The Practices of Public Philosophy

Originally printed in The Philosopher, Winter 2019

Public philosophy draws attention to the many ways and places philosophising occurs in society, forcing us to reconsider the practice of philosophy itself; what forms it can take and the ends it delivers. A couple of years ago I decided I wanted to get closer to this variety, and to learn from the people engaged in it. To this end I started interviewing public philosophy practitioners and hosting our discussions online at thepubliclifeofthemind.com. I continue to interview people and it remains a joy. Listening to and probing the experiences of my interviewees revealed a lot, not least just how much philosophy is being practiced in a concerted way seemingly everywhere.

I have talked with the founder of New York’s (and, I believe, the world’s) first “Philosophical Investigation Agency” and with a philosopher who facilitates discussions in a London prison. I have spoken to the creator of a network of philosophers across Berlin, Vienna, Delhi and Brussels – known as “Philosophy Unbound” – which organizes lively and exciting nights celebrating “philosophy’s ancient plurality of form and media” because, as their manifesto argues, “Juicy philosophical ideas exceed scientific standards and the scope of the medium of paper”. I have come across people facilitating philosophising on hikes and walks, in communities, in schools, in art galleries, in nightclubs, in the city, on the streets, at borders, through the media, on government panels, through activism, in salons, in cafes, in pubs, in businesses and local government. The list goes on.

These conversations have taught me a great deal about philosophy’s purported home in academia today. They have made concrete the challenges facing academics who want to incorporate public philosophical work into their research or as another element of their role alongside this and teaching. They have also given me a glimpse of some of the alternative life trajectories of those with an interest or academic background in philosophy who decide to take less trodden philosophical career routes than that of an academic. More than this, however, it has taught me a great deal about philosophy itself and the place of philosophising in society today. Some of this is more specific to the project at hand – for example, the role of phenomenology for curators and visitors to a science museum, as I learned from the “field philosopher” Ty Branch. Other examples are more generalisable, such as how philosophising in galleries can affect how one thinks about the role of objects in philosophy, as Sacha Golob, Co-Founder and Director of King’s College London’s Centre for Philosophy and Visual Arts, explained to me based on his work with London’s Tate galleries.

Other insights have been common across experiences, cropping up time and again in discussions with a variety of public philosophers. Perhaps more than any other is the centrality of facilitation to running a public philosophical project; of creating an environment – often more fleeting by its nature than that of a philosophy lecture or seminar – in which people feel encouraged to take part in the discussion at hand. Though vital for all philosophical spaces, this element is particularly foregrounded in public philosophy as practitioners are more aware of the need to balance demands for critique and truth-seeking with creating an environment conducive to these in the first place. The effect of this is that public philosophers often have to pay greater attention to the process and not just the ends of inquiry. This was paramount for one of my interviewees, Graeme Tiffany, who has integrated philosophical dialogue into his social and youth work, and in doing so has pioneered the practice of “Community Philosophy”. This work has seen Graeme create “Communities of Inquiry” across the UK. In one instance, he ran a project in the Yorkshire village of New Earswick in which he had a team of people “doing philosophy in every space and place you might imagine”. Describing such work he states:

"Community Philosophy empowers people in any context to be active citizens and to generate ideas at a grassroots level. This is about thinking together in a non-confrontational and truly democratic way. Concepts are questioned. Power shifts, minds change and preconceptions are discarded. Relationships strengthen as people come to understand one another. This is because (unlike other meetings and discussions) Community Philosophy steadfastly focuses on process – not outcomes."

This last point underlines how characterizations of philosophy often focus on its critical and truth-seeking ends to the point of overshadowing the means by which we reach these, namely the collaborative and dialogical dimensions. Given this, one benefit of examining the work of public philosophers is that it sheds new light on what leads to success and what leads to failure when it comes to balancing the means and ends of philosophising. Moreover, by focusing on philosophy’s social and interpersonal processes, from tumultuous to-and-fro to gentle discussion, learning from the work of public philosophers also brings our attention to the many ways in which philosophical questions are not so far away from public life already.

