This is the first in a series of columns on public philosophy by Agnes Callard.
Philosophy is a bubble. Not much of it happens in high school, or after college. It lives inside academia, or, more precisely, inside a space that is itself inside academia. At the University of Chicago, for instance, philosophy is one of the few departments with a hard policy against offering credit towards the major for courses taken outside our department. We won’t call it “Philosophy” unless we taught it to you. Philosophy polices its boundaries.
Recently, there have been rumblings of a Great Escape, one that goes by the name of “Public Philosophy.” Public philosophy includes, but extends beyond, the pop philosophy found in books such as Logicomix, Sophie’s World or The Matrix and Philosophy. Pop philosophy, which has parallels in pop physics, pop history and pop psychology, presents philosophical figures or concepts in an accessible way; the “pop” genre more generally, informs nonprofessionals of developments in some field.
It is one thing to share information about philosophy and another to offer non-philosophers a way of participating in the activity. Public philosophy aspires to liberate the subject from its academic confines: to put philosophy into action. Is that a good thing? I’m not sure it is, and I cannot think of a better topic for my first public philosophy column.
You might think that undergraduate teaching is a case of “doing philosophy with non-philosophers”—public philosophy within academia. But that would be a mistake. It is true that most of the undergraduates to whom I assign, e.g., Plato’s Republic will not major in philosophy, let alone continue with graduate education. Nonetheless, in my classroom, they are philosophers, if only for a few hours a week. The institutional structure—the syllabus, the assignments, the grades, my status as Professor, even the physical and social characteristics of the classroom—make it possible for me to tell them to be philosophers. I instruct them to engage directly with questions of whether the soul has parts or whether justice is the advantage of the stronger or whether poetry corrupts; and, amazingly enough, they do it.
To say that they engage directly with those questions is to say that their engagement is not tied to the following considerations:
(1) The fact (if it is one) that answering those questions will help them do something else that they were doing anyways. I don’t promise them answers, let alone helpful ones.
(2) The fact (if it is one) that they find it fun or pleasant or intellectually stimulating. They have to do the reading, come to class, write papers—whether or not they enjoy it.
We do philosophy for its own sake, because its questions are important, not because it is useful or pleasant.
Public philosophy, by contrast, lends itself to the “business or pleasure” dichotomy. If I, as a philosopher, engage with non-philosophers, I do not have the standing to command them to be interested in my questions. What I can do is tell people that if they listen to me, they will get answers to important questions they independently wanted answers to; alternatively, I can offer people of an intellectual bent a certain distinctive kind of mental stimulation.
Let me explain why those moves would be mistakes.
(1) Philosophical Business
It is sometimes argued that philosophers are poised to contribute to the hygiene of public discourse: we could use our critical-thinking skills to shine the light of reason into the darkness of partisan political bickering. My experience of conferences and faculty meetings is that philosophers can talk about politics as people in general talk about the weather: with the comfort of assured agreement. I know philosophers who believe in true contradictions, or in the existence of immaterial Cartesian minds, but have never met a single one who voted for Trump.
When philosophers enter the political fray, we argue for the political views that we, as a sociological fact, all already, independently, seem to have. (These are also the political views that the vast majority of academics in the humanities have.) We do not seem to be especially open-minded. Rational, fair-minded and calm arguments for foregone conclusions have the danger of inoculating people against critical thinking. The idea that philosophers have special standing to answer political questions could provoke a misological backlash.
More generally, philosophical expertise doesn’t lie in the character of the answers we can provide. How many philosophical questions have been answered, after all? It is not an accident that philosophical papers, unlike, e.g., papers in economics and sociology, often lack abstracts. A summary of conclusions misses the point—we are masters of thinking, but, given the extent of disagreement, most of us must be utterly inept at having thought.
Unlike practitioners of other fields, we do not agree even on answers to the most basic questions as to what our field is or why it exists. Our boundary policing is the other side of the coin of the incredible intellectual openness that philosophy and only philosophy affords: we have to ‘define’ philosophy using facts such as which building it is located in so as to leave it open to the people in that building to define it any way they see fit.
(2) Philosophical pleasure
If you are feeling bored or starved of intellectual stimulation, read a Stone column or an Aeon article, follow some philosophers on Twitter, watch some philosophical YouTube talks, listen to a philosophy podcast, sample a nonacademic philosophy book or two, subscribe to The Point. You will encounter philosophy that is fun to consume—try that with your average journal article, or, for that matter, Aristotle’s On Generation and Corruption or one of Kant’s Critiques. Much like other high-grade online content, such pieces make us feel smarter, deeper, better informed. They put a spring in our intellectual step.
What’s wrong with intellectually engaging fun? Nothing, but I think there is something wrong with calling that philosophy. Here I put forward my own unabashedly partisan view of philosophy, cribbed from Plato’s cave: philosophy does not put sight into blind eyes; rather, it turns the soul around to face the light. A soul will not turn except under painful exposure to all the questions it forgot to ask, and it will quickly turn back again unless it is pressured to acknowledge the meaninglessness of a life in which it does not continue to ask them. Philosophy doesn’t jazz up the life you were living—it snatches that life out of your grip. It doesn’t make you feel smarter, it makes you feel stupider: doing philosophy, you discover you don’t even know the most basic things.
When Aristotle said that the intellectual life is one of serious leisure, I believe he was trying to avoid the Scylla of business and the Charybdis of pleasure. If philosophy offered helpful answers to the questions you were asking anyways, it wouldn’t be leisurely; if it added fun to the life you were living anyways, it wouldn’t be serious. It is hard to overstate how difficult it is for a single activity to be serious, leisurely and radically open-ended in the way that philosophy is. What can look like territorialism is really a valiant effort on the part of academic philosophers to maintain the tension that keeps an almost impossible activity from falling apart— dissolving into unleisurely business and unserious pleasure.
If public philosophy is terrible or impossible, what am I doing here? The truth is that, as is so often the case, the argument I’ve just given sounds good but is open to counterexamples. For example, Plato’s dialogues are fun to read and they are also undeniably philosophical. Most of the conversations they depict have to count as public philosophy, given that Socrates is talking to people who emphatically disavow any identification as philosophers. If philosophy were restricted to intramural conversations amongst philosophers, it would have been impossible for it to get started. Or keep going: over the past two and a half millennia, many philosophers have operated outside (anything even remotely resembling) academia. I’ve described a trap for public philosophy, but it is one that my favorite works of philosophy managed to elude. So there must be a way out.
Perhaps I am underselling the public in assuming that you want answers or entertainment. Perhaps some of you also want what I want, which is to think through the most important questions in the best way human beings have come up with: together. Perhaps my ideal interlocutor is hidden amongst you. Perhaps. I have to admit I don’t really have much of a sense of how that would go. How are you going to refute me if I can’t hear you?
I am unsure what to conclude here, but I do feel pretty confident that these questions are worth asking. I’m a philosopher, I have a nose for questions, and I can tell you that the one I’ve posed here—is public philosophy good—is a real one. I’ve never thought about it before, and I don’t see anyone else currently thinking about it either. Writing this column is an opportunity for me to investigate an aspect of philosophical life—its public face—that I’d otherwise be leaving unexamined.
I don’t know whether public philosophy is good, but I want to know. Don’t you?
Art credit: Emilio Garcia, “Skull Brain”
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If you liked this column, you love The Point in print.