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Fr. 574

October 16, 2014

Steve Neumann’s recent article at The Stone draws attention to another aspect of public philosophy, notably the lack of a public element in most strains of contemporary academic philosophy. If Neumann neither sets his sights on one specific strand of philosophy nor carries out a diagnosis like Leiter’s, his appraisal of the situation is no less on target. Indeed, his status as a philosopher from outside the academy’s walls in some way lends his testimony greater authority.

As a way of showing just how insular academic philosophy has become, Neumann structures his text on the parallel between the titular animal of a Rilke poem “The Panther” and contemporary philosophy. This structure bears a dual meaning insofar as, on one hand, the image underscores philosophy’s narrowed confines and, on the other, its increasing distance from other forms of discourse with wider reach, e.g. literature and poetry, left behind in favor of rigor.

In the way of examples of philosophy at the “fringes”, Neumann considers his own case, that of “philosophy journalist”, as well as that of the academic philosopher who has left the academy behind for more popular media. Of his own case, Neumann notes:

I spend much of my free time studying [philosophy], working out my own positions and trying to inject it into popular culture so that others can be touched by it the way I was. I’ve become not an academic philosopher, but a sort of hybrid — a philosophy journalist. Last year, for instance, I wrote an article for a popular nonacademic magazine that discussed the possibility of establishing a secular foundation for morality, using Bilbo Baggins’s riddle game with Gollum in “The Hobbit” as an example. The piece wasn’t worthy of a Kant or a Hume, but it wasn’t meant to be. I wrote it because I really do believe we need philosophy journalists in the same way and for the same reason we have science journalists — to prepare the arcana of academia into a dish digestible by the public.

In short, the philosophy journalist provides a more easily “digestible” philosophical point and thus bridges a gap between the public and philosophy. She does this both by making use of references current in popular (or more readily accessible) culture and by confronting issues, overt or latent, within public life and discourse. As another example of the sort, we might consider an article that interrogates the similarities between understanding problems and video games. Or, to change media entirely, we could gesture to the success which some popular films or series have had in making certain philosophical questions more palatable (e.g. the nature of reality, the political question of dirty hands, etc.). Even if these issues take on a different cast and are somewhat reduced in scope due to media constraints, the fact remains that they reach an audience otherwise unconcerned or untouched by such issues.

If philosophy journalists represent an important part of ongoing effort to reach a new audience, their efforts are not enough to realize a public(ly available) philosophy. In much the same way as certain professional scientists interact with the public independently of science journalists and academic scientists, philosophy needs a class of professional philosophers who advance the state of public(ly available) philosophy like their academic counterparts for academic philosophy. Neumann cites the cases of Nigel Warburton and Dan Fincke who make the most of their new media (podcast and blog, respectively) to show the public just how philosophical concepts intersect with the everyday. In their own way, philosophers like them advance the discipline without relying exclusively on the technical innovation of argumentation.

If “the strength of philosophy — the unflinching interrogation of existence, in accord with the highest standards of reasoned argument — is mostly being exercised between academics relegated to making incremental refinements to their areas of specialization”, then this class of professional philosophers represent a middle ground of sorts as regards philosophy’s strengths. They can still exert pressure upon the discipline and make it grow in new and unexpected directions, but this does not owe to the refinement of certain argumentative tools. Rather, it owes to the kinds of freedom for exploration that a non-academic discipline fosters.

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