Invisible and Mostly Harmless
Quick—name a living philosopher. (Don’t say Ricky Mouser just because you’re on my website.)
Unless you already have a degree in philosophy, you probably can’t, even if you’re well-educated and well-read.
Why is that?
In Socrates Tenured, Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle blame us philosophers for sequestering ourselves away in academia. We’ve been busy chasing the highest standards of professionalism, abstraction, and rigor. But along the way, we have failed to honor the Socratic impulse to do public, dangerous philosophy.
Instead, we have rendered ourselves invisible and mostly harmless to society at large.
Let’s break that down.
Philosophy has become invisible. As a teacher, I get the incredible opportunity to teach several dozen college students each semester. But that’s a small audience, and I’m very late to the game. By the time I meet my students, they’re already young adults who have grown up in a world that hardly values argumentative clarity, charity, or rigor. (Witness our political celebrity culture.) Most of them have never studied philosophy before, and have no idea what philosophy is—are wrong answers even possible?
As a researcher, I’m even more invisible. Philosophy has made tremendous progress in the last century, but unless you’re actively seeking it out, you’d never know. I can’t (legally) access my own published article without spending $50 on a pdf, which is especially weird because I wasn’t paid for writing it, and my anonymous reviewers weren’t paid for their time looking it over. And I can’t post the final version on my website without spending thousands on the rights. All for a two-page ‘open’ peer commentary! This isn’t a model for distributing knowledge—it’s a model for burying it.
No wonder no one knows what we’re up to. It’s not enough to teach pricy, closed-door college classes and write paywalled journal articles. We need to do philosophy outside, in public.
Philosophy has become mostly harmless. As a teacher, I get to engage young students, many of whom go on to incorporate philosophy in their lives. But a lot of them are more concerned with grades, credits, and degrees than practicing philosophy for its own sake. It’s not their fault either—a university education is an expensive career investment, and to pay off, their degree needs to land them a job, not prepare them for life. The university apparatus reduces philosophy to a checklist of technical hoops to jump through for accreditation.
As a researcher, the literature I have to engage and the forums I'm supposed to publish in aren’t always high-leverage. Knowledge for its own sake is great—that’s the whole point. But instead of just writing for each other, where the stakes are merely academic, philosophers should aim to get in trouble, like Socrates. He was put to death for “corrupting the youth”—aka, showing them how to question authority and think for themselves. That’s way better than writing another invisible journal article. Marx was right: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Bring on the hemlock!
There has to be space for philosophy in the public life and imagination of society at large. After all, does it seem that we live in a world that needs more reflection or less?
So here's one living philosopher you know—yourself.
Everyone is already a philosopher, but most people don’t realize this about themselves yet. (That’s our fault as professionals.) We all have deep commitments, but few of us have interrogated them systematically. Even fewer of us really know how to start.
Kids still wonder and question why, but they’re not ready for full rigor. And their parents don’t have time—they have spouses and houses, kids and careers. They're just trying to make peace with the world and survive long enough to put food on the table every night. If they ever get a moment to themselves, they just hope to relax.
Maybe when their kids move out, they'll return to self-discovery and world-interrogation and wonder. But because we’re invisible, they probably won’t turn to philosophers for help. Our thought leaders, who most directly shape public imagination and material reality, are tech billionaires, pundits, and podcasters with dubious credentials. Professional philosophers need to show up.
That’s what I’m trying to do here.
Studying philosophy equips us to become more careful and nuanced interlocutors, which makes us much more dangerous thinkers in a crucial way. We learn to question and challenge accepted ways of thinking and living, and propose our own alternatives that build from a deeper understanding of how previous positions work (and fail) from the inside.
My job as a professional philosopher is just to help others become more sophisticated versions of the philosophers they already are. After all, while you can survive living the underexamined life, you can’t truly thrive until you take ownership of your beliefs and think for yourself.
So how can I pull this off? How can I make philosophy public and dangerous instead of invisible and mostly harmless?
Blogging? Streaming? Podcasting?
I don’t know yet. I guess I’ll try it all out.