Philosophy Communication: A Call to Arms?

I’ve just gotten back from a quick trip to Canberra, where the Australasian Association of Philosophy conference is currently in full swing at ANU. Unfortunately I couldn’t get up there for the whole thing this year, but last night, after the very great pleasure of hearing Philip Pettit give the Alan Saunders Memorial Lecture, I was deeply honoured to receive the AAP’s Media Prize for 2013.

(I’m also delighted to say that Antonia Case from New Philosopher won the Media Professional’s Prize – huge congrats to Antonia, and thanks to Antonia and Zan for their support of philosophy and for producing such a great mag.)

I had the chance to say a few words, and the Media Prize has a $500 prize attached, so used the opportunity to explain what I’d like to do with that prize money. Basically, I’d like to use it as seed funding to kick off a discussion I’m hoping to get going in the discipline.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

This is a fairly uncertain time in which to be a philosopher. No-one’s making us drink hemlock or anything, and being a professional philosopher is still a pretty awesome way to earn a crust – at least for those who manage to secure one of the increasingly scarce jobs without ending up being trapped in casualised limbo or simply lost to the discipline altogether. But with politicians telling us we’re “ridiculous,” and high-profile astrophysicists calling us obsolete, pointless (e tu, Neil DeGrasse Tyson?), or both, it’s never been more important for philosophers to be out in the agora. We can’t expect people to care about philosophy if we’re not out there explaining to them why they should.

And there’s plenty of philosophers out there doing really great work in the media and in other ways, both from within the Academy and without. I’m thinking of folks like Nigel Warburton, Julian Baggini, Eric Schwitzgebel (drop whatever you’re doing and go read his Aeon piece), Angie Hobbs, Massimo Pigliucci, and many more. Yes, even him.

Here in Oz we’re no slouches either; among others, Raimond Gaita, Chris Cordner, Simon Longstaff and Peter Singer, for instance, have all made important interventions into public discourse. (And check today’s Drum piece by Matthew Beard).

So there’s already a lot of people who are really good at talking to and with the public about philosophy. And yet, for a discipline that loves nothing so much as going meta, we don’t seem to talk about talking about philosophy much.

And on this front at least, Hawking might just have a point: the sciences are way out in front. They disciplinised science communication a thing a long time ago. You can study it, you can publish on it, you can make a career out of it. Scientists have stepped back from their benchtops to critically thematise scientific literacy, and then studied how best to go about producing it.

So here’s the discussion I reckon it’d be interesting to have: what’s philosophy communication? If we think of what we do when we do ‘popular’ or ‘outreach’ work, what are we doing? How do we know when we’re doing it effectively? What are we trying to achieve? What does philosophical literacy look like? There’s been some pedagogical discussion of that last concept, but outside the literature on teaching philosophy the very idea of philosophical literacy is  unfamiliar enough that FauxPhilNews could use it as the basis of a joke.

Of course, science and philosophy are very different animals. We aren’t going to be holding press conferences announcing new findings (again, FauxPhilNews already did it). But we do have a lot of things to say about just about everything.

And what we say can be very well-received too. Sticking your head above the parapet is risky, and a certain number of people will knock philosophy and philosophers almost reflexively. Thus life on these here interwebs. But the responses I’ve had from people over the last couple of years of dabbling in media has also suggested to me that there’s a genuine demand for philosophy.

So what I propose is that we start talking about philosophy communication. How we do that, I’m not exactly sure. But you might. If you do, drop me a line.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.