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« On Active Learning, Part II | Main | How to Write a Dissertation -- Part I: Finding a Topic »

07/01/2012

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Marcus Arvan

What about Michael Sandel? Although in my view he attained his status largely on a the basis of a profoundly mistaken objection to Rawls, I understand that his popular book on justice sold quite well, and that he's apparently a spectacular lecturer. Also, I suspect that it's far more difficult to raise the public consciousness with political philosophy than with science. Science, after all, consists mostly of facts, and ordinary people can soak up facts decently enough, provided the facts are appropriately simplified. What ordinary folk are *not* very good at is critical thinking, and indeed, philosophical argument. This is plain to anyone who has ever taught an intro to philosophy class. People just don't know what a good philosophical argument is. They tend to think it is all just a matter of opinion, so when they hear someone talking about justice they assume the person is just stating opinions. They then say, "I agree with that opinion", with respect to the political views they like and "I disagree" with the views they don't like. Which all makes it very hard to be a good spokesperson for the field. How *can* one be a good spokesperson for political philosophy when people lack the most basic abilities to think philosophically at all? It seems about as likely to succeed as teaching a wingless creature how to fly. Or am I being unfair?

Eric

Sandel is, apparently, hugely popular in China due to his lectures. He and Martha Nussbaum might be the only candidates for political philosopher 'celebrity' but, honestly, there are no notable candidates even if you remove the 'political' from the description.

The only philosopher, to my knowledge, who I've ever seen on Real Time With Bill Maher was Cornel West, and his contributions on the show always seem to me lacking in much philosophical depth, although he delivers them in a wonderfully lyrical way.

The only other philosopher I have seen in the recent past on shows of that ilk was Harry Frankfurt, who appeared on The Daily Show, but was only invited because he had a book out with a naughty word in the title ("On Bullshit").

Jason Chen

I think Sandel is the closest person we have to Neil deGrasse Tyson, but he's not nearly as good or famous. It may utlimately be that because they way philosophy is, it can never be as popular as science. Nevertheless, I still think more can be done.

A couple of my professors have told me that most political philosophers aren't really passionate about what they write. They'll fine a niche and get really good at writing about it, but they're not really passionate. I find that very disheartening. Perhaps the requirements to publish reliquishes the fire that once burned inside of them, or perhaps they never really cared that much about rectifying injustice to begin with. Either way, the more I learn about academia, the more I think the reason why we don't have a political philosopher celebrity is because the people in the field lack the will.

Moti Mizrahi

Jason,

I think you hit on an important point. You write: “[political philosophers] will find a niche and get really good at writing about it.” I think this point applies to philosophers quite generally. In order to publish (and not perish), we have to specialize in a very narrow area within a sub-field in philosophy. To be an influential public intellectual, however, it seems that one needs to be a broad-picture thinker, not a narrow-details thinker. Incidentally, narrow-details thinkers are not the ones who get to be invited to talk shows. Unfortunately, it seems that nobody wants to listen to them say how complicated everything is.

Kyle Whyte

Isn't it the case that in other countries there are philosophers with a much more obvious public status, especially political philosophers (like in some countries in Europe)?

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