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"Philosophy in the Agora: Past, Present and Future": An Essay by Angie Hobbs

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 2 ("Where is Public Philosophy Going?").

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‘Although he did not get involved in politics, his writings show that he was a statesman (politikos).’ So writes Diogenes Laertius in his biography of Plato (III.23). Plato was always politikos, always actively concerned with the affairs of the polis (the city-state) in a way designed to shape them. The Academy he established just beyond the city walls of Athens was not simply a research institute; it also offered public lectures and was intended to train future statesmen and their advisers as well as philosophers. Works such as The Republic were not composed solely for reflection and discussion; Plato wanted them to change lives, both individually and communally.

In this mission, Plato was, of course, greatly influenced by his beloved mentor and friend, Socrates, who had tramped around the market-places and gymnasia of Athens engaging willing and unwilling individuals in debate about how to live a good life, along with the nature and role of the virtues.

Socrates himself had his forbears: the tradition of public philosophy in the West began on the coast of modern Turkey, when Heraclitus tried to persuade the citizens of Ephesus that everything flows and you cannot step into the same river twice.” Since its ancient Greek roots, the fortunes of public philosophy in the West have risen and fallen according to both political climate and public need (by ‘public philosophy’ I mean philosophy outside of academic journals, books, and university lecture rooms).

That need is now very great: the climate crisis and biodiversity; the invasion of Ukraine; Covid-19; austerity and spending cuts; Black Lives Matter; the rise of nationalism and autocracy and threats to representative democracy; attacks on the very concepts of truth and truthfulness. All these phenomena raise urgent issues of conceptual analysis and ethical and epistemological argument which philosophy is ideally suited to tackle. My aim here is to address two main sets of questions relating to public philosophy: the first set exploring the potential benefits (and some challenges) of engaging in it, and the second considering how to engage in it, in respect of both venues and forums, and also approach(es) and style(s). In both cases, I will examine not just the current state of affairs, but suggest possible directions of travel.

First, however, I want to make it clear that not all academic philosophers (or specialists more generally) need to engage in public work: not all want to engage; not all are suited to it. The value of pure research and enquiry should always be acknowledged and protected. Nevertheless, there is an ethical responsibility on those university philosophy departments which are in receipt of public funding (while of course not all philosophers work within public-funded universities, many do): a case needs to be made about why the academic expertise deserves taxpayers’ support. The teaching provided will naturally be part of this case, but it will be greatly strengthened if the academic expertise can be shown to be of additional public benefit.

And so, depending on size, each university philosophy department should have a few people engaged in public work at least some of the time (and indeed in the U.K. there is a formal requirement for departments in all subjects to provide Impact Case Studies for the Research Excellence Framework; the allocation of block-funding partly depends on how these Impact Case Studies are judged).


What Should Public Philosophy Discuss?

What sort of public work should be focused on? We should not underestimate the hunger for clear, concise and engaging exegeses and discussion of philosophical ideas and arguments, thinkers and works. There will always be a role for programmes such as In Our Time on BBC Radio 4, or podcasts such as Philosophy Bites or The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps.

Such exegeses and discussions open doors to intriguing worlds, inviting listeners in. Plato says that philosophy begins in the act of wondering (Theaetetus 155d), a sentiment echoed by Aristotle (Metaphysics 982b), and everyone should have the chance to explore these riches – both for the sheer intellectual challenge and pleasure, but also as an opportunity to identify the contemporary relevance and application of some of these ideas.

There is also a pressing need for other forums in which philosophers discuss these contemporary relevancies and applications explicitly. In the past few years in the U.K. and beyond so many terms have required philosophical analysis: freedom; nationhood; democracy; sovereignty; fairness; equality; culture; identity; gender; sex. What does the term under discussion really mean and is everyone using it in the same way? For example, many of the – often specious – freedom versus care debates during the pandemic could have been clarified and in some cases resolved through an understanding of the difference between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ liberty (as defined by Isaiah Berlin). Or: what does ‘democracy’, ‘rule by the people’, really involve? Does genuine ‘rule’ depend on access to full and accurate information and the opportunity to reflect on it? Who are the ‘people’? All the citizens? Those who are able to vote? Those who actually did vote? Those who voted on the winning side? What conditions need to be in place to prevent democracy being perverted by demagoguery, a leading of the people? There is excellent and important technical academic work being done on these issues, but, if demagoguery is to be avoided by the electorate, there is also a need for public philosophers to engage in public discussion of them (often, of course, informed by the academic research).

These terms, often left unclarified and misunderstood, feed into so many current, often heated, debates in the U.K. and elsewhere: industrial disputes and what constitutes a fair wage; AI and new technology; migration; healthy and unhealthy ways of caring about a nation; so-called ‘culture wars’ and ‘cancel culture’; freedom of speech and expression; transgender rights. Conceptual analysis cannot remove all the heat from these debates, but it can prevent some unnecessary fires.

