It often seems that philosophy today is torn between ever more technical and rarified academic concerns on one hand, and media-friendly, ‘dumbed down’ self-help books and trite homespun clichés on the other. Can philosophy be both serious and popular? Some argue that popular engagement with philosophy is vital to help us flourish as individuals and a society. Others worry that popularisers can do more harm than good by misinterpreting philosophical ideas. So, is ‘popular philosophy’ a contradiction in terms?
Maybe what might be derisively termed ‘pub philosophy’ is more in the spirit of ancient philosophy than today’s academic philosophy. In classical times, thinking clearly was not an end in itself, but an important part of the ‘good life’. Alternatively, many of the greatest philosophers could also write with a clarity and penetration that anyone can read – figures from Plato to Bertrand Russell. Is there something to be said for supplementing the cold rationality of the academy (and the potentially dangerous ascendancy of science and its white-coated experts) with a less arid idea of wisdom – a wisdom based upon experience, with room for intuition and even emotion? Critics suggest this amounts to a ‘downsizing’ of philosophy since the high days of the Enlightenment, reflecting a concern not so much with ‘the truth’ as ‘my life’. Does popular philosophy lend itself too easily to the vulgar demands of consumer society and therapy culture?
What is the proper role of philosophy in society? Should philosophers make their work relevant to everyday problems, and should we see them as experts, with special authority to speak on ethical problems in public life? When philosophers write for a non-specialist audience, are they ‘doing philosophy’, or merely communicating or introducing something that happens elsewhere? Could it be that philosophical reflection is an activity whose time is coming again, as people grow increasingly suspicious of religion, disconnected from consumerism, and long for more than self-help?
|Dr James Gledhill
fellow in political theory, LSE; co-convenor, IoI Postgraduate Forum
journalist; author, God: all that matters and The Big Questions: God
author of If Minds Had Toes, a book of popular philosophy.
|Professor Tim Crane
Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy, University of Cambridge; author The Meaning of Belief (Harvard UP 2017)
The Philosophers' Magazine put ten 10 questions to ten leading thinkers. Here is how they answered just one of them: Has philosophy responded adequately to the big events and debates of the last decade, such as climate change and the post-9/11 world?Various, Taking Philosophy blog, 6 June 2008
Drawing his inspiration from 42 of the funniest, wisest, and quirkiest quotations on the big questions in life, Vernon offers a light-hearted look at what philosophy has to say about life, the Universe, and everything.
Mark Vernon, Oneworld, 1 March 2008