Issues in Philosophy Philosophy's PR Problem: The Devil is the Details

Philosophy’s PR Problem: The Devil is the Details

by Daniel Tippens


In May, I attended a public philosophy workshop at UNC Chapel Hill, and one of the aims for the weekend was to help early-career scholars refine and develop an essay in public philosophy. But a more implicit aim — which came out clearly during the talks — was to discuss our institutional reputation with the public, and why that reputation is so poor. One comment repeatedly echoed throughout the room: “Philosophy has a PR problem.”

A public relations problem is a mismatch between one’s desired image and the image one’s audience de facto holds toward you. An oil company wants to be viewed as eco-friendly and safe. If they are placed in the public spotlight due to a large oil spill, then public will see them as dangerous and careless. The oil spill is a PR problem.

But a mere mismatch between de facto and desired image implies nothing about which is accurate. It could be that the oil company, for instance, desires to be seen as eco-friendly, but they are in fact destructive. After the oil spill their de facto image — that the company is dangerous and careless — would be accurate. In such a case, our gut reaction is to say that it would be wrong of the company to try to bring public opinion to align with their desired image instead of fixing their dangerous and careless facets.

Philosophy certainly does have a PR problem. Many of us have a desired image, I think, of value, intellectual respectability, and moral and political drive. Our de facto image, on the other hand, is that of high-mindedness, preoccupation with minutiae, elitism, and perhaps some science-envy. Indeed, prominent physicists who have dismissed philosophy have appealed to all of these sentiments in the court of public opinion. Even if I don’t have all of details right, I hope we can agree that our de facto and desired images are out of synch, and that we have a PR problem.

This was in the back of my mind as I read David Johnson’s recent piece on the APA blog, which outlined one of his desired images for the profession — its face is public philosophy — and a vision for how to get the public eyes to see it. David was one of the keynote speakers at the UNC workshop, which I was fortunate enough to attend, and his essay struck me as a very clear and compelling reflection of the talk that he gave, combined with audience feedback.

But as I read David’s essay and thought about it more, I realized that I share neither his desired image for the profession nor his vision for attracting the public’s attention. What I want to do here is not so much criticize David’s view as much as present an alternative to it, though certainly some of the former will be necessary to set apart the latter.

What I will say is intended in the spirit of David’s post, reflected in his recognition that there is no agreement on what public philosophy is, and that he can only outline his own vision:

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…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.


Public Interest Philosophy

David is approaching these issues as a professional philosopher-turned-journalist, and as such has a particular desired image for the profession: “Public philosophy,” he maintains, “should be philosophy in the public interest.” What it means for something to be in the “public interest could mean something as weak as whatever the public wants — e.g this cat video — or it could be something as strong as investigative journalism — a product the public needs. David adopts the stronger interpretation, and believes philosophers should orient their attitudes and writing in that direction:

Public philosophy … 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 emphasis added).

David’s desired image for the profession — the public relation that he imagines between the ivory tower and main street — is one of necessity. There is a plethora of pressing issues that we face, and the public philosopher, like the investigative journalist, is a cell in the organ of public communications systems, supporting the epistemic health of the citizenry. This picture of philosophy is that of a politically necessary institution which, while it may not address any issues uniquely well, adds much needed insight.

David goes on to make recommendations for public philosophers who might share this vision:

Philosophers interested in pursuing [public interest philosophy] 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.

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.

This is where I begin to squint my eyes harder, for whenever there is a PR problem in an institution, one should take pause to re-evaluate their situation. When David did this it seems he felt a certain civic call to arms, seeing public philosophy as a morally necessary practice borne out of contingently tough times. But when I did this after reading David’s piece, I was left asking: is our desired image one of an institution that the citizenry needs as opposed to something the public wants? Surely our only desired relation with the public is not that they support us because they depend on us in some way. Don’t we want their support because we produce a product that they enjoy and appreciate? There is no doubt room for doing work of civic importance and moral progress, but the idea that this should be our desired imageis one that I don’t resonate with.

