Issues in Philosophy On Public Philosophizing: A Conversation with Caleb Harrison and Macy Salzberger

On Public Philosophizing: A Conversation with Caleb Harrison and Macy Salzberger

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.


Skye Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of 'Existentialism and Romantic Love' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She lectures at Columbia University, Barnard College, and City College of New York, and tweets at @skye_cleary.

Skye Cleary
Skye Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of 'Existentialism and Romantic Love' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She lectures at Columbia University, Barnard College, and City College of New York, and tweets at @skye_cleary.


  1. I’m amazed that anyone tries to do public philosophy on sites like Twitter or Facebook, given that most social media sites seem specifically designed to discourage in depth ongoing conversations. They’re great for water cooler chit chat, but philosophy??

    Blogs are a step in the right direction, but they are designed primarily for giving speeches, and the comment sections of blogs were never intended for real sustained engagement. Blog conversations work primarily because most blogs have very little traffic, thus their comment sections don’t get overwhelmed.

    Forums are the ideal technology for online public philosophy engagement. But forums suffer greatly from a near universal “almost anything goes” publishing model which substantially lowers the signal to noise ratio driving off the most interesting thinkers.

    An obvious solution would be carefully moderated forums, but no one seems to wish to bother with that.

    CH said, “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.”

    Sorry to quibble, but it seems to me none of the forms you mention are really engagement, but rather one to many speech formats. You talk, they listen. Could still be a useful experience, but it’s not really engagement.

    Real engagement would not be based on a notion that philosophers are the experts and the audience are the students. It would instead be based on an understanding that we’re all just human beings from many different backgrounds, so let’s sit down together and share what those diverse backgrounds have taught us.

    Public philosophy is not a speech, but rather a conversation.

  2. Hi Phil Tanny. I agree that there can be something amiss about the notion that philosophers are the experts and the audience are the students. I mean, sometimes that is just exactly what is happening. But it would likely be a sad scenario if that were the only way that philosophers interacted with others.

    As for what counts as “real” engagement (distinction-monger!), I take your point that one person uttering sentences at many people is different from two or more people having a conversation, and that there is much to be gained from the latter that is not present in the former. But with the exception of a public monologue, it seems that many of the forms that concern you — e.g., podcasts, pub talks, or outreach events — could all involve conversations, too. Just ones that happen to be observable to others. But I’m not sure the presence of these observers would prevent them from involving conversations. Would it?

    Thanks for engaging!

  3. Hi Celeb, thanks for your reply.

    I of course agree that sometimes philosophers are the experts, for example, in regards to the history of philosophy and what other philosophers have said and mean etc. I overstated the case as I sometimes do when I’m impatient to stir up some conversation.

    I agree also that a one to many format can be a useful gateway to conversation, such as is happening right here on this page.

    As to Facebook, it’s not that it’s a hyper-popular watering hole for everybody and anybody, I have no problem with that. It’s just that the interface was not designed to facilitate in depth ongoing conversations, but rather to serve up little blurbs of text. The same can be said of most social media sites.

    I would urge anyone serious about doing public philosophy on the Net to consider starting a carefully moderated intellectual themed forum. There’s nothing like it in the forum realm best I can tell from years of searching, so there’s an opportunity to do something unique, a rare opportunity at this point in Net history.

  4. All of the types of engagement discussed in the article are good, but I have a lot of sympathy with Phil Tanny’s view that there is much to be gained from regarding one another as human beings from different backgrounds who should sit down together and share what we have learnt. In addition to the benefits of that sharing, if people come to an event and join in a discussion you can be sure that they are engaging. With blog posts, it is hard to tell unless you get plenty of comments.

    Meetings are not trouble-free: you need to find a low-cost, noise-free and easily accessible venue, you need to pick and advertise a time, and not all those who are interested will be able to make the chosen time. But the benefits can be very great indeed.

    I help to run an organization called Philosophy for All in London ( ), which amongst other things holds monthly talks followed by questions and discussion. We get an enthusiastic audience, and the range of backgrounds helps. For example, it is great to have a doctor or a nurse in the audience when a question concerning medical ethics comes up, or an AI specialist when you are discussing the philosophy of mind, or (as once happened) a blind person with a guide dog when you are discussing relationships between human beings and other animals.

    When I have dragged along people who would not normally attend such events, both in London and to talks I have given in Hong Kong, they come away saying “That was much more fun than expected, I shall come back for more”.

    So if you are in a position to do this sort of thing, please go ahead. Don’t wait for authorization or training – just do it.

  5. I saw a site once that attempted to combine the benefits of face to face and online discussion. Regretfully I can not bring up it’s name at the moment.

    It was like online conversation in that you could post your comments at any time at your convenience, and from where ever you are in the world. But the discussion was all in video instead of text. If you had something to share, you’d fire up your web cam, record your thoughts, and post the resulting video. It seemed that site was making an interesting effort to combine the benefits of face to face conversation with the extreme convenience of the Internet.

    I’m very much a text based typist myself, but I can appreciate that everybody is not a writer, and that there’s nothing about typing that elevates the quality of one’s thinking.

    I admit to an incurable bias here, but I still think all things considered online forums are on balance the best format for philosophical discussion, at least for those who are writers by nature. I’ve routinely had in depth conversations that went on daily for months, and I’m not sure where else you can do that. As example, imagine that the conversation we’re having here on this page involved a growing collection of speakers and that the conversation went on daily for months. It wouldn’t be long before we reached the limits of blog technology.

    The big problem with forums is that the forum realm has successfully branded itself as a massive junk pile with it’s industry wide insistence on low standards. And thus those you’d most like to chat with are probably going to turn up their nose and run at the first mention of the word “forum”, which is understandable given the current state of the forum realm.

    To me, a forum is just a blog with much better conversation technology. You can post the same quality articles seen on this site, and then allow comments or not as one prefers. There’s nothing about forum technology that requires the editors to publish almost anything from almost anybody.

    There’s a clear value to the democratic and inclusive nature of the “almost anybody can say almost anything” publishing model of today’s forums, and that model is indeed appropriate for very many if not most subjects.

    But the “almost anything goes” publishing model becomes a near fatal obstacle if your goal is to exchange ideas with the most interesting thinkers, because they simply aren’t going to spend their time scrolling through endless pages of personality conflicts and other such low quality content.

    In summary, forum software seems the best technical platform for intelligent online conversation, but the “almost anything goes” publishing model used by almost all of today’s forums has to go.

    If one could marry forum software to what I call the “magazine model” (anybody can submit but only the best get published) and if you could sell the best thinkers on the idea that this really is something truly different than the typical forum, you just might be able to create the most interesting philosophy site on the planet.

    There’s nothing at all revolutionary about this idea, it’s already happening right here on this site, just with software that is inferior to forums in terms of conversation. This setup is only working now because the site has not yet reached the critical mass necessary to engage a large number of participants.


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