Philosophy’s PR Problem: The Devil is The Details

By Daniel Tippens

In May, I attended a public philosophy workshop at UNC Chapel Hill, and one of the aims for the weekend was to help early-career scholars refine and develop an essay in public philosophy. But a more implicit aim — which came out clearly during the talks — was to discuss our institutional reputation with the public, and why that reputation is so poor. One comment repeatedly echoed throughout the room: “Philosophy has a PR problem.”

A public relations problem is a mismatch between one’s desired image and the image one’s audience de facto holds toward you. An oil company wants to be viewed as eco-friendly and safe. If they are placed in the public spotlight due to a large oil spill, then public will see them as dangerous and careless. The oil spill is a PR problem.

But a mere mismatch between de facto and desired image implies nothing about which is accurate. It could be that the oil company, for instance, desires to be seen as eco-friendly, but they are in fact destructive. After the oil spill their de facto image — that the company is dangerous and careless — would be accurate. In such a case, our gut reaction is to say that it would be wrong of the company to try to bring public opinion to align with their desired image instead of fixing their dangerous and careless facets.

Philosophy certainly does have a PR problem. Many of us have a desired image, I think, of value, intellectual respectability, and moral and political drive. Our de facto image, on the other hand, is that of high-mindedness, preoccupation with minutiae, elitism, and perhaps some science-envy. Indeed, prominent physicists who have dismissed philosophy have appealed to all of these sentiments in the court of public opinion. Even if I don’t have all of details right, I hope we can agree that our de facto and desired images are out of synch, and that we have a PR problem.

This was in the back of my mind as I read David Johnson’s recent piece on the APA blog, which outlined one of his desired images for the profession — its face is public philosophy — and a vision for how to get the public eyes to see it. David was one of the keynote speakers at the UNC workshop, which I was fortunate enough to attend, and his essay struck me as a very clear and compelling reflection of the talk that he gave, combined with audience feedback.

But as I read David’s essay and thought about it more, I realized that I share neither his desired image for the profession nor his vision for attracting the public’s attention. What I want to do here is not so much criticize David’s view as much as present an alternative to it, though certainly some of the former will be necessary to set apart the latter.

What I will say is intended in the spirit of David’s post, reflected in his recognition that there is no agreement on what public philosophy is, and that he can only outline his own vision:

…what counts as public philosophy is somewhat up in the air. This is healthy insofar as it encourages experimentation in different ways of doing public-facing philosophy, and seeing how they go without prejudging their value. However it may be counterproductive if the lack of prominent visions of public philosophy lead to confusion and reduced creativity, collaboration, and growth…I have no interest in the project of offering a definition of public philosophy that would determine what counts and what does not. Rather, I wish to offer my own vision of public philosophy in the hopes that others may become interested in pursuing it with me.

Public Interest Philosophy

David is approaching these issues as a professional philosopher-turned-journalist, and as such has a particular desired image for the profession: “Public philosophy,” he maintains, “should be philosophy in the public interest.” What it means for something to be in the “public interest” could mean something as weak as whatever the public wants — e.g this cat video — or it could be something as strong as investigative journalism — a product the public needs. David adopts the stronger interpretation, and believes philosophers should orient their attitudes and writing in that direction:

Public philosophy … uncovers or clarifies truths that are important to the public—that can inform civic debate—but which have been unknown or not properly appreciated. I am uncertain whether there are any issues that philosophers can address uniquely well, but I know from my own broad reading that there are many public issues that philosophers can add needed insight and perspective to (my emphasis added).

David’s desired image for the profession — the public relation that he imagines between the ivory tower and main street — is one of necessity. There is a plethora of pressing issues that we face, and the public philosopher, like the investigative journalist, is a cell in the organ of public communications systems, supporting the epistemic health of the citizenry. This picture of philosophy is that of a politically necessary institution which, while it may not address any issues uniquely well, adds much needed insight.

David goes on to make recommendations for public philosophers who might share this vision:

Philosophers interested in pursuing [public interest philosophy] must read the news. They need to be informed about what’s happening in society, so they are attuned to how their philosophy might fruitfully be applied to social problems.

