What I Learned From Social Media About the State of Philosophy

A couple of months ago, I wrote this blog post about the fear (mostly felt by philosophers) that philosophy was disappearing from public debate. I posted it on Reddit – an online space for public debate – and it got the strongest response out of anything I’ve ever written.

(For those of you who don’t know Reddit,  it is a place where you can post things and other users can vote it up or down. They can also comment on it. The more up-votes something gets, the higher up the list of links it goes so more people will see it. People can also up- or down-vote the comments.  There are “communities” in Reddit who have their particular “sub-reedits.” So this discussion on my blog post took place in a philosophy-themed part of Reddit. I suppose you have to see it, really…)

My post got more than a thousand up-votes and almost 300 comments. The comments contained discussion among people who are studying or studied philosophy academically and those who never did but are interested. So pretty much the sort of group you would want if you wanted to work out why philosophy’s role in the public space is diminishing. Because the question has two sides: 1.) what is happening to philosophy? And 2.) what is happening to public debate.

Anyway, a lot of the comments on Reddit make for interesting reading, and there are some good discussions there.

Here are some factors that Reddit users thought were particularly relevant:

1. Philosophy isn’t taught in schools. As one commenter put it:

“By the time you get to college, the only exposure most people have of philosophy is, “what is the meaning of life?” That question in of itself is a great question but to most people, it’s incredibly stuck up. People see no practicality from philosophy and it’s treated as a joke. My friend wants to study philosophy and go to law school but his parents are forcing him to major in something else or they won’t help pay for college.”

There was then also a long discussion about whether philosophy as a subject at school or university is useful for getting into other career paths, e. g. law. Several people argued that it was. People also argued that a philosophy degree wasn’t the one that led to the highest “starting salaries” after university.

2. Where Philosophy is taught, it is often taught badly. This puts people off. This view is based on the subjective experience of individual commenters but there was a lot of discussion about different approaches. The teaching of philosophy based on the work of individual philosophers, with a stress on being able to quote them, was deemed less inspiring than discussion of philosophical issues in a way that is relevant to people’s lives. One commenter encapsulated it neatly as:

“We need to stop naming the study by the people who did it/wrote it first or best, and instead study the lines of thought themselves – as loosely correlated and organized by particular named philosophers. […] What you really learn studying the “thing” behind each of these [names] is really not the person, but the body of thought and understanding they now represent. If instead of organizing the study by these old, stodgy names, we named each of the lines of thought by the themes and ideas they created and explained – then it would remain an integral part of teaching in a timeless way.”

3. As the academic study of philosophy is becoming more and more specialised and narrow, it is becoming less and less relevant to a lot of people. This point was put stridently and in language unfamiliar to philosophical debate by a commenter who said:

“As a person who majored in Philosophy in college I wholeheartedly agree with this.

Even on Reddit, most of the Philosophy threads I see make the front page are stuck up posts that have zero bearing on modern life.

In our current times, ethical and political philosophy are the only “useful” areas of thought and should be frequently discussed.

If the people who actually know philosophy are sitting around debating topics like metaphysics, then it is our fault that philosophy is disappearing because we’re essentially jerking ourselves off, saying ‘I’m so smart’, and providing no direction toward worthwhile discourse for a regular person.”

Others took issue with the idea that philosophy should be useful. This sparked a lot of debate. Ultimately, those who put forward the view that philosophy ought to have a use for society in order to justify its existence saw their view re-inforced by those trying to make arguments to the opposite.

Another way of putting the point about the narrowing scope of philosophy due to specialisation was this:

“Philosophers are professional hairsplitters. They hit a stubborn stasis, split some hairs, debate a more fine-grained detail, arrive at a stubborn stoppage and split again. Philosophical debates are so finely grained and abstract that they don’t get traction with real-world public policy.

Philosophy needs more lumping rather than splitting. Instead of playing the tenure game of “saying something new”, philosophy needs some sort of meta-analysis to tie all of the work together. It needs more generalists to make connections between the detail work and the work of living well.”

4. The nature of public debate has changed. It was suggested that all discussion in our culture (the commenters were largely American but this goes wider) had become about narrow point scoring and winning an argument, rather than improving ideas and thinking through reasoned debate. Where philosophy goes along with that, it turns off people who are generally interested in ideas, where it doesn’t, it doesn’t fit with public debate. A debased political debate was seen as a parallel or context to this phenomenon.

5. Related to this, the nature of the media had changed. It was argued that the media used to have an aim of raising the bar of public debate, but that now it was merely profit-focussed.

Mostly what it suggested to me was that there could be massive public interest in philosophy, certainly online. In order to cater for it, philosophy needs to be relevant to the lives of human beings, presented in a style that is intelligible to intelligent human beings, consensus-seeking and positive. It would help if it was supported by teaching at schools and a public atmosphere that acknowledged that there doesn’t need to be a choice between financial and commercial success on the one hand, or philosophy on the other.

Go online philosophers!

3 thoughts on “What I Learned From Social Media About the State of Philosophy”

  1. Interesting post. Thanks for sharing! A couple thoughts:

    1. I think these points apply more the US than to other countries. E.g., philosophy is taught in schools in the UK.

    2. This anecdotal evidence implies that the problem is a supply-side problem — that there’s something wrong with the way philosophers deliver philosophy. But there are at least as much anecdotal evidence that this is a demand problem — that people don’t really want philosophy.

    Just take a look at the incoherence and logically fallacious rhetoric from famous politicians, pundits, celebrities, etc. If so many people are so interested in following these public figures despite their lack of basic philosophical competence, this would suggest that many people just don’t value philosophical competence that much. And if they don’t value philosophical competence, then why should we think that they’d value philosophy more generally?

    Don’t get me wrong: I think philosophy is really important. And I think public philosophy is really important as well. But I don’t think that there’s a shortage of good public philosophy out there. I’ve found a lot of it:
    100+ Philosophy Films and Videos
    50+ Philosophy blogs
    40+ Philosophy podcasts
    35+ Online Resources for Studying & Teaching Philosophy
    300+ Philosophers on Twitter

    So if people are not finding the good public philosophy that exists, then perhaps they’re just not that interested in it (or merely unaware of it). And if that is the case, then it’s not clear that these solutions will help make philosophy a more public phenomena.

    3. I wonder why you think that there is a “massive public interest in philosophy”.

    I used to think this. E.g., when I saw that the philosophy subreddit had over 10 million subscribers, I got excited. But I quickly realized that many of the posts in that subreddit are rather unphilosophical and even the most popular posts receive only a few thousand views.

    Maybe you agree. In that case, perhaps I had the wrong idea of what you meant by “massive” and “philosophy”.

  2. Has anyone looked at philosophy in the same way that philosophy looks at science? I think part of the reason philosophy seems so abstracted from real life is to do with the way philosophers think about philosophy. If philosophy is the search for ultimate truth then a) it’s probably a failure in it’s own terms as almost all philosophical positions are eventually revised or overturned and b) it’s very easy to go into abstract naval-gazing territory where arguments are all about creating a defensible position and not at all about relating the ideas to intuition or lived experience. If we were instead to take an instrumental view of philosophy (similar to the instrumentalist position in philosophy of science) which sees philosophy as a project concerned with developing useful conceptual models of reality that are not necessarily capital T true but do help us understand the world, we might develop a discipline that can maintain the rigour of analytic philosophy but find a way to break out of the academic ghetto and actually speak to people.

    Just a thought and probably already been tried.

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