A Philosophy for Talking about Philosophy

Posted on September 19, 2017 by

Some people become philosophers (or academics, more generally) because they want to be able to teach; they want to be experts in a subject and engage with the world and influence the beliefs and actions of others in a positive way. I think that’s a great and admirable reason to become an academic; I have to admit, that’s not why I did it. (My reasons are the subject of another post…)

As I started to explore philosophy as a career, I realized there were two questions I had to think about.

  1. What do I want to teach people?
  2. How do I want to influence public life and action?

The two questions are tangled up in some weird ways, but I think it’s best to start with what I mean by them in their most nebulous and existential-dread-inducing forms.

Every time it comes up that I am an academic, folks ask me what I am researching. The actual answer to this question is difficult on two levels; the first is that I’m intellectually promiscuous, usually chasing three or four research projects at a time, and the second is that I’ve never been able to come up with an English sentence that expresses my consistent area of research: a constructivist theory of the normativity of meaning and reasons.

The better approach I’ve found is that I do better, both as a conversation partner and human being, if I try to offer one interesting piece of philosophical insight that might be of some genuine value to the person kind enough to ask.

It is also a really good exercise for teaching, because being able to say something that’s accessible, interesting, and useful all at once is a pedagogical trifecta.

The second second question is one that, realistically, should’ve bothered me for a lot longer. My father is socially and politically active, and a sense of civic responsibility was an inescapable lesson throughout my childhood, but I really started to think about it when I had started engaging with bioethics, and saw that philosophers had the potential to seriously impact public policy and professional ethics in ways that made a demonstrable difference.

There are a lot of philosophers who embody this approach well, though the particular philosophers who influenced my personal journey were Matthew Liao and David DeGrazia. Philosophers aren’t political activists, or even politically interested, by necessity, but one of the odd vocational obligations that comes with studying and teaching ethics seems to be the obligation to make one’s moral community more ethical.

I don’t particularly want to get into how I’m going about answering these questions. My answers are still developing, and I’m far from confident in them; they’re also longer than would make sense for this post.

I will say, though, that it is something to think about in public engagement, understood in the broadest sense of the idea. Blogging (and the rest of the social media domain) provides a useful outlet for that; one in which I’m trying to become competent. General conversation is another. Teaching the lower-division philosophy course (with the knowledge that most of your students may never take another) is a third. All of these provide an opportunity for consideration of how to answer these two questions.