What gives me strong resistance to David’s vision is this sense that necessity is at the heart of it, breathing meaning into the grave and stalwart tone of his last sentence: “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.”

Visionary Philosophy

If we consider one of the most reputationally successful fields — physics — we can see that their longevity and resonation with the public wasn’t just because the people neededphysics, it was also because they were inspired by the creativity driving the field. Scientists, by envisioning the building blocks of our world at all of its levels, were able to capture the public’s imagination and sense of wonder through artistic representations of the underlying elements of the universe. People were shown depictions of the atomic nucleus with its orbitals symmetrically oriented around it, electrons buzzing about in their clouds. People could imagine what was meant by something like ‘energy transfer,’ when they brought to mind atoms approaching one another. Despite the fact that these depictions of the hidden wonders of the world were imperfect, scientific artistry had given the public imaginative access to aspects of their world that they could take home with them, and later superimpose onto their daily experience. Scientists thought big — theoretically expansively — and brought the products of their imagination to the public eye. The result is that the institution of physics was seen, de facto, as visionary.

If I had to choose between being an institution of visionaries that people want, or an institution of civil servants that people need, I would take the former. Visionaries are inspiring, imaginative, challenging, creative, illuminating, and insightful, and philosophers have historically been some of the most inspiring people of their times, for better or worse. John Locke’s boldly expansive political philosophy gripped the founding fathers, and Karl Marx elicited the passions of millions, ideologically powering revolutions around the world. Hannah Arendt gave us a picture of Adolf Eichmann, such that we could graspwhat she meant when she discussed, “the banality of evil,” and Iris Murdoch produced richly creative novels to capture the subtle sentiments in her philosophical views. In doing so, these philosophers and many like them — from all different backgrounds — resonatedwith the people in their historical contexts, and have followers to this day. They may be rare, and often products of their time, but philosophical visionaries like them will only have the chance of affecting us in our time if we agree to give public philosophers the latitude to think expansively and boldly, developing their own frameworks in an epistemically risky fashion, straining the limits of justification, and almost certainly going a bit beyond them.

When past visionaries from our discipline were writing, there was no “discipline” like what we have today. There was nobody demanding that each and every claim be empirically justified as scrupulously as possible. Nobody required them to cite the most recent 30 philosophers who have written on some related topic in philosophy, and certainly there was no incentive or pressure to use copious amounts of jargon or impenetrable science-speak. Thinkers weren’t institutionally pressured to think narrowly and with unbelievable specialization, unless they happened to go that way on their own. Many of the most publicly influential philosophers seemed to just pay attention to the world around them, and then convey those observations to us. Funnily enough, people appreciatedthem for doing so. Philosophers haven’t always been needed, but the best of times were probably when they were wanted.

This is one major way in which this vision differs from David’s. If public philosophy were modeled after investigative journalism, we would be constrained too tightly by the noose of truth. Journalism, being a necessary information outlet for the public, must check their facts twice and their evidence thrice, because the public depends upon it. Information is extracted from an important situation, and it is transmitted as objectively and fairly as possible to the public. Citizen X receives information Y, with as few subjective implicatures as possible.

But it is precisely the bold nature of visionaries that inspires us. It is their ability to go just enough beyond the evidence, to rely just enough on their gut and honed sensibilities, and perhaps to violate our epistemic norms just enoughto force us to make a choice between a new vision and an old one. Depending on what happens, we may later stand on their shoulders, and find inspiration from a new framework.

What I would suggest is not that we confine ourselves to short-burst, public-interest magazine articles in the media rat-race, competing for attention with pundits, bloggers, and celebrities on the social media scene, constantly facing imposter syndrome knowing that we are “uncertain whether there are any issues that philosophers can address uniquely well.” [1]

Rather, public philosophers should consider asking the public which sorts of visionaries resonate with them and what role philosophy could fill in their lives right now, both in style and content. Then we can try to develop broad, bold, and epistemically riskypictures of the manifest world that the public may resonate with. David is surely right to speak of a vacuum in the US market which is open to being filled, but we should figure out — with help from our audience — what that vacuum’s current contours are, before we try to fill it by fiat.

