to society more broadly (in this regard, its early indebtedness to the ideas of John Dewey and the American Pragmatist tradition shine through). Whilst its theoretical side is well-established and vital, it has been informed, iteratively, by the very activity of doing philosophy with children. This practice-led approach is paramount to advancing all kinds of public philosophy. The explicit intention to develop P4C also means its theorists have done historical work on the relationship between philosophy’s history and that of education, meaning that as a field it is better able to understand the relationship between what is now dubbed P4C and examples of philosophically-inclined education prior to the pioneering work of Lipman and Sharp.

In all regards, intentionally naming and viewing their work as “philosophical” has been essential to P4C’s development. Consider now another tradition of education where the philosophical often manifested without being dubbed as such. In Jonathan Rose’s 2001 book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes he surveys working class traditions, both educational and cultural, that have arisen in Britain from the late Middle Ages to the mid-twentieth century. A treasure trove of autobiographical sources, Rose gives examples of people’s interest in philosophy or of their more general engagement in critical, reflective dialogue and inquiry. These include Aberdeen weavers in the 1790s discussing literature after work, or mutual improvement societies like that in Hebden Bridge founded in 1854, in which Joseph Greenwood and his fellow society co-founders stood in an unfurnished room “one holding the candle while we deliberated, and another [writing] out the resolutions on loose paper.” Local and regional groups abounded, such as London’s “Turneymen” group, a flourishing 20th century inter-war circle of intellectual police constables led by Bob Turney.

Such deliberative gatherings connected up in national networks, from the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union to the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and the National Council of Labour Colleges. Most entrenched in communities perhaps were the South Wales miners’ institutes, described by Rose as “one of the greatest networks of cultural institutions created by working people anywhere in the world” (hosting, amongst other things, debating societies). One of the largest, the Tredegar Workmen’s Institute, “boasted an 800-seat cinema, a film society” and a library circulating “100,000 volumes a year.”


Still others were informal, for example those found in workplaces. Rose discusses the “large and lively [Edwardian] community of philosopher-accountants”; working-class Board school graduates who were “concentrated in offices, where they often achieved a critical intellectual mass.” W.J. Brown, working at the West Kensington Post Office Savings Bank – which Rose describes as Brown’s “university” – talked of how its employees “discussed, argued, and disputed interminably; approving, questioning and debating every proposition under the sun.”

Of course, these examples represent only a tiny fraction of a far broader story of people’s varied intellectual pursuits, from music to theatre and much else. Moreover, to describe these examples as “philosophical” could no doubt misrepresent the meaning of such pursuits to those involved in any given case. Yet it also seems there is not a great deal separating the explicit, intended philosophising of P4C practitioners from the candlelit dialogues of the Hebden Bridge mutual improvement society, or from the informal debating culture of the West Kensington Post Office Savings Bank accountants. (In the case of the WEA, there is direct connection to the history of public philosophy in Britain. As Jules Evans reported in the Financial Times in 2012, the Philosophy In Pubs (PIPs) network of discussion groups was started in the early 2000s by Rob Lewis, who was inspired by a course he’d taken at the WEA to set up PIPs with his teacher Paul Doran.)


Such groups and societies took advantage of, or actively instilled, pre-philosophical conditions to nurture critical, reflective, dialogical environments for learning, and many were manifestly philosophical. Everyday, interstitial manifestations of philosophy are inherent to philosophy properly understood; they are not mere imitations. We are in danger of impoverishing our conception of public philosophy today, and indeed perhaps our understanding of the past, if we fail to at least entertain the idea that there is a continuity between the notion of public philosophy discussed in recent times and the multitudinous ways in which people in the past have gathered to critically inquire together into fundamental questions.

We may, however, be able to advance a stronger claim, namely that to reject this line of thought is historically mistaken, insofar as doing so means assuming, in place of a fluidly manifesting philosophy, a monolithic “philosophy” in Britain or anywhere else. In a recent, timely book from Jonathan Rée, Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English, he looks at how philosophy established itself in the English-speaking world (namely the British Isles, with some small detours) at fifty year intervals from the sixteenth to the twentieth century.

