The Incoherence of Public Philosophy, and What Can Be Done About It.

By Robert Hanna and Matthew Andersson

“Diogenes Sheltering in His Barrel,” by John William Waterhouse


Thinking For A Living: A Philosopher’s Notebook (Second Series, Installment 2)







#18: A new argument against capital punishment.

#17: Fear, denial, and loathing in the philosophy of mind.

#16: The political aesthetics of outer space.

#15: The paradox of distributive social justice, and what is to be done?

#14: How a priori knowledge is really possible.

#13: Is a priori knowledge really possible? Yes; here’s proof.

#12: Is human free agency really possible? Yes; here’s how.

#11: What is democracy?

#10: Fear, loathing, and Pascal in Las Vegas: radical agnosticism.

#9: The philosophy of policing, crime, and punishment.

#8: The philosophy of borders, immigration, and refugees.

#7: The philosophy of old age.

#6: Faces, masks, personal identity, and Teshigahara.

#5: Processualism, organicism, and the two waves of the organicist revolution.

#4: Realistic idealism: ten theses about mind-dependence.

#3: Kant, universities, The Deep(er) State, and philosophy.

#2: When Merleau-Ponty Met The Whiteheadian Kripke Monster.

#1: Introductory; The rise and fall of Analytic philosophy; Cosmopolitanism and the real philosophy of the future; How to socialize the philosophy of mind.



which started me thinking more about it.

Not too long ago, I argued in an essay called “How To Escape Irrelevance: Performance Philosophy, Public Philosophy, and Borderless Philosophy,” that the contemporary public philosophy movement, as epitomized by The Public Philosophy Network, aka The PPN, is a well-meaning but inherently confused attempt to do — even without its participants being self-consciously aware of it — a very good thing: namely, to criticize and radically reform professional academic philosophy, or even completely-dismantle-&-exit professional academic philosophy, for the sake of real philosophy.

Indeed, Agnes Callard’s interesting recent piece in The Point, “Is Public Philosophy Good?,” to which Matt had previously drawn my attention, almost perfectly exemplifies what I’ve called the incoherence problem about public philosophy.

10. The incoherence problem is that ever since the creation of The PPN in 2010, public philosophy has been pursued under at least two and as many as six different conceptions.

For example, the Wikipedia article on public philosophy identifies two different basic conceptions, and then two distinct sub-conceptions under the second basic conception:

Public philosophy is a label used for at least two separate philosophical projects. One project often called “public philosophy” is to address issues of public importance through philosophy, especially in the areas of public policy, morality and social issues. In this conception, public philosophy is a matter of content, not style. It must concern certain philosophical issues, but may be undertaken in any venue. The second project often called public philosophy is to engage in philosophy in public venues. This view is exemplified by the Essays in Philosophy special issue on public philosophy, which defined public philosophy as “doing philosophy with general audiences in a non-academic setting.”[i] Public philosophy, in this conception, is a matter of style not content. It must be undertaken in a public venue but might deal with any philosophical issue.

According to one of the founders of the Public Philosophy Network, Sharon Meagher,

“public philosophy” is not simply a matter of doing philosophy in public. A truly public philosophy is one that demands that the philosopher both become a student of community knowledge and reflect on his or her public engagement, recognizing that philosophy can benefit at as much from public contact as can the public benefit from contact with philosophy. The publicly engaged philosopher does not assume that he or she knows the questions in advance, but draws on his or her experiences in the community to develop and frame questions. Further, publicly engaged philosophy demands accountability on the part of the philosopher to his or her publics — understanding that philosophers are themselves members of those publics.[ii]

Philosophers who hold the alternative view, that public philosophy is simply philosophy undertaken in public venues, are engaged in two projects. One of these is to educate the public and the other to engage with the public collaboratively to identify and address public problems. The second approach is often inspired by John Dewey’s work on democracy and the need to reconstruct philosophy.[iii]

The two approaches are not exclusive. For instance … Michael J. Sandel describes public philosophy as having two aspects. The first is to “find in the political and legal controversies of our day an occasion for philosophy.” The second is “to bring moral and political philosophy to bear on contemporary public discourse.”[iv] James Tully says, “The role of a public philosophy is to address public affairs”, but this “can be done in many different ways.”[v] Tully’s approach emphasizes practice through the contestable concepts of citizenship, civic freedom, and nonviolence.[vi] Public philosophy, in some conceptions, is a matter of content rather than style. Public philosophy, in this sense, need not be undertaken in a public venue but must deal with a particular subset of philosophical problems.

In turn, the founding document of The PPN identifies three different conceptions:

Philosophical practice is a public good and should therefore be practiced in and with various publics.

Public philosophy is philosophy that has the explicit aim of benefiting public life.

Public philosophy should be liberatory, i.e., it should assist and empower those who are most vulnerable and suffer injustice, particularly through a critical analysis of power structures.[vii]

And even the American Philosophical Association got into the act by officially “valuing public philosophy,” although, characteristically, its description of the nature of public philosophy was so anodyne, vaguely defined, and politically correct, that it’s most accurately described as McPublic Philosophy.[viii]

11. All things considered, then, I think that there are at least six substantively different, competing, and even mutually incompatible conceptions of public philosophy.

