Sunday, March 04, 2007

Beyond the Ivory Tower

A reader wrote to ask what "efforts outside of academia" I'm interested in, and I realized I haven't really written explicitly about this before.

There are perhaps three ideals that especially appeal to me as an aspiring philosopher. One is the pursuit of knowledge, or advancing the frontier of human inquiry. Another is the dissemination of this knowledge to advance human understanding throughout society. And third is the development of a more rational society.

Only the first can be pursued within academia alone. (And perhaps not even that, if the public purse becomes closed to research that most people neither value nor understand. I really think we should be doing more to persuade people that philosophy matters!) And while I certainly place a lot of value on pure research and philosophical inquiry, in my more ambitious moments I also think that I'd like to contribute to the advancement of intellectual values more broadly.

So what does that involve, exactly? Possibilities might include:

1) Writing popular philosophy that's engaging and accessible to a general audience.

2) For ethicists: engaging in reasoned public debate -- through blogs, newspaper columns, etc.

3) Promote philosophy in schools. (Including, as Brandon put it, 'Teaching People to Reason Well'.)

I guess those are the three broad projects of public philosophy that capture my imagination at present. Any further suggestions?


  1. Well you could add various ways as an ethicist of influencing public and political opinion.

    For example, a hands on way of influencing things is to join an ethics committee or where you are heading an IRB...

    Another way to influence things is to comment in public engagement exercises, these are very popular in the UK at least and in NZ (The bioethics council runs them) and reasonably small numbers of people bother to respond, which can mean your voice is louder. I for example have commented on the recent changes to the NHS research ethics system, by submitting several papers, and at least some of the changes I suggested have been implemented.

    Finally there is the beast that is media engagement... Which can do some good, but is a risky endeavour.


  2. M&E are often regarded as irrelevant by the general public and the

    If we can get more philosophical work on computer science (like computer ontology), more philosophical engagement with theologically and politically "heated" philosophical problems problems ( like the issue of intelligent design and the existence of God) more forays into cultural and textual analysis analysis by analytic philosophers(1)analytic philosophy will become more broadly embedded in other disciplines. This may lead to greater public interest through a trickle down effect.

    (1) for example the recent explorations of the possibility of an analytic film studies.

  3. I thoroughly agree that it would be good to introduce philosophy at an early age, i.e. primary school. The advance of philosophical thought, where it does promote clarity, and not obscure it :-), is of far more value disseminated broadly than as a preserve of a privileged elite who not only have to actively seek out philosophical thinking, but in doing so have to make a frankly ruinous economic decision.

  4. An interesting link: interview with Martha Nussbaum on philosophy and public life.


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