Is a Public Philosophy Still Possible?

Are we living in a “golden age” of public philosophy, as some claim? There sure is a lot of it, as magazines, blogs, podcasts, and Substack newsletters proliferate. Even the New York Times ran a philosophy column for over a decade in which philosophers shared their thoughts on issues “timely and timeless” with the hoi polloi. Is this deluge of wisdom a boon for democratic deliberation or a vanity project for academic philosophers who feel embarrassed to be counting angels on a pin’s head while Rome is burning? A cursory glance at the world provides little evidence that enlightenment is spreading. Yet philosophers do grapple with the most pressing human questions: How should we live? What defines a good society? Does this qualify them to shape public discourse and guide us through tumultuous times? Two strands of public philosophy are on offer today: the grassroots Socratic approach and the elitist, top-down Platonic. Both have limitations: the former is ineffective, the latter is paternalistic. But if we strike the right balance between the two approaches, we can anchor liberal societies in a robust philosophical foundation. Or so I hope!   At its most ambitious, public philosophy “aspires to liberate the subject from its academic confines” and “offer non-philosophers a way of participating in the activity,” Agnes Callard recently wrote in The Point, a small magazine with a big mission: to create “a society where the examined life is not an abstract ideal but an everyday practice.” The concept of the “examined life” derives from Socrates, of course, who famously declared that “an unexamined life is not worth living” — a radical claim that never fails to baffle my students. Their idea of a fulfilling life is very different from Socrates’s. They want to study medicine, law, engineering, social work, education,

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