Philosophers Rarely Play a Public Role

Philosophers are not merely victims of a closed public space. Even when an opportunity arises to make a contribution philosophers are unlikely to, as Hannah Arendt puts it, “go visiting” there. Indeed, instead of protesting their fringe status, philosophers have too often treated it as a refuge and virtue.

Academic philosophers have a collective identity as members of a community, which is bestowed not so much by the things they discuss as by the institutions that house and credential them. The PhD allows for the distinction to be made between the real philosophers and the amateurs. This certification affords a measure of power in the form of credibility. It gives them a platform so that their voice can be heard above the din of the masses. Ideally – and this is the point of tenure – one can speak from a place of conviction concerning the common good. Authoritative if also fallible, philosophers should function as both intellectual foil and moral conscience of society.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Philosophers rarely play a public role. Bruce Kuklick argues this is because the dominant strain of analytic philosophy classified moral and political issues as outside of the cognitive domain – mere opinionating, and thus not part of the proper remit of the philosopher. The relativism of many post-modern philosophical camps – stemming from the likes of Ruth Benedict and Thomas Kuhn – gives them a similar aversion to public engagement. It’s hard to claim an authoritative role in society when you are skeptical of all claims to privileged knowledge, including your own. Sociologists track indicators of ‘subjective well-being’ because identifying one way of life as better than others is considered repressive.

Nietzsche, of course, had a different view of the philosopher, someone who ”demands of himself a judgment, a Yes or No, not about the sciences but about life and the values of life” (Beyond Good and Evil, 205). But this attitude is out of step with our times, which resist ex cathedra pronouncements. The philosopher, however, can still offer a distinctive and in its own way authoritative voice. It manifests itself differently than in the sciences. The sciences, natural and social, are in the business of providing answers. But answers aren’t the only way to contribute to a conversation. Socrates’ professions of ‘ignorance’ actually show the philosopher’s skills of probing, questioning, unsettling matters. Tone is crucial here, for questioning can be destructive. But when well-intentioned, questioning opens up a new view on an issue, rendering problematic what was previously thought to be given.