IS PUBLIC PHILOSOPHY GOOD?
Callard is an Associate Professor in Philosophy. She received
her BA from the University of Chicago in 1997 and her PhD from
Berkeley in 2008. Her primary areas of specialization are Ancient
Philosophy and Ethics. This article was initially published in
is a bubble. Not much of it happens in high school, or after college.
It lives inside academia, or, more precisely, inside a space that
is itself inside academia. At the University of Chicago, for instance,
philosophy is one of the few departments with a hard policy against
offering credit towards the major for courses taken outside our
department. We won’t call it ‘Philosophy’ unless
we taught it to you. Philosophy polices its boundaries.
there have been rumblings of a Great Escape, one that goes by
the name of ‘Public Philosophy.’ Public philosophy
includes, but extends beyond, the pop philosophy found in books
such as Logicomix, Sophie’s World or The Matrix
and Philosophy. Pop philosophy, which has parallels in pop
physics, pop history and pop psychology, presents philosophical
figures or concepts in an accessible way; the pop genre more generally,
informs nonprofessionals of developments in some field.
one thing to share information about philosophy and another to
offer non-philosophers a way of participating in the activity.
Public philosophy aspires to liberate the subject from its academic
confines: to put philosophy into action. Is that a good thing?
I’m not sure it is, and I cannot think of a better topic
for my first public philosophy column.
think that undergraduate teaching is a case of “doing philosophy
with non-philosophers”—public philosophy within academia.
But that would be a mistake. It is true that most of the undergraduates
to whom I assign, e.g., Plato’s Republic will not major
in philosophy, let alone continue with graduate education. Nonetheless,
in my classroom, they are philosophers, if only for a few hours
a week. The institutional structure—the syllabus, the assignments,
the grades, my status as Professor, even the physical and social
characteristics of the classroom—make it possible for me
to tell them to be philosophers. I instruct them to engage directly
with questions of whether the soul has parts or whether justice
is the advantage of the stronger or whether poetry corrupts; and,
amazingly enough, they do it.
that they engage directly with those questions is to say that
their engagement is not tied to the following considerations:
The fact (if it is one) that answering those questions will
help them do something else that they were doing anyways. I
don’t promise them answers, let alone helpful ones.
The fact (if it is one) that they find it fun or pleasant or
intellectually stimulating. They have to do the reading, come
to class, write papers—whether or not they enjoy it.
philosophy for its own sake, because its questions are important,
not because it is useful or pleasant.
philosophy, by contrast, lends itself to the “business or
pleasure” dichotomy. If I, as a philosopher, engage with
non-philosophers, I do not have the standing to command them to
be interested in my questions. What I can do is tell people that
if they listen to me, they will get answers to important questions
they independently wanted answers to; alternatively, I can offer
people of an intellectual bent a certain distinctive kind of mental
me explain why those moves would be mistakes.
sometimes argued that philosophers are poised to contribute to
the hygiene of public discourse: we could use our critical-thinking
skills to shine the light of reason into the darkness of partisan
political bickering. My experience of conferences and faculty
meetings is that philosophers can talk about politics as people
in general talk about the weather: with the comfort of assured
agreement. I know philosophers who believe in true contradictions,
or in the existence of immaterial Cartesian minds, but have never
met a single one who voted for Trump.
philosophers enter the political fray, we argue for the political
views that we, as a sociological fact, all already, independently,
seem to have. (These are also the political views that the vast
majority of academics in the humanities have.) We do not seem
to be especially open-minded. Rational, fair-minded and calm arguments
for foregone conclusions have the danger of inoculating people
against critical thinking. The idea that philosophers have special
standing to answer political questions could provoke a misological
generally, philosophical expertise doesn’t lie in the character
of the answers we can provide. How many philosophical questions
have been answered, after all? It is not an accident that philosophical
papers, unlike, e.g., papers in economics and sociology, often
lack abstracts. A summary of conclusions misses the point—we
are masters of thinking, but, given the extent of disagreement,
most of us must be utterly inept at having thought.
practitioners of other fields, we do not agree even on answers
to the most basic questions as to what our field is or why it
exists. Our boundary policing is the other side of the coin of
the incredible intellectual openness that philosophy and only
philosophy affords: we have to ‘define’ philosophy
using facts such as which building it is located in so as to leave
it open to the people in that building to define it any way they
are feeling bored or starved of intellectual stimulation, read
a Stone column or an Aeon article, follow some philosophers on
Twitter, watch some philosophical YouTube talks, listen to a philosophy
podcast, sample a nonacademic philosophy book or two, subscribe
to The Point. You will encounter philosophy that is fun to consume—try
that with your average journal article, or, for that matter, Aristotle’s
On Generation and Corruption or one of Kant’s Critiques.
Much like other high-grade online content, such pieces make us
feel smarter, deeper, better informed. They put a spring in our
wrong with intellectually engaging fun? Nothing, but I think there
is something wrong with calling that philosophy. Here I put forward
my own unabashedly partisan view of philosophy, cribbed from Plato’s
cave: philosophy does not put sight into blind eyes; rather, it
turns the soul around to face the light.
will not turn except under painful exposure to all the questions
it forgot to ask, and it will quickly turn back again unless it
is pressured to acknowledge the meaninglessness of a life in which
it does not continue to ask them. Philosophy doesn’t jazz
up the life you were living—it snatches that life out of
your grip. It doesn’t make you feel smarter, it makes you
feel stupider: doing philosophy, you discover you don’t
even know the most basic things.
Aristotle said that the intellectual life is one of serious leisure,
I believe he was trying to avoid the Scylla of business and the
Charybdis of pleasure. If philosophy offered helpful answers to
the questions you were asking anyways, it wouldn’t be leisurely;
if it added fun to the life you were living anyways, it wouldn’t
be serious. It is hard to overstate how difficult it is for a
single activity to be serious, leisurely and radically open-ended
in the way that philosophy is. What can look like territorialism
is really a valiant effort on the part of academic philosophers
to maintain the tension that keeps an almost impossible activity
from falling apart— dissolving into unleisurely business
and unserious pleasure.
philosophy is terrible or impossible, what am I doing here? The
truth is that, as is so often the case, the argument I’ve
just given sounds good but is open to counterexamples. For example,
Plato’s dialogues are fun to read and they are also undeniably
philosophical. Most of the conversations they depict have to count
as public philosophy, given that Socrates is talking to people
who emphatically disavow any identification as philosophers. If
philosophy were restricted to intramural conversations amongst
philosophers, it would have been impossible for it to get started.
Or keep going: over the past two and a half millennia, many philosophers
have operated outside (anything even remotely resembling) academia.
I’ve described a trap for public philosophy, but it is one
that my favorite works of philosophy managed to elude. So there
must be a way out.
I am underselling the public in assuming that you want answers
or entertainment. Perhaps some of you also want what I want, which
is to think through the most important questions in the best way
human beings have come up with: together. Perhaps my ideal interlocutor
is hidden amongst you.
I have to admit I don’t really have much of a sense of how
that would go. How are you going to refute me if I can’t
unsure what to conclude here, but I do feel pretty confident that
these questions are worth asking. I’m a philosopher, I have
a nose for questions, and I can tell you that the one I’ve
posed here—is public philosophy good—is a real one.
I’ve never thought about it before, and I don’t see
anyone else currently thinking about it either. Writing this column
is an opportunity for me to investigate an aspect of philosophical
life—its public face—that I’d otherwise be leaving
know whether public philosophy is good, but I want to know. Don’t