The Challenge of Public Philosophy
Originally printed in The Philosopher, Autumn 2019
Public philosophy faces several obstacles. For a start, the term itself introduces a vague “public” and could be taken to imply that philosophy otherwise is somehow private. You may also be unsure of what kind of philosophizing is being undertaken in this public sphere. The default has been to associate it with popularising what other philosophers have said, or to at least assume a unidirectional, lecture-like approach.
Yet this barely scratches the surface of how philosophy can, and does, manifest outside of the academy. In a recent blog for the American Philosophical Association, Simone Webb, a volunteer for the Stuart Low Trust Philosophy Forum in London, wrote:
"Public philosophy [...] need not take the form of articles in newspapers or magazines, although these may have their role. Instead, the emphasis should be on creating spaces, whether real or virtual, in which dialogue and philosophical discussion can occur."
A laudable aim but further challenges remain. Not least, the suspicion that, whatever its merits, the current wave of interest in public philosophy has simply come at a bad time for, especially, academic philosophers. Arguably, it adds a further unhelpful provocation for them to “show their worth”. Indeed, even those outside of academia may still face pressures to dilute their philosophical wares to cater for other demands. However, to the extent that these issues are faced, their causes are not inherent to public philosophy but primarily come from external political and economic pressures. With these alleviated, academic, popular, and public philosophy can exist – and indeed thrive – together. Still, even if you get past these concerns, you’ve yet to try and take your philosophising out into the world. Why, might you ask, should this ill-defined “public” care?
This last challenge brings out a deeper assumption, not of opposition, but of indifference towards public philosophy. The reality, however, is this indifference - both a reticence to engage with it and a lack of interest when people do - is expressed more by public philosophy’s critics than the public. Those who engage in public philosophy will assure you that - done right - there is nothing but an appetite for it. They will also rightly quash any notion that philosophy is something that must be taken (and with much public resistance) out “into the world”; as if it had been born and had only ever thrived within academia’s walls.
I believe this and many other challenges to public philosophy stem from a common myopia. Critics of public philosophy often have not sought to engage fully with its diversity, its many practices, and its various histories, and in so doing have misunderstood its true scope. Considered from the perspective of those who have engaged with this variety, it is not so much public philosophy which needs a rethink. Instead, it is the way that many have grown accustomed to thinking about the things it rubs up against: prevailing conceptions of philosophy and the nature of the public sphere today. Greater than the challenges public philosophy faces, I believe, are the ones it poses to these.
One’s love of wisdom doesn’t stay the same over time, nor should it. Whatever we believe to be philosophy’s complete method and domain, we can always get to know it better precisely because it connects so deeply with so much of our lives, and manifests in varying times and places. Public philosophy is, by its very nature, a journey into philosophising as it occurs across these variations, and so it is well suited to encourage us to challenge our assumptions about who is a philosopher, what philosophy looks like and where we might find it.
This challenge is occurring at present within and without academia, as many have encouraged the revision of who is included in the philosophical canon, especially in the Anglophone philosophical tradition. They are retelling the story of philosophy as it is practiced now and has been in the past to encompass a richer, wider and more accurate outlook. Others are examining prevailing ideas about philosophy’s practice and where it can be found. Some of this focuses still on academia, as with debates regarding experimental philosophy and interdisciplinarity. Others are taking a further step back, as with Justin E.H. Smith’s The Philosopher: A History in Six Types which looks at the occupations of philosophers over time, Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle’s Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st Century Philosophy, which considers the effects of philosophers becoming progressively domiciled in academia, and Michelle Boulous Walker’s Slow Philosophy: Reading Against The Institution, which examines closely the place of philosophical reading in this environment. Beyond this, there are some extended reflections drawn from public philosophical work, including the edited volume Philosophy Imprisoned: The Love of Wisdom in the Age of Mass Incarceration and Adam Briggle’s A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking.
The renewed call for public philosophy alongside these efforts to challenge our assumptions about philosophy is perhaps no coincidence. The kickback against the elevation of some as the sole “true” philosophers is often concerned with recognising underappreciated academics, and it is right to draw attention to this. Yet, it can also be understood as a call to bring those outside academia more into the philosophical fold. Indeed, as a friend of mine observed, the history of public philosophy is to a large extent the history of those who have been excluded from establishment philosophical circles. The two developments, of revision and greater connection to the public, thus work hand-in-hand. Yet, just as philosophy’s canon can only be expanded by actually engaging with philosophers outside of it, reflecting on public philosophy without getting familiar with its practitioners will only get one so far.
Public philosophy, through its varied forms and connection to the richness of the philosophical dimension of everyday life, can often call on us to reconsider the practice of philosophy itself. I find a quote from Bharath Vallahba, who quit his job as a professor to pursue philosophy outside of academia, especially pertinent in this context. Reflecting on what he called “The Hard Problem of Public Philosophy”, Vallahba notes:
"The easy problem is how to motivate academic philosophers to engage with the public. This is not a simple problem, since reorienting resources and energies is never that straight-forward. But it is not conceptually difficult. The hard problem is how even motivated academic philosophers can succeed at engaging with the public. This concerns the difficult issue of what ideal forms of public philosophy can look like."
