The movement to promote public philosophy in the United States has gained momentum recently, especially amongst academic philosophers responding to Trump’s election. Groups such as the New England Public Philosophers have formed. Awards recognizing excellence in public philosophy have attracted an increasing number of contributors (Marc Sanders Public Philosophy Award and Public Philosophy Op-Ed Contest). And the American Philosophical Association has expressed its commitment to public philosophy (APA Statement on Public Philosophy).
This movement, to me, marks a positive change. Public philosophy contributes to making philosophy relevant to present-day concerns and promises to reach larger audiences than academic circles and undergraduates enrolled in philosophy courses. Yet, I worry about a certain tendency to highlight and reward public philosophy that is done in writing more than other forms of public philosophizing. Who is the “public” that reads the pieces published in op-eds? I’d venture that the readers of The New York Times’s “Stone” column are already disposed to take the writings of academics seriously and to be open to learning from them. But what of a wider public?
This post contains my musings on the many ways in which academic philosophers are making philosophy public outside of written interventions.
In my eyes, one of the main ways for reaching a broader audience is through our undergraduate teaching. And by this, I mean not only attracting and teaching a diverse undergraduate student body in the philosophy classroom, but also encouraging students to practice philosophy outside of the classroom. I have been heartened to learn that some of my students have discussed class material with their parents and friends. This is one reason why it’s so important to teach topics in ways that are accessible and exciting to college students! I also know from having spoken with (other) formers members of The Harvard Review of Philosophy that undergraduate philosophy clubs promote lifelong learning in philosophy. So, for those of us teaching at colleges, I would encourage you to support your undergraduate philosophy clubs and to ensure that they are inclusive of a diverse range of students. On a similar, but perhaps more critical note, I would like to (personally) rethink the way in which I teach writing in philosophy, so that students learn to write essays whose style will fit in more naturally with non-academic writing than the traditional undergraduate philosophy paper does. (Stay tuned!) Last, but not least, I think that we should keep an open mind to teaching philosophy to online students, since we can reach a wider audience than we might in traditional face-to-face classrooms.
Related to undergraduate teaching are other venues for formal instruction in philosophy, such as teaching philosophy pre-college (here is a link to some APA resources on teaching philosophy pre-college) and teaching philosophy in prisons (here is a link to a piece on Daily Nous about teaching philosophy in prison). I have not had first-hand experience with these, but I have corresponded with a subscriber to The Harvard Review of Philosophy who was in prison and whose reading of the Review contributed a great deal to his self-education in philosophy. So, I hope that we will continue reaching students beyond the college classroom.
And beyond formal instruction in philosophy, here are four other ways of making philosophy public.
First, I believe that we can make a meaningful impact in our local communities by forming philosophy groups or connecting with existing ones. In Boston, I participated in and briefly led a meetup.com group devoted to Stoicism. We discussed some recent books that have popularized Stoicism, but more often we just bounced around Stoic ideas about how to live better lives. Because of my positive experience with the Stoic meetup, I have just founded a meetup.com group called “The Philosophy Collective” in State College, where I am based this year. With this group, I am not looking to lead a philosophical conversation as I would in a formal seminar, but to philosophize collectively. Meetup.com is a great place to create or connect with local philosophical groups. Other community-based ways of philosophizing include “Ask a Philosopher” stands, such as those held at farmer’s markets in NYC by the Brooklyn Public Philosophers, or conventions led by philosophers, such as Stoicon.
Second, those of us who are creative and philosophical in our art (whether in fiction, music, visual art, or other forms) should make their work known. Please send me links to the work of philosopher/artists to include here!
Third, let’s continue speaking on the radio and on TV, and let’s be sure to advertise our public interventions widely. Here is one of my favorite podcasts in philosophy: The Unmute Podcast with Myisha Cherry.
Fourth, if you are contributing to public philosophy online, make it known on social media—beyond your personal Facebook page. I’ll try to keep up with public philosophy on Twitter, so follow me!
In the United States, where there isn’t as robust a tradition of public philosophy as in other countries, making philosophy (more) public is an uphill battle. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be won!