After the controversial decision not to announce a winner for Marc Sanders Foundation 2017 Public Philosophy Award, I spoke with Caleb Harrison and Macy Salzberger about their thoughts and advice ahead of the upcoming 2018 award. Although neither were involved with last year’s decision, each has experience engaging publicly in philosophical thought and discussion.
Caleb helped coordinate the 2017 Marc Sanders Foundation Public Philosophy Award contest, and is currently co-organizing a public philosophy writing workshop at UNC Chapel Hill in May of 2018 (submission deadline March 20th). He is an Adams Fellow with the Carolina Public Humanities for 2017-18. With Macy Salzberger, he is involved with UNC’s Outreach program, led by Steve Swartzer, which involves doing philosophy with first-graders, high school students serving out-of-school suspensions, retired folks, and folks seeking their GED.
Macy helped with the 2016 Marc Sanders Foundation Public Philosophy Award, and she is co-organizing UNC’s 2018 public philosophy writing workshop. She was an Adams Fellow with the Carolina Public Humanities for 2016-17 and has led and participated in several university-wide events using philosophy to engage with matters of public interest, ranging from the ethics of school choice to the politics of Beyonce’s “Lemonade.”
What are the ways of going wrong with public philosophy?
Macy Salzberger: I would worry about trying to create public philosophy without paying attention to the interests and needs of the intended public audience. While there can be really cool philosophy that may not get uptake, if the aim is to make that philosophy public in any meaningful capacity, we should make sure that it is capable of getting uptake — so, it needs to pay attention to the interests and needs of the public. One embarrassing piece of evidence comes from the outreach Caleb and I have done at an alternative to in school suspension program. Some of our case studies fell completely flat; we could not, for example, hold the attention of the students when discussing a fire at the Louvre and whether or not to risk one’s life to save the Mona Lisa. But when we discussed ethical dilemmas of dating, educational justice, or even saving the last remaining Prince album from a burning building, students engaged in conversation, welcomed philosophical challenges to their ideas, and developed those ideas in light of their reflection.
This doesn’t mean the uptake must be positive or that we should only create public philosophy that we expect will be met with warm reception — being a gadfly can still be important! But public philosophy that is not capable of engaging the public does not seem appropriately named public philosophy.
Caleb Harrison: Normalizing one or another way of doing public philosophy. I don’t really get much out of distinction-mongering for distinction’s sake, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that I think such work can’t be done. I just think that it shouldn’t be held up as the way to do public philosophy. The same goes for the philosophy that I do prefer.
What do you classify as “public philosophy”?
CH: I would count as public philosophy anything that engages a broad audience in an attempt to shed light on our selves, our experiences, and our values. This can take a variety of forms: podcasts, pub talks, school outreach, public lectures, op-eds, long-form essays, blogs, etc. And one might have a variety of aims: dissemination (making more-technical work accessible), explanation (what is X?), clarification (why is there disagreement on X?), exploration (what might be at issue regarding topic X?), collaboration (what do we think about X?).
MS: Another form of public philosophy is the use of social media. There are a lot of philosophers who actively engage in philosophical conversation on Twitter (more than just promoting their philosophical content produced elsewhere). Reddit also seems like a neat platform for public philosophy, although one with which I’m admittedly much less familiar (check out L.A. Paul’s AMA on Transformative Experience as an example).
Two other aims of public philosophy are to make the tools of philosophy more publicly accessible and to make philosophy more informed by the world outside of philosophy. One exceptional model of a kind of philosophy that pursues both these aims is the Justice in Schools project.
Are there ideal kinds of public philosophy? What might they look like?
CH: I’m not sure about ideal kinds, so I’ll just point to some exemplars. Writing: Amia Srinivasan, Amy Olberding, Nakul Krishna. Podcasts: UnMute (Myisha Cherry, who also writes public philosophy, and whom we are thrilled to welcome as one of our workshop panelists!), VeryBadWizards (Tamler Sommers, David Pizarro), Hi-Phi Nation (Barry Lam), History of Philosophy Without any Gaps (Peter Adamson).
MS: The Prindle Institute for Ethics also produces good content. Beyond the production of content, there are a lot of really cool outreach programs coming out of philosophy departments, where members of the department go out and bring philosophy to prisons, K-12 schools, libraries, community centers, and so on.
Should philosophers try to “go public” with their work?
CH: I think that it is good for philosophers who are employed by academic institutions to seek to make their work available to a broader public than that typically served by academic journals or scholarly presses, and I think that it is good for the profession to take such work into account when considering a scholar for a job, tenure, promotion, etc. I also think that it is good that there is space in the profession for philosophers to work together to try to solve problems arising in highly specialized domains. My biggest concern is just that the latter seems to be the work that is most rewarded (if not the only work that is rewarded), while the former is at best considered a nice thing to do on the side, if one is so inclined.
In addition, I think we should be concerned about the possibility that a professional push to “go public” with work could be disproportionately burdensome for marginalized members of the profession, both because they already perform a disproportionate amount of (often uncompensated) service work, and because they are likelier to face public backlash in the event that their work is concerned with topics that are controversial in public spaces. As a profession, we should care more that philosophical research be made accessible, and we should care more about ensuring that all members of the profession are supported if they are interested in making philosophical research accessible.
What are the biggest challenges with public philosophy?
MS: One of the biggest, and most obvious, challenges is how to present one’s work in such a way that a non-philosopher can reasonably engage with that work. Most of us are trained to write for a highly specialized audience; we are not writing for our students to read our work, let alone for people outside of the university. Learning to write for different audiences is hard, especially without any formal training.
I think the vulnerabilities Caleb pointed out earlier are also a huge hurdle. Doing public philosophy can set you back personally, if there’s public backlash, and professionally, if the work you are doing isn’t institutionally recognized as valuable or important.
How can philosophers learn how to do this? Where can they get help?
CH: Submit and register for the UNC Public Philosophy Writing Workshop! The deadline is March 20, 2018. Otherwise, DuckDuckGo is your friend — there are resources out and about online, including the APA Blog. Find people in the world doing things you appreciate, and (politely) reach out to them.