what is public philosophy?

Joshua Miller has an interesting blog post on the definition of “public philosophy.” Although I hold a philosophy PhD and spend all my time thinking about civic engagement, public scholarship, the engaged university, and related topics, I have never really addressed the overlapping part of the Venn diagram: philosophy that is public. That is an active intellectual community, but I am not yet sure what it means or whether I want to be part of it.

“Philosophy” can mean several different enterprises. In this context, we are talking predominantly about moral philosophy/ethics and political/social philosophy. Some think that is basically values-clarification. Anthony Laden calls it conceptual optometry, bringing ideas into sharper focus.* So then the philosopher’s job in relation to the public would be clarifying other people’s ideas. Jonathan Dancy has said that moral philosophy explains what we are doing when we think morally; it doesn’t change our thinking at all. So then a philosopher’s role [in] relation to the public would be something like explaining what people do when they talk about public issues. A third option is the development and defense of moral ideas. Karl Marx and Friedrich von Hayek didn’t just explain or sharpen distinctions; they wrote manifestos.

The word “public,” too, has many meanings. It often means those outside a given reference group. For the police, the public means everyone who isn’t a law enforcement official or a criminal suspect or defendant. For academics, the public means non-academics. For philosophers, it may include academics who don’t teach philosophy. Its referent shifts around in that way.

In some theories, the word “public” takes on specialized meanings. For Dewey, it means the people when they are conscious of their issues and powers. Thus it is desirable to turn a people into a public. Conceivably, a philosopher could help that transformation happen, which would be “public philosophy” in a Deweyan vein.

In general, the kind of public scholarship that interests me most is that which (a) involves research collaborations between academics and non-academics and (b) strengthens the capacity of non-academics. At its best, community-based participatory social science works that way: laypeople help define research problems and hypotheses, help collect and interpret data, and become more knowledgeable and effective as a result. This is different from “public scholarship” in the sense of scholarship that is well-known and accessible. It is also different from activist scholarship, because activism often implies an agenda, whereas public engagement implies a willingness to deliberate ends and means.

Exploring moral issues is often not seen as scholarship or research at all. Starting in grade school, we very widely teach students to be positivists: facts can be true or false, but values are subjective opinions. Although you can study the values that people hold, investigating their truth is not a job for scholarship or research (and involves no expertise). But I view moral philosophy as a professional investigation into the truth of moral propositions, and doing that with laypeople might be “public moral philosophy.”

*Anthony Simon Laden, “Learning to be Equal: Just Schools and Schools of Justice,” in Education, Justice and Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.