A key question that editors at popular magazines and newspapers ask themselves when considering a pitch is: Why now? Why will our readers want to read this now? Or why should they take our word that they should read this now? Academic philosophers tend to care more about the eternal than the timely, but as far as I’m concerned, if a piece doesn’t address an issue of current potential civic concern, it’s  not worthwhile as public philosophy.

This is where I begin to squint my eyes harder, for whenever there is a PR problem in an institution, one should take pause to re-evaluate their situation. When David did this it seems he felt a certain civic call to arms, seeing public philosophy as a morally necessary practice borne out of contingently tough times. But when I did this after reading David’s piece, I was left asking: is our desired image one of an institution that the citizenry needs as opposed to something the public wants? Surely our only desired relation with the public is not that they support us because they depend on us in some way. Don’t we want their support because we produce a product that they enjoy and appreciate? There is no doubt room for doing work of civic importance and moral progress, but the idea that this should be our desired imageis one that I don’t resonate with.

What gives me strong resistance to David’s vision is this sense that necessity is at the heart of it, breathing meaning into the grave and stalwart tone of his last sentence: “Given the deep civic problems the United States continues to face, this leaves a vacuum in the US market that should be filled. I hope to lead such an effort.”

Visionary Philosophy

If we consider one of the most reputationally successful fields — physics — we can see that their longevity and resonation with the public wasn’t just because the people neededphysics, it was also because they were inspired by the creativity driving the field. Scientists, by envisioning the building blocks of our world at all of its levels, were able to capture the public’s imagination and sense of wonder through artistic representations of the underlying elements of the universe. People were shown depictions of the atomic nucleus with its orbitals symmetrically oriented around it, electrons buzzing about in their clouds. People could imagine what was meant by something like ‘energy transfer,’ when they brought to mind atoms approaching one another. Despite the fact that these depictions of the hidden wonders of the world were imperfect, scientific artistry had given the public imaginative access to aspects of their world that they could take home with them, and later superimpose onto their daily experience. Scientists thought big — theoretically expansively — and brought the products of their imagination to the public eye. The result is that the institution of physics was seen, de facto, as visionary.

If I had to choose between being an institution of visionaries that people want, or an institution of civil servants that people need, I would take the former. Visionaries are inspiring, imaginative, challenging, creative, illuminating, and insightful, and philosophers have historically been some of the most inspiring people of their times, for better or worse. John Locke’s boldly expansive political philosophy gripped the founding fathers, and Karl Marx elicited the passions of millions, ideologically powering revolutions around the world. Hannah Arendt gave us a picture of Adolf Eichmann, such that we could graspwhat she meant when she discussed, “the banality of evil,” and Iris Murdoch produced richly creative novels to capture the subtle sentiments in her philosophical views. In doing so, these philosophers and many like them — from all different backgrounds — resonatedwith the people in their historical contexts, and have followers to this day. They may be rare, and often products of their time, but philosophical visionaries like them will only have the chance of affecting us in our time if we agree to give public philosophers the latitude to think expansively and boldly, developing their own frameworks in an epistemically risky fashion, straining the limits of justification, and almost certainly going a bit beyond them.

When past visionaries from our discipline were writing, there was no “discipline” like what we have today. There was nobody demanding that each and every claim be empirically justified as scrupulously as possible. Nobody required them to cite the most recent 30 philosophers who have written on some related topic in philosophy, and certainly there was no incentive or pressure to use copious amounts of jargon or impenetrable science-speak. Thinkers weren’t institutionally pressured to think narrowly and with unbelievable specialization, unless they happened to go that way on their own. Many of the most publicly influential philosophers seemed to just pay attention to the world around them, and then convey those observations to us. Funnily enough, people appreciatedthem for doing so. Philosophers haven’t always been needed, but the best of times were probably when they were wanted.

This is one major way in which this vision differs from David’s. If public philosophy were modeled after investigative journalism, we would be constrained too tightly by the noose of truth. Journalism, being a necessary information outlet for the public, must check their facts twice and their evidence thrice, because the public depends upon it. Information is extracted from an important situation, and it is transmitted as objectively and fairly as possible to the public. Citizen X receives information Y, with as few subjective implicatures as possible.