Beyond conceptual clarification, these issues require philosophical analysis and construction of arguments. Take the climate crisis and the responses to it from organizations such as Just Stop Oil. Is obeying existing laws always good or does that depend on the particular law and how it is made? What are the dangers of undermining both the principle and the application of the rule of law? Conversely, how compelling are the arguments of activists who say that they are breaking national laws to uphold pre-existing commitments to international laws? And how do we deal with climate injustices and the fact that climate change is being substantially driven by actions and consumption in wealthier nations, but disproportionately affects the very poorest? Again, there is fine, technical research being published on these questions, but here, too, there is a need for philosophically informed public discussion.

In short, public philosophy can assist the conversation by clarifying what follows from believing in x and what follows from believing in y, or identifying which problems arise from fundamental conflicts between values – perhaps a clash between consequentialist and deontological ethical approaches – and which problems arise from contingencies, and could perhaps be resolved with more resources, money or time.

Analysis of concepts, the construction and analysis of deductive and inductive arguments, and the exposure of untruths are perhaps the things that philosophy does better than any other subject.

Analysis of concepts, the construction and analysis of deductive and inductive arguments, and the exposure of untruths are perhaps the things that philosophy does better than any other subject. However, I also want to emphasise the potential benefits of philosophy – including public philosophy – when considered as an overall package. Philosophy can involve dealing with counterfactuals and imaginative hypotheses, and in some cases requires close textual interpretation, and all of these activities help to foster the creative imagination and mental suppleness that can help us work out ways forward from current difficulties. Many disciplines can of course do this, but philosophy is definitely one of them, and its creative potential is often overlooked. An ethics of flourishing and virtue in particular encourages us to consider what the (or perhaps a) good life might look like, both for an individual and for a community. Philosophy can offer us different ways of thinking, being and living than might be immediately apparent in our own postcode; it can extend our sense of possible lives. Reason can help us understand that we are not entirely the products of our genes and environment, but only if reason is properly trained (there is, of course, a chicken and egg problem here, as that training may at least partly depend on our environment, but I still believe it is possible to make incremental progress). It is only if we have some sense of what a good life, or society, might look like, that we can properly consider questions concerning what we want (and do not want) from, for example, AI and other new technology, or what we think money and business are for, or what the nature and purpose of all stages of education should be.

Another very important part of the overall package is that philosophy, including and perhaps especially, public philosophy, is often best done in dialogue, as Socrates well knew. It can increase our understanding of different points of view and enable us to work together in looking for solutions. It is through this dialogic character, together with the analysis of concepts and arguments, that philosophy has the potential to help break down barriers between, for instance, those of different political persuasions or faiths. One of the many reasons I advocate learning something of the history of philosophy is that if you look at the history of philosophy in the West you swiftly learn how Islamic philosophers such as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd kept alive ancient Greek philosophy – particularly Aristotle and the Neoplatonists – through their translations and commentaries, and through adapting certain elements into their own original works.

Specious ‘conflicts’ between faith and philosophy, or faith and science, can also be exposed. Stephen Hawking claims in The Grand Design that modern science has made philosophy redundant as well as religion, but in fact the work only addresses two of Aristotle’s Four Causes, the material and the efficient. It does not address questions of essence or purpose, two questions with which some philosophers (and perhaps all theologians) may be particularly concerned. So-called ‘culture wars’ can also be exposed as the cynical fabrications of certain politicians and journalists for their own ends. This is not to claim ludicrous magical powers for public philosophy: after forensic philosophical scrutiny has stripped away these cynically fabricated conflicts, some real religious, political and cultural differences will remain. But I do believe that public philosophy not only takes place within communities, but can also help to unite and strengthen those communities (and on occasion even to create its own communities of interested students and practitioners).

What of the claim that the study of philosophy, and the practices of some philosophical traditions, can be therapeutic, and assist our well-being? Stoic philosophy in particular has been found helpful by many in the last few years: Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, for instance, was a global bestseller throughout the Covid-19 pandemic (perhaps not surprising, given that Stoicism originated in the Hellenistic period in the late 4th and 3rd centuries bce at a time of political turmoil. When it spread to Rome it was also found to be of especial benefit during periods of great difficulty: the Meditations were composed during the devastating Antonine Plague of 165-180 ce).

This interest has both fuelled and been fuelled by the Modern Stoicism movement, which started as Stoicism Today in 2012, an initiative in which academic philosophers and psychotherapists collaborated to explore whether Stoic principles can be fruitfully applied to modern life. Since 2012 they have run free online seminars, such as Stoic Week and, in pandemic-free times, the face-to-face Stoicon. These and other contemporary disseminators of Stoicism have also produced a considerable output of books, graphic novels, videos, podcasts, and blogs. More recently, the Aurelius Foundation has also been set up to promote awareness and apply the principles of Stoicism, with a particular (although not exclusive) focus on young business leaders.

