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.