Public philosophers, on this view, should take their time, think big, spread their wings, and throw up their own visions of some aspects of the world they live in, despite being unsure of its airtight veracity or logical validity, and being artistically open with terminology and precision. This could be an extensive and searching work like Wealth of Nations, or it could be a short essay like Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness. The middle porridge suits some best, however, so a small booklet like Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshitcould work too.What is important is that these tickle the creative side of the audience, drawing out their imaginations. For this reason, I also believe that all manner of illustrations should be promoted in public philosophy — iconography, photography, literature, cartoons, music videos, history, etc. — and that we worry a little less about whether these justify True Beliefand little more about whether they evoke our imaginations, as readers. At times, we should have artistic liberty, like the directors of films that are based on a true story, to bend epistemic rules in order to evoke a reaction; the author may be trying to go beyond the evidenceto show us something.

Being epistemically bold and risky in this way is, I believe, a part of the responsibility of intellectuals. We receive all manner of support from the public, whether it be financial assistance or the next cohort of willing volunteers in our study. As members of the community that we expect unconditional support from, we bear the burden of being a legitimate target of blamefor taking epistemic risks; for producing visions that could do great harm even when intended for greater goods; for asserting something that could waste public funds when society takes it up; for inspiring those around us to act in wonder or indignation, laughter or sadness, slaughter or forgiveness. This sense of responsibility is something we have seen in prominent visionaries in history, like Oppenheimer, who famously uttered the words of the deity Vishnu after the Trinity Test was realized, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” No doubt Karl Marx might have had a similar thought, had he seen the rise and fall of Stalinist Russia.

Ask the public what kind of philosophy would resonate with them, both in style and content. This is what the public wants. Then, take our honed creative capacities and throw up visions for the public to engage with. This is what we produce. Gauge the strength of their reactions, and monitor their subsequent heartbeat. This is how the public feels. Repeat this process, and the institution of philosophy might reclaim and maintain a de facto image of visionary. Rather than being seen as a morally necessary product of contingently bad times, we could be seen as a timeless product withcontingent moral concerns. This desired image is one where the institution of philosophy has intrinsic value.

This is my alternative to David’s vision. But of course I can’t and do not speak for everyone in the profession, my generation, or even my circle of friends. Just myself and some people I know. A tiny grain of empirical support, yes, but reason enough for me, at least, to wonder what others might think.


[1] We should also ask ourselves whether we really want to be compared with investigative journalism, given the regard the public holds it in right now. Being a both a target and vessel of propaganda, with “alternative facts” and “fake news” accusations flying about, journalism’s public image as a reliable institution has been fading fast. This is a fact, whether journalism is broken or not. So do we want to bet on that market, right now, when it has been sullied by both the current administration and a long history of public scandals? This point was raised by an old friend, Katerina Stamatiou, and I agree with her concerns.


Daniel Tippens is a Philosophy Ph.D Student at the University of Miami and Editor of the online web magazine The Electric Agora.


  1. Hi Mr. Tippens,

    May I ask please, do you intend to engage the public on this page in regards to your article above? Thank you.

  2. Thanks Daniel, ok great, let’s get to it then.

    First, I do realize you are still a student and not the chairman of a department, so I want to make clear from the start that I will not be trying to hold you responsible for the state of academic philosophy. As a student nearing the end of your student career you perhaps form a bridge between members of the public like myself, and those who are running the show in the ivory tower.

    Next, I feel you raise an important topic. Here’s why. I frequent philosophy blogs because I really do feel that philosophers could be playing a much needed crucial role in our society, which I will define below. Imho, were philosophers to choose to play this important role, much of the PR problem they are currently experiencing might go away.

    For now, like you I will start with the words of David Johnson, who offers a window in to my perspective with his thoughts…

    “Public philosophy … uncovers or clarifies truths that are important to the public—that can inform civic debate—but which have been unknown or not properly appreciated.”

    To me, the most important largely unexamined truth which needs to be uncovered so as to inform public debate is that….

