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"Public": An Essay by Ian Olasov (Keywords: Humanities; Intellectuals; Education; History of Philosophy; Activism)

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("The New Basics: Philosophy").

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Perhaps even more than politics more generally, the politics of the humanities makes strange bedfellows. As fewer students choose humanities majors, fewer university administrators see the reason to keep the departments in existence. Many pure researchers bristle at an increasing turn towards what they consider scholarly activism, while their colleagues (with plenty of friends among the general public) feel the same about the academy’s conservatism and insularity. Some free speech proponents see the humanities as an overheated intellectual monoculture. Somewhere, a shivering reactionary lies awake at night while “critical race theory” peers out from under the bed. (“Cultural Marxism” and postmodernism are hiding in the closet.) The upshot is that everyone agrees that we’re in some sort of mess, but most people disagree with most other people both about the nature of the mess and the way out of it.

The tidiest solution to all of these problems (real or perceived) might just be to let the humanities die, at least in higher education. After all, even if students and professors aren’t doing history or classics or the arts or philosophy in universities, the work will find a way to carry on elsewhere, in some form or other.

Maybe. But I think that would be premature. There’s enough obviously valuable stuff going on in these departments, and there’s enough uncertainty that other institutions will pick up the slack if universities abandon it, that it’s not a risk presently worth taking.

So, what then? I don’t have all the answers, but I think I have a good one – namely, that we need to get out more. That is, we need to work with and for more people outside of our own disciplines. I’ll try to say what this means, why you should agree, and why it’s philosophically (and not just politically) significant. Since I’m a philosopher and this is a philosophy magazine, I’m going to talk about public philosophy, rather than public humanities more broadly. But I think just about everything I’ll say generalizes.


Our sense of what public outreach looks like in philosophy comes from its most famous exemplars. These tend to be what we might call “general purpose” public intellectuals – people like Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Peter Singer, Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, or Slavoj Žižek who are called on periodically by the popular press to comment smartly on the news of the day. (It’s likely not a coincidence that that’s an all-male line-up.) If this were the beginning and end of public philosophy, we’d be in trouble, since only a handful of philosophers can play this role at any time. But there’s more to public philosophy than that. It includes, at a minimum: philosophy education for non-traditional students (in prisons, K-12 schools, and elsewhere); philosophers working directly with governments, NGOs, and community groups; philosophers creating spaces for philosophical reflection and interaction (like the Museum of Philosophy or the Deliberative Democracy Institute); philosophical consultation for hospitals and businesses (like Virtue or the Philosophical Investigation Agency); philosophical practice (the sort of alternative to psychotherapy promoted by, among others, the American Philosophical Practitioners Association); and general audience multimedia philosophy outlets, like podcasts, movies, TV shows, YouTube channels, radio programs, games, and memes. We can say that someone is doing public philosophy, roughly, when they’re using or cultivating characteristically philosophical knowledge and skills (the sorts of things you learn when you study philosophy) outside of university philosophy departments.


It might be crass or mercenary to point out that public philosophy increases demand for philosophy education. It’s also true. There may be other, better reasons to do public philosophy – such as disseminating valuable philosophical ideas, making room for people to talk about what matters to them, or cultivating the cognitive and interpersonal skills that good philosophy requires – but this is a reason that should appeal to you even if you think that the only philosophy worth doing takes place in universities.

One of the reasons people don’t go into college wanting to study philosophy is that they don’t know what it is, or that it’s something living people do.

One of the reasons people don’t go into college wanting to study philosophy is that they don’t know what it is, or that it’s something living people do. Public philosophy – at least when people realize it’s philosophical – goes some way towards solving that problem. Furthermore, even people who are fully aware of what philosophy is might not care about it. The natural solution is to do things that are manifestly valuable and manifestly philosophical, which will, in general, be public philosophy. And insofar as public philosophy is paid work done by people with formal training, which increases the likelihood of other people doing similar paid work (witness the rise of in-house tech ethics jobs in the last decade, or the rise of healthcare ethics consultants before that), it should help put potential philosophy students worried about their future incomes at ease. And, of course, the more students philosophy departments recruit, the more professional philosophers there will be, the more scholarship they’ll do.

