Quite a few pixels have been burned on the topic of public philosophy lately. Notably the American Philosophical Association recently registered its support for the practice. Carrie Jenkins wrote up an interesting guide and Eric Schliesser then commented on it … via Daily Nous.
The thing that strikes me is that no one treats public philosophy as actual philosophy. They basically treat it as marketing for whatever it was they were already doing. Keep in mind that I am 100% behind more and better marketing for philosophy, but that if public philosophy is just a synonym for marketing, we should just say marketing.
From the APA statement, my emphasese:
The American Philosophical Association values philosophers’ participation in the public arena. This includes work that engages with contemporary issues as well as work that brings traditional philosophies to non-traditional settings. Public philosophy may also bring the discipline into dialogue with other humanities, the arts, natural sciences, social sciences, and interested people outside of academia. Public philosophy is done in a variety of traditional and non-traditional media. Public philosophy can be especially valuable when it reaches populations that tend not to have access to philosophy and philosophers. Further, the APA notes that public philosophy raises the profile of the discipline, the scholar, and the home institution.
Or, to paraphrase:
‘[Engaging] with issues’ … ‘[bringing] traditional philosophies’/ ‘the discipline’ [to other settings] to create ‘access to philosophy and philosophers’ is in service of marketing extant philosophy to ‘[raise] the profile of the discipline, the scholar, and the home institution.’
Nothing in this statement mentions doing any philosophical research.
Jenkins’ guide “So You Want to be a Public Philosopher?” is excellent, and is likewise focused on concrete resources needed to market yourself and your philosophy. As Schliesser highlights in Jenkins’ account, though, the skills she mentions are non-trivial and will have to be cultivated, changing the everyday academic philosopher into a different beast. He brings in Levinas to push his point: in turning to face the public, we inevitably engage in a new transformative relationship with that community.
While this account is correct that more is needed to do public philosophy than just talking to non-philosophers, it treats philosophical results of public philosophy as a secondary, incidental consequence of the practice. It is completely silent on any philosophical resources unique to the subdiscipline of public philosophy.
For instance, Jenkins says public philosophy “isn’t suitable for every kind of philosopher or for every kind of philosophical work.” But why not? What about certain philosophers or works make them unsuitable for public philosophy?
Aikin and Talisse, in their response to the APA statement, note that a philosopher with crippling social anxiety shouldn’t be expected to make regular public appearances. It’s clear that these sorts of factors can limit or prohibit one from doing public philosophy and that they shouldn’t be held against someone.
Setting these issues aside, then, why are some philosophical people and works ripe for public philosophy and others not?
Here finally is the crux of the matter: If we had a good answer to this question — What makes good public philosophy? — then we would just go about doing what needs to be done. But, as the ongoing discussion of public philosophy shows, we have no such answer.
Moreover, until we actually treat public philosophy as a subject of research and figure out what needs to be done, we won’t be able to effectively market philosophy, either. We will just keep doing the same things, yielding the same results.
I’ve made a major update to my site, The Practical Ontologist. Check it out and let me know what you think.
Major site updates:
- Topical Subsections: Metaphysics, Professional, Science, Traditions, Value, & Fun.
Incoming posts are classified via Naive Bayes Machine Learning. The categories, save Fun and Professional, are roughly modeled on [PhilPapers’ classifications](https://philpapers.org/browse/all). Fun is a stream of philosophical memes, mainly from Tumblr. Professional contains news about the profession and other meta-philosophical content.
- RSS feeds for each subpage.
- Now scanning over 200 text and media feeds.
- Timestamps show the freshest content.
- Screencaptures of the different blogs promote site recognition.
- A “Top Blogs” section on the subpages listing blogs commonly posting content in that area.
I’ve launched a new website called The Practical Ontologist. From its about page:
Every few hours a computer at a datacenter scans the web for new philosophical content. It then analyzes, processes, and formats the information. This creates an always updating website for easy perusal.
I built this site to highlight all the public philosophy that is posted every single day online and as a way for people to discover philosophically oriented websites. While there are already many excellent websites that post links to philosophical content, *The Practical Ontologist* is focused on staying fresh and not being a Balkanizing social network. It is the Google News of philosophy blogs.
Check it out and let me know what you think!
This happened at the end of last winter, in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Normally I am nowhere near Red Hook, first because it is near nothing else and also because it is turning more hipster by the day, if not minute. But I was grumpy, so I went and did something out of the ordinary.
Now, there were two days that were unseasonably warm, just gorgeous, at the end of winter. This caught us New Yorkers unaware, which is the theme for this story. No one was out on the streets enjoying the day, as they would normally be if there was any reason to believe that the weather would cooperate. It was a ghost town, in broad daylight, which makes for an unusual scene in New York City.
As I walk down the street I hear someone calling after me and a young woman starts explaining how she is canvassing for some cause. Perhaps others are different, but I have negative levels of patience for people soliciting for my time. There are just too many causes and too many liars canvassing on the streets. But I am stuck, as there is no one else around, as the sole focus of her attention.
She starts to explain that she has never canvassed before, which basically makes me lose any sympathy that I at least hold for my fellow human. If you are going to canvass, do not waste my time and especially do not make me your guinea pig. So I excuse myself and say I’ll be on my way. But she asks if she can walk with me. I agree to this and she starts telling me her story.
She’s nervous, she rambles, and spends the next few minutes patching together one of the craziest New York stories I’ve ever heard. Apparently she has ventured the few blocks that separates the Red Hook projects, where she lives and is one of the forgotten hellish places in the city, to the hipster waterfront, full of 20-somethings from Ohio roasting coffee and distilling craft whiskey. She made this trip of only a few blocks, but of a huge cultural divide, as a last ditch attempt to save the last community center, already slated for closure, in her neighborhood.