    QUICK SUMMARY: The “more is better” relationship with knowledge which has defined our civilization at least since the Enlightenment is out of date and increasingly dangerous. An ever accelerating knowledge explosion will inevitably produce powers beyond our ability to successfully manage, as evidenced by the thousands of hydrogen bombs currently aimed down our own throats.

    Scientists, brilliant as they can be, are unable to confront this problem because they experience the “more is better” relationship with knowledge as almost a kind of “one true way” religious dogma. They are great at questioning data produced by science, but simply aren’t up to the job of questioning the foundations of their enterprise. They do the job we’ve hired them to do, and do it well, so I guess we’ll have to be happy with that.

    So that brings us to you, philosophers.

    The heart of the PR problem this member of the public is experiencing in regards to academic philosophy is that philosophers too, as a group, seem to show little to no interest in this topic. Every other topic under the sun grabs their focus, except for this one. I find this lack of interest deeply troubling, because I really don’t know who to turn to next in regards to this issue, and the stakes involved are extremely high.

    Sometimes the way I express my frustration with the above generates my own PR problems. While I do sometimes regret this, in the end it seems my own reputation situation is immeasurably small in importance in comparison to, what I see as, the impending collapse of modern civilization. Young people like yourself deserve a future, and by neglecting our relationship with knowledge we may be in the process of denying it to you.

    I don’t mean to overlook your own remarks above. It’s my hope that this is only the beginning of a long conversation, one that will be joined by many others over time. If you continue to engage, I will continue to dig deeper in to your piece. I’m glad we can do that here, as it’s not possible elsewhere, if you know what I mean.

    Ok, that’s enough, over to you sir.

  3. Hello Daniel Tippens and Phil Tanny (and anyone else who happens to have found their way in here).

    Interesting essay. I write as someone who believes philosophy both does, and ought to, have something to say to the public, however we cash this out, whatever terminology we employ (“philosophy in the public interest” or what-have-you).

    I also write as an ex-academic … someone who walked away from what I’d come to consider a hostile, toxic environment with insultingly low pay (I was an “adjunct” for over seven years), and who would actually NOT recommend university teaching as a desirable profession to go into these days. That aside …

    I am often overcome by the sense that philosophy as it presently exists never really recovered from the logical positivist onslaught, which had one of its primary roots in Comte’s earlier 19th century positivism in which “third stage” thinking placed empirical science on a pedestal and relegated philosophy to the dustbin of intellectual dead ends.

    One of the institutional consequences, probably more a structural development of advancing civilization which actually did privilege science, technology, and commerce not because of intellectual arguments but because they were profitable, was the shoving of philosophy into one of any number of black boxes called academia, where it has subsisted ever since … the skills philosophers bring to the table all but neutered and seldom used. There are exceptions to this, philosophers who have had long-term influence outside of academic philosophy, but they are very rare; and these exceptions have often done far more harm than good (Marcuse would be an example).

    Public philosophy, or philosophy done in the public interest, is a good idea, but I believe philosophers themselves need to have a sustained conversation about what it entails. Daniel Tippens’s post could help start it, and I am not implying otherwise, but we’ll need more preliminaries, including those that do not simply presuppose that philosophy should be primarily an academic enterprise with all the hoops to jump through and constraints this implies. For what would philosophers do “in the public interest”? They could not put forth the kinds of technicalities that predominate in philosophy journals, as they would not be understood. Nor could they speak in generalities.

    No, philosophers would find themselves having to grapple substantially with issues of public concern: abortion, e.g., or the obsessions with race, with today’s popular gender-bending, with man-made climate change (which will mean learning the science involved), and so on. There are many others; these are just the ones I thought of first. Philosophers may find themselves having to take positions, if their conclusions are based on logic and actual evidence, that go sharply against what is currently popular. They will then have to deal with the fallout which, given the incivility that reigns supreme today, will amount to possibly very public attacks and shaming, rather than the responsible dialogue we used to expect from adults. This is sad, but this is the world we live in … where, arguably, a sustained, long-term collapse in public education has brought us. (Is “collapse” too extreme a word? I used to have students who could not compose a grammatical sentence longer than seven or eight words or follow a discussion requiring greater mental investment than the day’s sports page, much less be prepared to read Plato’s Euthyphro.