I say “established” but as Terry Eagleton notes in his review of the book in The Guardian, one of its strengths is to highlight how for much of philosophy’s history “it was never easy to distinguish [it] from political conflict, religious strife and scientific controversy”. Moreover, where the story of philosophy is often told as a linear succession of Great Men engaging with (capital P) Philosophy, Rée shines a light on lesser-known figures who engaged with a living, burgeoning philosophy in English whose boundaries were never so neatly defined.

A brilliant example of this comes in Rée’s discussion of Thomas Davidson. A well-travelled Scot who settled in America, Davidson was passionate about fostering philosophical discussion and learning, from the classes he ran for working class immigrant communities in New York City’s Lower East Side, to his idyllic Glenmore Summer Schools in New York state’s Adirondack mountains where he would bring students of the former alongside others to immerse themselves in philosophical discussion and activities in nature.


Rée claims that Davidson may also have suggested the name for the now prestigious Aristotelian Society, founded in London in 1880 and still running today with a lecture series and a journal. The Society was intended at first to be “unacademical” yet, as Davidson found, in time it lost this edge; an edge, it is fair to say, that remains dulled to this day. I would wager that the Aristotelian Society is better known than Glenmore and its inner city sister schools, the former shaping collective perceptions of what public philosophy might look like (lecturing to, not with, the public) whilst the latter has been neglected.

Rée used a somewhat similar approach in his 1984 book Proletarian Philosophers: Problems in Socialist Culture in Britain, 1900-1940, an exploration of socialist working class self-education through The Plebs League and the Central Labour College created by rebelling Ruskin College students. The people at the heart of Rée’s book sought, as he saw it, “an inclusive grasp, or vision of human and natural history as a whole: in short, a philosophy.” That he chose this particular subject only lends credence to my contention that we may not be mistaken in seeing fragments of a history of public philosophy in Rose’s The Intellectual Life


The example of Rose’s work has highlighted, I hope, how we can begin to unearth – or re-imagine – public philosophy’s history in other histories, although Rée has usefully highlighted the fault of some philosophers in creating this situation in the first place. Speaking about Witcraft to the Paris Institute for Critical Thinking in January of this year, he stated that: “It’s a polemical book, because it’s [...] saying, actually, philosophy in the past has involved all sorts of people whose names don’t get into philosophy books, and indeed whose sense of what philosophy is for isn’t about producing huge abstract systems or solutions to abstract metaphysical problems.” Not that he thinks they had no interest in these, but merely that philosophy for them was also “to do with working out their own problems, thinking about their own experiences.”

Their philosophical discussions are not retold. By contrast, Rée believes that “history of philosophy” books which have dominated perceptions of philosophy in the last century have “done an enormous amount of damage”. For though they “lack prestige”, his sense is that “the general public and indeed the philosophy profession” has still had their sense of what philosophy is “much more defined by these histories of philosophy because they all say the same thing [...] a story that nobody started telling until the 18th century [and yet has] become so dominant [it almost has] an ideological function in telling philosophers how important they are, telling them what their history is [...] what sort of issues philosophers discuss, what sort of people philosophers are.”

Rée’s last point here chimes with an observation by a friend of mine, Simon Lee, that “the true history of public philosophy is to a large extent the history of those who were excluded” from these prevailing stories about philosophy. This leads to the question of where and how did those who were excluded philosophise and, particularly for present purposes, philosophise together? The answers will be numerous of course as we are referring to all manner of people in all manner of times and places outside a very narrow group. Moreover, as I highlighted above, this is no small inquiry: any adequate engagement with these public philosophical histories will require delving into the relevant fields beyond just the history of philosophy.


Here again we see the value of consulting those histories not directly concerned with public philosophy. With regard to the exclusion of women, for example, Rose highlights early on in The Intellectual Life how until the late nineteenth century British “[working-class] autodidact culture was an overwhelmingly male territory” with few participating int adult education, although he also draws our attention to high levels of female readership of Alexander Pope’s translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey in the eighteenth century. This suggests that we are perhaps more likely to unearth examples of isolated individuals – Rose looks at the life of Bristolian milkmaid and poet Ann Yearsley, for instance – outside of the growing working-class educational networks of the time.

