In Defense of ‘Pop Philosophy’

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” – Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach

Philosophy, as it is practiced, is often divorced from the practicalities of everyday life. In fact, this is often regarded as a virtue in ethics and political theory. John Rawls, arguably the most prominent political philosopher of the 21st Century, constructs his theory of justice within ideal conditions. He assumes full compliance with the principles of justice, as well as favorable social conditions, and brackets off certain concerns, such as disability and lack of material resources. Such factors are considered to be irrelevant to the foundational principles of justice.

Along with this tendency to pretend real-world conditions don’t matter comes a tendency to ignore how theory can and should influence society. This seems puzzling, as political theorists and ethicists spend their time theorizing pondering questions such as ‘what principles should guide the pursuit of a good society, and ultimately a good life?’

These concerns are separate but interrelated and have similar consequences. When theorists allow their theories to become irrelevant to everyday life, there is less of a chance of those theories affecting how society is structured. This exacerbates fears of theory becoming a purely intellectual enterprise, with theorists engaging with one another instead of society as a whole.

There are some who argue that this is a virtue, rather than a vice. In an article entitled “In Defense of the Ivory Tower,” Bas van der Vossen argues that philosophers ought not engage in political activism. He makes this argument using five premises, which I have summarized below:

(1) When someone takes a certain role or profession, they have an ethical duty to take reasonable precautions in order to avoid doing things that they can reasonably predict will make them worse at their jobs.

(2) The task of political philosophers is to seek the truth about political issues.

(3) Therefore, political philosophers have a duty to take reasonable precautions in order to avoid doing things that can be reasonably predicted to make them worse at seeking the truth about political issues.

(4) Being politically active predictably makes us worse at seeking the truth about political issues.

(5) Therefore, political philosophers would seem to have a moral duty to avoid being politically active.

Given that this argument flows logically, it is important to argue against one of these premises in order to defeat the argument. Many of these arguments seem plausible. It seems as though people should not do things that will most likely make them worse at their jobs; however, the argument seems, to me, to fall apart at number 4. Moreover, I would argue that even if premise number (2) is true on first glance, this is a case in which obligations conflict. The ethical obligations created by engaging in moral philosophy simply outweigh the risk of bias or ‘contamination’ in this circumstance.

Van der Vossen’s main argument for premise number (4) is that philosophers may create bad or biased arguments as the result of engaging in political activism. He cites several studies showing that affiliation with a political party creates an ‘in-group’ mindset that sways people to favor certain policies. Also, we tend to interpret facts in ways that are consistent with whatever we are invested in. The task of a philosopher, according to van der Vossen, is to seek the truth about politics. When we’re biased, we’re less likely to come to that truth. Therefore, engaging in politics makes us bad political theorists.

This argument, however, ignores the fact that bias is always part of political and ethical theorizing.  We always see the world through a certain lens and therefore do not have neutral access to the truth. We will always be swayed by our previously existing commitments, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it might be a good thing. When we think about ethics or politics, it’s inevitable that we will take a starting point—for ex., feminist theorists start with the premise that sexism should be ended. Theory is always by someone who has certain values and will be for someone as well. There is, as Iris Marion Young puts it, no view from nowhere. Pretending that we’re neutral observers in a situation simply serves to make privileged views seem like universal views.

Moreover, this argument ignores the fact that philosophers inevitably engage in group-think, even within the discipline. Libertarians are more likely to accept an argument that coheres with what libertarians think. Communitarians are prone to do the same; as are Rawlsian liberals. If we are engaging in activism based on what we firmly believe to be true, then, at the very least, we are making our discussions and group-think accessible to people who aren’t ourselves.

This ties into my thoughts about premise number (2). While it is undoubtedly an obligation of an academic to seek the truth about their subject areas, people seem to forget that academics have a variety of other obligations, such as the obligation to teach, thus making information accessible to future generations (even if some academics would prefer not to teach). I would also argue that there is a unique obligation created by participating in moral philosophy that makes it irresponsible to avoid engaging in public debates and activist activity. If we do think that we are right about a certain moral truth, that seems to suggest that we should do something about it instead of sitting around idly hoping that someone else does. Academics are in a unique position to contribute to public conversations. This will never be a value-neutral exercise; nor is it necessarily good if it is.

You might wonder how this ties into my title—a defense of ‘pop’ philosophy. The answer is simple. If philosophers accept that they have an obligation to make their ideas accessible, then there is a corresponding obligation to produce works that not only talk to other academics but also speak to the general public. They have a responsibility to create books, podcasts, blogs, etc. that the public can understand and learn from. There is a tendency to see ‘pop philosophy’ as less important or rigorous. While it may not be as ‘rigorous’ in the sense that we’ll probably have to forego a few fancy logical twists, and while it is certainly important for philosophers to talk to eachother before talking to the general public, this doesn’t absolve us from our other social obligations.

This has broader social implications as well. If we take seriously our responsibility to educate, then we need to be conscious of the fact that not everyone will have the chance to learn in a college classroom. Making philosophy a privilege rather than something that is accessible to everyone is a surefire way of reinforcing privilege.

All of this is to say that I’m starting a blog. Hopefully for real this time. And I’m going to fill it with, hopefully interesting, and accessible philosophy. Philosophy is for everyone, and we have an obligation to provide it in a way that can be consumed by everyone.

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