The Hard Problem of Public Philosophy

Right now public philosophy in America is a desert. A land barren of rich vegetation and plentiful water. Academic philosophy is like a neighboring land of resources, green and lush – or, at least, that is how it seems to itself. Academic philosophers, like Nussbaum, Singer, Dennett and many others, who engage in public philosophy are like visitors to the desert from that neighboring land, bringing some of the plants from their land in the hopes of creating new pastures in the desert.

When Tania Lombrozo writes, “We need philosophers engaged in public life — and a public wiling to engage them”, she is exhorting more academic philosophers to go into the desert and plant their crops there as well. And she is exhorting the public in the desert to give the new crops a chance to grow.

But there is something Lombrozo and others are over looking when they argue for academic philosophers entering the public arena. They treat it as if the reason most academic philosophers are not doing so is a matter of weakness of the will: either negligence on the academics’ part, or a failure to pay attention on the public’s part. Being a matter of weakness of the will, exhortation or a call to arms is what is seen to move the will in the right direction.

The problem, however, is deeper. A gambler who vows to not gamble any more, but runs to the casino at the next available chance – that is weakness of the will. A mathematician who is not able to solve a difficult problem – that is lack of knowledge, not weakness of the will. The academic philosopher mainly lacks knowledge of what a sustained and helpful engagement with the public can look like. What can sustained public philosophy be? That is a hard problem, which requires, to be sure, a strong will and motivation, but it mainly and firstly requires intellectual imagination and theoretical insight.

Similar to the distinction in the philosophy of mind regarding consciousness, we might say there is the easy problem of public philosophy and the hard problem of public philosophy. The easy problem is how to motivate academic philosophers to engage with the public. This is not a simple problem, since reorienting resources and energies is never that straight-forward. But it is not conceptually difficult. The hard problem is how even motivated academic philosophers can succeed at engaging with the public. This concerns the difficult issue of what ideal forms of public philosophy can look like.

In order for academic philosophers to engage with the public, there has to be a coherent, intellectual framework for how such public philosophy can take place. The crux of the hard problem is: what is the framework within such public intellectual engagement can happen?

Here we come to the heart of the legacy of the Enlightenment conception of secularism. It made room for non-religious modes of public discourse by rendering religion private, something that is seen to be a matter of faith set over against the reason of the public domain. And, not surprisingly, philosophy was set up as the model of that public reason.

As long as one is talking to people who already appreciate philosophy, this is somewhat plausible: render the Bible as private and Kant’s Groundwork as public. Since in the Modern period public discourse was itself elitist, where Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Mill and so moved in circles of the upper echelons of the society, when they defended this conception of secularism, they needed mainly to convince each other, the kings and queens who were their patrons (and who were looking for freedom from the Church), and later the capitalist tycoons who were then their patrons. Even as late as the first half of the 20th century in Europe and America, there was a vivid sense of public philosophy in part because the public who was being invited into the conversation was narrowly defined. In particular, it was a public, the general intelligensia of the society, which was seen to be cultured and educated enough to know the difference between a theist and a philosopher.

The second half of the 20th century saw the rise of mass higher education. This meant more people could go to college and discover philosophy as something set apart from religious discourse. But ironically, this rise in mass education also had the unintended effect of blurring the line between the elite and the lower intellectual classes. This meant that public philosophy now couldn’t just assume that all participants in a public discourse had roughly the same background such that they would see, as mere common sense, the distinction between philosophy and religion which the Modern philosophers had created.

One reason religion has such a grip on the public, especially those from poorer backgrounds, is that it has minimal pre-requisites for a person to feel empowered intellectually – to have a sense of oneself as something more than just a physical laborer. You don’t need to know Latin, or Math, or be able to read the Critique of Pure Reason, or have a B.A. or a PhD to feel empowered in your psychic being through Christ or Krishna or Allah. The issue here isn’t whether belief is justified or rational. It is that for the vast majority of the public it is their primary, and for some, their only available, mode of engaging with the deep and big questions of life: Who am I? Does my life have a purpose? What is Life? Where are we headed as a community?

