Essays and Literature

The writing featured here is inspired by a particular conception of how public philosophy should be done, which was articulated and published on the blog of the American Philosophical Association, and republished here upon the opening of this site. Broadly, on this view, what makes a good essay in public philosophy is that it be inspiring, imaginative, challenging, creative, illuminating, or insightful. This doesn’t mean that it need be a lengthy and searching work, but it certainly can be.

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 grasp what she meant when she discussed, “the banality of evil.” In doing so, these philosophers and many like them — from all different backgrounds — resonated with 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 deliberate 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 appreciated them for doing so. Philosophers haven’t always been needed, but the best of times were probably when they were wanted.

Public philosophers, on this view, should be encouraged to 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 Bullshit could work too. What is important is that these tickle the creative side of the audience, drawing out their imaginations. For this reason, this view also holds that all manner of illustrations should be promoted in public philosophy — iconography, photography, literature, cartoons, music videos, etc. — and that we worry a little less about whether these justify True Belief and little more about whether they evoke our imaginations, as readers. At times, public philosophers 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 evidence to show us something.

While all of the essays here are likely to have a philosophical bent, they need not be about philosophy. They can touch on literature, history, the social and natural sciences, and perhaps even mathematics. Part of the idea behind giving public philosophers latitude to think creatively is to ignore restrictions on what the philosopher can write about. Aristotle, after all, was influential on everything from physics to aesthetics, or biology to ethics. This part of the magazine features diverse writing which, while certainly falling short of Aristotelian caliber, strives in his direction.