Public Philosophy Philosophy in the Public Interest

Philosophy in the Public Interest

There appears to be a growing interest among academic philosophers in the idea of “public philosophy,” understood minimally as philosophy addressed to a more general audience than the narrow one their work in peer-reviewed journals commands. The American Philosophical Association has a committee dedicated to public philosophy. Last year it issued a statement approved by the APA’s board that endorsed the value of public philosophy (of “philosophers’ participation in the public arena”) and encouraged departments, colleges, and universities to establish criteria for assessing public philosophy as a non-trivial part of a philosopher’s scholarly achievement in tenure and promotion decisions.

Interest in public philosophy is also growing outside academic circles. Several magazines and platforms have launched in the past decade that regularly publish work by academic philosophers. The works are philosophical but dedicated to a general readership. Professors are no longer restricted to the rarified air of New York and London’s book reviews. In addition, philanthropists interested in supporting philosophy have invested their money in promoting its public face. In 2015 billionaire philanthropist Nicolas Berggruen endowed an annual $1 million prize to honor philosophers whose work have improved human life and culture. And the Marc Sanders Foundation (MSF), which has supported many efforts dedicated to promoting philosophy, recently funded an annual public-philosophy writing contest judged by a committee of academic philosophers.

Despite this growing popularity, what counts as public philosophy is somewhat up in the air. This is healthy insofar as it encourages experimentation in different ways of doing public-facing philosophy, and seeing how they go without prejudging their value. However it may be counterproductive if the lack of prominent visions of public philosophy lead to confusion and reduced creativity, collaboration, and growth.

These worries certainly struck me after last year’s second annual MSF public-philosophy contest, which decided not to name a winner, because no entry merited the award. (Full disclosure: I submitted an entry.) Many of the entrants were rather dismayed at the news, to judge from the comments on the Daily Nous post that reported it. While this was certainly not the first time a contest has decided not to name a winner and quality is an important value to uphold, such a result did not exactly foster good will among aspiring public philosophers. Several commenters expressed bewilderment about what the judges were looking for and expected. Shane Ralston reflected the view of many disgruntled participants when he wrote:

A very simple explanation: Nobody really knows what public philosophy is.

The contest advertisement sought previously unpublished long-form essays “with significant philosophical content” that “should be written to engage the general reader”—instructions that are rather broad. While this is fine for the contest’s purposes, the field may be helped by members offering sharper visions of public philosophy.

I have no interest in the project of offering a definition of public philosophy that would determine what counts and what does not. Rather, I wish to offer my own vision of public philosophy in the hopes that others may become interested in pursuing it with me. My vision of public philosophy is shaped by my dual-career as a former academic philosopher turned journalist.

I see public philosophy through the lens of public-interest journalism. Public philosophy, I maintain, should be philosophy in the public interest.  That is, it should be philosophy that informs civic debate and civic life. It should be philosophy, in that it uses philosophical techniques, methods, and concepts. It should also be in the public interest, in that it addresses issues of civic import and in ways that are accessible to the general public.

Issues of Public Importance

To get a better sense of philosophy in the public interest, let us first consider journalism in the public interest. The idea of such a thing may seem paradoxical. (Isn’t all journalism in the public interest?) But journalists have something specific in mind when they refer to it. Public-interest journalism uncovers or demonstrates facts that are vitally important to the public, but which have been relatively unknown or not properly grasped. It is typically enterprise or investigative journalism, in that it requires in-depth reporting that goes beyond the daily reporting cycle and requires a substantial commitment of time and resources to tell such stories.

To flesh this out, consider the top two US prizes for public-interest journalism. First, the American Society of Magazine Editors hosts the annual National Magazine Awards. (Full disclosure: I’m a member and have been a judge.) The contest is also called the “Ellies” after the Alexander Calder elephant statuettes given to winners. The Ellies have a Public Interest category, which “honors magazine journalism that illuminates issues of local, national or international importance.” The contest guidelines add that “special weight will be given to entries that show long-term, in-depth coverage of an issue of public importance.”