    Philosophers, finally, will have to come to grips with the realization that most people base their lives on assumptions or presumptions that are fundamentally emotional and products of cultural conditioning, not logical products of analytic thinking … although educated people want to rationalize their emotional first premises with logic.

    Philosophers as professionals therefore need to have a renewed conversation among themselves, what philosophy is and exactly what job it should do in contemporary civilization, before taking their skills back into the public arena. This will include: who are we going to be talking to, besides (again) each other?

    Here is a suggestion for a preliminary in-house conversation that might bear some fruit: consider the four broad schools of thought philosophers have had for what they should be doing: (1) philosophy as comprehensive, systematic Theory of Everything or everything that can be known (exemplars: Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant up to a point, Hegel, Whitehead); (2) philosophy as analysis, both with detailed examinations of language itself, how we use language, and warnings about its misuses (best exemplars: Wittgenstein, and George Orwell who, significantly, is not usually considered a philosopher and I don’t think considered himself one); (3) philosophy as describing the human condition, as with existentialism (exemplars: Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky who is also not usually seen as a philosopher, Sartre, Camus); (4) philosophy as urging and paving the way for social and economic change (obvious exemplar: Marx), but also providing evaluations of proposals for change that might turn thumbs down (exemplar: Burke, & today someone such as Scrutin; conservative thought generally).

    This might pave the way for introducing an idea such as the following, which could be sold to what remains of the educated public as in the public interest if presented in the right way: philosophy should identify, clarify, and produce critical evaluations of worldviews. Worldviews will be understood as comprehensive answers, influential as tacit presuppositions of a civilization or culture, about what kind of world this is, how we fit into it and how we came to be as we are, what is truly of value in life, and strategies for helping to build the kind of world that will help as many people as possible bring about what is of value in their lives, presuming they are willing to work to achieve these values. (A British philosopher who has furthered a variation on this theme is Nicholas Maxwell; his book From Knowledge to Wisdom is required reading for anyone who finds this line of thought interesting.)

    Some worldviews will ordain that scientific consensus gets the last word on all things. Others (Christianity is an example) will contend that science may get a lot of things right but went off track with its fundamental presuppositions long ago. One can view much of modern and recent intellectual history as a battleground between the worldviews of secular, scientistic (not always scientific!) materialism and that of one form or another of Christianity.

    I don’t claim this is a new or especially clever idea. It is, however, a fundamentally correct one, a good assessment of where we presently stand, and a good guide to where we have to go from here, because each of these worldviews provides radically different answers to many of our present dilemmas … and without the kinds of analytically-guided evaluations of these answers philosophers are uniquely qualified to present, our civilization will not just continue on its merry way but probably will exhibit increasingly deeper symptoms of long-term, structural unsustainability and collapse.

    I once read somewhere that a civilization without a philosophy is like a body without a brain. It goes deeper than that. Ours is not a civilization without a philosophy. It is a civilization that is unaware of the philosophical presumptions it is following. One of the jobs philosophers can do is to shine light on these presumptions, and then evaluate them. Our choice is not: do we have a philosophy, or just stick with science and technology? Our choices are between which philosophical worldview we elect to pursue … not just as individuals but as members of communities and of our civilization?

    The final question is: given that this might not be a suitable academic endeavor … philosophers working this way cannot simply bow to authority, whether it is administrative or otherwise. So if this must be done extra-academically, who will fund it? Or must it be self-funded, done on our own time on evenings and weekends while we attend to earning our livings during daylight hours?

    I trust this has been helpful. Comments welcome, and you might even get thanked in the book I am puttering away at in what little spare time I have.

  4. Welcome to the thread Mr. Yates, excellent post, thank you. I was drawn to these words of yours…

    “Ours is not a civilization without a philosophy. It is a civilization that is unaware of the philosophical presumptions it is following. One of the jobs philosophers can do is to shine light on these presumptions, and then evaluate them.”

