Notes from Advancing Publicly Engaged Philosophy Conference

I am only now catching my breath — in between teaching and before I head off to my next conference — to stop and reflect on the Public Philosophy Network’s first conference.  Never mind the bias that I was a co-chair.  I just helped throw the party.  But the party glittered because of everyone who really helped create it.   It was fabulous, with participants ranging from graduate students doing amazing public philosophy work via youtube (e.g Cori Wong) and in poetry slams in NYC (Travis Holloway) to renowned philosophers working on climate change and poverty (Thomas Pogge and Henry Shue) as well as journalists E.J. Dionne and Hannah Rosen, political theorists Bill Galston and Mark Sagoff, Penn State’s Anita Allen, and more than a hundred other amazing people.

Here are some of my notes, which I also posted here.

We had roughly 150 people registered and, in the midst of the conference, reached a milestone of having 500 members in the network.

The most exciting thing about the conference was its participatory nature, with one full day of collaborative workshops followed by another day of interactive panel sessions.  On the workshop day, I attended Vance Rick’s and Mark Fisher’s workshop on social media and ethics.  It was lively, especially with lots of great provocations from participants about the need for both walls and bridges in cyberspace and how to maintain both at the same time.  In the afternoon I attended Chris Long and Cori Wong’s session on philosophy and the digital public.  This session was a little more formal, with both organizers giving short presentations.  Both were followed with great conversation.  And in the end we tried to create a social media product and learned a lot about the fruits of collaboration.

Altogether there were 15 workshops the first day, and I heard great reports all over.  The next morning I facilitated a plenary on the outcomes of that workshop and pushed my own pet concern to interrogate the meaning of “public philosophy.” We heard from people who took part in lots of workshops, including philosophy in the city; collaborative research; academics stand against poverty; and feminist bioethics.

The rest of that second full day was taken up with panels, which, at their best were highly participatory. I really enjoyed the session on “eating in public” put on by an interdisciplinary team at Michigan State University.  Actually, this was a presentation of a paper written by four authors.  Each took five minutes to explain his or her own aspect, then for the Q&A they turned the table and asked the audience questions.  At the end of the day I  attended a session organized by Elizabeth Minnich that asked wonderful big questions about what we have all learned from doing this kind of work.  The panelists started but then the question went all the way around the room.

In short, this conference modeled a new way of thinking about philosophy.  It was not at all an exercise in “applied philosophy.”  It was an exploration of engaged philosophy where we could all think about what is public in our work and what being public means for doing philosophy.

For others’ notes, go here here here and here

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. Sounds very impressive! Very much wish I could have made it. (From all the posted links I can tell I really missed out on something… argh.) Well there’s always next time, right? Right? Next year? Please tell me you all have plans in the works for another.

  2. Hello Noelle – I can’t find an email address for you. I’m wondering if you might be interested in a new book titled Shit that Pisses Me Off. I would definitely put it in the “publicly engaged philosophy” category. Here’s the blurb:

    Challenging thoughts about everyday things: casual day at the office, calling people Ms. and Mr., parenting without a license, flying a national flag, women’s fiction, drugs and sports, profit and loss, marriage, the weather report, hockey brawls, jury duty…

    For every belief, attitude, and behaviour Tittle investigates (in a way that only a trained philosopher can), she exposes the often unflattering implications of endorsing that belief, attitude, or behaviour (not the least of which is that there is no reasoned argument one can give in support of, no acceptable, sufficient, defensible rationale for, the belief, attitude, or behaviour in question) and, furthermore, presents a great many counterarguments to those who would nevertheless persist – leaving the reader with way more to think about than the word count would suggest.

    Philosophy with an attitude. Because the unexamined life is dangerous.

    Contact me if you’re interested in it at all.

    Peg Tittle

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