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.