Joe Humphreys is a journalist with The Irish Times, for which he produces the weekly ‘Unthinkable’ philosophy column. I spoke with Joe about philosophical journalism, philosophy for children, and his advice for writing philosophy for general audiences.
How did you become a journalist covering the philosophy beat?
Philosophy can seem remote from day-to-day news coverage but I’ve always tried to introduce philosophical ideas, or at least reference to philosophical thinkers, where possible in writing for The Irish Times. This took on a more formal shape on World Philosophy Day 2013 when I started the weekly ‘Unthinkable’ column–a kind of philosophers’ corner–where I would ask a thinker or author to advance an “idea of significance” which I would then attempt to interrogate.
The aim was to introduce ideas outside of the mainstream, and also to showcase philosophy that is being done in Ireland and internationally–acting as a bridge, in a relatively modest way, between academia and the public. Thankfully, the column is still going strong.
What’s your background in philosophy?
I studied philosophy through politics and thus, initially, was predominantly au fait with political philosophers. I did an MA in Political Philosophy, doing my thesis on “the right to food”, which is probably a bit dated now given obesity is killing more people than starvation, or so Yuval Noah Harari reminds us in his new book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.
I studied at University College Dublin, and a real inspiration there was Fr Fergal O’Connor, a Dominican priest who introduced legions of undergrads to Plato, Rousseau and Hobbes. He would never have got a job in higher education today because he was “research inactive”, didn’t publish anything, and tried to subvert performance-related targets at every turn. For example, he gave students the questions to the exams at the start of each year so the class could concentrate on Socratic dialogue instead, but he was a superb teacher who engendered curiosity and wonder in equal measure.
How compatible are journalism and philosophy?
This is a question I’ve struggle to resolve. Journalism and philosophy are distinct activities, each with its own set of rules and customs. Ludwig Wittgenstein used “journalist” as a term of abuse for someone whose thinking was superficial or lacking in rigor. He once wrote, complete with Donald Trump-style angry capitals:
What is the use of studying philosophy… if it does not make you more conscientious than any… journalist in the use of the DANGEROUS phrases such people use for their own ends.
Friedrich Nietzsche was similarly dismissive of journalists, proclaiming:
The newspaper epitomises the goal of today’s educational system, just as the journalist, servant of the present moment, has taken the place of the genius, our salvation from the moment and leader for the ages.
The more I reflect on these sort of comments, though, the more they have the ring of those people who blame “the media” for everything that’s wrong in society. There is no “the media”; there are various media organizations and agents, traditional and new, as different as chalk and cheese.
The truth is there is good and bad journalism, and good and bad philosophy, and each must be measured by its own standards. Journalism can act as a gateway to philosophical thought; one might think of The Stone column in The New York Times as a good example of this. Or when Derek Parfit died recently, it was to a New Yorker profile by Larissa MacFarquhar which many people turned to get an understanding of his significance.
But whether you can “do philosophy” through journalism is an open question.
What might be called “anti-philosophical” forces do operate within journalism, including commercial forces and ideological forces, including editorial biases. There are other, more mundane considerations for journalists–like writing to fit a limited space in print, or writing instantly or against tight deadlines for online–which contribute to an imperfect, deliberative process.
However, journalism–in the ideal–is about trying to understand the world, speaking truth to power and revealing uncomfortable facts. Many but not all philosophers share these concerns.
How popular are philosophical articles among general audiences compared to other beats?
They do surprisingly well, and they often have what journalists call a “long tail” in that they can attract new readers long after being first published. If a piece is picked up on Reddit or a similar platform it goes up another level.
Early this morning (January 18, 2017), for example, the day after British prime minister Theresa May gave her Brexit plan speech and two days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, the most read article on the entire Irish Times website–at least for a while –was an interview I did for the column with Peter Adamson about the Islamic scholar Avicenna (980-1037) and his argument for the existence of God. Who knew there’s still a demand for medieval theology?
That said, probably the biggest readership I’ve had for a piece on philosophy was for the short news report recording Irish President Michael D. Higgins’ comments on philosophy in schools. Clearly, he struck a chord.
On that note, I understand that you’re involved in a new initiative Philosophy Ireland, that was endorsed by Irish President Higgins on World Philosophy Day 2016, and which aims to get more people philosophizing. Can you tell me a little about the initiative?
Philosophy Ireland has sprung from a slowly building campaign to introduce philosophy as a subject in schools. There have been attempts going back decades to promote “Philosophy for Children” (P4C) at both primary and secondary level but they have struggled to get off the ground.
