What does Engaged Philosophy look like?

“John Dewey wrote that the test of the value of any philosophy is whether it “end[s] in conclusions which, when they are referred back to ordinary life-experiences and their predicaments… make our dealings with them more fruitful.” Philosophers who aren’t self-consciously engaged in efforts to address the practical and social problems of their communities are, at best, confused about the value of their enterprise. At worst, they reduce philosophy to “so much nimble or severe intellectual exercise… a sentimental indulgence for a few.”

Bertrand Russell thought otherwise. The interests that inspire conceptions of philosophy like Dewey’s, he thought, “are so exclusively practical… that [they] can hardly be regarded as really touching any of the questions that constitute genuine philosophy… The changes suffered by minute portions of matter on the earth’s surface are very important to us as active sentient beings; but to us as philosophers they have no greater interest than other changes in portions of matter elsewhere.” Even worse, Russell thought, philosophers who use their professional competence in pursuit of moral or social edification, rather than in “a disinterested search for truth” are “guilty of a kind of treachery”: they make philosophy both insincere and trivial.

The recent Philosophy & Engagement Conference at the University of Pennsylvania was an attempt to adjudicate (or, in some cases, transcend) this tension: to articulate or to demonstrate what properly “engaged” philosophy might look like. But, more interestingly, it was, itself, an attempted exercise in philosophical engagement. Talks by professional philosophers like Kyle Powys Whyte of Michigan State and Lynne Tirrell of UMass-Boston were featured alongside presentations of original philosophical work by students from Philadelphia’s public high schools, developed in partnership with graduate student coaches through UPenn’s Philosophy Outreach Program. (Please findthe full conference program here.)”

Read more here.

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