First, there is public philosophy conceived as public outreach and public relations for professional academic philosophy in general, in order to justify its existence and its being generously funded (never forget that), exactly as it’s currently constituted.

Second, there is public philosophy conceived as a showcase for professional academic superstars like Anthony Appiah, Cornel West, Jürgen Habermas, Martha Nussbaum, Steven Pinker, Richard Rorty, and Michael Sandel, to “strut their stuff” as public intellectuals.

Third, there is public philosophy conceived as merely a better-publicized extension of certain all-too-familiar areas of specialization in professional academic philosophy such as applied ethics, experimental philosophy, or feminism.

Fourth, there is public philosophy conceived as popular philosophy, that is, a way of making difficult, esoteric, and profound ideas and classical texts generally accessible for non-philosophers and people outside the academy more generally.

For example, this is how public philosophy is done journalistically at Aeon, Philosophie Magazin, Philosophy Bites, The Point, and The Stone, and individually by Julian Baggini, Alain de Botton, and Nigel Warburton in the UK, and by Richard David Precht and Wolfram Eilenberger in Germany.

Fifth, there is public philosophy conceived as a way of turning irrelevant professional
academic philosophy into a real-world, hands-on, practical enterprise, along the lines of classical Deweyan pragmatism, e.g., the “field philosophy” propounded by Philosophy Impact.

Sixth, there is public philosophy conceived as a serious political project in the social-justice-communitarian-identitarian liberal and/or neoliberal Statist tradition.

12. One thing that’s shared by all the different conceptions — with the sole exceptions of Wolfram Eilenberger and some of the people at Philosophy Impact, and more specifically Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, in their book Socrates Tenured — is the belief that professional academic philosophy itself is not the the source of the problem or problems that public philosophy is explicitly or implicitly intended to address and solve.

But if I’m correct then, sharply on the contrary, professional academic philosophy itself is precisely the source of all the problems that public philosophy is explicitly or implicitly intended to address and solve.

This in turn means that the first, second, and third conceptions of public philosophy are little more than new CV-padding opportunities for ambitious, careerist, ideologically obedient professional academic philosophers.

13. This leaves the fourth, fifth, and sixth conceptions of public philosophy.

Each one of these is at least prima facie consistent with the idea that public philosophy is essentially an attempt to criticize and radically reform, or even completely-dismantle-&-exit, professional academic philosophy, for the sake of real philosophy.

But something that’s very striking about those three conceptions is their implicit or explicit political orientation, which is entirely within the intellectually normalized framework of democratic liberal or neoliberal Statism, as if anarchism, socialism, and cosmopolitan–or even worse, God forbid, cosmopolitan anarcho-socialism–simply did not exist, or couldn’t even possibly provide serious alternatives to democratic liberal and/or neoliberal Statist politics.

14. So my constructive proposal for what can be done about the incoherence of public philosophy is that those who are truly interested in public philosophy should

(i) jettison the first three conceptions as critically inadequate,

(ii) pursue one or another or all versions of the second three conceptions, but also be self-consciously explicit that public philosophy is essentially an attempt to criticize and radically reform professional academic philosophy, or even completely-dismantle-&-exit professional academic philosophy, for the sake of real philosophy, and

(iii) be fully politically open to anarchist, socialist, and cosmopolitan–or even better, may Kant be praised, cosmopolitan anarcho-socialist[ix]–alternatives to the all-too-familiar social-justice-communitarian-identitarian liberal and/or neoliberal Statist tradition.

In short, those who are truly interested in public philosophy, and therefore are not merely ambitious, careerist, ideologically obedient professional academics, should be doing borderless philosophy.


[ii] S. Meagher, “Public Philosophy: Revitalizing Philosophy as a Civic Discipline,” Report to the Kettering Foundation (2013), available online at URL = <*75Xw4bA4cU7vHOHS-zlLRmkdBskXa9IzuVBCJKtjhmSgMrQy8tWTu1s9vqumPuG2gyJfaPzwWJ1Tu4*NoJIUVYUXtPpC37/KetteringreportfinalcorrectedFeb2013.pdf>.

[iii] See, e.g., L.A. Hickman and T.M. Alexander (eds.), The Essential Dewey: Pragmatism, Education, Democracy (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1998), vol. 1, part 2.

[iv] M.J. Sandel, Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2005), p. 5.

[v] J. Tully, Public Philosophy in a New Key: Volume 1, Democracy and Civic Freedom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008), p. 3.

[vi] See J. Tully, Public Philosophy in a New Key, Volume 2: Imperialism and Civic Freedom. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008), esp. Ch. 9, pp. 243–309.

[vii] See S. Meagher and E. Feder, “Practicing Public Philosophy,” Public Philosophy Network (2010), available online at URL = <>.

[viii] See Z, “McPublic Philosophy,” Against Professional Philosophy (5 June 2017), available online at URL = <>.

[ix] See, e.g., R. Hanna, Kant, Agnosticism, and Anarchism: A Theological-Political Treatise (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 4) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), PREVIEW.



Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Sunday 24 February 2019

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Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.