But it is precisely the bold nature of visionaries that inspires us. It is their ability to go just enough beyond the evidence, to rely just enough on their gut and honed sensibilities, and perhaps to violate our epistemic norms just enoughto force us to make a choice between a new vision and an old one. Depending on what happens, we may later stand on their shoulders, and find inspiration from a new framework.

What I would suggest is not that we confine ourselves to short-burst, public-interest magazine articles in the media rat-race, competing for attention with pundits, bloggers, and celebrities on the social media scene, constantly facing imposter syndrome knowing that we are “uncertain whether there are any issues that philosophers can address uniquely well.” [1]

Rather, public philosophers should consider asking the public which sorts of visionaries resonate with them and what role philosophy could fill in their lives right now, both in style and content. Then we can try to develop broad, bold, and epistemically riskypictures of the manifest world that the public may resonate with. David is surely right to speak of a vacuum in the US market which is open to being filled, but we should figure out — with help from our audience — what that vacuum’s current contours are, before we try to fill it by fiat.

Public philosophers, on this view, should take their time, think big, spread their wings, and throw up their own visions of some aspects of the world they live in, despite being unsure of its airtight veracity or logical validity, and being artistically open with terminology and precision. This could be an extensive and searching work like Wealth of Nations, or it could be a short essay like Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness. The middle porridge suits some best, however, so a small booklet like Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshitcould work too.What is important is that these tickle the creative side of the audience, drawing out their imaginations. For this reason, I also believe that all manner of illustrations should be promoted in public philosophy — iconography, photography, literature, cartoons, music videos, history, etc. — and that we worry a little less about whether these justify True Beliefand little more about whether they evoke our imaginations, as readers. At times, we should have artistic liberty, like the directors of films that are based on a true story, to bend epistemic rules in order to evoke a reaction; the author may be trying to go beyond the evidenceto show us something.

Being epistemically bold and risky in this way is, I believe, a part of the responsibility of intellectuals. We receive all manner of support from the public, whether it be financial assistance or the next cohort of willing volunteers in our study. As members of the community that we expect unconditional support from, we bear the burden of being a legitimate target of blamefor taking epistemic risks; for producing visions that could do great harm even when intended for greater goods; for asserting something that could waste public funds when society takes it up; for inspiring those around us to act in wonder or indignation, laughter or sadness, slaughter or forgiveness. This sense of responsibility is something we have seen in prominent visionaries in history, like Oppenheimer, who famously uttered the words of the deity Vishnu after the Trinity Test was realized, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” No doubt Karl Marx might have had a similar thought, had he seen the rise and fall of Stalinist Russia.

Ask the public what kind of philosophy would resonate with them, both in style and content. This is what the public wants. Then, take our honed creative capacities and throw up visions for the public to engage with. This is what we produce. Gauge the strength of their reactions, and monitor their subsequent heartbeat. This is how the public feels. Repeat this process, and the institution of philosophy might reclaim and maintain a de facto image of visionary. Rather than being seen as a morally necessary product of contingently bad times, we could be seen as a timeless product withcontingent moral concerns. This desired image is one where the institution of philosophy has intrinsic value.

This is my alternative to David’s vision. But of course I can’t and do not speak for everyone in the profession, my generation, or even my circle of friends. Just myself and some people I know. A tiny grain of empirical support, yes, but reason enough for me, at least, to wonder what others might think.

[1] We should also ask ourselves whether we really want to be compared with investigative journalism, given the regard the public holds it in right now. Being a both a target and vessel of propaganda, with “alternative facts” and “fake news” accusations flying about, journalism’s public imageas a reliable institutionhas been fading fast. This is a fact, whether journalism is broken or not. So do we want to bet on that market, right now, when it has been sullied by both the current administration and a long history of public scandals? This point was raised by an old friend, Katerina Stamatiou, and I agree with her concerns.

(This article was originally published on the blog of The American Philosophical Association)

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