Philosophy Ireland is providing a new focus to these efforts by bringing together a broad coalition of teachers, academics, and ordinary citizens who are not just interested in philosophy as an educational subject but see its proliferation as a means of raising the quality of public inquiry and political debate. There is now real momentum behind the campaign, and President Michael D. Higgins’s endorsement of teaching philosophy as a way to tackling the shift towards a “post-truth” world has attracted much attention internationally.
One of the basic principles of Philosophy Ireland is that philosophy is for everyone. It’s not meant to be practiced within the confines of obscure academic journals. It’s not meant to be an exclusive activity, controlled by aged gatekeepers. And what’s clear from those who do P4C is children are natural philosophers; they will come up with questions and new perspectives that adults could never think of.
This isn’t to say that doing philosophy is easy. I’m with Rebecca Newbridger Golstein when she says “philosophical thinking that doesn’t do violence to one’s settled mind is no philosophical thinking at all” (in Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away). But I’ve yet to be convinced by academic philosophers–or indeed academics of any kind–who claim their thoughts are so special that only a chosen few can comprehend them.
From the website, it looks like the initiative is focused on primarily on philosophy in schools at the moment – is that right? Can you give an example as to how the program is working with schools? And how do you envision it operating with universities, community groups, and public agencies?
Yes, at the moment the big push is on schools. A number of European countries have had philosophy on the curriculum for decades. The fact that most schools in Ireland continue to fall under the control of the Catholic Church has perhaps limited the scope for its introduction here, although advocates of P4C would stress that philosophy is not necessarily in conflict with religious education. An overcrowded curriculum is also an obstacle.
A modest plan to introduce a philosophy short course for students in their early teens–roughly 13-16 years old–has been advanced, and the course is being taught in a number of schools for the first time this year. To scale up this initiative, however, we need to train teachers and Philosophy Ireland has been organizing workshops to this end.
As you’ve highlighted, though, the aim of Philosophy Ireland is to promote philosophizing not just in schools but in society. Ideally, that means more philosophizing in the pub, on the airwaves, and around the kitchen table. Recent political and economic upheavals have arguably fueled the demand for philosophy. People are looking for new solutions to economic and political problems, and there’s a real appetite for disruptive thinking which is reflected in various forms of grassroots campaigning.
As a relatively small but very enthusiastic group, Philosophy Ireland is limited in its capacity to organize community-based initiatives but members are very active on social media, and indeed in the mainstream media, spreading the gospel. A recent article in The Guardian by founding member, UCD-based philosopher Charlotte Blease, for example, was picked up very widely. It attracted the interest of, among others, the esteemed cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett on Twitter. Another member, Dr Robert Grant, a tutor of philosophy and logic at Trinity College Dublin, is working on a TV documentary on the value of philosophy to society. All this helps to raise awareness, if not to demonstrate philosophy in action.
Do you see this project being rolled out to the U.S. too? There are P4C programs operating around the world. However, given the “post-truth” society that President Higgins refers to and the U.S. Senate’s threats to the Office of Congressional Ethics, for example, how feasible is a ‘Philosophy America’ initiative?
Despite–or perhaps because of–recent political events, the U.S. is ripe for a grassroots philosophical renaissance. After all, the P4C movement was founded in America by the late Matthew Lipman, whose work carries on through the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children at Montclair State University, New Jersey.
As I understand, sporadic attempts have been made to embed philosophy in the school curriculum in the US with mixed success. One of the obstacles is the educational model that we share in Ireland which focuses on measurable outcomes, grades and competition.
Philosophy in the classroom requires a different form of student assessment, which can be a major culture shock for schools. It is about recognizing the strength of arguments, identifying logical fallacies and sometimes balancing irreconcilable thoughts. Facilitating such philosophical inquiry in the classroom requires skills which are not necessarily part of teacher training. Nor are they particularly valued in an education system that is obsessed with “results”.
As to whether philosophy’s stock could rise in the “post-truth” society, I’m reminded of Marco Rubio’s comment during the Republican nomination campaign “we need more welders and less philosophers”. I suspect Donald Trump shares his view.
However, among the public I sense a genuine desire for disruptive thinking, similar to that in Ireland and across Europe. A lot of that public disquiet with the status quo has been exploited by nationalist politicians and narrow interest groups but there is scope for an alternative populism–if champions of reason can get organized.
A big responsibility lies with higher education. Universities in America and across the world are increasingly being turned into degree-factories to serve the global economy. And academics have contributed to their being sidelined in public debate by withdrawing into internecine feuds.
How much ink has been spent, for example, by philosophers and scientists trading insults over whose discipline is more important? Both face a much bigger existential threat: the idea, gaining currency in society, that truth doesn’t matter.