Still, people who are really committed to pure research might be alarmed. After all, if public philosophy increases demand for philosophical education and scholarship, it increases demand for a particular sort of education and scholarship – the stuff of broad public interest. But, they argue, it’s good for people to be able to work on technical, inaccessible problems without having to justify their interests to the wider world!

I don’t think we need to take this concern too seriously, for at least two reasons.

First, we sometimes think of the “public” appetite for philosophy as consisting entirely in practical ethics, matters of the heart, and whatever political problems are in the headlines right now. This is false. (A more paranoid writer might speculate about why we think ordinary people’s philosophical interests are so limited.) In my own work with the “Ask a Philosopher” booth, I’ve found that people come to the table with all sorts of questions – questions about moral and emotional challenges, naturally, but also questions about scientific realism, consciousness, the history of philosophy, the interpretation of probability, mathematical knowledge, what words mean, what numbers are, and any number of other arch-theoretical problems that philosophers hack away at in the professional journals. People come to philosophy when they feel like they can’t talk about some question they care about elsewhere; when they want to be transported – on the gossamer wings of theory, if you like – out of their immediate circumstances; because they’re curious, in an open-ended way. In any case, if you’re human, and you care about a philosophical problem, it’s a human problem.

Second, once you bring more students into professional philosophy, their interests will grow and change. Even if what hooks most students is philosophy devoted to matters of obvious popular interest, what keeps their attention will (like the interests of most long-time students of philosophy) deepen and spread in less obvious directions.

I won’t try to lay out all the other ways that public philosophy matters. Instead, I’ll say a bit about what makes public philosophy itself philosophically interesting.


It is weirdly ordinary for people to get very worked up about what we choose to mean by some word. But it is weirdly ordinary – it’s something that calls for an explanation. Usually, if people are exercised about some semantic choice, the explanation is that they take the application of the word in question to guide some practical or theoretical decision that really does matter.

“Philosopher” and “philosophical” are these sorts of words. Professional philosophers, as well as other people who care about who and what counts in philosophy, get visibly hung up on what we use them to mean. But what difference does it make? The answer, I think, is that philosophers are people that we correctly treat as philosophers, and philosophical things are things that we correctly treat as philosophical, and it matters who and what we treat that way.

This is where public philosophy comes in. What it is to treat some person as a philosopher or some object as philosophical varies from one situation to the next. Some of these situations are scholarly. You might be writing a history of philosophy or a literature review, and need to figure out whether to include some particular philosopher. You might be putting together an interdisciplinary research team and want to ensure that the various relevant research traditions are represented appropriately. But the growth of public philosophy has given rise to strange new situations, in which treating something as philosophical takes on strange new shapes. What is it to treat a child as a philosopher in a first-grade philosophy class? (If the idea of philosophy for children strikes you as implausible, it might help to reflect on this question.) What is it to treat a stranger in conversation at an “Ask a Philosopher” booth as a philosopher, rather than a student or a crank or something else? If you consider yourself a philosopher, but are not a card-carrying professional, how is it that you want to be treated as a consequence? What is it to treat a question or belief as philosophical? What is it to treat a church or a meeting room or a theatre as a philosophical space? These questions don’t arise until we get out there. But when they do arise, they change, in a literal but to my mind surprising sense, what philosophy is.

Whatever else the history of philosophy is, it is the history of the push and pull between philosophy’s public-facing and scholastic tendencies.

We could say something similar about the problem of philosophical progress. Philosophical progress for some person or group is progress towards their various philosophical aims – facilitated, like all meaningful progress, by deepening the coordination between people with overlapping concerns. Any little group can try to make progress on its own, relative to its own goals. But we can also achieve philosophical progress, and change what philosophical progress consists in, by incorporating new people with new philosophical goals. Public philosophy does exactly that. The philosophical goals of professional philosophers are familiar enough, but when you get out there, you find people want all sorts of things out of philosophy. I’ve found people looking for a way of articulating the nature and value of community that they can live with, or a clearer sense of what counts as a satisfying work-life balance, or even their own philosophical system. Each of these goals constitutes its own standard of philosophical progress that we can either work towards or not.

