Sunday, July 09, 2006

Public Philosophy

Three of the AAP talks I went to were about taking philosophy beyond the ivory tower.

Edward Spence described his project to engage the public in philosophy through theatre. His central theme was that to impact on the broader culture, philosophy must "engage the sentiments". There are many ways one might go about this, but his own approach is to incorporate philosophical elements into a wider cultural-entertainment experience, philosophy as a "night out", a performance in a restaurant while the audience wines and dines. This might be followed by a brief lecture from a philosopher who draws out the themes of the performance, and then invites public discussion. Apparently the project has proved reasonably popular, though one might entertain doubts about the depth of the philosophizing therein. Still, a worthwhile first step, perhaps, and it would be good to see more efforts to broaden public participation in philosophy. There are always worries about the tradeoffs and compromises inherent in popularization. I'm not sure what can be done about that.

Suzanne Uniacke tackled the question, 'What Can Philosophy Say About Public Policy?', suggesting that there were tensions between the two projects. In particular, public policy is constrained by such contingencies as popular beliefs (no matter how misguided), and is directed towards a specific audience. These features may clash with the impartiality and intellectual independence characteristic of philosophy. Philosophers might need to hide their true reasons for backing a policy if those would not be considered "socially acceptable". To some extent this is the old problem of pragmatic compromise that any radical faces: to make piecemeal progress they must endorse rather less than they would ideally prefer. But Uniacke seemed to think there was something especially problematic about this in relation to one's role as a philosopher.

Other interesting issues arose concerning just how philosophers should influence public policy. Theory may be indirectly influential through its effect on the public intellectual climate. (Cf. "think tanks".) But Uniacke focussed on the more direct policy input you might get, say, from a philosopher on a committee. Questions then arise about their competence and authority: should they restrict their input to the philosophical dimensions of policy? (Is there any clear-cut distinction here anyway? Just what sort of expertise does a philosopher bring to the policy-making table, if any?) Apparently Sydney Hook has proposed four facets to the philosopher's contribution:

1) A well-researched knowledge of facts
2) Methodological sophistication (disambiguate, clarify distinctions, etc.)
3) Philosophical sophistication (e.g. appropriate employment of the fact/value distinction.)
4) Critical distance or "disengagement" (to avoid bias).

This may lead to a picture of the "philosopher as technician", perhaps enabling a deliberative environment rather than offering substantive contributions themselves (as one might expect from the alternative picture of the "philosopher as expert"). Should there be a place for substantive philosophical advocacy of public policy positions?

Turning to the question of authority, Uniacke helpfully distinguished two forms of the distinction between "authoritative vs. advisory" contributions. In the first case, we might ask whether the philosopher's opinion should be treated as decisive on an issue (cf. a doctor's medical testimony). Presumably the answer to this is "no", since philosophers usually cannot even agree amongst themselves what the most reasonable position is. A second question is whether the philosopher's reasoning can be made transparent or accessible to the layperson, so that the latter may make their own reasonable assessment of the given advice, rather than taking the philosopher's verdicts as if from a "black box" which demands sheer faith (to whatever, perhaps limited, extent one is inclined to take its contributions into account at all).

Now, it seems that public policy must be grounded in publically accessible reasons, suggesting that the philosopher's role must also be advisory in this second sense. Again we face the difficult compromise between depth of rigour and broad accessibility. Given the complexity of the literature about killing and letting die, for instance, is there any hope for an informed public policy on end-of-life issues? Can philosophers always (or even often) make contributions to public debate that are both worthwhile and comprehensible? (Though as one person responded, it would be still worse to abandon this role to non-philosophers!)

There are also worries about courts (etc.) misapplying philosophical arguments. Apparently such distortion regularly arises through over-simplification, over-generalization, selective use, conflation or confusion, etc. Is this inevitable? (Is expert reasoning just too complex?) Or can something be done about it?

Many of these issues also arose in Steve Curry's talk on 'Philosophy as Research Methodology', which touched on interdisciplinary social-scientific work that he has contributed to as a philosopher. Again, the general intellectual skills of methodological critique and disambiguation, etc., were part of his contribution. But he also suggested that the philosopher's familiarity with the practice of reason-giving or justification can give us distinctive insights.

Curry described his involvement in gathering qualitative data (e.g. about whether various artistic or cultural programs have been successful in creating valuable experiences for people), which is often dismissed as "mere anecdote". They typically utilized a "Most Significant Change" (MSC) methodology, which elicits people's stories, which the group then discuss and eventually pick one to get passed back as the data from their group. However, drawing on his experience with modern Socratic Dialogue methods used by some teaching philosophers, Curry proposed that group participants immediately choose their favourite story, prior to discussion, and then have participants discuss the reasons for their choice. These are often initially hidden, so the discussion brings out much "deeper" information than is otherwise available, including implicit assumptions about value, etc. The group's considered judgments then go beyond "mere anecdote", and contribute valuable information that was previously inaccessible. You don't just get the anecdote; it is accompanied by the reasons explaining exactly why participants considered it significant.

So that was interesting. (Though Curry noted that such data should be "triangulated" with other, more traditional, research methods, and may not be worth much by itself.)