However, exclusion was met with resistance (and means) and collective inquiry can also be found. As Carol Pal shows in Republic of Women: Rethinking the Republic of Letters in the Seventeenth Century, for over four decades Anna Maria van Schurman, Bathsua Makin, Dorothy Moore, Katherine Jones, Lay Ranelagh, Marie de Gournay, Marie du Moulin, and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia were correspondents, often regarding philosophy, together and as part of the wider ‘Republic of Letters’. The salon tradition – continued today in the UK by Justine Kolata, for example – that flourished in the 18th and early 19th centuries was led by women. Exemplified in the UK by the Blue Stockings Society run by Elizabeth Montagu, it was attended by the likes of Anna Barbauld who wrote on the philosophy of mind, and whose philosophical work also informed her influential children’s literature.

These salons were quintessential examples of women’s involvement in what can be considered public philosophy, as were women-only debating societies like Carlisle House, and political circles where women took centre-stage like the suffragette movement in the 20th century (and its publications like The Freewoman by philosopher and activist Dora Marsden). In Chicago’s Hull House – a social welfare organisation and community founded in 1889 and modelled on London’s Toynbee Hall, part of the “Settlement Movement” – you have one of the most inspiring examples of public philosophy in action. It was created by Jane Addams, a pioneering social worker and pragmatist philosopher (amongst much else). As Maurice Hamington describes, “Addams was indeed a public philosopher [...] Hull House residents discussed and debated ethics, political theory, feminism, and culture while immersed in their tasks and stimulated by the many speakers and visitors to Hull House.”



Despite Rée’s frustrations, Witcraft is not simply a polemic. He points in the direction of what more there is to learn and how we can take up and enrich our understanding of these paths he shines a light on. Indeed, his public philosophical investigation into Thomas Davidson, alongside Rose’s discussion of the Workers’ Educational Association with its “rural rambles”, draw attention to another strand of public philosophy worthy of a separate historical study: philosophy carried out on hikes and walks and in nature. Davidson’s Summer School hints at a story that could be told of philosophical rambling groups over time, one that continues to the present day.

Despite the odd canonical reference to (often male, often solitary) philosophers who were fans of an amble, there’s little reported on today that would lead one to suspect that there are sustained projects bringing groups together to philosophise in this way. Nonetheless, in the US one can find the carefully crafted public philosophical work of Alejandro Strong, a University of Maine philosopher and founder of Apeiron Expeditions, who organises philosophical excursions into the wilderness, or Sedona Philosophy, created by Andrea Christella and Matthew Goodwin, a similar project based in Arizona.


Britain’s Graeme Tiffany, a pioneer in running philosophical discussions in communities, also organises philosophical walks. In my interview with him he noted how “the conversations that exist on footpaths, [...] urban areas [...] the urban fringe, and in the hills, are often very different to [those found] when we put people in a room.” As to its ends, Tiffany pointed to a role for philosophising in people’s lives that can be overlooked by those who enjoy an abundance of it or for whom it has a partly professional purpose: “For a lot of the people who come on these walks, they’ve told me they’ve been quite emotional experiences, because they’ve struggled to find spaces and places where they can talk about the things that they want to talk about, or simply to think differently about the world.”

The beauty of examining any area of public philosophy is that numerous, often (though not exclusively) philosophical considerations arise, and doing philosophy on-the-go is no exception. American philosophers Megan Craig and Edward S. Casey, writing in one of the few contemporary explorations of the topic in 2018’s Philosophy, Travel and Place: Being in Transit, examine philosophising carried out in public or private transport. They remark upon how “we think to the rhythm of countless gears,” with each mode of transport switching these up. Any kind of thinking in transit “reminds one of the degree to which thought takes on the environment of its surroundings,” and they detail the subtle and surprisingly fascinating features of their commuting states of mind.

The history of public philosophy on-the-go, including outdoors – from Davidson’s rural peripatetics to Tiffany’s conversations on the footpath – have, like Rose’s and Rée’s glimpses of working-class public philosophy, only been unearthed in parts; revealing just a patchwork history of how people have gathered in motion to critically reflect together. To be sure, we must avoid contrivance. There may simply be no through line here; nothing to name. But public philosophy in practice, in the present and the past, has simply not been given much of a look in and this must change. We never know what we might find.


With thanks to Simon Lee and Molly Corlett for their comments on earlier versions of this article

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