Is public philosophy good? Obviously

Philosophers are a clever bunch

Figs in Winter
Jan 30, 2020 · 8 min read
Image: Socrates, detail of Raphael’s The School of Athens (public domain)

Philosophers are a clever bunch. Which is a major reason I have enjoyed switching from the natural sciences (biology) to the discipline practiced by those who are said to love wisdom. But sometimes they are too clever for their own, and especially the public’s, good. Seneca warned about this:

I should deem your games of logic to be of some avail in relieving men’s burdens, if you could first show me what part of these burdens they will relieve. (Letters XLVIII.9)

I may be uncharitable here — though I’m trying not to be — but I think a recent example of the phenomenon is a column by Agnes Callard in The Point Magazine, entitled “Is public philosophy good?” Ironically, or (too) cleverly, depending on your point of view, this is the first in a new series by Callard on, wait, public philosophy!

I would have thought that the notion that public philosophy is good is obvious and requires little examination. But okay, let’s play. Callard begins by writing that “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. It is 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.”

And it’s the latter attempt that Callard, surprisingly, finds problematic. First, she brings up the possibility that teaching undergraduate students (specifically non-majors) is a case of doing philosophy with non-philosophers, a sort of public philosophy within the academy. But, she claims, to think that way would be a mistake. That’s because she can “tell them” to be philosophers in virtue of being a professor. As a result of such an injunction, Callard claims, the students become philosophers, if only for a semester. While they engage with the material, say, Plato’s Republic, they are doing philosophy for its own sake, not because doing philosophy will help them with something else they are interested in, nor because it is fun, or pleasant, or intellectually stimulating.

I am tempted to dismiss the above as spectacularly failing Seneca’s test: which parts of our burdens are being relieved by such fine logical analysis? But I’m actually going to play the game and argue that it is the logical analysis itself that is mistaken. Turns out, said non-major undergraduate students do not do “philosophy for its own sake.” They do philosophy for the sake of getting a decent grade, to fulfill a requirement, and to graduate from college. And if they truly do not find it fun, pleasant, or intellectually stimulating, I suggest there is an issue with the competency of the instructor.

Let’s move on to why Callard thinks that the standard goals of public philosophy — outside of the classroom, where people are not commanded to take your course but listen to you of their own volition — are also mistakes. She says that “Public 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 stimulation.” Okay, but what’s the problem with these two goals? Let’s begin with the issue of what she calls “philosophical business,” then moving to what Callard terms “philosophical pleasure.”

One reason to do public philosophy is to help the public think more clearly about issues of general concern, especially political and ethical ones. After all, critical thinking is taught primarily (though not exclusively) in philosophy departments. Here Callard makes what amounts to an extraordinary claim. She says that she has observed the presence, at professional conferences, of colleagues who believe in true contradictions (logicians), or in the existence of Cartesian minds (I actually don’t know of any, but I’ll trust her). And yet, she has never met a professional philosopher who voted for Trump.

From this anecdotal yet plausible set of observations, she concludes that philosophers are not particularly open minded, and that therefore we don’t have special standing in answering political questions. Wait, what? The reason most philosophers don’t vote for Trump is precisely because we — unlike almost half of the American electorate — actually do think critically. Indeed, Trump isn’t even a particularly challenging exercise for Critical Thinking 101. I have observed this sort of extreme self-deprecation in my colleagues before, and I have suggested that they need to take a cue from their science colleagues: too much critical thinking about your discipline is not good for your mental health. Or for your discipline.

In the same section of her article, Callard also brings up the old notion that philosophers are good at thinking about problems, but not at arriving at answers. This is more than a bit misleading. In this essay I discuss in depth the only solid empirical evidence we have concerning what professional philosophers actually think of crucial questions in their discipline. And the results show a hell of a lot more consensus than Callard (and many others, to be fair) think. While it is true that philosophers rarely if ever arrive at one specific answer to the questions they pose, it is also the case that each sub-field of philosophy zeroes in on a small number (usually 2–3) of answers, rejecting other approaches, and then getting down to work on refining the candidates still standing.

For instance, 71% of respondents to the survey I comment on in the essay linked above thought that a priori knowledge is possible, while only 18% didn’t think so. There is a clear majority here, and only two major “aporetic clusters,” i.e., groups of answers. Another example: every practicing philosopher knows that W.V.O. Quine thought he had demolished once and for all the distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions, but the bad news for him is that about 65% of philosophers disagree, and only 27% agree that such demise has in fact taken place. And so on.

Incidentally, the reason there is always more than one “answer” to philosophical questions (more than one aporetic cluster), is because such answers are not about empirical facts (“does the earth rotate around the sun or is it the other way?”), but rather about competing accounts, or frameworks, for how to think about the questions being posed. Such frameworks can be more or less coherent, or more or less useful. But to ask whether they are “true” is a category mistake. It makes no sense, for instance, to ask whether Kantian deontology, Mill-style utilitarianism, or virtue ethics are “true.” It does make a lot of sense to inquire into their coherence and usefulness.

What about the second issue, concerning public “philosophical pleasure”? Callard writes: “What’s wrong with intellectually engaging fun? Nothing, but I think there is something wrong with calling that philosophy.” And why is that? Because she subscribes to Plato’s view — from the allegory of the cave — that philosophy doesn’t put sight into blind eyes, but turns the soul around to face the light. Whatever that means. We are talking about a colorful metaphor here, nothing more. And the point of the metaphor, if one really wants to go with Plato, is that philosophers are supposed to bring wisdom to people who cannot achieve it on their own. Sounds to me precisely like the job for a public philosopher…

Callard continues: “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.” This is a lot of lofty nonsense. Those categories are not mutually exclusive, for one thing. Philosophy makes me feel both smarter and stupider. And it is simply silly to say that doing philosophy you discover that you don’t know the most basic things. That’s what you get from doing logic chopping, the sort of activity that makes you write a whole essay on whether public philosophy is good, at the same time that you have just accepted to write a regular column about, ahem, public philosophy.

There is more: “When 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.” Maybe that’s what Aristotle was doing, maybe it wasn’t. Who cares? Why on earth would that be binding on our 21st century conceptions of what it means to do philosophy?

By the end of her essay, Callard seems to have second thoughts, arguing against everything she’s put forth up to that point: “If public 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. … Perhaps 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. … I am unsure what to conclude here, but I do feel pretty confident that these questions are worth asking.”

Well, I don’t share Callard’s confidence in the value of her questioning, and indeed I think that she does undersell the public, and that she writes condescendingly (perhaps without meaning to) when she expresses skepticism that people want to think about important questions and how they affect their lives. In the end, I am reminded of this insight from Seneca:

Philosophy is no trick to catch the public; it is not devised for show. It is a matter, not of words, but of facts. It is not pursued in order that the day may yield some amusement before it is spent, or that our leisure may be relieved of a tedium that irks us. It moulds and constructs the soul; it orders our life, guides our conduct, shows us what we should do and what we should leave undone; it sits at the helm and directs our course as we waver amid uncertainties. (Letters XVI.3)

Figs in Winter

Written by

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://figsinwinter.blog/essays/

Socrates Café

Socrates Café on Medium is all about making ours, on local and global scales, an inclusive, thoughtful and participatory society where regular exchanges of ideas and ideals among diverse people take place.

Figs in Winter

Written by

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://figsinwinter.blog/essays/

Socrates Café

Socrates Café on Medium is all about making ours, on local and global scales, an inclusive, thoughtful and participatory society where regular exchanges of ideas and ideals among diverse people take place.

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