Doing philosophy in public

What is it to do public philosophy? At Gone Public there is a post and this suggestion for the answer:

So what is public philosophy? I’d say it is philosophy that is in some way or another engaged with public concerns, and not necessarily political ones, and with the public itself. This blog of mine is a species of public philosophy.

Evelyn Brister at Knowledge and Experience raises the question in a way as well in conjunction with the implicit and explicit critique of the Philosophy of Science Association that appears in some of the candidates’ statements. The very existence of feminist philosophy directs us to the issue as well, and, of course, there are many other philosophical subdisciplines that have public aspect, such as bioethics, environmental ethics, philosophy of race, disability and so on.

I have sometimes done philosophy in public. Is that public philosophy? I think it can be and I will give some examples of what I mean in a moment, but in preparation let me take a stab at characterizing “public philosophy”: Public philosophy is the explicit use of philosophical reasoning, methods and ideas, in public places, particularly to address issues of public policy.

The word “public” appears twice in this characterization and in each case it is used to refer to a different aspect of being public. So in the first case, “the use of philosophical reasoning, methods, and ideas in public places”, the idea that philosophy is not always thought of as being done in public places is made explicit. This is a reference to the way in which so much of Western philosophical tradition treats philosophical thought as private, either because it is done by a solitary philosopher (think Descartes) or because it is done with others in a way that suggests a private club. That we even speak of “public philosophy” is partly a result of the tradition in philosophy that emphasizes those features. Contrast this with the following: public economics, public political science, or public anthropology. They sound strange, don’t they? I am not claiming that there aren’t some circumstances under which it might be possible that we would have a use for such phrases, but, at least to my ear, they sound redundant.

The second “public” comes in “public policy” and here there a specific goal that is mentioned for doing philosophy in public. It is in this sense that Dewey was a public philosopher. It is in this sense those who are critiquing the PSA are calling for public philosophy.

What I meant about doing philosophy in public can be illustrated with some examples of very small scale and local public philosophy. The city that our college is located in contracts with a unit of the college to arrange continuing education workshops for city employees. Among the workshops available for middle managers is a critical thinking workshop. It used to be taught by someone from the business department, but lately I’ve been doing it. Police officers, fire fighters, public works managers, and others were a bit skeptical of a philosopher running these workshops, as was the human resources manager who originally arranged them. I had to work to win her over to the idea that I would have something “practical” to offer. It has worked out though and participants seem to find them interesting and useful. My primary focus in these workshops has been problem solving, with an emphasis on techniques for thinking of problems in a new way. Much of what that takes is at the core of philosophy and so is something that philosophers are typically pretty good at. Finding chances to both show the value of these skills and help others learn how to use them is one way to do public philosophy.

Another way to take philosophy public is through the participation of philosophers in public life. For me, for reasons that have to do with a complex set of living arrangements that keep me outside of the communities that I live in, that primary means life at the college. And how can philosophy be useful there? The promotion of clear and careful thinking as a means to find solutions to problems, the willingness to listen to and understand opposing viewpoints, modeling the willingness to change positions when better arguments support the other side, and the examination of underlying presuppositions, both of fact and value, that drive policy are all characteristics of philosophical method that should play a role in the public sphere.

One more point about public philosophy. It encourages an integration of thought and action that has too often been missing from philosophy. I think that some of the objections to armchair philosophy and the emergence of experimental philosophy are driven by a desire to reintegrate and ground our thinking about the world.

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4 Responses to Doing philosophy in public

  1. My sense is that the “public” in public philosophy indicates the relevance of philosophy to non-academic contexts and to problems outside the university. That would explain why it sounds odd when coupled with “anthropology.” Social sciences (usually) take non-academic settings as their subjects. And the sciences and social sciences (usually) produce knowledge that can be used by people who are not professors.Philosophers, on the other hand, specialize in navel-gazing. Actually, I think that a lot of philosophers do valuable work that is of interest to people who are not professional philosophers. But that is not the work that always receives the most merit internal to the discipline.Your critical thinking project sounds excellent!

  2. This is, I think, what people usually do mean by public philosophy and I’m all for it, but I also like the idea of doing philosophy in public as public philosophy. What I mean by that is modeling a reflective and analytic approach to problems as a worthwhile activity. I agree with you about the tradition of “navel gazing” but sometimes I think we play down the cultivation of a self-conscious approach to living. So that’s what I mean by doing philosophy in public.

  3. I really like the sense of public philosophy that you’re emphasizing. It seems like that is precisely what you and I do when we blog.I’ve been thinking about “modeling self-reflection,” as you call it, in relation to my teaching, too. I struggle with the distance between the content of critical thinking texts and real, complicated problem-solving. One thing I do in that class is read and discuss a couple of contemporary reflective essays, as a way of pointing to some good writing that opens as many questions as it answers. But I still think I could do more in those classes in the way of modeling reflective reasoning. Could you say more about cultivating “a self-conscious approach to living”?

  4. I can say several things about self-consciousness, but I am self-conscious about appearing pompous. I’ll take the risk. First, I don’t mean self-conscious in the embarrassed sense, so I don’t mean it in the way that I just used it. I mean something more like self-aware or awake. Perhaps it is no more than the idea that it is better to live an examined life than an unexamined one, but that sounds almost too analytical to me. It is being awake, aware, or conscious of one’s choices and actions that I mean. Second, in relation to my students, I try to ask them to stop and look at the automatic responses that that they have to people, things said or read, and ideas. I am always telling them to slow down, that they are trying to answer too quickly, trying to think too fast. Third, I think that sometimes people, or at least my students, give up on examining their beliefs or ideas not only because they are afraid to, which is certainly one of the problems, but also because they believe that to do so means that they would be wasting their time. This belief has several different forms. It is sometimes that there are no right answers so what’s the point. Sometimes, it is manifested as the belief that to do this sort of examination is to think too much. I do believe that it is possible to think too much in a particular context, and that part of critical thinking is to be able to know when you should be thinking rather than acting. So part of being aware is to know when to think, analyze, examine, and question and when to act. No wonder critical thinking is so difficult to teach.

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