When the Modern philosophers argued for philosophy as altogether different from religion, the only people they needed to convince were their professors or the kings. They didn’t need to go out into the country side and talk to the peasants about it. They assumed that if they changed the power structures within which the peasants lived, then the ideas of the new philosophy would trickle down to the peasants. But the modern populist movements – both capitalist and anti-capitalist – have eliminated those older power structures enough that now, at least in theory and in the cultural consciousness, the former peasants have as much a right as anyone to the direct participation in the  space of public discourse.

This raises a particular problem for the contemporary academic philosopher. How do you do philosophy in public, and expect the masses to engage with it, when they cannot tell the difference between religion and philosophy? 

There is a kind of jerky, stop-and-go maneuvering one has to master in order to do public philosophy: one has to get the public interested in philosophy by showing how philosophy addresses the same big picture questions as religion, and yet, in order to keep the public from bringing religion into the public discourse, suggest that nonetheless philosophy is something altogether different from religion. This has the air of such fined-tuned double talk that that even the most skilled intellectuals might be forgiven for not understanding how it can work. To most of the public, this just seems confusing, and therefore, uninspiring.

In response to this problem, there are two general approaches academic philosophers have taken. The first, and main, response: to focus on their teaching with the idea that the public first has to be properly educated about philosophy before they can participate in public philosophy. This is the main reason most academic philosophers just put their head down and plow through, and focus just on, their own teaching and academic research. They figure the first requirement for public discourse is good education, and they can contribute to the former through the latter.

The problem with this approach is that, given that the context of teaching is also one with obvious power imbalances, it seems to seek through force what it is not able to otherwise earn. If the methods of Hume and Hegel are fit for public discourse in a way that the methods of religion are not, presumably it is because it is able to engage with adult human beings in a spirit of respecting their rational agency which religions do not. But it is to undermine this claim of the superior methods of philosophy to say that, after all, who counts as “an adult” thinker depends on whether one has already been educated in the appropriate way.

The second approach, which has become popular in recent decades, is for public philosophers to be altogether open about the claim that religion is a dead end, and so only philosophy as something altogether different from religion is required to save the day. On this approach, there is no confusing double talk about how philosophy is, and is not, like religion. It is not like religion at all, and that’s that. Singer, Dennett, Chomsky, Rorty – these public philosophers are open about their atheism, partly because there is no reason to hide their beliefs, and partly because it gives them an un-confusing identity in the public domain. Same with younger public philosophers like Chalmers, Stanley and Leiter. Even Dreyfus and Kelly, who embrace talk of Gods, are clear that what they are presenting to the public is not tied to religion in any normal sense.

If the first approach seems like indoctrination (educating away opposing views), this second approach seems like intellectual imperalism (defeating and subjugating opposing views on the battlefield of public discourse). Needless to say, neither rings like the image of philosophy being advertised: the beautiful and serene engagement of ideas between any groups of people. If not these two approaches, what are the alternatives?

Lombrozo gives the shooting in Charlestown, S.C. as an example for much needed public philosophy. I couldn’t agree more. But there is a question here that Lombrozo doesn’t raise. In fact, her description of the event leaves out a center fact: that it happened in a church; that the people who were killed, and the people who were most effected in a personal way by the event, were Christians. This raises a the question: can either of the two approaches above foster public philosophy with members of the Emanuel AME Church? And if not with them, in what way can those approaches foster general public discourse about this event?

The point here isn’t that one has to be religious to enable public philosophy. Of course not. But in a society which is (by conservative estimation even) at least half religious, any attempt at public philosophy has to have something coherent to say about the relation of philosophy to religion, such that some semblance of a conversation between philosophy and religion is possible, and not just that one is rational and the other is irrational, and not even that they both exist in separate, incommensurable realms.

In order to contribute to public philosophy, academic philosophers don’t have to get on TV or write books for the public. They can contribute just by doing the philosophy of public philosophy, and by trying to find even a theoretical solution to the hard problem of public philosophy. They can do that in all the usual academic ways: journal articles, conferences, classes, etc.

Why are they not even doing that? Why aren’t they at least addressing the theoretical problem of how public philosophy could happen? It’s partly a matter of weakness of the will. And partly a matter of ignorance, of just not knowing any better.

