Philosophy for All

Writing in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, philosophy professor Eric Schwitzgebel urges something of an aggiornamento in the way philosophers practice their craft.

Noting "the historical contingency of the journal article, a late-19th century invention," Schwitzgebel urges his colleagues to publish in platforms that connect with more people and a broader array of human concerns. In Schwitzgebel's words: "Too exclusive a focus on technical journal articles excludes non-academics from the dialogue — or maybe, better said, excludes us philosophers from non-academics' more important dialogue."


"Popular essays, fictions, aphorisms, dialogues, autobiographical reflections and personal letters have historically played a central role in philosophy," writes Schwitzgebel. "So also have public acts of direct confrontation with the structures of one's society: Socrates' trial and acceptance of the hemlock; Confucius' inspiring personal correctness."

Schwitzgebel has a pronounced confidence in the possibilities of social media and other 21st century mediums:

A conversation in social media, if good participants bring their best to the enterprise, has the potential to be a philosophical creation of the highest order, with a depth and breadth beyond the capacity of any individual philosopher to create. A video game could illuminate, critique and advance a vision of worthwhile living, deploying sight, hearing, emotion and personal narrative as well as (why not?) traditional verbal exposition — and it could potentially do so with all the freshness of thinking, all the transformative power and all the expository rigor of Hume, Kant or Nietzsche.

I'm not sure I share his confidence in social media (I've seen too many Facebook conversations liquefy into anger), but I appreciate his desire to make philosophy a more relevant, engaging enterprise. This is precisely why I majored in it: philosophy spoke to fundamental human concerns and gave me the intellectual resources to begin to make sense of existence. But I had the privilege to study the subject at a Jesuit university (Saint Louis University), where the big questions -- Do we have free will? Can God's existence be proved? What is happiness? -- were central to the curriculum. Not all philosophy departments are like that, and Schwitzgebel has done a service by reminding readers of philosophy's breadth and its possibilities for animating essential conversations.  

See here for his full op-ed.  

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