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Writing Popular Philosophy: Interview with Quartz’s Olivia Goldhill

Olivia Goldhill is a philosophy and psychology journalist with Quartz.  I spoke with her about tips for academic philosophers who are interested in writing for general audiences, how she convinced Bill Nye to read philosophy, and more.   

How did you become a journalist that covers the philosophy beat?  

My first journalism job was at The Telegraph in the UK, where I became a features writer. That position gave me a certain amount of flexibility to write longer articles and explore topics in-depth, and I started to naturally introduce philosophical references where they were relevant. I then moved to Quartz, where reporters focus on a handful of “obsessions” and writers are encouraged to pursue their personal interests and intellectual ideas. I suggested that philosophy should be my main obsession and Quartz was receptive to the idea. I didn’t have a model of how a journalist writing for a mainstream audience should report on philosophy, as we didn’t know of anyone else doing so–and still don’t. But, from the beginning, it was clear that there was a huge audience for the subject.

What’s your background in philosophy? 

I majored in philosophy for my undergrad at Harvard. I’ve always read philosophy but studying it gave me a strong grounding in the field and means that I’m confident following arguments and discussions across a range of subjects. At undergrad I focused on the early existentialists but as a reporter, I often focus on philosophy where it overlaps with other fields, such as political philosophy or philosophy of mind. 

Can you tell the story about how you convinced Bill Nye to read philosophy?  

So, in February last year, Bill Nye made a video in which he responded to a student’s question about whether philosophy was worth studying. In doing so, he made a lot of objectively false statements about the nature of philosophy (e.g. responding to Descartes’ cogito argument by saying “What if you don’t think about it, do you not exist anymore? You probably still exist, even if you’re not thinking about existence.”) It was disappointing coming from someone who’s clearly very intelligent. But I’ve noticed, both anecdotally and based on public comments from other eminent scientists, that Nye’s misconceptions are shared by many intelligent people outside philosophy. I wrote an article addressing some of these false impressions and, full credit to Bill Nye, he was open to changing his mind. A few months later he told The New York Times that he’d been “legitimately criticized” for his comments and so he’d started reading philosophy. He even added that “the process of science, you could make a reasonable claim, is actually natural philosophy.” The New York Times article linked to my piece when it mentioned criticism of Nye, and so it seems I managed to convince him! 

What do you think will be the most pressing or interesting issue in the philosophy beat in 2017?  

I think it’s fascinating that there’s a Russian philosopher, Aleksandr Dugin, who’s influenced Putin’s thinking to such an extent that he’s nicknamed “Putin’s brain.” He has a very clear—and troubling—perspective on how global politics will and should develop, and I very much hope other political philosophers can come up with a compelling counter-perspective. Currently, there’s a real fear of growing far-right movements in many western countries, frustration with neoliberalism, and a backlash to globalism. Creating a strong global political system is very much a philosophical question and I hope that philosophers will take up their responsibility to respond.

I understand that your philosophy articles are popular with Quartz readers. Apart from your insightful writing, why do you think general audiences are interested in philosophical articles? 

Thank you, I’m glad you like my articles! I think that so many people, regardless of whether they’ve studied the subject, have a natural deep-seated interest in philosophical ideas. After all, philosophy gets to the heart of the most meaningful questions in life, often with highly surprising answers. Unfortunately, as anyone who’s picked up Heidegger knows, it can also be somewhat impenetrable. Over the past few decades, academic philosophers in general (of course there are exceptions) have also withdrawn from engaging with a wider audience or attempting to make the subject accessible. This means there’s not a lot of competition for my articles, which try to make complicated ideas understandable for a reader with no background in philosophy. I also attempt to relate abstract philosophy to topical conversations in public affairs, and I love drawing connections between ancient ideas and modern scientific discoveries. I think the philosophical ideas in these articles–such as existentialism’s perspective on how to make a difficult personal decision, or philosophical arguments on how to respond to the refugee crisis–help readers make sense of the world, and feed the widespread general interest in philosophy. 

What’s your most read philosophy article?  

A piece on Blaise Pascale headlined “A philosopher’s 350-year-old trick to get people to change their minds is now backed up by psychologists.” The site Brain Pickings highlighted Pascale’s writing on persuasion and I spoke to a psychology professor who confirmed that Pascale’s intuitions are strongly supported by contemporary evidence and widely believed in the field today. I get a lot of satisfaction from making connections between older philosophers and current thinking—I’ve done so with Plato and Freud’s connection to neuroscience, and also spoken to the philosophy professor Evan Thompson a couple of times about how contemporary neuroscience corroborates ancient Buddhist and Indian thinking. As Thompson explores in his research, key Buddhist ideas—such as that the “self” is in constant flux—are now supported by western cognitive science.

