Public Philosophy, on tap not on top

Over at Daily Nous a conversation is ongoing about public philosophy — who is doing it and what the public might want from it. This seems a good time to link to a document that Sharon Meagher wrote for the Kettering Foundation a few years ago, especially to make the point that the public-philosopher relationship should be something much better than a masses-expert relationship. Community organizers have a nice model, summed up in the slogan that experts should be on tap, not on top. So what drives the relationship would be whatever it is that is of concern to the public in its effort to ameliorate problems. (Okay, that’s my inner Dewey channelling.)

Here’s an excerpt from Meagher’s executive summary:

Philosophy has followed most other academic disciplines in seeking to make both its public voice and public value clearer and more explicit. Arguably philosophy has greater resources to draw on, given the deep civic roots of the discipline. In recent years, the American Philosophical Association formed a committee on public philosophy, following most other U.S. professional disciplinary associations in forming a committee intended to support and develop the public dimensions of the respective discipline. More recently, a group of philosophers founded the Public Philosophy Network (PPN), an association dedicated to the promotion of publicly engaged philosophical research, social action projects, and teaching….

As part of our role in fostering discussion and reflection on public philosophy, we focus on the following three questions:

  • How has the discipline of philosophy experienced a disconnection from public life and narrowing of its public role? How does public philosophy fit into the larger emergence of public forms of scholarship across disciplines?
  • What are the core characteristics of public philosophy? How does public philosophy differ from applied philosophy, scholar-activism, and other more familiar approaches?
  • What does publicly engaged philosophy have to contribute to addressing the public dimensions of complex public issues?

[Meagher proposes] five theses intended to provoke further reflection and discussion….

Thesis 1: Public philosophy should be transformative

Thesis 2: Public Philosophers should not be understood as “experts”

Thesis 3: Public Philosophy demands collaborative and interdisciplinary work

Thesis 4: Public Philosophers must be committed to assessing their work and being accountable to their public partners

Thesis 5: Public philosophy demands that we work to make philosophy more inclusive and representative of various publics

The full report is here.

I think the hardest part of this for many philosophers, along with other academics, to get are theses one and two, namely that engaging the public may call on us to change how we do our work and that the relationship should be mutual, not hierarchical.

However slowly, this is beginning to change, especially as more philosophers enter unfamiliar territory, from teaching in prisons to working with NGOs on issues of climate, poverty, race, and gender.

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 comment

  1. Dear Noelle – I would love to hear your opinion on this document: which I believe you might find interesting! Some excerpts:
    “What is minimally clear is that philosophy is an enterprise which
    pursues knowledge of reality. Such a pursuit involves at least three things:
    the pursuer (in this case human beings), the thing pursued, and the
    method of pursuit. The distinguishing feature of philosophical inquiry
    is its openness and universality: it has neither a privileged subject matter
    nor a privileged method. Philosophy is therefore different from
    religion, which does have a privileged subject matter, and from science,
    which has a distinctive method.
    ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says that “Philosophy consists in comprehending the
    reality of things as they exist, according to the capacity and the power of
    Here again, philosophy is different from science, which is quite
    happy to study things as they appear, and from religion, which invokes
    revelation and divine assistance, thereby going beyond the capacities
    and powers of natural man.”
    Philosophical knowledge is a kind of second-order knowledge born out
    of reflection (i.e., the capacity of the human mind to make its current
    activity into its future object of inquiry). Each time we execute such a
    reflexive act, we take one step upward in the infinite “ladder of abstraction.”
    This process has a beginning—in the form of our immediate
    consciousness (awareness) of spontaneous sensory impressions and the
    subjective inner states they provoke—but no end, since nothing can
    prevent the reflexive inner move to a higher level of abstraction.
    Of course, at any stage of this process,
    we are free to choose just what part of our experience we reflect
    upon and just how we go about reflecting upon it. Hence, philosophy
    has both content and method, just no privileged content or method.
    Thus conceived, philosophy is a bridge between the minimalism of science,
    which tends, whenever a choice appears necessary, to prefer local
    exactness over global adequacy, and the maximalism of religion, which,
    if necessary, may sacrifice a certain degree of local precision to obtain
    what it judges to be a more globally adequate view of reality. At its most
    general level, philosophy includes all of science but only part of religion,
    since the irreducibly mystical dimension of religion seeks experience of
    and communion with the Divine and not just human knowledge about
    the Divine. Thus, doing philosophy carefully and well is an effective
    means of understanding the relationship between and interpenetration
    of science and religion.
    Our analysis has shown that the pursuit of absolute certainty is an
    unrealistic philosophical ideal. However, the process of convergence
    means that the admitted relativity of our knowledge can imply relative
    certainty rather than relative ignorance. To say that our knowledge is
    relative means that there is always a logical possibility of error, but not
    always a reasonable plausibility of error. There is an immense difference
    between a simple possibility and a high degree of probability. This difference
    has often been ignored or discarded by subjectivist critics of science,
    and especially by those who are inclined to make the leap from any
    relativity to total relativity.
    Kind regards
    Lisa New

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: