Is a Public Philosophy Still Possible?

July 2024

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, and the like to realize their professional ambitions. They also want to find friends, fall in love, and go out and party. Socrates is not exactly telling them to throw their goals overboard. But he is telling them that they have no value whatsoever without relentless self-scrutiny. No wonder that Socrates admonishes his fellow-citizens with evangelical fervor. Their very salvation is at stake:

I shall treat in this way anyone I happen to meet, young and old, citizen and stranger…. I think there is no greater blessing for the city than my service to the god. I was placed in this city by the god as on a horse, great and of noble birth, which was sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly. I never cease to stir up each and every one of you, to persuade you and reproach you all day long.

Note that Socrates is not offering intellectual stimulation. He seeks nothing less than conversion:

I shall not cease…to point out to anyone of you whom I happen to meet: Good Sir, are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul? Then, if one of you disputes this and says he does care, I shall examine him…, and if I do not think he has attained the goodness that he says he has, I shall reproach him because he attaches little importance to the most important things and greater importance to inferior things.

Socrates has immense confidence in the power of reason. Argument, he thinks, can remove false beliefs about what benefits us and then get us to reframe our lives around the truth. Nobody is so dumb to chase things of little value and neglect things of great value once they grasp what really is to their advantage.

Liberal-egalitarians will find an ally in Socrates. For one thing, he is inclusive: the gadfly piques everyone. Sure, Socrates is in your face. But he doesn’t force you to change. Nor does he pour wisdom into your head. As an intellectual “midwife” he wants to help you give birth to your own ideas, making sure that they are founded in reason. This might still be too much for the complacent or the self-righteous. But it certainly fits nicely with John Stuart Mill’s brand of liberalism, for example, that champions critical thinking and vigorous debate. Karl Popper celebrated Socrates as the first advocate of the “open society.”

The values that we embrace, Socrates argues, guide our choices. Scrutinizing them is crucial. If you really want to be pious, make sure you know what piety is. If you really want to be just, make sure you know what justice is. In short: if you really want to do well and thrive, make sure you know what that means. Who would not rally behind public philosophy if it could steer us to an examined life steeped in virtue and wisdom?

The crises piling up around us add urgency to Socratic public philosophy. We need all the help we can get to make good decisions. I was finishing high school in Germany when the Cold War ended. With friends I drove to Berlin to watch thousands of East Germans climb over the Wall. We were mesmerized by what seemed like the triumph of freedom. In the decades that followed the world enjoyed more freedom than ever before. And yet, thirty-five years later, I am scratching my head. What are we doing with it?

Liberals hail the freedom to live as we please. We can celebrate Christmas, Diwali, or Gay Pride; donate money to Greenpeace or the National Rifle Association; stay with one partner “till death do us part” or go out with a new one every week. Yet even in a perfect liberal society in which we have freedom, a fair share of resources, and equal opportunities to advance, we still need to learn how to craft worthwhile lives. What liberal societies fail to give us is the tools to deliberate within our freedoms and make good use of all that choice.

The last few years have plunged us into ever-growing confusion: extreme weather, divisive ideologies, global health crises, populist upheaval, billionaires buzzing through space next to capsized migrant dinghies washing up on shores, intractable wars, technological revolutions, disinformation. These challenges don’t come out of nowhere. The world we live in is the world we create through our choices: the dreams we nurse, the careers we pursue, the politicians we elect, the stuff we buy, the vacations we plan, the charities we support, the social networks we join. In liberal societies, where free and equal citizens are the sovereign, we cannot point fingers at kings, popes, or despots when things go wrong.

Consider the politicians we elect. Plato’s critique of democracy never failed to spark spirited protest in my classroom. A state where the demos, the people, rule, Plato argues, is like a “ship of fools.” To make it safely to the other shore, we need a seasoned captain at the helm, not passengers who have no clue about navigation. Pass the rudder to the demos and they will run the state into the ground. My students who grew up with the firm conviction that liberal democracy is the best political system were keen to recapture the captain’s wheel. Pushing back on Plato, they stressed the value of freedom, collective wisdom, and the need to hold rulers accountable.

On a cold winter day in 2017, however, fervor gave way to gloom. More than one hundred students had signed up for my Intro to Political Philosophy. Not one was eager to speak up for democracy. At first I was surprised. Then I saw a raised hand. “Didn’t you watch the inauguration of the new American president last week?” the student asked. “Maybe democracies are ships of fools after all!” The other students nodded. By then even diehard optimists conceded that the moral arc of the universe at best looks like a zigzagging line. Suddenly the post–World War II political order trembled. One day we had been discussing transgender bathrooms. The next day a full-blown assault on the foundations of liberalism was underway: an American president who would go on to incite a mob to storm the Capitol in Washington; the United Kingdom breaking out of the European Union; nationalist, populist, and even fascist movements popping up everywhere. On September 11, Islamic terrorists flew airplanes into Western skyscrapers. These days leaders, duly elected by the people, strive to dismantle the system from within.

Can public philosophy rescue liberal societies from turning into ships of fools? At stake is our most basic moral paradigm: the “morality of self-governance,” which replaced the “morality of obedience” from the seventeenth century onwards, as Jerome Schneewind argues in his classic study The Invention of Autonomy:

All of us, on this view, have an equal ability to see for ourselves what morality calls for and are in principle equally able to move ourselves to act accordingly. […] The conception of morality as self-governance provides a conceptual framework for a social space in which we may each rightly claim to direct our own actions without interference from the state, the church, the neighbors, or those claiming to be better or wiser than we.

Consider Kant’s “motto” of the Enlightenment: “Sapere aude!” “Dare to use your own reason!” It is addressed to those who out of “laziness and cowardice” follow “the guidance of others”: the guidance of a “book” or the guidance of a “priest.” Kant is optimistic: we can all become captains and competently steer our individual and communal lives. The sting of the gadfly is just what we need to help us overcome “laziness and cowardice” and embrace rational self-rule. If public philosophy can help us with that, it would be a blessing indeed.

Socrates’s debates are anything but academic. Take, for example, his dialogue on the nature of piety with Euthyphro, the diviner-priest. The stakes could not be higher. Euthyphro insists that it is his pious duty to indict his own father for murder. But is his understanding of piety correct? Concurrently, the people of Athens have charged Socrates with impiety. His trial is looming. Will they wrongly put to death the very man striving to save them?

Or consider inquisitors, missionaries, terrorists, and others who through the ages have done things in the name of piety that are questionable to say the least. In 1995 Yigal Amir, a right-wing Jew, assassinated Israel’s prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, followed by a string of suicide attacks in Israeli cities ordered by Hamas. Together, in God’s name, they derailed the Oslo peace process.

As is typical for Socratic debates, the one with Euthyphro ends in an impasse. Socrates knocks down every definition of piety that Euthyphro proposes. Does this mean that the exercise was futile? Not at all. Socrates has freed Euthyphro from the illusion of knowledge. Identifying and discarding false beliefs is a prerequisite for finding the truth. But will we hit on the right answer eventually? If we can count, measure, and weigh things, Socrates notes, disputes are quickly resolved. Concerning “the just and unjust, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad,” however, disagreement persists. For Socrates the realm of values is messier than that of mathematics. We cannot know for sure what piety is.

Still, some beliefs about piety are more plausible than others. Say, you propose a definition of piety that is not refuted in a Socratic debate. Granted, it may still be refuted the next time you enter the ring. Yet each failed refutation is a reason to believe the definition is sound. At the same time, even the most scrutinized definition hasn’t been proven beyond doubt. At the very end of his life Socrates is willing to reexamine — and, if need be, to revise — his long-held views on justice. Following his death sentence, his friends urge him to escape from prison. After probing the matter thoroughly, Socrates concludes that this would be wrong.

The “examined life,” then, is not something you can learn like the periodic table, long division, or the passé composé. It is a lifelong practice, driven by the desire to get the values you live by right while conceding that you may be wrong. In this sense, public philosophy in the Socratic mode does not offer answers. It aims to get us hooked on an open-ended Socratic quest.

 

Plato thought that Socrates’s gadfly mission — the attempt to change people’s minds and lives through argument — didn’t stand a chance. Yes, the parable of the cave is a moving tribute to Socrates’s effort to drag the cave dwellers up to the light. But it also highlights his spectacular failure: “And, as for anyone who tried to free [the cave dwellers] and lead them upward, if they could somehow get their hands on him, wouldn’t they kill him? They certainly would.”

Plato’s pessimism about Socrates’s project has two reasons; one we can dismiss, the other we should take seriously. Here is the former: Plato was an elitist who argued that most human beings are cave dwellers by nature. They are in the grip of lust, greed, and ambition. Even the best education cannot enlighten them. Only the select few have the desire and the talent for wisdom. On this view, trying to convert people from chasing after wealth, reputation and honors” to caring for “the best possible state of the soul” is like trying to introduce the deaf to music. Most of us are unable to govern ourselves rationally because of our deficient nature, not because of cowardice and laziness. No amount of Socratic argument — or public philosophy, for that matter — can get the masses to embrace the examined life or turn a ship of fools into a vessel of the wise.

Plato’s other worry, the one we should engage with, concerns not nature but nurture. Even “the best nature,” he contends, risks being “corrupted by its upbringing”: “It will grow to possess every virtue if it happens to receive appropriate instruction, but if it is sown, planted, and grown in an inappropriate environment, it will develop in quite the opposite way.” Consider Plato’s visit to the south of Italy. He stresses how “profoundly displeased” he was by “what they call the ‘happy life’” there: “a life filled with Italian and Syracusan banquets, with men gorging themselves twice a day and never sleeping alone at night, and following all the other customs that go with this way of life.”

This decadent lifestyle, Plato contends, corrupts everyone: “For no man under heaven who has cultivated such practices from his youth could possibly grow up to be wise […] or become temperate, or indeed acquire any other part of virtue.” Note, finally, that Plato takes the corruption to be irreversible: “There isn’t now, hasn’t been in the past, nor ever will be in the future anyone with a character so unusual that he has been educated to virtue in spite of the contrary education he received from the mob.” Socratic argument, Plato insists, simply cannot pierce through to the partying Italians — even if they were by nature able to live an examined life geared towards virtue and wisdom.

Plato, you will object, is exaggerating. There are people who radically change their life. In Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, Deborah Feldman tells how she left the Hasidic Satmar community in Brooklyn to become a bohemian writer in Berlin. My father hopped from one worldview to another. As a teenager he wanted to become a rabbi, after high school an engineer, in university a communist, and in his thirties a New Age mystic.

But even if there are exceptions, Plato’s critique of Socrates’s project still holds. Recall that Socrates — and all champions of public philosophy — are not trying to reach this or that eccentric outlier. They want to effect large-scale change — to create “a society where the examined life is not an abstract ideal but an everyday practice.” That is where Plato’s skepticism is spot-on. Consider this ancient testimony of what an encounter with Socrates entailed:

Whoever associates with [Socrates] in conversation must necessarily… keep on being led about by the man’s arguments until he submits to answering questions about himself concerning both his present manner of life and the life he has lived until now. And Socrates will not let him go before he has well and truly tested every last detail.

Now picture Socrates pestering your family, friends, and colleagues about their values and convictions. Or picture him showing up at a medical convention, a law firm, a university seminar, a science lab, a museum, the opera — places where he will run into educated, open-minded people. Will they engage in longwinded Socratic discussions, then step out of their busy professional and family lives and rebuild them around new values? Or will they turn their back on Socrates, show him the door, and, if he refuses to leave, call the police? The great majority, I bet, will kick him out.

Aristotle agrees with Plato. Trying to change people through argument is a waste of time at best. At worst they will do to you what Athenians did to Socrates:

If arguments were sufficient by themselves to make people good, then they would have won many great rewards… But as things are they appear to have the power…to make susceptible to virtue [only] a character that is well bred and truly loves what is noble.

Only people who have been brought up in the right way — who have internalized the right beliefs and values — benefit from theory. It explains to them why they feel and act as they already do, and it helps them to further refine their choices. People corrupted by their upbringing, on the other hand, are irredeemable:

What argument could reform people like this? For displacing by argument what has been long entrenched in people’s characters is difficult if not impossible.

Recall Chidi Anagonye, in the NBC sit-com The Good Place, comically failing to reform bad girl Eleanor Shellstrop through lectures on moral philosophy. Plato and Aristotle would not have been surprised.

Yet we would not be living in a “golden age” of public philosophy unless there was a broad audience to consume it. Does that mean that we are, on average, more receptive to arguments than ancient Athenians? I don’t think so. As Callard stresses, public philosophy is often a form of highbrow entertainment. It makes “us feel smarter, deeper, better informed”; it puts “a spring in our intellectual step.” There is nothing wrong “with intellectually engaging fun,” she adds. But “there is something wrong with calling that philosophy.” Intellectual titillation is one thing. The examined life another.

At the same time, there is no shortage of aesthetic and intellectual spaces for gadfly-style critique in liberal societies — from literature to arthouse cinema, from performance art to late-night comedy. But does it make a difference? We may feel unsettled for a moment, reflect on prejudices, or ponder social conventions. Yet once we close the book, finish discussing the film, leave the exhibit, or click on the next link, life goes on as before. Nothing changes. One might wonder if these spaces are not a fig leaf for the status quo. By conveying a false sense of openness to radical self-interrogation, they help to keep things as they are.

Plato and Aristotle, at any rate, did not believe that arguments (or other bottom-up approaches) can effect change. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt shares their skepticism about reason’s power. We are “emotional dogs with rational tails,” he argues. It is wrong to picture reason as an impartial judge who decides based on evidence and deliberation. Reason is as ancillary as a dog’s tail: a lawyer who defends our entrenched values. Haidt likes to cite Hume: “reason is the slave of the passions.” This is why political debates are tribal and polarized. Consider pro-life and pro-choice advocates: no matter how many arguments they hurl at each other, they will not budge an inch. We are stuck in what Haidt dubs “righteous minds.”

In moral decisions, Haidt contends, “intuition” comes first, “reasoning” second. Both nature and nurture shape intuitions. Evolution selects for instincts that increase our own and our genes’ chances for survival — desires for food, drink, and sex, fear of predators, loyalty to one’s clan, protecting one’s offspring. Social norms, in turn, determine more concretely what we are drawn to and repulsed by.

No wonder that Socrates’s attempt to make Athenians wise through argument backfired so badly. Many modern endeavors, too, are pipedreams on Haidt’s view: from Jürgen Habermas’s ideal society where genuinely free and equal citizens submit to the “unforced force of the better argument” to Elon Musk’s suggestion that unfettered freedom to spew out opinions on Twitter promotes democratic discussion.

Plato and Aristotle are as keenly aware as Haidt of our powerful non-rational impulses —   Plato calls them the “multicolored beast” in us. But there is one crucial difference. They believe that “intuition” and “reason” can be aligned. Reason is not by default the master of the passions. But it also is not inevitably their slave.

Plato was in his mid-twenties when Socrates swallowed the hemlock. Traumatized, he concluded that instead of trying to change the righteous minds of adults, we must mold the still flexible minds of children — not through rational persuasion, however, but through enforcing rational norms.

Every parent knows what Plato means. If you want your children to eat their vegetables, brush their teeth, and do their homework, don’t lecture them on obesity, cavities, and the importance of study. They grasp the short-term pleasures of candy and video games, not the long-term advantages of a healthy lifestyle and a university degree. You must put in place incentives and deterrents to rewire their experience of pleasure and pain. Offset, for example, short-term pleasures and pains with greater pleasures and pains that they understand (a family movie if they have done all their duties; no playdate tomorrow if the homework is incomplete). My children are now avid readers. But when they first started stringing letters, words, and sentences together, it was not fun. To move them over the threshold from pain to pleasure, from no fun to fun, I didn’t give a sermon on the benefits of literacy. I nudged them with small rewards.

This is how Plato describes the goal of “paideia” (education):

Once the child has [developed] the right [tastes and] distastes, he will praise fine things, be pleased by them, receive them into his soul, and, being nurtured by them, become fine and good. He will rightly object to what is shameful, hating it while he is still young and unable to grasp the reason, but, having been educated in this way, he will welcome the reason when it comes and recognize it easily because of its kinship with himself.

Aristotle gives the thumbs up to Platonic paideia: people brought up in this way are precisely the people who benefit from moral instruction.

So how do we move from a society that corrupts citizens to one that enables them to flourish? If reasoning cannot pierce through, Plato argues, we must go for a revolution. Of course he doesn’t call for storming the Bastille. In his view we cannot change social structures from below. Take women in Athens, for example. They are not inferior to men by nature, Plato contends, but owing to the crippled life they lead, excluded from education, culture, and politics. Persuading them to rebel, however, will not work because their desires have been distorted. They have naturalized their inferiority. Instead the transformation must come from above: philosophers take over the state and create a “clean slate” by tearing down social and cultural institutions and expelling all citizens over the age of ten who have already been corrupted by the old regime. Then they design new institutions — especially a top-notch education system — that direct children to virtue and wisdom.

Molding minds is not the revolution’s only purpose. The rulers also put conditions in place that allow citizens to do what they like. You cannot pursue your love for learning unless there are schools, libraries, museums, and universities in town. Opera lovers need opera houses and cinema lovers need cinemas. To ski, you need slopes and to swim, pools. To reduce your ecological footprint you need recycling bins, good public transport, and safe bike lanes. This gives rise to a second objection to the Socratic approach: even if we could win people over through argument, we still need to put the conditions in place that allow them to realize the examined lives they choose.

Public philosophy, as Plato and Aristotle conceive it, is rationality embodied in social structures set up by wise rulers. These structures first mold citizens in the right way and then ensure that they can live the lives they love. It is still an examined life — only that the examining is done by the philosophers in charge (as parents do the examining for their children).

The most prominent contemporary champion of public philosophy in the Platonic-Aristotelian sense is Martha Nussbaum, especially when she first set out her ideas about how to promote human wellbeing in the late 1980s and 1990s. (Note that Nussbaum, in later revisions of her approach, made considerable efforts to integrate liberal rights and freedoms. Her 1997 book, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, moreover, overlaps in some respects with my own proposal. However, the problems with the top-down approach, never got quite resolved in my view.) A key passage for Nussbaum is Aristotle’s claim in the Politics that “the best constitution” is that “according to which anyone whosoever is able to do best and to live a flourishing life.” Like Plato and Aristotle, Nussbaum is deeply concerned that we will miss out on such a life if we are corrupted through our upbringing. There are “entire communities,” she writes, “that teach, and deeply believe, false values that are inimical to true human flourishing: excessive love of money, excessive preoccupation with honour and reputation, an unbalanced attachment to the warlike life, a deficient concern with due procedure and human equality in the administration of justice.”

Aristotle, Nussbaum points out, “stresses throughout his ethical and political writings that many people are badly educated and therefore want the wrong things.” This is why the goal of a good ruler should not be satisfying “people’s subjective preferences.” Like Plato, she highlights the crippling lives imposed on women: “Women in many parts of the world… have been so deeply and thoroughly taught to believe that they should not be educated, and in general should not function in various non-traditional ways, that they lack desire for these functionings.” Again, like Plato and Aristotle, she opts for the top-down approach. It is the job of philosopher-rulers to engineer good lives:

The close link that Aristotle wishes to establish between philosophy and public policy (between perspicuous and comprehensive foundational argument and empirical designing) is rarely found in the contemporary world. The Aristotelian conception urges us not to forget that link.

The “most urgent task of the philosopher, qua worker for the human good is, to think about such (to some modern eyes) unphilosophical topics as the number of children one should encourage, the nature of funding for public meals, the purity of water supply, the distance of the marketplace from the sea.” The philosopher’s “total task” has three components: to develop “in the young” the features of human nature that will enable them to flourish when they grow up; to “maintain those features in the adult”; and “to create and preserve the circumstances” under which these lives can be realized. Philosopher-rulers must assess how policies affect “the totality of a person’s way of living and acting.” They “cannot simply aim at designing a good and just health care scheme, or a good system of education, but must consider the total picture at all times.”

Nussbaum wants the Aristotelian conception of the good life to provide “the philosophical underpinning…of basic constitutional principles that should be respected and implemented by the governments of all nations.” If Nussbaum had her way, Aristotle’s prescriptions would be followed around the globe! Note, however, that Nussbaum does not think that most human beings are cave dwellers by nature. The rule of philosophers is transient: once citizens have been brought up correctly, they can take charge of their lives — like grown-up children who are no longer defiant, but have matured and become “reasonable.” In this sense there is space for rational self-governance. But that much freedom even Plato was willing to grant:

We don’t allow them to be free until we establish a constitution in them […] and by fostering their best part with our own equip them with a guardian and ruler similar to our own to take our place. Then, and only then, we set them free.

Nussbaum’s goal is to somehow reconcile paternalism with egalitarianism. However, even in Nussbaum’s egalitarian version the Platonic approach removes the freedom to live as we please, which is the cornerstone of liberal societies. Is this something we should give up? Here are a few reasons why we shouldn’t: Kant ties human dignity to autonomy — our ability to determine our own goals. Mill urges us to custom-make life-plans suited to our personal talents and desires. He is, moreover, a fallibilist, like Socrates: even after extensive scrutiny our values are not beyond doubt, which is why we should not impose them on others. Finally, with all due respect to Aristotle, one size may not fit all. If there are multiple ways of thriving, the state shouldn’t promote one at the expense of others.

Are we, then, stuck between a rock and hard place? Does public philosophy come too late to change “righteous minds” or crush freedom? Fortunately, being pestered by a Socratic gadfly or submitting to the authority of a philosopher-king are not the only ways to promote the examined life. Here are a few thoughts on how we might integrate it successfully into an open society in which citizens are free to live as they please.

First, we must make philosophy classes mandatory in high school and college. The goal is not to teach students how to craft their lives, but to enable them to think through what that entails and then make their own choices. Serious thinking is not a natural attribute even in thinking beings. It needs to be learned. We would catch people in their late teens and early twenties as they move out of the parental home, facing big decisions that will define the shape of their personal and social lives: about education, work, love, relationships, family, politics, culture, and religion.

The classes I have in mind would cover both content and method. Consider philosophical proposals for how to live: far from being monolithic, they form a vigorous debate. “Both Plato and the truth are dear to me,” Aristotle writes. “But if they clash, it’s my pious duty to choose the truth.” Then he goes on to demolish the very foundation of Plato’s philosophy. And philosophers clash not only with each other. They also turn conventional ideas of happiness and flourishing on their head. If we took a tour of ancient Athens, all philosophers we would meet there would try to lure us into their schools by advertising their philosophy as the gateway to eudaimonia, a happy and flourishing life.

Sign me up! you will exclaim. Who does not want to be happy and flourish? But once the old bearded men in tunics start lecturing, you are in for a shock. Good looks, cool friends, Instagram-ready children, wealth, status, fame, an Ivy league degree, a stellar career? None of this matters. You can be completely miserable sipping champagne on a yacht and perfectly happy living in a slum, or so the Stoics argue. With the right attitude even the “bull of Phalaris” — a hollow bronze bull devised by the tyrant Phalaris to burn his victims alive — won’t upset you.

Many philosophers engage in radical experiments in living (to use Mill’s phrase) that challenge social norms, from Socrates’s incessant questioning and Diogenes’s case for living in a barrel to Sartre’s notion that we are “condemned” to freedom. Their writings can take on the role of the Socratic gadfly: jolt us into re-examining our upbringing, our career ambitions, our status anxieties, our views on morality and politics, our ideas of friendship, love, and family, the things we fear or feel sad about, our role in society, our place in the world.

But igniting a debate about the right way to live is not enough. Citizens also need to learn the skills of reasoned debate. That is why method is important: mastering techniques of argumentation — logical and semantic tools that allow us to clarify our views and give reasons for our claims, a contemporary version of what Aristotelians called the Organon, the “toolkit” of the philosopher. And alongside the techniques our students must be taught the virtues of discussion — valuing the truth more than winning an argument (that is, disciplining what Plato called thumos, or the “victory-loving” part of the soul) and trying one’s best to understand the viewpoint of the opponent. The debates we want are not based on the sophistical skill of making one’s own opinion prevail over others, but on the dialectical skill of engaging in a joint search for the truth.

Such classes, focused on content and method, would do much more to realize “a society where the examined life is not an abstract ideal but an everyday practice” than all the magazines, blogs, podcasts, newsletters, and op-ed pieces taken together, which now constitute the lion’s share of grassroots public philosophy.

At the same time I take seriously Plato and Aristotle’s case for the crucial role that early education and social environments play. But if we have booted out the state from our lives in the name of freedom, who will put structures in places to help us flourish? In fact, we don’t need the state for such pedagogy. In liberal societies we have freedom of association: we can band together with like-minded citizens and build institutions that suit our distinctive idea of a good and flourishing life. Examples abound: Hasidic Jews have their synagogues and yeshivas; Muslims their mosques and madrassas; hipsters their trendy bars and galleries; and the bourgeoisie, of course, has the opera.

Initially, existing institutions may not embody rationality in Plato and Aristotle’s sense. But this will begin to shift as citizens, empowered by mandatory philosophy classes, embrace an “examined life.” Gradually these citizens will reform the existing institutions and build new ones aligned with their considered values, ensuring that future generations will grow up in a philosophically informed environment which they can, in turn, refine and reform. Through this cycle, an open-ended feedback loop is established, connecting philosophical education to evolving institutions in a free and pluralistic society.

Aristotle, in fact, envisaged something like that as the second-best option: “The best thing, then, is for there to be correct public concern with such things. But if they are neglected in the public sphere, it would seem appropriate for each person to help his own children and friends on the way to virtue.” For those who value freedom more than Plato and Aristotle did, this option becomes the more attractive one.

However, doesn’t pluralism risk degenerating into balkanization? Isn’t there hope that citizens equipped with philosophical tools and virtues, will eventually converge on a single conception of the good life? If the history of philosophy is any indication, the answer here is “No”. When I was studying Arabic in Cairo (to be able to read philosophers like al-Farabi and Averroes in the original), I became friends with Egyptian students. They were pious Muslims and one Friday afternoon suggested I come with them to the mosque. After the sermon and prayer, they introduced me to their Imam. “A philosopher?” he asked, raising one eyebrow. “Isn’t philosophy an epic failure?” I watched his lips curl into an ironic smile. “There are as many answers as there are philosophers! Clearly reason alone gets us nowhere.” Then he held up the Koran. “Put your trust in God’s revealed word instead!”

Yet instead of citing the debate among philosophers to prove reason’s inability to give definitive answers, we can also consider it an invitation to join an investigation unfolding through the ages. We learn to ponder rival, yet well-reasoned answers; we realize that the answers we settle on are open to contestation and revision; we learn to take joy in the search even if it remains inconclusive. Though full agreement may be out of reach, a shared ethos is not. This fallibilist ethos offers an attractive alternative: to skeptics who think that reason can do nothing; dogmatic rationalists who think reason can clinch everything; leap-of-faith champions who advocate fideism instead of reason; and New Age gurus who appeal to “esoteric” insights above reason.

A public philosophy that calibrates the Socratic and Platonic approach in the way I suggest is our best shot to salvage “the morality of self-governance,” save us from coarse and nasty polarization, and prevent liberal democracies from turning into ships of fools.

Or is it already too late?

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