Ask a Philosopher photo

Philosophers on the (Green) Market

by Ian Olasov

A slight, gray-haired woman walked up to the table, smiled, and got straight to business. She took out a piece of paper on which she’d written a list of questions: Is it possible to be a good person without believing in god? How do you get someone to change her mind about a moral question? How can we be friends with people with whom we disagree morally? Next to me, a colleague of mine did his best to talk a sweet, serious Ayn Rand devotee into caring about other people. They were the last visitors of the day. There had been a diverse cast of characters over the previous eight hours. A sheepish teenager: Is god real? A stylish couple: Free will or destiny? A few people wondering about the ethics of keeping animals in captivity. A lot of people worried about democracy and the current presidential election.

It was a Saturday afternoon in late April, and some philosophers and I had set up a booth at a local farmer’s market. The sign hanging across the table read “Ask a Philosopher”, and little strips of paper containing philosophical questions and thought experiments sat in a bowl alongside a flyer for an upcoming talk at Brooklyn Public Philosophers (a public philosophy speaker series I organize). It was our first Ask a Philosopher booth, and it had gone pretty well. Fifty or sixty people stopped by and stayed, on average, for a few minutes. It’s hard to know whether and how that sort of philosophical encounter will stick with a person, but Socrates, at least, thought that the market was a worthwhile place to set up shop. Of course, there is a place in philosophy for classes, lectures, and writings – for eliciting people’s reactions to works of philosophy that the professionals produce or curate ourselves. But there is also a place in philosophy for meeting people where they are, geographically and intellectually. The market is one place where people are prepared to stop and think, but so is the church, the museum, the movie theater, or the subway.

The speaker series, and now the Ask a Philosopher booth, have helped clarify my thoughts about the value of talking about our work with a general audience. Some of the arguments for public engagement are broadly self-interested: it forces us to keep jargon to a minimum; to keep the motivation for our projects at the front of our minds; to make explicit the inferential relationships between the views we defend and the sorts of big picture, cosmic questions and first-order practical questions that get people interested in philosophy in the first place; and of course, the people we speak with can provide us examples and test cases from their own experience. (A few months ago, I was talking with a friend about the range of non-linguistic means we have for communicating our moral attitudes. She suggested glaring, which I had not previously thought of, and which I found fascinating.) In these ways, public engagement is akin to teaching undergraduates. Yet, unlike undergraduates, people who attend a lecture or visit something like an Ask a Philosopher booth are there because they really want to be, and anyone can ask a question or raise an objection without feeling like they’re putting their grade on the line.

Perhaps speaking directly to a general audience can even help us overcome some of the discipline’s demographic problems. The people who came to the booth and attend the speaker series look like Brooklyn. Women and people of color show up in large numbers. More than half of the people who “like” the Brooklyn Public Philosophers Facebook page are women. I’m not sure why this is, but I suspect it has something to do with the topics that have been addressed at the speaker series and the friendly, non-combative style which is required when addressing a general audience.

But the more compelling arguments for public engagement are allocentric. Of course, many of us philosophers receive some public money for our work. You might think that for that reason alone we have a sort of professional obligation to let people know what we’re up to. But obligation or no, philosophy has a lot to offer public discourse, if only because public discourse is full of philosophical questions – questions that, if taken seriously, would require us to explicate and revise our fundamental moral, epistemic, and aesthetic values and the focal concepts of culture and everyday life. Philosophers have written well and clearly on these questions, and public discourse would be better off if their work were more well known. Consider Louise Antony on objectivity, Peter Singer on effective altruism and our moral obligations to non-human animals, Sally Haslanger on the metaphysics of gender and race, Derek Parfit on death and what matters, Tommie Shelby on racism, Phillip Kitcher on scientific progress, and Martha Nussbaum on objectification. One thing that we can do in talking to a general audience is to share this work, to bring people into conversations that they can carry on with their friends and families.

Philosophy, at its best, can also offer a model of how people can reason together in the face of deep disagreement. Of course, plenty of philosophical discourse is far from civil; we have all had philosophical conversations that, on reflection, were more concerned with point-scoring and self-presentation than with the problem at hand. But I think we have also all had deeply productive conversations with people with whom we fundamentally differ, in part because we have been enculturated to norms of discourse that, at least in face-to-face conversation, encourage the civil negotiation of disagreement. Over the course of their professional training, moral realists learn to talk with moral anti-realists, libertarians learn to talk with Marxists, and physicalists learn to talk with dualists. We learn to speak in our interlocutors’ terms. We learn to reason, so to speak, syntactically – to play out loud with the logical consequences of ideas we don’t yet fully understand. We learn to seek out rational bases for agreement, and to articulate the sources of our irresolvable disagreements. These are some of the main goods philosophy can export to the rest of the world. The market is just one place to sell them.

Ian Olasov is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The next Ask a Philosopher booth is on Monday June 20th from 12:00 to 6:00 p.m. at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City. The Ask A Philosopher booth is funded by an APA small grant from the Berry Fund for Public Philosophy.    

Photo source: Skye Cleary

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