This year’s award went to New Yorker journalist Ronan Farrow for his multi-article expose of Harvey Weinstein and the culture that enabled him to sexually assault women with impunity over 20 years. Farrow’s disturbing and revelatory reporting forwarded the massive public reckoning of the #MeToo movement , and the enduring problem of sexual harassment and assault by powerful men. The finalists included Harper’s Magazine’s Helen Ouyang on a tuberculosis epidemic in Alabama’s black belt in numbers worse than those seen in Haiti or India; ProPublica’s Nina Martin on the high death rates among US women in childbirth, compared with women in other industrialized nations, and among African-American women compared with their US peers; Vanity Fair’s Michael Lewis on President Trump’s assault on the regulatory oversight of the Departments of Energy and Agriculture; and The New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv on how state-appointed guardians can take control of the lives of senior citizens without their consent.

The annual Pulitzer Prizes for journalism, which are no longer restricted to newspapers, have a category for Public Service that honors “a distinguished example of meritorious public service by a newspaper, magazine or news site through the use of its journalistic resources.” This year’s winner was, once again, Ronan Farrow as well as The New York Times’ Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey for their Weinstein reporting. The Pulitzer committee also recognized the Kansas City Staras a finalist for “courageous, revelatory journalism that exposed a state government’s decades–long ‘obsession with secrecy,’ intended to shield executive decisions and suppress transparency and accountability in law enforcement agencies, child welfare services and other sectors of the government.”

Public-interest journalism, therefore, addresses profound civic and social problems and brings them to public attention. Such journalism generates public debate and often leads to real-world consequences, such as: changes in public policy, the passage of legislation, the indictment of wrongdoers, and the resignation of executives and officials.

How does such public-interest journalism inform my vision of public philosophy? On my view, public philosophy, analogously, uncovers or clarifies truths that are important to the public—that can inform civic debate—but which have been unknown or not properly appreciated. I am uncertain whether there are any issues that philosophers can address uniquely well, but I know from my own broad reading that there are many public issues that philosophers can add needed insight and perspective to. My own sense is that philosophers can play a special role not simply in voicing opinions—we have more than enough writers proffering their opinions—but in raising vital questions that are not being asked by the general public. We have enough journalists asking whether P is true but not enough asking whether P makes sense, what P means, what follows from P, and so on.

In my journalism career, especially at Harper’s Magazine, Boston Review, and Al Jazeera America, I have had the opportunity to publish philosophy in the public interest. I had the most authority to do so at AJAM, where I was the senior opinion editor for the channel’s news website. I regularly published philosophers on the civic problems of the day, such as Jeff McMahan on the justification of US military strikes against Syria, Susan Dwyer on the need for both sides of the abortion debate to talk more honestly, Michael Blake on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s manipulation of international norms, and Lori Gruen on animal rights activism as protected speech, to name a few. I still regret not being able to continue publishing such work, and I hope to continue promoting the vital importance of such philosophizing. But this first requires naming and promoting it.

Expertise without Elitism

So if one adopts public philosophy as philosophy in the public interest, what follows? First, certain types of work will not be recognized as public philosophy tout court. For example, work that simply popularizes philosophical ideas or figures that are untethered to any real or potential issue of civic import. Or work that is philosophically rich and can reach a wider audience (the reading public) but does not inform civic debate or civic life. Take the winner of the first MSF public-philosophy writing contest for illustration: “Why Throwing 92 Heads in a Row is Not Surprising” by the University of Edinburgh’s Martin Smith. It is a splendid essay on the rationality of belief and our capacity for surprise. No doubt these topics are conceivably applicable to issues of civic import. But the piece doesn’t make those connections, and so there is no compelling reason for our non-philosophical citizens to read it to make sense of a public issue. And that, for me, is what public philosophy should be about.

This may give the false impression that only ethics and political philosophy can contribute to public philosophy under my construal. On the contrary, nothing follows from my view about the type of philosophy that is potentially relevant to civic debate. Metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, aesthetics, etc. can all contribute to clarifying and solving problems of civic import. Take, for example, NYU’s David Velleman’s essay “Family History,” one of my favorite pieces of public philosophy. He dives into the metaphysics of identity, the idea of self-knowledge, and the psychology of constructing a self to argue for the radical conclusion—one that would have enormous ramifications—that anonymous donor conception is immoral and should be prohibited. Even if you disagree with the conclusion, you cannot think of the issue the same way after reading the piece.

