The challenges of public philosophy are many:
1) It might not be viewed as serious philosophy to the point that one wastes energy on what will not reward the tenure-track bound or review of one’s research for promotion in any sense;
2) The chance for public ridicule increases with the increased attention to one’s writings and if you are employed in a place that doesn’t necessarily value the type of negative attention (nor the academic freedom for public philosophy), then one might not as well do it;
3) Public philosophy does seem rather one-sided (more liberal and left-leaning in keeping with the tilt of the academy), and could easily be reduced to the more destructive forces of the larger culture war where people on the internet are not interested in rational argumentation, but bent on destroying one another. Instead, it’s rather easy to remain innocuous and write on some problem in metaethics or engage in debates about the accuracy of William James’s writings. I easily recognize that some of my most passionate questions are at bottom pedantic (though I feel that they have pragmatic value in the end).
With these challenges, I would like to talk about the last one, the third challenge. Public philosophy will be taken up in the larger culture war, absorbed by its forces largely because all parties are interested in finding agreement with intellectual authority for their views. Catholic moralists and cultural Marxists can find any number of sympathizers and PhDs ready to rally to their respective causes, but when we play by the games of the internet, participants in those discourses are more interested in destroying people that disagree with them. Think on any number of recent disinvites from Conservative authors and media pundits brought to campuses to give a speech or a lecture. Our academic culture and more popular culture cannot bear to disagree. We are living in time where intellectual tribalism matters more than the substance of the ideas offered by those tribes. The art of both argument and disagreement are lost on us, and those of us who regularly teach critical thinking often think that the rules of good arguments should carry the day more than tribalism.
At Cleveland State University, student A asked me what book they should read to get a sense of what intellectual conservatives desired. I recommended Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind to student A. I also lamented that not too many intellectual conservatives were left around. Student B, however, refused to even contemplate Conservative ideas and scolded me for normalizing conservatism by even offering a recommendation to A. For B, all conservatives were fascists, which is a problem in itself. For this student, conservatism was like the bogeyman, so terrorized by personal forces in his own life, this student could not tease apart the vulgar expressions of conservatism from its more elevated philosophical form.
Before public philosophy can be done, all participants need to agree to basic ground rules. I can think of none better than the rules of logic, the principle of charity, what I call the principle of hermeneutic charity. Since the rules of logic and the principle of charity are well known for argument reconstruction, I’d like to focus on the last one by contrasting it with the principle of charity.
The principle of charity holds that we should criticize the best version of an opponent’s stance and think of the reasons they offer for that position as rational. However, if this is all one did, then the argumentative reconstructions will lose out on the relevant facts of history. The principle of charity extends only to your opponent’s argument, and not the historicity of the argument itself. This is the common complaint that disconnects arguments from the applied contexts from which they emerge. By contrast, the principle of hermeneutic charity holds that we should criticize the best interpretation of an opponent’s stance and be aware of the historical factors surrounding the reasons they offer for the position. Accordingly, the principle of hermeneutic charity does not construe advocacy of a position as being determined solely by historical forces. What it does advocate is that all philosophical positions are offered within the horizon of history, and that is an inescapable element of dialogue itself. We should never pretend that an argument is an ahistoric piece of reasoning that stands the test of time since such absolutism runs the danger of feeding more intellectual tribalism.
In criticizing the best interpretation of an opponent’s stance involves several tasks. First, we must read our opponent to the point that we are not lost on the historical factors informing our reconstruction of her arguments. Second, in noting these historical factors, we come to learn both the argument’s reconstruction and the position of the arguer are unfolding in history. When we can be both modest about the contexts of these arguments and allow for a space to engage in rational exchange of these ideas, the hope is that we can fend off the more vulgar and base instincts of ourselves.
Given that we can adopt these norms and provide public space for dialogue between various public interests, our toleration for disagreement must increase and our democratic commitment to pluralism must simultaneously increase—that is a problem for public philosophy. And also for philosophy more generally…
I will note some caution and reluctance. When I was younger, I read about the history of the Dominicans and the Franciscans in the 13th century in Richard Rubenstein’s Aristotle’s Children. From this study, I have always been aware of the dangerous arena of ideas. Ideas are/can be dangerous. They are parts of experience that can rattle others, and without norms and rules for reasoning, we’re lost already. Moreover, the norms and rules of logic, good reasoning, and the avoidance of fallacies must be actively renewed and sustained. Without renewal to each generation, the easier tendency to suppress dialogue and the exchange of ideas is all too easy a path to choose. For this reason, philosophy must be valued and enacted correctly for the larger public as a model of elevated discourse. The life of the mind must be praised and valued intrinsically for these reasons alone.