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Fr. 566

September 25, 2014

What does the philosopher have to say to the public at large? More importantly, what should the philosopher attempt to convey to that same public? Such a question has taken the fore in the academic arena today as philosophy attempts to reach a sphere with which it has lost touch to some extent throughout its increasing professionalization in the contemporary university system.

This question has pride of place in Brian Leiter’s recent publication “The Paradoxes of Public Philosophy”, first delivered as a conference presentation and later edited in draft form and made available via the internet. As the title suggests, Leiter concerns himself with the shortcomings of the most widespread view of public philosophy. Public philosophy as a whole has a number of recognizable traits for Leiter:

Rather the special purview of so-called “public philosophy” is to contribute philosophical insight or knowledge or skill to questions of moral and political urgency in the community in which it is located. So conceived, public philosophy is an artifact of what is usually called the “neoliberal” way of thinking that has dominated the capitalist world completely since the 1980’s, in which every human activity justifies itself by its contribution to something for which there is demand in the marketplace (p. 1).

Indeed, the problem is a widespread one and constitutes a problem or pathology to which our own study has fallen prey to some extent in its desire to restart political discussion between interlocutors and publics that has heretofore failed. In attempting to make our findings of immediate use in the political sphere, we have given into the neoliberal temptation so defined by Leiter.

Yet the question is perhaps older than Leiter here suggests, for the transmission of knowledge, substantive or otherwise, from philosopher to laymen is a longstanding one. Consider only the case of the Romantics, such as Novalis, for whom writing fragments (bite-sized inspiration, as it were) was truly conceived as a practice. This practice came bundled with the hope that seeds so sown would provoke the transformation of ordinary folk into the enlightened, imaginative poet-philosophers and symbol creators sought by the Romantic school.

Leaving this question aside for a time, we should come back to Leiter’s own diagnosis of the problem, which is twofold. The two constituent paradoxes of public philosophy’s troubles are as follows. On one hand, public philosophers have no hard and fast, substantive conclusions on the right or good to hand on to the public. At best, they could only agree on very modest claims. Yet consensus of this kind seems to be a prerequisite for a claim that demands public assent. On the other, we might be led to believe following this first conclusion that, if not a content-ful claim, philosophers might still be able to offer something in the way of a method or way of thinking about contested normative claims. Leiter terms this second view “discursive hygiene” and relates it to the vaguely Socratic tradition within Western philosophy.

More specifically, discursive hygiene is seen to consist in “parsing arguments, clarifying the concepts at play in a debate, teasing out the dialectical entailments of suppositions and claims” (p. 4). Yet this view of public philosophy swiftly runs into problems at an empirical level, particularly as concerns emotivist theories of normative discourse. Between the two, there is no fundamental contradiction, and the latter even serves to explain the shortcomings of the former. Recall that for the emotivist:

Ethical disagreements are at bottom a function of disagreement in attitudes, rather than disagreements about beliefs […] the connection between particular facts and our attitudes is just a contingent psychological/causal fact: it is just a psychological fact about many creatures like us that if our beliefs change, our attitudes often change too […] (p. 5)

This is a point on which Leiter insists. If we allow that our beliefs can influence our attitudes, nevertheless, we cannot extend ourselves much beyond this baseline sketch of the situation. For we simply lack the means to plot the mechanisms by which such changes are effect and to make of this a science. Leiter himself recalls such limitations when he remarks that:

[…] changes in belief do influence changes in attitude, but only as a contingent, psychological fact; this includes changes in belief about the logical or inferential relations between beliefs or between beliefs and attitudes […] (p. 6)

As Leiter attempts to make clear, there are no rules, inferential or otherwise, governing the transformation and causal interaction between beliefs and attitudes, all of which leads to the second paradox for public philosophy as laid out by Leiter: “discursive hygiene plays almost no role in public life, and an only erratic, and highly contingent, role in how people form beliefs about matters of moral and political urgency” (idem.).

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