What else follows from public philosophy as philosophy in the public interest? First, philosophers interested in pursuing it must read the news. They need to be informed about what’s happening in society, so they are attuned to how their philosophy might fruitfully be applied to social problems. This does not mean tracking what is buzzworthy. Sometimes it’s the news that’s not getting much attention that deserves further scrutiny and problematizing. It just means having a grasp of what is going on and what people are debating. (If my memory serves, Velleman’s work in “Family History” was partly inspired by a March 2006 New York Times Magazine cover story by Jennifer Egan, “Wanted: A Few Good Sperm,” on women happily conceiving babies through anonymous donors and living their best lives. Needless to say, he was not amused.)

A key question that editors at popular magazines and newspapers ask themselves when considering a pitch is: Why now? Why will our readers want to read this now? Or why should they take our word that they should read this now? Academic philosophers tend to care more about the eternal than the timely, but as far as I’m concerned, if a piece doesn’t address an issue of current potential civic concern, it’s not worthwhile as public philosophy.

Those who accept my vision of public philosophy also need to learn how to engage with the public and enter civic debate. This requires cultivating a different writing style than that of the typical journal article or colloquium paper. Writing addressed to the public cannot assume a captive audience, and so it has to be written to interest and be accessible to the general reader. That means writing more like a magazine writer than like a research philosopher. What’s more, cultivating a public audience may also require using other tools for addressing a large audience, such as social media, video, and podcasting.

Pursuing philosophy in the public interest may also benefit from cultivating an attitude I call expertise without elitism. That is, philosophers address the public as experts in their field, just as a structural engineer may discuss an important public infrastructure project, or a US historian may discuss the significance of Confederate monuments. But we do so in a democracy, in which we are all equals and share our expertise as equals. It ultimately hurts the reputation of the field if the public—who subsidizes higher education—feels as though we are speaking down to them. Attitudes such as arrogance and mocking disdain should be avoided.

Finally, since the goal of philosophy in the public interest is to have a positive effect on civic debate, we should consider how to measure public philosophy’s impact—the real-world change it generates. It may be easy to quantify the “reach” (how many readers) or “engagement” (how many tweets, comments, and shares) of public philosophy, but these are not the same as impact. Consider, for example, the concrete effects that the effective altruism movement—or more narrowly, Peter Singer’s 1972 paper “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”—have had on philanthropy and poverty relief. The investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica offers some helpful guidance on assessing its own impact on its website. As the public philosophy movement grows, it would be worthwhile to start assessing its impact in public reports, perhaps through the APA’s Committee on Public Philosophy.

Stateside Public Philosophy

I think this is a perfect moment to grow philosophy in the public interest. The public is increasingly frustrated with the superficial and frequently absurd character of civic discourse, and there is a palpable hunger for a better understanding of the problems we face. There is strong and growing interest among academic philosophers to have more public influence. And due to the decline of academia, particularly in the United States, because of the moribund job market and academia’s shrinking public support, there is a large contingent of professionally trained philosophers who can take up the mantle of public philosophy as philosophy in the public interest. I am interested in taking up this task and I have spoken to many others who are also interested.

I envision a publication dedicated to philosophy in the public interest in the United States. There are other venues who publish excellent public philosophy; Aeon comes foremost to mind. But Aeon, based in Australia and dedicated to a global English-speaking audience, eschews pieces that focus on regional contexts. Given the deep civic problems the United States continues to face, this leaves a vacuum in the US market that should be filled. I hope to lead such an effort.


David V. Johnson (@contrarianp) is senior editor at Stanford Social Innovation Review. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University and taught at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), Stanford, and the University of Michigan.

This article is based on a talk that David V. Johnson gave at the UNC Public Philosophy Workshop on May 18, 2018.

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