Why do philosophers not make the news?
Maybe it’s because Empedocles was so misunderstood by his contemporaries that he jumped into a volcano, Socrates was sentenced to death by the good citizens of Athens, Seneca was driven to suicide by the mad emperor Nero and in more modern times Heidegger became a Nazi.
But let’s rewind…
Derek Parfit, the most influential moral philosopher of our time, died on 1 January 2017. It wasn’t reported in the news. This caused some consternation and sadness among professional philosophers. If “fake news” weren’t enough to worry about, an absurd selection and prioritisation towards the hysterical (“ISIS bomb plots!”) and the trivial (“Is this the year Prince Harry will marry Meghan Markle?”) rather than the actually important (I know, according to whom?) would still be a problem.
The New Statesman recently published an article by David Herman lamenting the passing of the days when Isaiah Berlin’s death made front page news, Mary Warnock and Bernard Williams were on Royal Commissions and government committees for this, that and the other, radio and television took an interest in A. J. Ayer and publishers spent serious money on academic philosophers.
(Don’t say: “but what about Alain de Botton? He’s still on telly? He still sells lots of books?” Yes, but he’s not an academic philosopher. Many of them would say that if doing philosophy is like drinking double espressos, his stuff is what you get when you spoon off the top of a cappuccino. You know, the bit that has all the chocolate powder on it. It may taste milky, frothy and sweet but it has never been in touch with a molecule of caffeine.)
In the New Statesman article a number of philosophers and commentators are quoted as blaming any number of things for the demise of the philosopher as public intellectual among which:
- The Research Assessment Exercise, a quality assurance process the Government imposes on universities, which drives philosophers to publish articles in journals rather than talk to the public;
- the end of deference and distrust of experts meaning that people don’t want someone out of a cosy college in Oxford telling them what to think
- The media, dumbed down and driven to sensationalism and by the need to make money from advertising
- Politicians who are not as interested as their predecessors (“Margaret Thatcher was interested in Popper, Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott…” When Tony Blair was asked in the weekly Parliamentary Questions to the Prime Minister to briefly outline his political philosophy, he was completely stumped. None of this is meant to be evidence that an interest in philosophy is good for a Prime Minister.)
You’ll have noticed, a lot of the blame goes to things other than philosophers or the academic discipline of philosophy.
Don’t get me wrong: I think an update on the latest developments in philosophy should be reported in every news bulletin. I think leading philosophers should be consulted on every bit of government policy. I think there should be reality TV shows in which a group of philosophers are sent to a five star beach resort to debate the meaning of life and no one should ever be voted off by the public. I think every new Doctor of Philosophy should be able to publish his or her doctoral thesis to the commercial success of de Botton’s greatest hits, or even J. K. Rowling’s. I think television networks should use the kind of budgets they use for Game of Thrones to make a television drama series of Plato’s Republic.
But I also think that philosophy needs to acknowledge its own role in raising its public profile and should have to work a bit harder. I’d like to acknowledge here the work that lots of philosophers do in international governance committees, in human rights advocacy, teaching, lecturing, giving seminars, making podcasts, tweeting or writing articles for popular consumption. But clearly that isn’t quite enough yet to get philosophers into the news, even when they die.
So here are some alternative reasons why philosophy may not have a higher public profile that look more to the role of philosophers in all of this:
- Philosophy attracts for the most part introverts (I assume) who would rather study on their own with some books for company, rather than be out there among people explaining what they’re doing. They are also maybe keener to spend time thinking, than broadcasting.
- Philosophers are too modest to talk publicly about the progress being made within the discipline. They are humbled everyday by the really big questions they deal with and the limits of the human mind to comprehend things. Humility is fine. The dirty flip side of that coin is that some philosophers jealously denounce anything that has commercial success or aspirations as “not the real thing.” That makes it more difficult for good communicators and non-academics to make a contribution on behalf of the discipline.
- There is also a stance of “well, if it takes this to be read, heard and seen by wider sections of the public, I don’t want to be influential or popular. I just want to be seen as brilliant and wonderful by my peers in academic philosophy.” That retreat back to your own clique smacks a bit of a lack of confidence. It could be compared to re-living a traumatic “nerdy vs. cool and popular kids” trauma.
- Philosophers are careful about the language they use and the way they make their arguments. They spend time defining their terms. They have learned to put three concessive clauses after every positive statement and to anticipate a few arguments that could be made against what they’re saying. They give the views of the people they disagree with the most charitable interpretation before they take them apart. That doesn’t make for the most impactful communications.
- There is no premium on people working together to find common ground and reach consensus on a question in philosophy. Working alone to demolish everything that has been thought before is just as valuable, if not more so, than putting forward a positive proposal, than showing where there is a high level consensus. (Thanks, Socrates!) But what if people were genuinely interested in where philosophy has progressed towards insights, rather than where it has gone back to the drawing board?
- Philosophers are perhaps genuinely traumatised by the history of unsuccessful to catastrophic interactions between philosophers and the public realm. Socrates got killed. Plato got too close to the tyrant of Syracuse which ended badly for him. Seneca got too close to Nero which harmed his reputation and ended badly for him. Heidegger got too close to Hitler. Sartre too close to Stalinism. (And Michael Ignatieff – Isaiah Berlin’s biographer – led his party to its worst electoral defeat in Canada. There are lessons there!
- And in return, philosophers who want to be politicians have to disavow any knowledge of philosophy. Julian Baggini writes the following about two British politicians:
[Former Minister and member of the Cabinet] Oliver Letwin, for instance, has a PhD on the subject but when I asked him if that was a disadvantage in politics he answered, “massive”, without hesitation. “I do my best to conceal it.” Another brainy MP, Tony Wright, once found himself quoting Mill in a parliamentary debate, “and I just realised how odd that was, and how embarrassing it was.”
Given these challenges, what could philosophers do? Starting from the non-reporting of Parfitt’s death, it would be sensible to adopt the principle that if you want to make the news when you die, you have to make yourself known while you’re alive. You can’t just rely on having strategically placed disciples in politics and the media who will ensure the eternal afterlife of your fame and ideas. (That worked only for Leo Strauss.)
- Don’t do down those who communicate philosophy well as not doing the real thing. Even if they provide journalistic surveys of the history of philosophy, rather than engage in academic philosophy, their activities could be the entry-level drug for the mind that hooks people on philosophy so they can be sold your harder stuff.
- Paint a picture of real progress in philosophy coming up with real answers to big questions around which consensus is being built. Then explain how these answers affect human life. For example, tell the story about how philosophers were in court rooms explaining the writings of Plato and Aristotle to help settle questions around gay rights (at least Martha Nussbaum was). Peter Singer’s campaign for animal liberation can be traced back to the writings of Mill and Bentham.
- Make the communication of philosophy a greater part of academic activity. Scientists embrace the “public understanding of science” as a part of what they do. They put some of the best and brightest in charge of it. They make them professors and Fellows of the Royal Society and President of the Royal Institution. Google “Professor for the Public Understanding of Philosophy” and you get one person: Professor Angie Hobbs at the University of Sheffield. She seems very active but I’m not sure she can do it on her own.
In his New Statesman article, David Herman concludes that if you care, you should:
go to your local library or bookshop or follow debates online: be your own border guard and wear a black armband for an era that has passed.
Sadly, retreating to the local library or bookshop to mourn for previous better times may be tempting. Philosophy was always tempted to retreat to a more private place: Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Peripatos, Epicurus’ garden.
An alternative would be for it to be out in the market place (Socrates’ Agora) making its case.