Some academic philosophers, focused on the careful interpretation of classical Stoicism, have reservations about such contemporary revivals, and it is certainly true that there is a tendency to cherry-pick ancient Greek (and even Roman) Stoicism, and concentrate on the ethics, while largely ignoring the physics and logic that are foundational to the classical Stoic system. However, ancient Greek citizens also cherry-pickedthe Romans even more so. In my view that is a very good thing, as there are some serious problems with classical Greek Stoicism (which there is not the space to discuss here, but which I have written about in my blog). There is surely room for both academic scholarship on Greek and Roman Stoicism as complex, technical systems, and also for contemporary adaptations which some find genuinely helpful.

What I do know from messages I receive and individuals I meet is that there are many people around the world who find these selective contemporary versions of Stoicism very helpful and supportive in highly challenging times. Of especial recent value (to many) are the mental exercises Stoicism encourages of a) focusing on those things that you can control, such as your response to events and b) paying attention to the present and enjoying those things that you can enjoy, instead of wasting time and energy fearing the future or regretting the past.


Where Should Public Philosophy be Discussed?

The wide variety of means through which Modern Stoicism operates leads us to the next main question: what are the appropriate venues and forums for engaging in public philosophy? In-person events for the public take place in an ever-expanding number of venues: museums; theatres; art galleries; cathedrals (such as Sheffield University’s God and the Good series); festivals (e.g. HowTheLightGetsIn); pubs; markets; prisons; homeless shelters. For the UNESCO initiative World Philosophy Day (on the third Thursday of November each year), I have given talks to schoolchildren on a double-decker London bus and in Spitalfields Market. Traditional media outlets for public philosophy include television, radio, newspapers, magazines and even film (such as the powerful and moving Young Plato, in which an inspirational headmaster in an all-boys primary school in post-conflict Belfast employs ancient Greek philosophy to instil a habit of critical thinking to encourage the boys to see beyond sectarian boundaries).

There is also, of course, an ever-expanding list of online media: videos and video games, podcasts, webinars, streamed conferences, as well as online courses such as MOOCs. Social media such as Twitter, or rather ‘X’, Reddit, and Threads also offer opportunities to provide catalysts for further debate and discussion. Heraclitus, famed for his pithy paradoxes and aphorisms, would, I think, have embraced social media with relish.

As the above lists suggest, those engaged in public philosophy should consider how to employ visuals and music as well as wordsbeing imaginative about what could offer a suitable stimulus that could attract the public: a photograph, perhaps, or a song or a game. Humour can often be a good way of enticing new audiences and retaining existing ones. In the run-up to the 2010 U.K. election, with the help of the media and communications team at the University of Warwick where I then worked, I set up an online vote for an alternative Cabinet of Philosopher-Rulers (both past and present philosophers were eligible). Some of the results suggested thoughtful voting: Mill was elected Prime Minister; Aristotle was Chancellor of the Exchequer; Simone de Beauvoir was Foreign Secretary and Hypatia Minister for Science. Other results were engagingly mischievous: Wittgenstein was Chief Whip, possibly as a result of his alleged poker-wielding confrontation with Popper, and Zeno, who claims that we cannot move, was of course Minister for Transport. Also in 2010, when I was clearly in a merry mood, I took part in a joyous (very loose) recreation of the Monty Python Philosophers’ Football match organized by The Philosophy Shop (now the Philosophy Foundation). I played, running fast but entirely ineffectively, for Socrates Wanderers against Nietzsche Albion and you can still see clips on YouTube if you feel so inclined. The manager for Socrates Wanderers was the lovely and much-lamented former England manager Graham Taylor.

Those engaged in public philosophy should always remember that they, too, are part of the public trying to gain a richer philosophical understanding in order to navigate complex issues.

Public philosophy can also take the form of working with and advising specific sectors: NGOs; Government and international organisations; Parliamentary Select Committees. In recent years I have worked with the U.K. National Health Service, the World Economic Forum (including its 2018-19 Global Future Council for Values, Ethics and Innovation), Aspen U.K., Stifel Europe, the Church of England, the U.S. military, the U.K. civil service and the charity Refugee Tales. To take just two examples: for the National Health Service I wrote an ethical review of a report by their Strategy Unit on how to reduce inequalities in access to planned care and the prioritisation of waiting lists. For Refugee Tales, I have considered the ethics of indefinite detention and how it deprives those subjected to it of most of the opportunities required for ethical agency. Providing those engaged in public philosophy are respectful and listen and do not make unrealistic claims, they can be a lucid and constructive voice in a wide variety of sectors, helping organizations understand what the ethical and other choices are and where particular courses of action might lead.