    This resonates with me. I would put it a bit differently perhaps.

    I think that we are generally aware of the “more is better” relationship with knowledge which our civilization is built upon. The problem as I see it is that this relationship has been hugely successful for us, and so we see little reason to examine or question it. We take the value of this relationship to be an obvious given, and see proof of that value all around us.

    Well, it’s more challenging even than that. The “more is better” relationship with knowledge almost defines us as a species. To one degree or another we’ve been in that relationship since the beginning, and thus find it near impossible to imagine any other way of being.

    And so we rush brilliantly, boastfully, and blindly forward, giving ourselves more and more and more power, racing towards that Peter Principle moment when we finally acquire more power than we can handle. As I’ve tried to argue across the blog this is not futuristic speculation. We have already reached that moment, as the nuclear gun in our mouth would seem to prove beyond any doubt.

    What philosophers can do is help us craft a more mature, sophisticated and nuanced relationship with knowledge, just as medical doctors have helped us do the same in our relationship with food. It seems beyond doubt that philosophers possess the intelligence and training necessary for the task.

    The primary obstacle standing in the way is that the first step is not an intellectual challenge, but an emotional one. What’s holding us back from unleashing such vast intellectual firepower at such fundamental questions is that we’re afraid to stare the threat squarely in the face. We’re afraid to look over the edge in to the abyss we are poised to leap in to.

    Nietzsche had the courage to look. And it may have drove him mad. We don’t want to go mad. But if we’re unwilling to risk at least a bit of madness we’ll never unlock the enormous energy that is released when one looks the enemy in the eye and grasps that that they are very real, and standing right before us.

    And so we come to what may be the primary obstacle for academic philosophers. By training and temperament you are inclined to objective detachment, an inclination further enforced by the career machinery of the ivory tower.

    But objective detachment is not the first step. The first step is the willingness to do what Nietzsche did, to look over the edge in to the abyss. Until that is done, none of us will have the energy and focus needed to confront this awesome challenge of crafting a new relationship with knowledge. Until we look over the edge in to the abyss, until we open to the challenge emotionally, we will continue to fiddle around with a thousand other less important things from a safe distance as a means of distracting ourselves from the abyss that awaits us if we fail.

  5. Hi Steven Yates and Phil Tanny,

    I find myself in large agreement with both of you — and I mean that honestly — on the things you’ve just argued for and laid out. They seem to strike at exactly what the core of this essay was supposed to be, and I have to say that that is very inspiring.

    The one thing I would caution is that we don’t lose sight of the idea that if philosophers want to be visionaries, they also must accept the responsibility that comes with that. The power of ideas to change people’s behavior is strong enough that we should enter the arena of research with Oppenheimer’s words in mind every once in awhile, and it may mean not being celebrities all the time. Sometimes it’s just doing the armchair thing… with some funding of course.

    I’m actually trying to construct a piece right now which shows how easy it would be to pass tyrannical language around almost unnoticed (but never immeasurable). Think of it like this… I’ll bet you many of us would find the following statement plausible and certainly not the least bit worrisome.

    “If fake news is being consumed so widely, don’t you think fake words are too? Tyrannical language is rampant!”

    This is obviously just a quick, blanket dismissal of our primary modes of interpersonal communication, which renders our epistemic playing field completely neutral, and so controllable (what counts as true is what the state says! a la dystopias, though not in that blunt form). I thought of this because I wrote that sentence, and from the third person point of view — as an unfortunate internet viewer 50 years from now — it looked pretty bad, you know?

    Steven Yates: I wanted to signal agreement on your point about cultural conditioning. My dissertation goes in that direction, but perhaps to an extreme O.o.

    • Daniel writes, “…I find myself in large agreement with both of you.”

      NOOOoooo! Blatant violation of the rules! 🙂

      Seriously, I am really replying to this…

      “The one thing I would caution is that we don’t lose sight of the idea that if philosophers want to be visionaries, they also must accept the responsibility that comes with that.”