For those interested in furthering public philosophy – be they academics or not – this hard problem requires more theoretical and empirical attention. Yet, there remains a general paucity of both, and often what theory there is (with some brilliant exceptions) seems to lack much relevance or understanding of the actual practice of doing public philosophy. If we are to know what public philosophy ideally looks like, we must better understand and explain the nature of philosophy outside of academia, and to do this we must also engage more with it. Doing so has taught me the value that looking at public philosophy’s practices has to challenging preconceptions of what forms philosophy can take and the ends it can – and is supposed to – deliver. This challenge to the ways you can get accustomed to thinking about philosophy is considerable and, excitingly, it only grows as you look more closely at the variety of public philosophy.
Philosophy, on closer inspection, appears to be everywhere, and that’s perhaps because there’s something about it – once we move some of the accoutrements of academia and history to one side – that reminds us that it can be anywhere. The reason for this is that the building blocks of philosophy – dialogue, reflection, curiosity, critique, understanding, and so on – are deeply human activities. Whilst I believe that the technical elaborations of academia can be a wonderful thing, it is easy to forget that philosophy also thrives (and often begins) in its incidental, interstitial, everyday manifestations.
And here another crucial challenge presented by public philosophy arises. What if it has a critical function beyond challenging received ideas about philosophy itself? What if it can also challenge society? We tell many idealistic stories about the philosophical life, from a vision of public space where Socrates and his interlocutors can argue in the agora, to the opportunity for private meditation Descartes enjoys, yet the conditions for these can be rare despite the impetus and interest to philosophise being so pervasive. Public philosophy nurtures these opportunities where these stories are not told, remain fictions, or have been denigrated as irrelevant or an impediment to other ends. As such, public philosophy can highlight where our opportunities for philosophical reflection as they manifest day-to-day fall short. In this regard it does some good quite apart from what it can do for philosophy. It can challenge us to improve the health of public (and in the image of Descartes’ meditations, private) life. The lens of public philosophy is thus a critical one, and this further challenge it poses is quietly political. In many ways, public philosophy is a lot less concerned with academia and much more with the impoverishment of the means and opportunities to philosophise in society.
Yet, to recognise this means also paying closer attention to the health of the public sphere itself, and in so doing the extent of the difficulties public philosophy faces is brought into better light. Whilst its present decline is at times exaggerated, it is important to recognise that current interest in public philosophy comes at a time of numerous documented ills facing public life. From declining trust in the press and political institutions, increased polarisation, social atomisation and loneliness, the privatisation of public space, the fraught state of online discussion and much else, most would agree it could be better. To be sure, public philosophy can also act as a partial remedy to some of these ailments, but it is not a panacea. Appreciating the public sphere on its own terms means acknowledging that you cannot simply just create philosophical spaces out of thin air, or assume the conditions are in place for a philosophical culture – however small – to thrive.
So this challenge, from public philosophy to public life, is to make us re-assess the scope of what it is that we’re doing when we’re trying to bring about more public philosophy. It forces us to have a more expansive vision of what is required to create these projects and spaces, but also what it is that we’re actually doing by creating them. You cannot engage in public life and not realise that this is much more than just about doing philosophy. By going into or creating spaces and engaging in dialogue and critique, you’re engaging with a raft of political, social and economic questions. This will put some off, but done with care and attention it can be done well, and what could be more appropriate to handling this challenge than an activity defined by questioning?
My emphasis has been on the breadth of public philosophy’s place in our lives, but as alluded to earlier, it also 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). This again fruitfully challenges our conceptions about who does “proper” philosophy and what “proper” philosophising looks like. Public philosophy carried out in a way that overlooks the histories of, for example, the philosophical dimensions of social, political and artistic traditions is not what we should be aiming for. This ought not be tokenistic, however. Beyond engaging with these simply out of respect, we should strive to understand their relationship to what we are now dubbing “public philosophy”, because this will only improve our understanding of it, as well as its practice and the ability to embed it into our lives.
That philosophy and philosophers can be found most anywhere is not a novel recognition, as the creators of this journal well know. The Philosophical Society of England (PSE) has, after all, a history of being committed to philosophy’s life outside of academia. In his inaugural PSE Presidential speech on the 2nd of June 1926, G.K. Chesterton began by apologising to those gathered for being late, explaining that it was due to his train being delayed. He then remarked on how, while waiting at the platform:
I looked around me [at] the others who were likewise waiting, and I need not emphasise that it was an occasion for philosophy [...] Such philosophies as I have, I have often evolved while waiting at “Clapham Junction”.
Chesterton knew he was not alone in evolving philosophies on the platform. Nor, I suspect, would he think that his fellow commuters’ “philosophic trains-of-thought” were an anomaly in time and space. The greatest challenge public philosophy poses is perhaps to take this simple acknowledgement and not be daunted by the scope of the task it presents us with: the fundamental rethinking of the relationship between philosophy and society today.