I am a citizen philosopher, and very likely, so are you.
So what is citizen philosophy, why is it a useful concept, and what is its role in the world?
Let’s begin by considering what we mean by philosophy, generally speaking. For a long time, philosophy has been considered an almost exclusively academic pursuit, so highly specialized that only a very few experts can properly be called philosophers. As Eric Schwitzgebel points out, this is a relatively new development. In the Western world, it traces its origins to classical Greece; each region of the world has its own history of philosophy or its analogue, from Egypt to China to the Americas. As with all fields of inquiry, philosophy has branched out and specialized until much of it would be barely comprehensible to its first practitioners. Indeed, almost all fields of inquiry we know today started out as a branch of philosophy: mathematics, logic, science, medicine, theology, you name it.
But Philosophy, or ‘love of wisdom’, began in the home, the workplace, the market square, and the street corner with curious, intelligent people who, newly enjoying the luxury of free time accorded by advances in food-acquisition technologies, began to ponder on the whys and hows of the natural world and of the human experience. These people weren’t originally chosen or designated by some authority as the ‘thinkers’ as opposed to everyone else, the ‘doers’; instead, philosophy originated, grew, and specialized organically. We, as a species, began to ask and answer ever more complex questions about how to best live in the world as members of societies, what’s going on within our own minds and why, what are our roles in the universe, and what it all means… including the question ‘what is meaning?’. Over time, certain individuals came to be recognized as particularly adept at asking and answering these important questions, and came to be considered specialists and authorities in their fields of inquiry. But philosophy, broadly construed, remained a pursuit of many more people than that.
Philosophy has been demystified by re-entering popular culture, to a significant extent. There’s an ever-growing audience for popular philosophy books, articles, magazines, podcasts, and blogs. The term itself has also been re-broadened, so to speak. ‘Philosophy’ has taken on many new shades of meaning as it’s used to refer to a particular view of life, or aesthetic taste, or set of aspirations, or working theory of knowledge, or organization method, or substitution for the loaded term ‘spiritual’ …even a brand of skin care products (this one disgusts me somewhat, as it offends my aesthetic taste and sense of the ‘sacred’ by capitalizing on public respect for one of my most beloved, to me non-commodifiable things). Some of its newfound popularity is the result of advancing secularization accompanied by the desire to retain transcendence and meaning; some is the result of our newly data-centric lives brought to us by the word wide web, creating the need to make sense of the deluge of new information available to us; some is the result of the blending, annexing, and clashing of cultures in a world now widely and intimately connected through advanced media technologies and ease of travel, creating the need to find ways of communicating and living together in a world of new complexities. It’s all happening so fast that each of us is experiencing the urgency to make sense of it all right away, in a way that is practicable in our own communities and subcultures, and in a way each of us can understand and readily communicate.
In short, philosophy is enjoying a comeback in the public square. What I’m calling citizen philosophers are those who ask and answer questions there, about the nature of the universe and how to make sense of our experiences of it, who are not necessarily engaged in professional or academic philosophy. While citizen philosophers tend to spend a significant amount of time engaged in such inquiry and are motivated to educate themselves widely and systematically, many find academic philosophy too arcane and obscure to help the rest of us navigate our increasingly complex lives.
I, for one, love academic philosophy. I am continuously in awe of the work these men and women do, devoting their lives to hard study, to asking the most challenging questions, and to deep examination of the most nuanced and complex problems. This body of work is breathtaking in its scope, beautiful in the elegance of its arguments and solutions, satisfying in its wit and cleverness, fascinating in its intensive scholarship, and indispensable in its ability to help us figure out why and how to make a better world. I find it highly enjoyable and fulfilling, as well as challenging and frustrating, to grasp and wrangle with the work of academic philosophers. To be sure, academic philosophy has had its share of what David Hume calls sophistry and illusion, fit only to be consigned to the flames, and what Harry Frankfort more succinctly calls ‘bullshit’. But philosophy is not alone in this: science has had its phrenology and eugenics, medicine its humours and bloodletting, theology its justification for slavery and pogroms, and so on. Like these other disciplines, academic philosophy has some wonderfully effective built-in self-correctors, and continues to be an essential, I think preeminent, field of inquiry.
But many of the most important and interesting questions don’t come down on us from on high, so to speak, originating from academia and revealed, as if a sort of holy writ, to the rest of us. In fact, most of the questions and problems we all wrangle with still originate in the public square, in the home, workplace, classroom, hospital, church, courtroom, political assembly, and so on. They bubble up from the challenges and uncertainties of our daily lives, are filtered through conversation and the arts, are swept up in social, legal, and political movements and institutions, and carried into the pool of academic philosophy, where they are further clarified and distilled in treatises, lectures, books, and so on.
And these questions don’t only originate with the public at large, we offer our first answers there. The answers range from fragmentary to nuanced, from intuitive to considered, from repetitions of received wisdom to original, from off-the-cuff to well-informed, by people from all walks of life with their own areas of expertise and unique capabilities of understanding born of particular experience. These citizen philosophers are on the first line of discovery and inquiry, and so called because they don’t participate in this process as a profession, but as a matter of personal interest and as a member of society at large, not subject to the demands and constraints of academic philosophy. Of course, the category of citizen philosopher does not exclude academic philosophers, because of course they, too, participate in the same process of question-creation and question-answering in the course of their everyday lives, separate from their academic pursuits.
It’s the very lack of the demands and constraints of academic philosophy that gives citizen philosophy an important role to play in public life. The world as it is offers so many varieties of human experience, so many ways of seeing the world, so many challenges that academic philosophers, like the rest of us, never have the opportunity to confront directly. Yet the scope of academic philosophy, at least potentially, is as broad as the possibilities of human (even, perhaps nonhuman?) experience. So how can it be that academic philosophers can possibly access enough information to ask and answer all the important questions that could be addressed? It may be, if academic philosophers were endowed with immense powers of comprehension and imagination that would enable them to take all the information available in the world, to truly understand what it’s like to be a coal miner in China, a cardiologist experiencing a heart attack firsthand, a one and a half year old who just created their first sentence, a person with frontal lobe epilepsy experiencing a supernatural vision, or a terrorist who became so after their entire family was killed by a bomb, and then conceive of all of the social, epistemic, metaphysical, political, and every other sort of question that may arise from these experience. (À la the mythical Mary in Frank Jackson’s black and white room.) But of course, this is impossible, as even the most intelligent and informed human mind has its limits. Sometimes, raw data is the fodder of academic philosophical inquiry. But most often, it’s the questions, moral precepts, stories, works of art, aphorisms, dogmas, memories, narratives, and all other products of the human mind, already having undergone a first round of questioning and examination, that academic philosophers take up as topics of inquiry.
I, for one, am glad to see philosophy ever more present in the public square. That’s because I perceive philosophy as the great quest for understanding that academic and citizen philosophers all engage in, and as I see it, each gives something of immeasurable and irreplaceable value to the other. We need only recall some philosophical forays that have failed, from hairsplitting quibbles of scholasticism to navelgazing-verging-on-masturbatory obscurantisms of postmodernism, to recognize that academic philosophy benefits enormously by maintaining a robust discourse with the broader human community of activists, artists, reporters, bloggers, protesters, discussion groups, and of all others who care enough to question. The discipline and expertise of academic philosophers, and the broader set of experiences, challenges, and opportunities for new questions and unique ways of understanding of the larger community of citizen philosophers each serve to keep the other more honest, more challenged, and more informed, in the great world conversation we’re all having.
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