It is not just the huge jump in random shootings, but the targeted drive-by where her friend lost her pregnancy and the complete neglect of the city and police that has forced her to make this trip. She has no idea what she is doing and I am the absolute first person that she has run into: there is exactly one name on her canvassing sheet, her own. For a few seconds, when I realize the gravity of the situation that I am in, I am completely flabbergasted. This is someone that really needs help, who has been failed systemically, and is asking me to do something about it.
Now I have neither the money nor political clout necessary to do anything at all. I can’t even sign her paper as I am not a Brooklyn resident. But I may actually be the single best person she could have ran into.
I tell her, after she has poured her heart out over the last few minutes, that she has to get her story down to about 30 seconds or else no one will listen to her. Her face drops to the pavement, but I continue, “and here is exactly what you say… ” and hit her with a distillation of all her main points in about 20 seconds. I even add a little rhetorical flare, giving her the core of what she needs in order to talk to anyone in the city. She goes from completely crestfallen to incredulous as I speak, and unconsciously starts to back away from me (really – she looked almost scared at that point). As I finish I say “Good luck, now you know what to do,” and leave her, eyes wide, mouth agape, and possibly with a chance.
A few weeks into the semester and the calendar is packed with events (but no one seems to have told the admin of Rutgers Philosophy Dept. webpage). Traffic to the calendar has continued its slow and steadily rise, with a corresponding rise in repeat visitors, that is, people who come back to check for updates. So, hello to all you new and return users. Feedback is welcome, as are event submissions.
I finally got around to looking into the issue where every event had a button to buy tickets, whether or not the event actually required them. If any of you checked the website this afternoon (16 September) you would have noticed that the entire site was down. Only “Error connecting to database” when loading the site. Yep, clicked on the wrong thing in the database and ruined the entire site. Took me a few hours to restore everything, but, hey, no useless ticket buttons anymore. The loss of data do to this crash is also why there are minor changes to how the site looks. Backup your data, people.
I’ve also started relying on a program to check websites for changes. This has been very helpful as my list of different philosophy-related groups has grown. So thank you to urlwatch by Thomas Perl.
A few weeks ago I was at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, at Grand Army Plaza. Like many such institutions, it is littered with lecterns holding massive dictionaries. There was one next to a help desk open to a random page. As I walk up, the staff member looks at me expectantly, but I randomly drop my finger down on the dictionary. I look down at where my finger landed, blink in surprise, and say, “I hit Nirvana, I guess that’s it for today.” The staff member laughed, and I left the library.
You only have so many skills when you’re 20. I was a few years past that when this happened, but didn’t look it.
The cashier at the Brooklyn coffee shop was 20, though, and was caught in a spot of trouble. Some guy in his late 40s took issue with her SNITCH tattoo — Harry Potter, not gangster. He was over-educated and enjoying himself denigrating the book series. She couldn’t abandon her post, less her skin, and while she was no fool, like I said, there’s only so much one can do at 20.
Harry Potter, of course, doesn’t need my help. But I do take issue with getting your jollies at the expense of someone who can’t defend themself. So I interjected a small remark that lead to his arguments stumbling. When he realized he had been stalled he quickly changed tack. Again the cashier had to give ground.
So I gently sharpened my previous comment. He kept up the pressure, but this time when he stumbled, his argument got impaled. He eyed me in silence.
‘I knew what I was doing when I opened my mouth,’ I smiled at him.
My coffee and muffin were free that day.
As per usual, lots of great philosophy talks. I’m
still waiting on CUNY to update [updated Feb 1], which is unusual, since they are often first to publish their speaker list. Many departments and groups have been modernizing their websites, too, which is a step forward. Most are not quite there yet, and some departments, apparently, do not even control what goes on their webpage.
In this, the 9th(!) year of the NYC Philosophy Calendar, it seems that there has been greater professional interest in public philosophy: There has been talk about how to engage the public through the internet and new public philosophy awards. (Is the ivory tower starting to shake a little? Or just being dragged into the future?) I’d settle for a little more interdepartmental communication in terms of scheduling. We could have a mini-conference each week if we wanted to, and it could serve as a focus of outreach and community building.
Speaking of outreach — not that I’m actually an academic — traffic to the calendar has steadily risen over the last year. Manhattan has beaten out Brooklyn in calendar pageviews in the last few weeks, which is rare. I’ve even met people who found talks through my calendar. (No beer donations, sadly.) Also, for the first time ever, I rejected a request to be on the calendar: don’t write me a cloying email saying how insightful my blog has been in the last few months (when I hadn’t actually posted anything, and not that it has ever been insightful) and then ask to get your cult leader/ dvd seller/ pyramid scheme talk on the calendar.
One idea I had was to become a degree granting institution. That’s right, a NYC Philosophy Calendar Degree in philosophy! I’ve been developing a way to register which talks you’ve been attending, and when you take enough talks, you get credit towards a degree. Enough credits equals a minor, then major, eventually all the way up to PhD. Yes, this will all be based off fake internet points, and you will have to self-report your attendence, but, hey, people love tracking progress and getting awards for it.
Have a great semester, all.
[image credit: oglaf.com. Often gleefully NSFW.]
- People like you shouldn’t be philosophers.
- You’re not clever enough to have written this.
- You are a psychoneural freak.
- You’re a cheap drunk.
- You’re really weird. I’m weird, but you’re really weird. [added 10 Feb. 2016]
These are are direct quotes, with one professor being responsible for items 2 and 3.