      Yes, and that’s why I don’t want you to agree with me. I want you and as many of your peers as possible to try to rip whatever I’ve claimed to shreds. And then I wish to consider your attack, and present a defense in reply. And then I want you to try to rip my defense to shreds. And so on, round and round and round the machinery of the group mind turns until hopefully the weak ideas fall and some kernel of truth remains. That is how our responsibility can be met, through engagement.

      And if in that competitive process someone should attack not only the ideas I’ve presented but also me personally, if they should slip in to “inappropriate tone”… Who cares?? If the ideas we are examining are not important enough to inspire our imperfect passions, they probably aren’t worth examining.

      To steer back towards the topic…

      I’m arguing that….

      1) The public stature of the philosophy profession is largely dependent upon the degree to which academics are willing and able to accessibly address those pressing issues which have the most impact upon the most people.

      2) The issue most closely matching that description is our relationship with knowledge.

      3) Any investigation in to that subject (should there ever by any) which remains purely intellectual and emotionally detached reveals itself to not yet fully grasp the importance of the investigation.

      And even though our interests don’t perfectly overlap THANKS to you both for your willingness to engage.

  6. Daniel, if I understand correctly, your vision was perhaps summarized here, when you said…

    “Public philosophers, on this view, should take their time, think big, spread their wings, and throw up their own visions of some aspects of the world they live in, despite being unsure of its airtight veracity or logical validity, and being artistically open with terminology and precision.”

    Emotionally, this reach for creative freedom resonates here. I agree with the thinking big, and with a willingness to fail, to look ridiculous if needed. One way an academic philosopher might be able to accomplish this is to create a 2nd identity, a pen name, under which they can explore freely without putting their professional status in jeopardy.

    Where I might take issue is in the suggestion to “take their time”. I would ask in reply, where is the evidence that we have such time available? Here I find a connection to what David Johnson has written. The world has very pressing business which needs to be attended to, and it seems to me to be an “all hands on deck” type of situation. Scientists, philosophers, journalists, others, all available intellectual firepower should be focused and brought to bear.

    Once I become the King Of All Philosophers, having staged a successful rebellion from the comment section of a largely unread blog, I will simply forbid all of you from writing about these thousands of relatively tiny topics which so interest you, upon pain of being booted from the tenure track forever.

    In this coming cartoon utopia, if you wish to write about anything but our relationship with knowledge, you will have to present His Imaginary Lordship with a REALLY compelling argument as to why that’s necessary.

    Reason is not just about being able to make a clever argument, but also about having the clarity of mind and focus to know what arguments are the most important to make.

  7. Even though Johnson denies it, his conception of public philosophy in terms of Crucial Pressing Issues! and his indication of how our troubled situation in the US requires that we have organs that will publish public phil. that is US specific indicates that he really does think that public philosophy should be primarily about controversial social/political subjects.

    I can’t think of anything worse and less likely to improve philosophy’s fortunes. People are already sick to death of the hyperactive news-cycle, the endless NEWS ALERT!s, the ubiquitous hyperbole that makes everything Crucial! Essential! Civilization Breaking! etc.

    What makes a good public philosopher is the same thing as what makes a good essayist. The ability to identify interesting, stimulating, varied subjects and to write about them in a way that is simultaneously aesthetically pleasing, sophisticated, and accessible. George Orwell was a paradigm of this sort of writer: he could write an essay about an “important” topic like totalitarianism and an another one about an “unimportant” topic like what makes a good cup of tea, and one felt equally satisfied in reading one or the other.

    Part of the trouble is that philosophers have almost entirely abandoned their role as writers and have forgotten that half of the joy of reading non-scientific/non-technical prose is aesthetic. This has happened because we have suffered the conceit that what we do is just like what the scientists do, except with a more abstract subject matter. Of course this is nonsense — a glimpse at Plato’s dialogues or Montaigne’s essays or Rousseau’s Emile demonstrates that — but it is widely held because professional philosophers today are essentially trained to be philistines and are not particularly well-read across the disciplines.

    I guess, in short, I’m saying that essentially I agree with you. And I have very little hope for the current push towards public philosophy.

