Philosophers and Public Engagement

Philosophers and Public Engagement

by Tomis Kapitan

In this country, public discussions of important policy issues tend to be dominated by politicians, journalists, and think-tank “experts.” Apart from occasional appearances by those with specific technical, scientific, and historical expertise, academics are marginalized. Professional philosophers are almost wholly absent. This is unfortunate. Public debate is often saturated with polemic, propaganda, and naiveté, particularly when matters of security and public expenditure are at stake, with the result that priorities are easily skewed and sentiments are reinforced that sustain unwise policies favoring special interests. At the same time, the discussions are permeated by two features that demand careful philosophical scrutiny: one of these is that many questions, proposals, and presuppositions are normative in nature, while the other is that the general terms used to frame the issues—e.g., ‘freedom,’ ‘religion,’ ‘terrorism,’ and so forth—are usually bounced around without any clear meaning or concern for consistency.

Things might improve were philosophers to elevate their profile outside the academy and take concrete steps to enrich and enliven public debate, whether about general philosophical concepts (e.g., justice) or specific topics about which they have acquired some expertise. They certainly have an interest in doing so: like everyone else, they are affected by public policies and political decisions. They pay taxes, dodge potholes on city streets, and worry about how to provide their children with a quality education. Closer to their academic home, jobs for philosophers depend upon the capacities and constraints of the institutions that offer employment, and opportunities for philosophers are at risk if public spending on higher education continues to erode.

It would seem, then, that as philosophers, we have both moral and prudential obligations to engage publicly in discussions of public policy. Cynics might scoff on the grounds that public debates are managed by political and moneyed elites impervious to philosophical argument, or that because of its abstract nature, philosophical discussion is better confined to the academy. But this dismissal is unwarranted. The voices of philosophers have subtly affected powerful decision makers in the past—for example, Plato, Augustine, Locke, Hegel, and Marx, whose conceptions have influenced the fabric of subsequent social institutions. Philosophical thought is relevant to every aspect of life, and is not exhausted by abstract theorizing in metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics, and aesthetics.

Even Kant, among the most abstract and systematic of all academic philosophers, provided illuminating treatments of war and peace, education, and friendship—concrete matters that touch everyone. Serious thought about public school funding, military bases abroad, or religious displays on public grounds cannot be divorced from consideration of normative presuppositions underlying publicly supported education, foreign policy, and the separation of state and religion. Philosophical issues are never far from questions about economic inequality, climate change, terrorism, gun proliferation, the treatment of nonhuman animals, asylum for refugees, etc. These issues should not be abandoned to the care of party pundits and corporate think-tankers.

At varying levels of engagement, our philosophical ancestors have carried their normative concerns and philosophical abilities into the public arena. Think of the involvement of Socrates, Hypatia, Spinoza, Voltaire, Wollstonecraft, Whitehead, Russell, Arendt, Sartre, and others, with the issues of their day. Many contemporary philosophers have also spoken publicly, and in recent years opportunities for doing so have multiplied not only in philosophical blogs, but also in more widely viewed newspapers and magazines—both online and in print—as well as in televised commentaries and debates. There have been some fine columns by philosophers in the New York Times series The Stone, as well as some intriguing debates on philosophical blogs. One interesting online site is The Critique, which addresses “an unfortunate lack of public involvement on the part of academic philosophers in the daily affairs that concern the vast majority of people in this world” by providing “an online source of information and discussion about all areas of academic philosophy, that exist for the purpose of publishing daily content, interesting and useful enough, to place the discipline at the center of all major public discussions,” in the belief that “when used properly, the skills and knowledge of philosophers can make a positive difference in the world” (you can read more about The Critique‘s mission here).

The work of those who initiate, manage, and participate in these forums should be applauded, but greater encouragement and more opportunities for such efforts should be advanced. So, granting that philosophers have an interest in stepping up their involvement and pressuring the public media, I propose that a section of the Blog of the APA be established—perhaps under the label of “Philosophical Activism” or “Public Engagement”—devoted to philosophical treatments of contemporary policy issues. I envision it as an in-house discussion group where contributors would have the opportunity to exchange views about important public concerns, propose solutions to common problems, and scrutinize standing proposals, decisions, and statutes. It should encourage serious, open, but reasonably concise discussions while avoiding dismissive one-liners and anonymous cheap shots that are all too common on blogs and in comment sections of newspapers. Suggestions might also be offered about how philosophical examinations of public issues might become part of course content, and about various outlets for contributions to public discussions. The chief aim of this section would be to promote public involvement by philosophers, and to facilitate their attempts to step outside the ivory tower and more actively engage—as philosophers—with decision makers around the world.

Tomis Kapitan is Professor Emeritus at Northern Illinois University. He has conducted research on several topics, including free will, indexicals, self-consciousness, abduction, terrorism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Find out more about Kapitan’s work here.


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  1. “A genuine philosopher, therefore,’ argues Badiou, ‘is someone who decides on his account what the problems are, someone who proposes new problems for everyone.’ Thus the philosopher intervenes, ‘when in the situation — whether historical, political, artistic, amorous, scientific — there are things that appear to him as signs.’ And these signs spur him towards visualising new problems within situations that demand a philosophical intervention. The real issue is to ask what these philosophical situations are.” (from: )

    Although the public engagement in philosophy has started in some western countries, it is still not considered praiseworthy in India. Maybe that is one of the reasons that philosophy scholars in India usually don´t engage with public “through a language of the public.” By the language of the public I mean coming out of the jargons we use in classrooms and seminar halls, and talk directly to the public through newspapers, blogs, magazines, pamphlets so that we can take the philosophical understanding across and widen its applicability. Some two years back, the famous political theorist Gopal Guru and philosopher Sundar Sarukkai had started a weekly conversation on the issue of caste in one of the local language newspapers. It resulted in an article titled “Publicly talking About Caste” (

    I don´t think such processes of public engagement are still going on. We need them more to make the debates and discussions interesting.

  2. More than a great idea, this proposal strikes me as a duty! I hope that the APA takes up Prof. Kapitan’s proposal.


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