Public philosophy

Public philosophy is a label used for at least two separate philosophical projects. One project often called “public philosophy” is to address issues of public importance through philosophy, especially in the areas of public policy, morality and social issues.[citation needed] In this conception, public philosophy is a matter of content, not style.[citation needed] It must concern certain philosophical issues, but may be undertaken in any venue.[citation needed] The second project often called public philosophy is to engage in philosophy in public venues. This view is exemplified by the Essays in Philosophy special issue on public philosophy (Volume 15, issue 1, 2014), which defined public philosophy as “doing philosophy with general audiences in a non-academic setting”.[1] Public philosophy, in this conception, is a matter of style not content. It must be undertaken in a public venue but might deal with any philosophical issue.

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Some public philosophers are academic professionals, but others may work outside of the usual academic contexts of teaching and writing for peer-reviewed journals.

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According to one of the founders of the Public Philosophy Network, Sharon Meagher, “’public philosophy’ is not simply a matter of doing philosophy in public. A truly public philosophy is one that demands that the philosopher both become a student of community knowledge and reflect on his or her public engagement, recognizing that philosophy can benefit at as much from public contact as can the public benefit from contact with philosophy. The publicly engaged philosopher does not assume that he or she knows the questions in advance, but draws on his or her experiences in the community to develop and frame questions. Further, publicly engaged philosophy demands accountability on the part of the philosopher to his or her publics—understanding that philosophers are themselves members of those publics.”[2]

Philosophers who hold the alternative view, that public philosophy is simply philosophy undertaken in public venues, are engaged in two projects. One of these is to educate the public and the other to engage with the public collaboratively to identify and address public problems. The second approach is often inspired by John Dewey‘s work on democracy and the need to reconstruct philosophy.[3] The two approaches are not exclusive. For instance, philosopher Michael J. Sandel describes public philosophy as having two aspects. The first is to “find in the political and legal controversies of our day an occasion for philosophy”. The second is “to bring moral and political philosophy to bear on contemporary public discourse.”[4]James Tully says, “The role of a public philosophy is to address public affairs”, but this “can be done in many different ways.”[5] Tully’s approach emphasizes practice through the contestable concepts of citizenship, civic freedom, and nonviolence.[6] Public philosophy, in some conceptions, is a matter of content rather than style. Public philosophy, in this sense, need not be undertaken in a public venue but must deal with a particular subset of philosophical problems.

It is commonplace to argue that public philosophy promotes democracy, but Jack Russell Weinstein, director of The Institute for Philosophy In Public Life argues that this argument assumes philosophers are better citizens than non-philosophers. It also assumes, he writes, “that rational argumentation plays an essential part in democratic participation,” but that “citizens consistently act on false information, skewed attitudes, gut reactions, prejudices, and malicious motives.”[7]

The American Philosophical Association created a Committee on Public Philosophy in 2007.[8] Also the Public Philosophy Network has been holding conferences once every two years on advancing public philosophy.[9] A variety of individuals have been identified, either by themselves or others, as public philosophers. These include academics such as Cornel West, Jürgen Habermas, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty,[10]James Tully, Jack Russell Weinstein and non-academics such as social activist Jane Addams[11] and novelist Ayn Rand.[12]

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