Last night in Melbourne, Susan Wolf presented the annual Alan Saunders Lecture as part of the Australasian Association of Philosophy’s annual conference. Part of the evening’s formalities also included announcing a range of annual prizes awarded by the AAP. I was fortunate enough to be awarded one of them – the AAP Media Prize, awarded for the best public philosophical work published in a calendar year.
I was unable to attend in person – I’ve placed a moratorium on interstate travel until after the birth of my son, who is due on Sunday. So I wanted to take the opportunity to offer my thanks to the AAP for having such a prize and to the many people who have supported and encouraged my work in public philosophy.
I also thought I’d offer a single, but important point here about public philosophy and my experiences ‘outside the ivory tower’.
It’s a pretty simple message to professional philosophers – but one that my experiences tell me bears repeating.
Public philosophy is not for you.
A large part of my current role with The Ethics Centre is focussed on inviting philosophers and other authors to write about ethics for our website and one of the most frequent stumbling points I find in pitching ideas to philosophers is that they ‘don’t have anything interesting to say’.
I understand what they mean – they mean that although they’d be able to provide a general discussion of the topic; making distinctions, identifying principles and avoiding reductive solutions, they would be drawing on the intellectual labour of others and not offering anything original to the field of thought (whatever that field may be).
That would be an excellent reason not to write an academic journal article; it’s not as strong a reason against writing an op-ed for the public.
The general public aren’t aware of the recent debates in the field of – say – Just War Theory. They don’t have a position on revisionism vs classical approaches or whether jus ad bellum and jus post bellum are intrinsically linked. But they are interested in the ethics of war. And they’re interesting in whether political leaders should think about the path to peace even before they’ve decided to go to war. You don’t have to have a new, ground-breaking position on this in order to explain some of the relevant concepts to an interested audience.
On the other side of the coin, professional philosophers shouldn’t be assessing public philosophy by the same standards as they would a conference paper or academic publication. For instance, if someone invokes Hume’s moral sense theory in an 800 word op-ed, they’re probably not going to be able to reference the most recent debates about whether he was a genuine intuitionist or not. That doesn’t mean they’re not making an important and useful philosophical point for the general public.
Of course we should still subject philosophy – or argument of any kind – to standards of logical consistency, an appropriate level of research and rigour and a level of intellectual seriousness. But remember, when you write a piece of public philosophy you’re not speaking to your peers; and when you’re reading public philosophy, you aren’t the target audience.
I think public philosophy is valuable. In fact, I think philosophy as a discipline has a moral obligation to include those outside the academy for the benefit of others. I’m really pleased to see (and have been involved with) increasing discussions within the discipline pushing this issue, and initiatives like Daily Nous, Cogito, ABC Religion and Ethics, New Philosopher, The Stone, The Minefield, Philosophy Bites, The School of Life, Short & Curly and the AAP Media Prize helping move this project along.
Exciting in a different way is the amount of mainstream news editors who are eager to have philosophers and ethicists help make sense of current affairs and everyday life. There’s a perception that the public can’t appreciate the role or value of philosophy, but I don’t think that reflects reality.
If you are a philosopher thinking about dabbling in some public writing, get in touch with someone who is already doing it – there are a stack of excellent philosophers in Australia who are willing to help, incredibly generous with their time and helped me make a start.
If none of them are available, you can settle for me.