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As I noted earlier, these environments often only last briefly. Ian Olasov is founder and organiser of Brooklyn Public Philosophers which has, amongst other things, hosted regular “Ask a Philosopher” stalls in “New York City farmers’ markets, block parties, book fairs, and even a home goods store”. Writing about these experiences for the American Philosophical Association’s (APA) blog in October 2018, Ian described how this work has reminded him that “Philosophy is, for many people, an interstitial activity”. Having spoken to Ian, I know that he is referring here to the need to meet people where they are when doing public philosophy, the need to do the “real creative work to draw people to it” as Brooklyn Public Philosophers’ booths do. Yet, there is a further sense to this description which I believe it is beneficial to draw attention to. Philosophy is interstitial in the way in which it can and does occur in the times and spaces between those which we might formally designate are the ‘proper’ times and spaces for philosophising. Recognising this is the key to recognising the defining fluidity of (public) philosophy when it is viewed as a quotidian practice, as something that can and does intersect with and manifest in daily life naturally. This in turn raises intriguing questions, especially in relation to philosophy’s boundaries. As one participant at a discussion I led on public philosophy pondered, “If, whilst I’m making dinner in my kitchen, something I’m doing prompts me to start philosophising, am I doing ‘public’ philosophy?” Posing the question more broadly, Ian asks us in his APA blog to:

"Consider all the spaces, physical and virtual, you might describe as philosophical: coffee shops, bars, classrooms, conferences, message boards, blogs, comment threads. Some of these are philosophical just in the sense that they are places where people happen to think, read, write, or talk about philosophy; some are philosophical in that they are, by design, places people go when they want to do philosophy. But a space could also be philosophical by causing people who find themselves in it to do philosophy, who weren’t planning on doing philosophy and wouldn’t have been especially likely to otherwise."

What is it that makes such a space work well? Ian puts the success of some public philosophy projects down to their unexpectedness, their being philosophy with a “human face” (quoting philosopher George Yancy), and their flexibility. As he notes, “different people are prepared to philosophize in different ways, some more interactive or responsive than others.” The public philosopher-as-facilitator attentive to such difference is perhaps most explicit in the work of a salonnière (salon host). Speaking to Justine Kolata, who has revived the European salon tradition of the late 18th and early 19th centuries through her organisation, Public Sphere Salons, she describes how:

"It is a difficult yet critical task to harmonise the various voices in conversation as one would harmonise different instruments in an orchestra. As a salonnière I have learned to weave the conversation together and to balance the various perspectives while providing coherence, direction and structure. Simultaneously, I must also consider the subtleties of human emotion in group dynamics. A salon is about learning from the collective knowledge, accepting that you may be wrong and having your own ideas challenged by listening to perspectives that you may not necessarily agree with, but then ultimately forming your own worldview. Engaging in a salon is a subtle art for both the salonnière and the participants, one that requires critical reflection, openness, a willingness to listen, and empathy."

Public philosophical spaces such as this explicitly allow for reflection to meld with the emotion and feel of informal, daily conversation, and in so doing they create an intriguing bridge between philosophical and public, or in some cases private, life. They take the interstitial, natural manifestations of philosophy – one’s moments of “Kitchen Philosophy” – and attempt to sustain this for longer. This is also done without formalising it to the point of being quasi-academic or largely devoid of public dialogue, as a publicly-oriented philosophical lecture or panel debate might. Drawing a sharp line is not straightforward, of course, though that may be a good thing. Speaking about salons, Justine described how this ambiguity was a fruitful feature in her work:

"A salon occupies an interesting intermediate space between public and private life. They historically took place in homes so they were private in that sense but they were opened to a public. I often think of salons as a “rehearsal for reality”. Ideas are discussed but they are thought about and debated before they are turned into action. Salons are a testing ground for different ways of thinking and being. They both arrive at certain pragmatic outcomes, such as contributing to the artistic landscape of the time or catalyzing ideas that inform policies, but they do not demand pragmatic outcomes and this is where their beauty lies. Ideas are undertaken and relationships formed for their own sake, not for any specific utilitarian end. Creativity is allowed to flow unhindered by questions of feasibility, which ironically leads to more tangible outcomes than a space burdened by such demands."

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Public philosophy, be it on the streets of Brooklyn or in the villages of Yorkshire, through the medium of facilitated discussion or intermingled with artistic expression and bleeding into the “Kitchen Philosophy” of daily life, is fundamentally about the cultivation of places for inquiring together. These may be virtual or physical, lasting or fleeting, but they are imbued with philosophical meaning either way, because people have been given reason, or permission, to see them as such. Attentive to the ways in which we philosophise differently, our engagement in these places may be more or less active, more or less “obviously” philosophical, but led by the questioning of all they become communities of inquiry. Kilian Jorg of the Philosophy Unbound (PU) network told me how, since he saw philosophy as a “struggle for bringing something into a concept”, experimenting with the means of doing this at PU’s public events is crucial. After all, if it is a struggle, it is “very limiting if you have just one kind of form” in which to philosophise. Learning from this variety of extra-academic forms and communities – that is, learning from the practice of public philosophy – can be deeply illuminating. Why not give it a try?

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