A first step towards reasserting reason in the public sphere is to highlight what all self-respecting teachers and academics share, namely a commitment to rational argument. There needs to be a way to re-educate society on how knowledge is created, and that means academics including philosophers breaking out of the comfort zone, getting organized and engaging with the general public.
Charlotte Blease put it well in her recent article:
If educators assume philosophy is pointless, it’s fair to say that most academic philosophers (unlike, say, mathematicians, or linguists) are still territorial, or ignorant, about the viability of their subject beyond the cloisters. If educators need to get wise, philosophers need to get over themselves.
What do you think will be the most pressing or interesting issue in the philosophy beat in 2017?
Diversity of opinion: how to encourage it, and how to handle it. Academic philosophy continues to have a major diversity problem–as has been increasingly highlighted in recent years–in terms of the gender gap and the neglect of traditions outside of the U.S.-European tradition. There is also the question of how to deal with diversity of opinion, especially in polarized political environments. The need to re-examine tolerance, and to recommit to it, is urgent.
An interesting experiment worth keeping an eye on in 2017 is taking place in Ireland where the notoriously divisive issue of abortion is being referred to a citizens’ assembly which will make recommendations to the Irish parliament on how to legislate on the matter into the future. It is attempting to bring about a degree of consensus by hearing from experts in ethics, medicine and law – and to achieve what some believe is unachievable by moderating seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints through calm, informed deliberation.
What are your top five tips for academic philosophers who are interested in writing for general audiences?
- Keep it short.
- Think of one “take-away” message you want to get across to the reader and build your article around that.
- Make sure that it’s topical, or that it links to something of immediate relevance to the audience. For example, make reference something in the news which relates to the issue you’re writing about.
- Start with an interesting vignette, a joke or a bold statement; try to grab the reader’s attention from the off.
- Edit it down, remove as much technical jargon as you can (if you obfuscate with jargon you deserve not to be read), and keep it even shorter.
Do you have a favorite philosopher or philosophy book?
I’ve had favorites at different stages of my life. Alasdair McIntyre’s After Virtue was a big influence at one stage; the same goes for Camus and Wittgenstein. For a “popular philosophy” title, Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club was hard to beat.
If I had to choose one author I’m really drawn to at the moment it would be Raymond Tallis. He is logical and humane–a combination you don’t always find in philosophers (then again, his route to philosophy was circuitous)–and he has a keen sense of the absurd. Any philosopher who can make you laugh out loud deserves bonus points.
I agree! Has writing about philosophy changed your opinions? For example, what have you unexpectedly discovered when writing a philosophy article that has dramatically shifted your worldview?
Being disabled is a way of being a minority with respect to one’s body, just as being gay is a way of being a minority with respect to sexuality.
She makes a convincing case that many things we categorize as “bad” differences are, in fact, “mere” differences and only become bad by virtue of societal circumstances.
What would you say is your favorite philosophy article that you’ve written?
Gosh, it’s hard to think of one! I did really enjoy reviewing a series of philosophical books about death recently. Does that count?
Yes, certainly! And what’s your most under-appreciated or neglected philosophy article?
I’m not sure I’m best placed to answer that but I would say that Ireland has traditionally neglected its philosophical heritage–which is something I’ve tried to address in articles. A lot of people are unaware that influential thinkers such as Edmund Burke, Francis Hutcheson and George Berkeley were all Irish.
On an international stage, Philip Pettit at Princeton University–another Irishman, from Ballygar, County Galway–is not necessarily neglected but he is underutilized at a time when his progressive thinking on freedom and justice is urgently needed. I interviewed him a couple of years ago on the need to reign in the power of corporate entities, which is a problem that has only worsened.
You’ve already written three books–do you have any more in the pipeline?
I’ve lots of ideas for books (who doesn’t!) but finding time to work on them is a problem. A resolution for 2017 is to try to advance one of these creative concepts, although whether books per se are the way forward I don’t know. We seem to be in an era of constant distractions where people struggle to sustain the attention necessary to get through a book–and I confess I sometimes fall into that bracket myself.
An experienced news reporter who has previously specialized in sports, education and as a correspondent in Africa, Joe Humphreys currently acts as assistant news editor with The Irish Times and produces the weekly ‘Unthinkable’ philosophy column. He has written books on the shared teachings of world religions in The Story of Virtue: Universal Lessons in How to Live (Liffey Press), the ethics of sports in Foul Play: What’s Wrong with Sport (Icon Books) and the Irish missionary movement in God’s Entrepreneurs: How Irish Missionaries Tried to Change the World (New Island). He tweets @joehumphreys42.