4 thoughts on “The Hard Problem of Public Philosophy

  1. Jessey Wright

    One concern with the final proposal,to contribute by doing a philosophy of public philosophy, is that it continues the tendency of philosophers to speak inwards and speak to each other. If philosophers are to engage the public, but do not know the most appropriate way or effective way to do so, it seems to me that the first step should not be to intellectualize the problem. Instead, we should engage in the public life, on its own terms, and look for opportunities to ask the people we want to engage what they might want from us (and observe spaces where philosophical discussion may be useful). Philosophers, perhaps, might do better to think of themselves as collaborators (collaborating with whomever they aim to engage).

    Which is to say, the hard problem proposed isn’t the real problem. The real problem is taking the first step into the unknown and starting to engage. And, as with most first steps, the best solution is to simply take it. And to take that step honestly, determinedly and with no small amount of humility.


    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      The philosophy of public philosophy is not meant for academics just to talk to each other. It concerns a very practical problem in society. I left academia because I wanted to take that first step into the unknown, and assumed that the opportunities for doing philosophy will just present themselves. It has turned out harder than I thought. What I did not anticipate four years ago when I left was that most people know so little about philosophy that when they think of it, they assume it is something only academics think about. Most people don’t know anything about Plato and Kant, and are much more familiar with their own religious background; this is true even if they are atheists.

      One might say, “forget about philosophy and religion. Just focus on the topics, say, doing conceptual analysis of key concepts and topics that the public is struggling with; for example, how to improve primary school education.” I get this, and more power to anyone who is able to do it. The difficulty I see though is the reason why talk of any particular topics usually breaks down in public discourse is that there is no coherent intellectual framework within which the conversations happen; it is a free for all of people making their different points.

      It is not just a point about philosophers just coming into the conversations and clarifying concepts. The issue is why and in what way would anybody listen to them, and be patient enough to improve their own thinking, especially when there is a pervasive ethos that being your person as an adult means you are already as good as anyone in having a conversation. I don’t deny this democratic idea. But it raises a deep question of what philosophy looks like in a democracy. This is where thinking of academia as a model is misleading, because academia isn’t a democracy: teachers have power over students, and more established professors have institutional power over less established professors. Similarly, thinking of Socrates walking in the Agora is so far removed from what public spaces look like now that it can be little more than a fantasy.

      The point isn’t that the world needs academic philosophers to solve the public philosophy problem for us. It is that, given that they have to talk to each other in conferences and journal articles (that is how they get evaluated and paid), they might at least use some of that to think about this problem. That they are not even doing this is interesting and telling.


  2. Jessey Wright

    My concern is with identifying the role of the philosopher in public spaces. The blog post and your comment suggest that the role is to provide clarification and make concrete the concepts and ideas at play. That role seems obvious, after all it is to simply do in the public what we (or some of us) do in the academy. On the other hand, doing this may well (and in my limited experience does) come off as an academic descending from on high and dispatching knowledge to the public.

    So,I agree that a philosophy of public philosophy is valuable (after all, I’m engaging in it here!) but I also think doing such a thing well requires a more unusual methodology for the academic philosopher. One that involves trying, reflecting, learning and inquiring.


    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      Definitely, the methodology of philosophy needs to be much broader, and more diverse, than it is in academic philosophy. If one tries to just talk like an academic philosopher in public, it does come across as condescending (at least to part of the public). You are raising an issue which is essential: are the contemporary methods of academic philosophy sufficient to address the philosophical needs of the society? Perhaps like you, I think the answer is no.

      There are many ways to see the limits of the current methods. One way is if one tries to use it to address the philosophy of public philosophy. That is why academic philosophers are not talking about it, because it would unravel their core institutional assumption that what they are doing is neutral and that they are speaking for all people in society. This is one of the key situations we find ourselves in: no humanistic institution can any longer speak for, or to, all people. This creates the issue of what a viable public humanistic intellectual framework can be. I say “humanistic” to separate it from the shared intellectual framework of science. I don’t think the humanistic framework can just be read off the scientific framework. I completely agree that the way to address this issue will require different and unusual methodologies.



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