Why We Need Public Philosophy
Truman Chen

28 April 2017

The world feels as though it is ever edging toward its bleak end in thermonuclear war, climate catastrophe, acts of terrorism, or some unholy combination of the three. In the meantime, individual worlds are continually being snuffed out by gross wealth disparities, brutal applications of force against marginalized communities, or by being gassed and bombed by cruel regimes, to name a few.

The world is a remarkably cruel place that has no shortage of suffering. It is no wonder then that scholars of all stripes have been pulled by the gravity of the moment to redirect their intellectual talents and capacities for research toward more immediately pressing and urgent questions. It is in these trying times, if we are to ever escape the bleak end, that we might benefit from thinkers who can help us work through the immensely complex problems we face. It feels as though philosophy alone is not enough; we need public philosophy.

Such an appeal for public philosophy has come from Adam Hosein, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado. In a recent feature in Philosopher, Hosein reflects on the value of public-oriented philosophical writing, which is something he himself embodies in writing on topics ranging from "prosecution for torture committed as part of the 'War on Terror', how politicians in the U.S. and Europe should discuss Daesh and its relation to Islam, the morality of Hamas' activities in Gaza, and the (in)justice of Trump's revised travel ban." Hosein's work "has grown in part out of my own direct experiences of racial profiling, fears of surveillance, and so on in the post-9/11 world. And it also came about because I was following various political debates and wanted to involve myself more int them." For Hosein, making a serious and helpful philosophical contribution or intervention to an existing discourse is itself a difficult, philosophical task that ought to be more appreciated. 

Hosein's refreshingly original reflection on the state of public philosophy and its difficulties also signals at interesting questions regarding the entire discipline's relation to the demands of the world. Hosein is not alone in claiming that philosophy has something unique to contribute to our broader political thinking, and that "creating barriers to doing public philosophy can block a vital outlet for our philosophical and political energies." But if we press further, what precisely is that which philosophy uniquely contributes, and can we speak of philosophy in general?

Proponents for philosophy often tout the universal applicability or the sheer rigor of philosophical training, but, unless we overestimate how special philosophy really is and unfairly downplay the work in other fields, rigor is not something unique to philosophy. Though it might be true that philosophy, perhaps more than other disciplines, gets at the foundations of all kinds of study and forms of knowledge, having such a foundation would really only be fully useful if one were to indeed pursue those other fields as well. The contributions that a historian, a philosopher, an artist, a scientist, etc., are all different and important in their own ways—none of which can be entirely sufficient on their own.

But with the knowledge that philosophy is a sort of infinitely expansive field of study that can critically analyze anything from logic to power to responsibility, are there certain philosophical pursuits that are more urgent than others at a given moment? Is there any normative standard that we can apply to which questions take priority?

Knowing how intricately related seemingly "impractical" pursuits in logic or epistemology are to "practical" pursuits like political philosophy, it seems difficult to come up with a standard without unfairly shouldering important questions that might not immediately appeal to us. But it's hard to ignore the intuition that a standard must exist nonetheless, however difficult it might be to establish a totally fair one.

Facing our possible catastrophic end, should we be asking the questions that contribute the most—whether those questions are found in epistemology or political theory? Can it be wrong to spend time asking certain questions over others? Is there a right directionor righter directionsfor the field of philosophy to take?