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Hi Shane,
Thank you so much for this! Interesting stuff that I hadn't thought about, and as an untenured prof, probably should have.

One question though: Could you say more about your mostly passing remark about public philosophy's (in)effectiveness? Is there good reason to believe that its relatively ineffective, or is it just that there isn't good reason to think that it is effective? And if the former, what are the reasons?

Shane Ralston

Hi Preston,

Thanks for your comment and questions. My claim is that many proponents of public philosophy, wishing to perpetuate the romanticization narrative, tend to offer inflated estimates of public philosophy's worth (examples can be found in the 2010 APA Practicing Public Philosophy meeting report). Of course, whether its worth is truly inflated depends on what we want pubic philosophy to accomplish (and so have its worth measured relative to), for instance, (i) to clarify an issue or belief, (ii) to solve a problem, (iii) to expose the truth, (iv) to change the status quo, etc. In my paper "Living Dangerously by Doing Public Philosophy," I give the example of Walter Lippmann, who observed that the policy environment is so complex as to be inscrutable to all but the very few experts. The question is whether the public philosopher can serve as a kind of liaison officer, clarifying complex policy issues (e.g. global climate change or big data surveillance) so that they are understandable to non-experts. This demands some translation work, converting the language of the expert into the language of the layperson. Of course, we philosophers have our own expertise and a vocabulary that's not always accessible to non-philosophers. So the same goes for inserting philosophical concepts into public discourse. Sometimes the public philosopher has to simplify things. Still, it's debatable whether philosophers are the best positioned to assume this liaison officer role. Journalists might be better at it. As far as solving problems, except for very small and manageable ones, this is probably too much to ask of the public philosopher. In his recent book on Jean-Paul Sartre's public intellectualism (The Existentialist Moment), Patrick Baert argues that Sartre's popular existentialist writings (e.g. Existentialism is a Humanism) offered the French people a way of making sense of the trauma of German occupation in the years after WWII. So perhaps public philosophy can solve some problems, but it's in all likelihood a rare phenomenon. A lot of my recent work has resembled whistleblowing, exposing the truth about the agendas of certain organizations and the individuals who seek to promote them. This is probably the most dangerous kind of public philosophy, since it opens up the public philosopher to retaliation. To be effective, it requires a lot of research and patience (note: I spent about a month straight filing Freedom of Information requests for one article). As to whether public philosophy is effective at changing the status quo, I'm not exactly sure. So far, I'm skeptical. I've seen little evidence to support claims of public philosophy's effectiveness as tool of reform. Thanks again for your comment and questions.


Thanks again, Shane.

One more question, if you don't mind (but if you do, that's ok too): Given your skepticism--and I have no reason to question that, since you're very experienced in the area of public philosophy--why go on? As you said, its a lot of work and opens you up to retaliation in various forms.
I'm not naive enough to think that I could go into public philosophy and single-handedly effect policy, but on the other hand, if I didn't think I could make anyone more informed or better at thinking critically, I think I'd feel far too deflated to want to make any effort, and I'd just retreat to my abstract philosophical problems. That's not to say that its philosophical activism or nothing. There are a lot of other ways of taking political action. I guess I'm just wondering: If I'm interested in effectiveness alone, is there anything qua philosopher as opposed to qua warm body that I can contribute to public change?

Shane Ralston


Petitions are one tool for philosophers and other groups of intellectuals to effect social change. Start one, sign one, spread the word about one, etc. I have two projects, one that involves combating public corruption in higher ed and another about protecting child welfare through better state regulation of daycare businesses, both of which I would like to continue pursuing. The difficulty is that they require lawyers and resources beyond my limited means. So I am currently trying to partner with organizations that can help me with these projects. But it's slow going. I think the examples of Jean-Paul Sartre and John Dewey, both of whom were very effective public philosophers/intellectuals, give me (and perhaps others as well) hope that doing public philosophy can effect policy change or contribute, even in small ways, to improving the status quo. I'm skeptical, but I haven't entirely given up hope. Still, I see your point: If public philosophy is hopelessly ineffective, then the question remains, why would anyone be motivated to do it in the first place? Personally, I've grown tired of abstruse philosophical inquiries and publishing in journals few people read. So I'd prefer to write about more relevant issues and have my writings appear in places where more people will read and criticize them. And I fully accept the risks. But I realize that not everyone shares my preference.

Shane Ralston

I'd also like to call attention to Eric T. Weber's recent blog post on this same topic (and I believe there will be a follow-up post, so check back for part 2):

Eric served as the chair of the APA Committee on Public Philosophy. He's been more active than I have in terms of practicing public philosophy, especially when he was a faculty member at the University of Mississippi.

He also tells some horror stories about the dangers of doing public philosophy. But he's more sanguine than I am about the rewards outweighing the risks.

Eric offers an impassioned defense of public philosophy. To quote:

"If we are going to mean what we do in love of wisdom, we must do so with our greatest hopes in mind. It isn’t that we should believe that they will be achieved. The point is that if we don’t try, we choose to be doomed to follow ignorance and injustice.

Now we have the greatest need I have witnessed in my lifetime to engage publicly in reasoned, vigorous debate about what is right. There will be risks to doing so. Socrates was killed. It is incredibly unlikely that philosophy professors today could face such risks, but it is not impossible. This is all the more reason why it is important to mean it when we say with Socrates that 'the unexamined life is not worth living.'"

Preston: Eric's post probably answers your question (given the excessive dangers and small payoff, why practice public philosophy?) better than I have.

Does Eric's defense of public philosophy contribute to the romanticization narrative? He offers an honest appraisal of the associated risks, so my sense is that it does not. But I'll let you be the judge.

Derek Bowman


Thanks for your thoughtful post.

I wonder if you could say more about what makes the kinds of projects you've mentioned here in the comments distinctly philosophical. What makes philosophers, as opposed to economists, historians, journalists, political scientists, etc well placed to inform the public about the complexities of public policy? What is the distinctively philosophical element of combating public corruption or protecting child welfare? In short: why think of these as example of public philosophy, rather than simply as engaged (or perhaps intellectually engaged) citizenship? (Apologies if this is already answered in your linked article "Living Dangerously..." which is now on my to-do list).

Finally, while there is a lot of wisdom in your practical advice about the dangers and limits of such public engagement, I find it surprising that you include trolling, harassment, and other forms of uncivil discourse under the idea of a "marketplace of ideas."

Retailers and manufacturers in the marketplace typically do not have to worry about competitors standing in front of their stores or factories yelling insults, posting anonymous threats to their place of business, or other forms of harassment. And when something like that does happen (e.g. picketing workers or boycotting protesters) it is typically seen (and intended) as a disruption of the usual practice of commerce, rather than a usual feature of a marketplace.

Jerry Green

Thanks for this post, Shane. I thought it was both thought-provoking and even-handed.

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