Crucially, public philosophy can operate in schools, both primary and secondary. Organizations like the Philosophy Foundation and SAPERE have excellent track records in offering philosophy classes, or training existing teachers to incorporate P4C (Philosophy for Children) into their lessons. A number of studies have shown impressive improvements in affective skills, metacognition and critical thinking amongst pupils taking part (some of these are helpfully detailed on the SAPERE website). Philosophy in the City, run by the students themselves at the University of Sheffield, started working with local schools in 2006, and has since expanded to work also with Roundabout, a charity for homeless young people.

I would also argue that philosophy classes can provide pupils with the mental resources to understand and, indeed, resist a wide range of conspiracy theories, fantasies, half-truths and lies. Philosophy can also provide children and young people with the resources to help resist indoctrination (often connected to conspiracy theories, of course). They may help them to question authority figures (perhaps silently if open questioning is dangerous), or influencers such as Andrew Tate, and ask themselves whether there is good reason to believe what they are being told. My personal wish is that each child receive, for at least one year, a weekly hour of non-examined philosophy provision (in addition to the introduction of an optional Philosophy GCSE, and increased support for the existing School Certificate in Philosophy and Philosophy A-Level). Such a policy would have the advantage of being inclusive: all pupils would ideally receive this training. As such, it would contrast with and supplement the U.K. Government’s current Prevent strategy (revised in 2023), which requires teachers, doctors, social service workers, community leaders and others to refer to the local Prevent body those they believe to be at risk of joining extremist groups and carrying out terrorist activities. The Department for Education suggested in a 2011 research paper a link between P4C and protection against indoctrination (P4C is discussed throughout, and its potential in protecting against extremism specifically mentioned on p.80), and similar thinking informs a 2015 British Council working paper on education and extremism. The Prevent programme itself recommends critical thinking workshops.


How Should Public Philosophy be Discussed?

The forums in which public philosophy can operate, therefore, are ever-expanding. What’s left now is to ask how public philosophy should be done. Here, I think, time-tested guidelines still apply. I would suggest that the most important qualities to convey are your own deep interest and concern – if you do not appear to care about your subject, why should you expect anyone else to pay attention? – and a certain humility (which is nevertheless compatible with the authority that Aristotle emphasises below). Those engaged in public philosophy should always remember that they, too, are part of the public trying to gain a richer philosophical understanding in order to navigate complex issues. They should not position themselves as a latter-day Zarathustra on a mountaintop, dispensing wisdom to the lucky folk below. However, although no one engaging in public philosophy can wave a wand and fix the world’s problems, they can still be a valuable contributor to the conversation.

Public philosophy has a critical role to play in calling out the lies, deceptions, half-truths and fantasies which are so polluting social media, the media and politics all over the globe.

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle says that there are three elements to effective communication: logos (the argument; the content of the talk); pathos (understanding the psychology of the audience, their state of mind and how to speak to it); and ēthos (the character of the speaker; their credibility and authority). The content should of course be clear, concise, accessible and engaging, but although it will usually be philosophy-lite, this does not mean that it has to be dumbed down. Its aim should be to act as a catalyst for thinking, rather than a substitute for it. It is possible, and usually desirable, to leave a few nuances and qualifications; it is possible to take your audience through an argument. Nobody likes to feel patronized. Understanding your audience is crucial: it is vital to be sensitive in your choice of culturally relevant and tactful examples. As for ēthos, if you have shown your audience the respect of putting in careful and detailed preparation, that will go a long way to giving you credibility. One final point: you may well need to collect feedback and other evidence – if you are an academic philosopher working on an Impact Case Study you certainly will – so part of the preparation should be compiling suitable questionnaires and working out how to collect evidence of numbers attending or viewing.


To sum up: although arrogance and over-claiming should obviously be stringently avoided, neither should we undersell the potential of public philosophy. Philosophers do have substantive analyses, ideas, arguments, creative solutions and social benefits to offer, and never have they been more urgently needed than now. Perhaps most vital of all, public philosophy has a critical role to play in calling out the lies, deceptions, half-truths and fantasies which are so polluting social media, the media and politics all over the globe. Without this determined work, representative democracy, and indeed ultimately the human race, are unlikely to survive. Philosophy in the agora has a long and, mostly, distinguished history. Let us do all we can to ensure that it flourishes in the ever-diversifying agora of the future.

Angie Hobbs is the Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. Her latest book for the general public is Plato's Republic: a Ladybird Expert Book. Website: Twitter: @drangiehobbs


From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 2 ("Where is Public Philosophy Going?").

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