From the Archive: What Philosophers Do

Since I’m in the midst of mid-winter revels, of one kind and another, I’m still drawing from the archives of my other blog, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth.

Today’s revived is from October 9, 2011. It takes up a question that will continue to occupy my mind as I develop this new blog: What should a public philosopher actually do?

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What Philosophers Do

I write this as I travel home from Washington, D.C., where I participated in a conference titled Advancing Publicly Engaged Philosophy, organized by the Public Philosophy Network.

I have a number of posts in mind, drawing from sessions and conversations at the conference, but I’ll start with a few of my notes from the conference related to my last post, on the question of whether philosophers can be experts and, if so, in what our expertise consists.

Starting with the opening plenary session, hosted by the Center for AmericanProgress, I listed a variety of ways in which the role of a publicly engaged philosopher might be characterized:

expert . advocate . scold . facilitator . moderator . collaborator . educator . mover . adviser . inquirer . assumption-identifier . value-clarifier . elucidator . rhetorician . promoter . kibbitzer . instigator . provocateur . critic . analyst . synthesist . prophet in the wilderness . evaluator . token . convener . networker . disputant . research ethics enforcement officer . communicator . skeptic . translator (among disciplines and worldviews) . gadfly . ambassador . visionary

The list is in no particular order, and there are any number of points of tension and overlap among roles. Some of the characterizations were offered explicitly by others, some of them are my own distillation of possible roles that were implicit in what others were saying. I do not think all of them are appropriate roles for philosophers to take in public, about which more in a moment.

Along the way, I also formulated the following questions for philosophers who would engage more directly in the broader public sphere:

  • Shall we make ex cathedra pronouncements about the true and the good, or shall we ask questions to provoke broader public discussion that may lead to surprising conclusions?
  • Shall we elucidate the shared assumptions, understandings, and values of the public, or should we challenge and seek to change those assumptions, understandings, and values?
  • If we seek to change shared understandings and values, on what authority and to what end do we do so?
  • Shall we seek to change shared assumptions and values to an end we already assume to be true and good, or shall we seek instead to foster greater openness in public deliberation, more daring experimentation in ideas or in policies?
Finally, from a workshop session on philosophers in the city, I distilled the following three activities I consider legitimate and appropriate for publicly engaged philosophers:
  • Facilitation. Philosophical training leaves us uniquely qualified to identify assumptions, worldviews, and values held by participants in a discussion. From this, we can identify with precision points of convergence and divergence. We can elucidate assumptions, help to clarify values; we can aid translation across divergent worldviews; we can inform and enrich moral imagination.
  • Critique. Philosophical training also leaves us uniquely qualified to identify contradictions and tensions in prevailing views, ways in which current systems and institutions and ways of living rest on faulty assumptions and fall short of their own ideals. This critique can be subtle or radical but, in either case, it behooves philosophers to become skilled in communication, so even radical critique can go down more easily.
  • Vision. Philosophers are not uniquely qualified to contribute to creative problem solving, but we do have resources for synthesis, for putting together alternative possibilities for systems and institutions that are more coherent, that live up to their own ideals. In the pragmatic spirit of open deliberation, it seems to me especially important that such visions not be offered as take-it-or-leave-it dogma, but as hypotheses for consideration and experimentation.

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