What would you say is your most under-appreciated or neglected philosophy article?

During the presidential campaigns and election I really wanted to write about philosophical perspectives on the state of contemporary politics and found it frustratingly difficult to do so. (I later wrote about this difficulty and the limited academic engagement with public affairs.) After the first Trump-Clinton debate I wrote a piece on social constructivism and how the lack of objective facts can explain Clinton and Trump’s totally contradictory perspectives–even on supposedly factual matters. It didn’t get much traction but I was pleased that I managed to find a philosophical perspective to address that particular idea at that stage in the election. 

What’s your favorite philosophy article that you’ve written?  

I wrote a piece on a mirror universe where time goes backwards, which is at the intersection of philosophy and theoretical physics. It’s incredibly, mind-achingly complex and not an area I’d previously studied in depth. But it’s a fascinating idea, and I was very pleased to have understood it.

What unique challenges do you encounter in journalism on the philosophy beat?  

I really love my beat and any challenges I encounter are enjoyable and fulfilling ones. But as there was no clear pre-existing model of a journalist covering philosophy, it certainly took a while to figure out how to cover the subject. I now have pretty clear areas—such as philosophical perspectives on contemporary issues, developments (or interviews) within academic philosophy, and highlighting occasions when public figures draw on philosophical ideas—but I always like to experiment with different articles and ways of reporting on philosophy. 

To what extent do you engage in discussions with those who disagree with your writing?  

Quartz doesn’t have a comment section so the main ways I hear from readers is through Twitter or email. I do my best to respond, especially if someone takes the time to send a thoughtful email. 

How has writing about philosophy changed your opinions?  

I learn so many things it’s difficult to select just one. But I think one of my most deeply-felt opinions that I’ve developed through writing about philosophy is that the strict divisions between academic subjects is not conducive to the development of knowledge. These divisions are not absolute and there are fantastic academics who manage to bridge them, but I do think the existing structure is far too rigid. Just as scientists (such as Nye) shouldn’t dismiss philosophers, I think it’s disappointing to write about philosophy of mind, say, without really deep engagement with research in psychology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. I’m very fortunate as a journalist to be able to learn about so many different subjects, but it also means I see the limitations. One article I wrote on a rare neurological disorder led to AI professors beginning new research projects on the subject. I do think that there would be an explosion of new ideas if academics knew more about the research coming out of other departments. 

Do you have a favorite philosophy?  

My favorite philosopher is Kierkegaard—though when I try and neatly summarize why, I have renewed appreciation for all the professors I speak to! I’m never fully convinced by any philosopher who attempts to explain great ideas—morality, God, suffering—with a neat set of rules. I find Kierkegaard, who refuses to present these as straightforwardly logical concepts and who acknowledges the great pain of authentically grappling with such experiences, far more personally compelling. I’m drawn to existentialist thinking in general, particularly the idea that meaning and the nature of our being doesn’t exist in a pure, objective form, waiting to be discovered, but must be subjectively created. And in Kierkegaard, it helps that these ideas are expressed so beautifully and often wittily. 

What are your top five tips for academic philosophers who are interested in writing for general audiences?  

  1. Firstly—pitch! Figure out who commissions opinion pieces at the publication you’re interested in and get in touch. Journalists are always looking for new voices and chances are, if you’re an expert in your field, you’ll have something interesting and worthwhile to say for a general audience. 
  2. Don’t use academic language. Jargon of any kind obscures meaning and you should be able to write as clearly and simply as possible for an audience with no background in your field. 
  3. Avoid “topics.” A topic is a subject area covered in an encyclopedia—great female philosophers in ancient Greece, say, or conflicting moral theories. An article will have a clear perspective or angle. 
  4. Writing simply doesn’t mean your article should be any less accurate. If your editor makes a change you disagree with, explain why and suggest an alternative. By the time the piece is published, both the writer and editor should be happy with the final result.
  5. If you’re unsure what to write about, ask yourself what you would talk about at a dinner party of non-philosophers. The idea that grabs the attention of your fellow diners and raises eyebrows likely has the makings of a strong article. 

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Olivia Goldhill studied philosophy at Harvard University, and she has a masters in journalism from City University London. She previously worked at The Telegraph in the UK, where she was a features writer, and she currently works as the weekend writer at Quartz, with a focus on philosophy and psychology.