On the value of philosophy in public discourse

Dr Tania Lombrozo, a philosophically-minded professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, writes in a NPR commentary that some recent major news stories reveal how public discourse would benefit from input from academic philosophers. She cites the complex moral, social, metaphysical, and epistemological issues arising in the resignation of a NAACP official who was “outed” as white; in the white supremacist murder of nine black church-goers in Charleston; and in the stance taken on climate change by Pope Francis.

Two thoughts – neither of them particularly original – meant to complement Lombrozo’s insights: First, while stories of this magnitude serve as good examples of the need for philosophical contributions to public discourse, it is probably not an effective strategy to wait for stories of this magnitude before getting involved in public philosophy. Not only is there a good chance of the more subtle voices being lost in the commentary noise anyhow, but without a consistent public presence in the first place, philosophers will not be sought out for commentary either by readers and viewers or by venues and hosts. Only by contributing habitually on the small things, I think, are philosophers likely to find an audience for the big things.

Second, it is worth considering whether the strong disposition to do philosophy, and especially analytic philosophy, in terms of hyper-idealized fabricated examples might comprise a sort of anti-training for public philosophy. The message that real philosophy requires that issues first be framed in terms of the simplest (often bizarrely simple) toy scenarios plausibly socializes philosophers to feel uneasy about commenting in a professional capacity on complex cases – at least, without their commentary comprising a blizzard of caveats. If we want a more influential, vibrant public philosophy in the longer run, it is worth training philosophy students to be comfortable philosophizing about actual cases. Perhaps the most important step in that training will be to model the approach.

5 thoughts on “On the value of philosophy in public discourse

  1. Honestly, as an outsider who likes to follow the philosophy blogs, it seems that many philosophers actually aren’t any better at critically and rationally discussing complex issues than any other brand of pundit. I have been continuously surprised at how often open debate itself is attacked because the issue under debate has an “obvious” answer, or some positions are just so morally indefensible they have to be immediately shut down or punished, or that certain topics cannot be discussed because of the psychological damage they will cause to members of some groups. If philosophers want their contributions to be valuable, a lot of them are going to have to be a lot more open to honestly engaging with ideas they don’t like.

  2. “Only by contributing habitually on the small things, I think, are philosophers likely to find an audience for the big things” – completely agree! Wrt models for this approach, I think following the work done by those trying what Robert Frodeman has called ‘Field Philosophy’ would be a good place to start (as well the philosophy of science in practice movement).

  3. tbb: I agree that “many philosophers actually aren’t any better at critically and rationally discussing complex issues than any other brand of pundit”. There are many, many philosophers, after all, so this should not be very surprising. On the other hand, my own experience does not match up with your claim that, often, “open debate itself is attacked” by philosophers engaging in public discourse.

    What I do see fairly commonly are complaints that open debate is being attacked, when all that’s actually happened is that reasoning has been rebutted, or the harmful effects of some position (or of the language or speech acts expressing it) have been pointed out. In my experience, there is typically a pretty remarkable mismatch between the characterizations of these events as “shut down or punished,” and the actual details of the cases.

    To give just one example, Judith Shulevitz recently wrote a New York Times opinion piece voicing substantially the same concerns about debate being shut down, “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas“, the primary example of which was a case in which a Brown University student encouraged the university to respond to a speaker presenting (what she saw as) false and harmful views by… allowing the speaker to present those views, while organizing an extra presentation to air an alternative perspective. That’s right: actually airing the controversial view plus another perspective as well was depicted constraining debate. To this cast of mind, breadth is evidence of narrowness, while responding to open speech with more open speech is depicted as censorship, and engaging trenchantly with an opposing position is understood as intellectual fear. Though surely not universal — there really do exist overreactions and intolerance; again, there are many, many people — the trope is really quite general, in my experience of concerns like the one you voice. That is, the evidence typically canvassed in support of the worry tends to show, at best, nothing, and more usually, the precise opposite of what is claimed. All of this in order to say: I disagree. The barriers philosophers have to overcome to participate effectively in public discourse are, I think, chiefly found in the professional values and practices that have come to characterize the Anglo-American discipline.

  4. I agree that it would be useful and productive for philosophers writing in the public sphere to be more willing to engage with complex cases, but I don’t think there’s any way around the blizzard of caveats — this is just the price you pay for absolutely refusing to make unhedged assertions of things you know to be literally false, even when the falsehoods in question are both (in some sense) adequate approximations of the truth and rhetorically more persuasive than the true stuff in the ballpark. And I think one of the very best things about philosophy is the intensity with which that norm is drilled into philosophers as part of their training — it’s one of the ways in which journalists and politicians could most profit from emulating our example.

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