And, of course, public philosophy might also change our philosophical beliefs just by bringing us face-to-face with new people and new ideas, or rubbing our noses in new relevant experiences, such as when metaphysicians of gender need to catch up to what trans people have already figured out (as Veronica Ivy and B. R. George argue), or when theorists of democratic deliberation have to rethink what deliberation means after doing the work for themselves (as Noëlle McAfee argues).


Whatever else the history of philosophy is, it is the history of the push and pull between philosophy’s public-facing and scholastic tendencies. But a lot of this history remains to be written. We might ask, for example, why the general purpose public intellectual arose when it did, or how “organic” intellectuals that emerge from a group differ from intellectuals who serve the group (or fail to serve it) from the outside. We might ask what forms public philosophical exchange has taken in, say, early Christianity, the Cultural Revolution, or the modern Swahili Coast. What sorts of functions do these intellectual formations serve, and how do the functions themselves change over time? When does a form of public intellectual life succeed and when does it fail (by the actors’ standards or our own)? Everything is the way it is, as they say, because it got that way. If we want to understand the forces that are pushing philosophers out into the streets (and town halls, clinics, prisons, labs, board rooms, etc.) today, we need to look to the past.

We can also take the questions about activism, usually raised by critics of public philosophy, more seriously. To what extent do the demands of philosophy conflict with the demands of activism? Well, it probably depends on what we’re talking about. Are we talking about public support for a moral or political position? Trying to convince people to adopt the position? Coordinating with other people, or joining some group, with the aim of convincing people to adopt the position? Taking material political action on the basis of the position? Each of these things presents its own philosophical hazards – partisanship, groupthink, not wanting to admit you were wrong when confronted with disconfirming evidence, and so on. But these hazards are also more or less contingent and avoidable (and, it should be added, more or less present already in the thin air of the ivory tower). It is also worth asking what really is hazardous to, and what is a reasonable allocation of, our cognitive resources. After all, there is clearly value in trying to articulate and defend a view as well as possible. The view’s partisan activists might be especially well-positioned to do this, or at least no less well-positioned than what we sometimes take to be the ideal type of the philosopher – a sort of aloof, impartial observer.

If there is such a thing as philosophical expertise, it’s not quite the same as expertise in a science. Unlike scientific experts, philosophers can rarely claim to speak on behalf of an expert consensus.

Lastly, public philosophy presents a number of epistemological challenges related to the roles we take on when we get out in the world. If there is such a thing as philosophical expertise, it’s not quite the same as expertise in a science. Unlike scientific experts, philosophers can rarely claim to speak on behalf of an expert consensus. While it’s reasonable for people to give special credence (if not blind trust) to scientific expert testimony, the fact that a philosopher has made some philosophical claim is not a very compelling reason to believe it. At the same time, public philosophers often play the role of the expert when they go out in public – sporting credentials, using special channels of communication (op-ed pages, radio programs, lectures, and so on), holding the floor while other people patiently listen. In this way, philosophers take on the expert role occupied by scientists in popular media, while not having the same sort of expertise that those scientists have. But isn’t that, in so many words, lying!? And even if a philosopher is an expert on some narrow philosophical matter, public speaking and writing often require you to talk about things outside of the technical domains you’re most familiar with. How is that any different from, say, an atomic physicist going on TV to talk about the health risks of tobacco?

I don’t think these problems are insoluble – I have my own preferred answers. But I’d like nothing more than for readers to think them through for themselves.

Ian Olasov is a public philosopher based in Brooklyn. His research is on changing people's stereotypes, moral discourse, the philosophy of journalism, and the theory and practice of public philosophy. He is the founder of Brooklyn Public Philosophers and the president of the Public Philosophy Network. He currently teaches philosophy at NYU and holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the CUNY Graduate Center. Website: Twitter: 


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("The New Basics: Philosophy").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


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