    [Note: Full disclosure // Dan Tippens and I are co-founders and co-editors of The Electric Agora, a webzine devoted to the intersection of philosophy, the humanities, and popular culture.]

    • I deny that issues of civic concern = “controversial social/political topics.” The former encompasses a much larger set.

      Although a good public philosopher should be a good essayist, a good essayist need not be philosophical.

  8. Hi Daniel,

    Just letting you know someone agrees with and appreciates your original post. Thanks. I look forward to checking out your magazine!

  9. Phil Tanny,

    “A blatant violation of the rules!”

    Ah, but you asked if I’d engage, and I said yes. “Engagement” in a comment thread is via comments not debate. If someone wants to debate these things, I think we would want a more appropriate venue than this thread.

  10. Phil Tanny,

    “2nd pen name”

    I disagree with this idea generally. Its precisely secrecy and anonymity that I think are not just divisive but also illusory for that matter.

    Maybe part of the responsibility of intellectuals is also to accept the role of being a target of the sentiments of the people you speak with. Shouldn’t public philosophers be… walking around in the agora?

  11. Thank you for the thoughtful essay.

    A couple of responses to points of disagreement:

    First, I think you read too much into my appeal to investigative journalism, which was by way of analogy. I do not see investigative journalism as a model for public philosophy; they are two very different practices. Rather, I use investigative journalism as a way of gaining a better understanding of what “philosophy in the public interest” might mean. Both uncover truths that are important for the public to know – whether the public actually wants these truths revealed and debated or not.

    This highlights a general concern I have with your proposal of using the public’s interests as a basis for what should interest philosophers. There are times when philosophers may say things that win public support, but there are other times when philosophers will feel the need to say things that garner public condemnation and outrage. This is not only true of philosophy (e.g. Socrates) but also investigative journalism (My Lai massacre) and physics (heliocentric theory). On my view, what needs saying should be said, independent of the public’s interests or desires.

    Now it’s certainly true that if you aim to have an audience – and we aim to have an audience for public philosophy – you have to be concerned with growing that audience and not losing them (especially if you are a publication whose business model depends on a paying audience). But the whole point of doing philosophy (or physics or journalism) – the reason why anyone would turn to a philosopher for insight – is that you will speak credibly. You have a commitment to follow the argument wherever it leads, even if it may disappoint or anger the audience. This is what distinguishes philosophy from, say, PR or rhetoric (which is not to say that philosophers can’t learn things from PR and rhetoric, because persuasion is part of the game).

    Second, your focus on philosophy’s alleged PR problem is your concern, not mine. That definitely came up at the conference, but that was not my concern in writing my piece. It is certainly a concern for the profession, no doubt, but my focus was more on how philosophy can contribute to the public good.

    Third, my proposal in no way prevents philosophers from being creative or visionary. Here again I think you read too much into my analogy with investigative journalism (and even investigative journalists need to learn how to write narrative). Philosophy has its own ways of articulating and provoking truths, including thought experiments, alternative scenarios, anecdotes, utopias, etc. It’s really a question whether the more imaginative or creative visions that philosophers may offer have anything to say about how we live our lives. It is curious that the many examples you offer of philosophical visionaries are public philosophers under my proposal. Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness,” for example, argues for more leisure time, which requires fewer hours of labor – clearly an issue of civic import.

    So by all means, spread your wings and write creatively. But when doing public philosophy, we should ask ourselves: If what I say is true, what difference will this make to the public?

  12. There seems to be an assumption that engaging with the public will help boost the reputation of professional philosophers. What if that’s not true?

    As example, this member of the public has engaged with academic philosophers. Has that engagement boosted my reputation? Probably not. The engagement has instead probably highlighted and emphasized the ways in our perspectives and culture incurably differ.

    What if staying aloof inside the ivory writing about esoteric topics in an inaccessible manner is in the end the safest play for the profession?

  13. I don’t see why public philosophy needs to be about issues of “civic import” or “make a difference” in that regard. Indeed, I think people have more than enough of that sort of discourse already. That was the whole point of my previous comment.


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