In sum, these talks seemed to be suggesting a somewhat deflationary picture of the philosophical enterprise. Rather than seeing reason as a reliable route to truth, most expertly navigated by professional philosophers themselves, I got the impression that these speakers would see philosophy's public role as more humble in nature -- perhaps as providing a method for clarifying and bringing structure to people's own views about the world. I would hope for more than that, though, I think. Philosophy may subvert widespread prejudices, question otherwise unquestioned assumptions, and thereby lead to a more radical rethinking of our ideas. At least, that's the ideal. The challenge, as ever, is how to implement it?

[I suspect that introducing philosophy at school would be a crucial step. Any other ideas?]


  1. Apparently the project has proved reasonably popular, though one might entertain doubts about the depth of the philosophizing therein. Still, a worthwhile first step, perhaps, and it would be good to see more efforts to broaden public participation in philosophy. There are always worries about the tradeoffs and compromises inherent in popularization. I'm not sure what can be done about that.

    I think part of the remedy for this is to realize that there doesn't need to be much done about it, because popularization of philosophy isn't quite like popularization in other fields. As Aristotle noted long ago, people can't not philosophize -- it's the pre-eminent activity of the human person. The question is never, "How do we get people to philosophize?" but "How do we get people to philosophize better than they do in their current desultory, careless, sloppy philosophizing?" And to that extent anything that increases the reflectiveness, care, etc. with which people do it is an improvement.

    Looking at it this way also puts the emphasis in a place that makes it progressive rather than patronizing; a philosopher has to recognize that the problem is not that the masses are philosophically flawed. Instead, the problem is that everyone has some degree of philosopical flaw, and some people are not doing all they could to deal with those flaws. So we're all really in the same boat, and the only question is, how can those of us with some practice handling our own philosophical flaws help those who don't have any practice handling theirs. (In this sense philosophy is exactly what Socrates saw it was: it's not that we're the wise and the rest are the ignorant, like the sophists thought, even on purely philosophical matters; it's that we recognize our own ignorance and limits even in philosophical matters and so have thereby started doing something about it.)

  2. Solution : The removal of every hint of democracy, increase concentration of power and reduce public discussion of policy - so that governance can be more pure.

    The basic argument for democracy (for a governing power) is that you don’t trust yourself. That you have sufficiently reduced your power to be unable to cause large scale change is a predictable result of that strategy.

    Even introducing philosophy at school implies a certain level of political power for like minds for it to be set up.

  3. Brandon, that is a nice way to put it. Though certain branches of, say, analytic metaphysics may have little bearing on most people's concerns, I guess that isn't the sort of philosophy we'd be hoping to engage them in anyway. Rather it is, as you say, the sort of stuff they might already be doing without realising it (or without realising how they might do it better).

    Genius - I think your "solution" would likely do far more harm than good. (Politicians just ain't that trustworthy.) In any case, you can still achieve "large scale change" without dictatorial powers. It's just a bit more work, since you need to convince others to your point of view rather than merely imposing it on them. I think this safeguard is well worth it.

  4. I also think the safe guard is worth it because most politicians are not that trustworthy even as a whole. And since we are really talking about philosophers here we must also say most philosophers are not that trustworthy even as a whole. But we also must realize that any safeguard that is designed to reduce your power cripples your ability to exert power (depending on how strictly you adhere to it). And that system is a pretty blunt way to restrict your power restricting both good and bad action.

    The way around that is to build up your ability to convince people by co-opting the media and the talking points via think tanks and developing strategies like political parties would - selecting candidates and so forth. But the further you go along that track the more you undermine the protections against yourself you chose to set up in the first instance at the extreme they disappear entirely and so you have just found a hard way to do the same thing.

    The problem then becomes should we indeed consider their judgment better than that of the people or the people better than them. And as long as you give the people the last word you imply that their judgment is considered better (in as far as better also encompasses "safer"). The question then becomes why you would want your opinion as a philosopher to carry any more weight than 1 vote in 4 million and if it only carries that weight then you can almost certainly say you should not get your way…

    I know you can convince others but basically everyone tries to do that already so it should be already factored into the system.

  5. Heh, sounds like an amusing and age old debate: What is philosophy? I recall that one of the presocratics popularized philosophy by making a killing in some investment, and people assumed that it was his deep wisdom that must have helped.

    My personal opinion is that we philosophers flatter ourselves hugely about our rationality. The very question of 'what is the right way to think?' is constantly being solved by everyone all the time. In our areas of speciality most people acheive some level of proficiency. In areas that we have no interest we typically have a very poor ability.

    I have never really found philosophical thinking especially useful outside of philosophizing. It provides no mechanisms for some of the most crucial aspects - how to remember all the detail, and how to have the flashes of insight on what the most fruitful line of reasoning will be. And I suspect the reason no mechanisms are provided is because they are simply not available. Mastering an area of expertise involves learning all the strategies that work well in that domain, and may not translate at all into any other domains. If they do translate, then we will have few problems learning that new domain.

    That is why the best philosophers in any domain are not 'general philosophers' but the specialist practitioners. Anyone else is an ignorant amateur wasting time asking a lot of silly questions. So scientists are the best philosophers of science, and lawyers the best philosophers of law, and rugby coaches the best philosophers of rugby. Politicians are thus often the most profound actual political philosophers.

    General philosophers are not useless, though. Philosophy itself is naturally an area of speciality and they reign supreme there. There are tons of problems that are the traditional domain of philosophers.


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