The State of Public Philosophy

04 August 2011

Philosophy Talk is devoted to public philosophy.  But we mean two different things by that.

Our first aim is to encourage the public - our listeners and participants in our blog - to do philosophy, to engage in the ongoing activity.  That’s because we think it's something a lot of people enjoy, and that it leads to better discussions and decisions.  

The second thing we try to do is to present what influential philosophers of the past and present, are thinking about.  

The latter aim is definitely secondary.  We're mostly interested in what philosophers think about, because we believe our audience may want to think about the same things.

So given that, what are we worrying about when we ask about the state of public philosophy?

People sometimes worry that modern-day philosophers don’t have the same impact on the public that philosophers have traditionally had, and continue to have in some other countries. 

That is what our experience suggests.  Lots of public radio stations and their program directors are startled to hear about a show on philosophy.  They're very skeptical that their listening public would be interested.  In fact, one of our motives in doing the program is to make philosophy more a part of public life.

But our experience also points the other way.  Many people are very interested in the topics and people we discuss.  And you know, just in my lifetime  I think I’ve seen an increase in the impact of those in our profession.  Think of philosophers like Daniel Dennett, Martha Nussbaum, or Anthony Appiah.  They're not only excellent philosophers, but also writers of widely-read books, who appear pretty frequently on radio and TV and in op-ed pages.

I want to make another distinction.  There's the wider public, and there's also the narrower public, I'm talking about researchers in other disciplines.  I’ve seen the influence of philosophy in this narrower public grow a lot of over the years I’ve been involved.  The ideas of thinkers like John Rawls and Michael Bratman are widely discussed and applied in laws schools, for example. 

 And philosophy has played a respectable part in the development of theoretical computer science, A.I., and cognitive science. 

But one place that we --- in the sense of American analytical philosophers like you and me --- don’t seem to have as much impact as one might expect, is with our fellow humanists.  

Philosophy of our sort hasn’t proven to be all that inspiring to our friends in literature, especially comparative literature, and cultural anthropology, and places like that. 

European thinkers like Derrida seem to have been of more interest.  And since, in a wider sense, all humanists are involved in the great philosophical enterprise, this seems surprising and rather sad.

Our guest today is someone who feels this lack of impact intensely.  He's Hans Gumbrecht, from the Comparative Literature Department at Stanford --- which was also the home of Richard Rorty in the latter part of his life.  

  Gumbrecht is a philosopher and a public intellectual who, like Rorty, is both influenced by and deeply skeptical about the prevailing approach to philosophy in America.  I’m really looking forward to thinking through these issues with Zepp, as everyone calls him.

Comments (6)

Guest's picture


Friday, August 5, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Well, if Daniel Dennett is a skeptic, that would p

Well, if Daniel Dennett is a skeptic, that would put him in good company I think. Some say Socrates was a doubter. In ordinary parlance, 'doubter' and 'skeptic' have similar connotations. I am not certain if there is anything in the way of a coherent public philosophy, or, if there is one, I fervently wish someone would tell me what it is. In 500 words or less. Convince me and I shall shut up about it. I really must find the time to pursue and read Hitchens. He sounds like the sort of maverick who would challenge my imagination.
I will say this about modern philosophers: they can tend to defeat their best notions and hypotheses by fiercely competing with one another. Anyone remotely interested in philosophy, yet uninitiated, may find the
frictiveness distracting and say: why bother? If learned men and women want their public to buy into philosophy, they need to find better ways to agree to disagree. Gould is dead; Dawkins is still with us and the loss of Gould was tragic.
Public philosophy? It is only as good as the participants. This is not warfare OR professional football---or, is it? I have spoken with one published philosopher/neuroscientist who believes it is. There are probably others.
Competition has always been with us. Today, and in recent experience, it becomes more frivolous. There are, it seems, too many people trying to do too few things---a function of over-population? Well, that is a different ocean of fish, isn't it? I am just a carpenter.

Guest's picture


Saturday, August 6, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

"I am not certain if there is anything in the way

"I am not certain if there is anything in the way of a coherent public philosophy, or, if there is one, I fervently wish someone would tell me what it is. In 500 words or less."

Guest's picture


Tuesday, August 9, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

This may be unassociated with the issue under disc

This may be unassociated with the issue under discussion. But, I would like it very much if someone would address the matter of "uptalk." Where did this social artifice come from, and why? When someone speaks in an interrogatory fashion, it means they are a) unsure of themselves and seeking affirmation, or b) they are trying to manipulate a response by appearing innocent. It is a lame expression of an intellectuality that the speaker lacks. I'd like to know what Pinker thinks about this. I expect he thinks something.
I went to Jamaica once and found the people annoying---my introduction to uptalk, I think. And my bad for being a tourist, I guess. Won't go back there.

Guest's picture


Saturday, August 20, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

I got to thinking about public philosophy. Since y

I got to thinking about public philosophy. Since your post has generated a less-than-enthusiastic set of comments, I decided to offer some OEOs*. It seems to me that public philosophy changes, in approximate alignment with popular culture. Examples are in order. For many years, people avoided getting involved in disputes and or incidents that did not affect them directly. They would not risk chasing down purse snatchers and muggers; did not intervene in public family quarrels, and never, ever, tried to interfere with armed robbery events. But, the scenarios are changing. We now even have a television show which asks the question: "What Would You Do?"
In the news just a day ago, an undocumented immigrant (SKA, illegal alien) saved a child from a kidnapping and probably worse. He knew he was taking a calculated risk. But he also knew that the word HERO confers certain rights and privileges. And so, was his action on behalf of the child, purely altruistic? Probably not. But a calculated risk is infinitely better than a poorly-thought-out act of self sacrifice.Popular culture affects (and effects) public policy in a myriad of ways---most of which few of us ever think about.I am not sure we know the whole story on this incident-but I'm hoping for the best outcome, circumstances permitting.
I could wax onward regarding these issues but there is no need. So you got my twenty-cents worth, instead of only two. Let's see if this ignites any further commentary, shall we?
(*OEOs---Observations, Experiences and Opinions---for the unitiated.)

Guest's picture


Sunday, August 28, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

I have gotten to Hitchens, specifically: god is no

I have gotten to Hitchens, specifically: god is not great-How Religion Poisons Everything, chapter one: Putting it Mildly. It is instructive to me that Hitchens is my age---minus one year or so. We all have our paths and those change with the contingencies of time and experiences. Moreover, some brains take more time to develop, for whatever the reasons, cultural, economic or what-have-you.
It appears to me that Hitchens is part of a greater scientific and philosophical whole-a league of (thus far) extraordinary gentlemen, including Gould; Dawkins; Dennett; Crick; Teilhard du Chardin; Wilson, et. al. Sure, there are many candidates for The League---I have only listed a few. The thing that impresses me most about Christopher Hitchens is that he has been a JOURNALIST and a PUNDIT. And has managed to parlay that career into a reputation as a philosophical thinker. Astounding, really. It could not have been luck, could it? No, probably an example of hard work and historionic effect(?) But, you did not hear that from me...
Hitchens' last comment in chapter one of his book says a lot: "Religion poisons everything." I'll be interested in comparing his book to Dawkins' "The God Delusion." Should be another paradigm---or some such.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, August 31, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

ADDENDUM: Had never heard of Sam Harris. Until I g

Had never heard of Sam Harris. Until I got to page 96 of Hitchens' book*. He may be (or may become) part of The League. In any case, League members seem to be saying much the same about God and religion. They just say what they think, in slightly different ways. Synchronicity or serendipity? Or just a bunch of academics who talk to each other? Or something else...
Good writers, though. All of them.
(*god is not GREAT...)