Philosophy for the unwashed masses

I have been asked (I think) to weigh in on Julian Sanchez's contention that it is impossible to write about philosophy in such a way that one can communicate it to a lay audience. (I am a graduate student in philosophy (ABD), teach undergraduate philosophy at a large state university, and one of my areas of specialization is philosophy of mind.) My response is: it is and it isn't.

There are many, many frustrating things about discussing philosophy with lay people. The worst is their tendency to dismiss what you do as useless BS without actually having any idea what you do, but that's for another day. The second worst is that most people already have pat answers to some of the major philosophical questions (is there free will, is the mind identical to the brain, what rights do people have and in virtue of what do they have them, etc), and really resent being told why philosophers generally think their pet view is not workable, or at least faces many problems. They are dismayed that you have almost always heard their argument before (if not from a philosopher, then from one of the many many students to whom you have taught a lower-level philosophy class), and seem to think if you critique their view, you must think they are stupid. It is hard to break the professional habit, which is completely socially acceptable among philosophers, of immediately pointing out how a certain philosophical gambit faces a problem. They think that most people should just be able to have a philosophical view on anything.

The fact is that working in any area is going to give you an expertise that lay people cannot have. I read a lot of popular stuff about medicine, but I will never be able to claim the knowledge Dan has, both from going to medical school and simply dealing with patients every day. This is true for physics, car mechanics, contracting, or pretty much any skilled job. I have spent at least a couple of hours a day (often more) most days for the last 7 years reading and writing philosophy. Most people, even extremely intelligent and well-educated people, have not. I will have been much more exposed to the thinking of philosophers on most topics, and much more practiced in that way of thinking. There is no substitute for that (and, no, we don't think people are stupid for not already knowing what the problems are that face a certain philosophical view). There is a reason that the vast, vast majority philosophy that is taken seriously is produced not by the large number of lay people writing about philosophical topics, but by professional philosophers - we have had the time to read through the literature and the practice at crafting arguments that philosophers find convincing. We also interact every day at work with people who are also well-versed on stuff and who challenge the views we might be forming. This adds up.

That said, we also teach philosophy to undergraduates. Most undergraduates have zero interest in actually becoming a philosopher, so for the lower-level classes, you are teaching lay people. And of course you can teach them some of the major questions, some of the major replies to those questions, and a few problems facing each of those replies. It is helpful to be able to actually converse with them to make this happen, but there are really good summations of philosophy that are in textbooks. What undergraduates learn is very different than what gets discussed with graduate student or at professional conferences, of course, but it's not content-less.

Sanchez says: "Someone reading about an important finding in biology or physics understands full well that what they’re getting is the upshot of a complicated process of math-laden theorizing and experiment someone else has done. Summarizing a philosophical argument, by contrast, basically looks like doing philosophy." Not so. Almost every philosophy talk or article begins with a summary of the previous work on your question. You try to introduce the question to philosophers who are not already familiar with the topic. That's usually not the"doing philosophy" part, which can go into much more detail.

So, to sum up, you cannot explain a philosophical issue in the detail that it is understood by a philosopher. Does that mean lay people should forswear all philosophical opinions? Of course not, but it would be lovely if they could be a bit more cautious about it, and willing to learn about it (as I'm sure Dan wishes lay people would be with medicine). You can certainly do a good-enough explanation that would enlighten most people and give them the upshot. Most philosophical pop writing is absolutely crap. But I don't think it's inherently crap, and not all of it is crap. I think it is usually crap when it is because of either the writer biting off more than she can chew (free will cannot be explained in 2000 words), or from being philosophically ill-informed. I would love to sum philosophy up for lay people, actually, and hope to do so more in the future.


  1. I didn't mean to suggest that it was categorically impossible to write accessibly about philosophy for a popular audience. My worry was that, as with science writing, it's awfully easy to churn out confused oversimplifications -- like the piece that set me off -- and that it's not as obvious *to the lay reader* (as opposed to, say, the grad student) that they don't have an adequate version of the argument. In other words, if someone foolishly decides to try a two-paragraph summary of Kripke's argument against mind/brain identity, I think a lay reader is much more likely to mistakenly think he basically gets what the argument is than he would be to conclude from a short summary that he basically understands a scientific theory. Nobody reads a thousand words on logic gates and pulls out the soldering iron, basically.

  2. Yes, I was indeed asking. Thanks very much for commenting, and reassuring me that I can, potentially, know a bit about what you brainy types are talking about.

    And can I just completely geek out with pleasure that the estimable Mr. Sanchez has stopped by to comment.

  3. I am curious if Philosophy has any thinkers along the lines of Physics' Richard Feynman. Dr. Feynman had an unusual gift for explaining the heart of a matter so that bright people could understand the essential problem if not the solution as well.

  4. Julian - I agree that the vast majority of pop philosophy writing is full of confused oversimplifications. I can count the number of pop writers on one hand who have written an argument on anything in applied ethics (abortion, animal rights, what have you) of which we would not disabuse a first-year undergraduate immediately. (Props here to William Saletan and Michael Pollan, who, while not perfect, are definitely among ther more sophisticated.) Moreover, I agree that philosophy, perhaps more than any other discipline (maybe psych?), is more likely to induce in the lay reader a complacency about what they know about a philosophical topic. People are likely to feel more entitled to their own philosopical view than they are to, say, a phsyics view, or even a medical view (whether the view is warranted or not), and to suspect that there's nothing a professional philosopher can tell them. This is, alas, also true of pop writers - Malcolm Gladwell sticks out as an example.

    I don't, however, want to throw up my hands, or argue that lay people must read actual peer-reviewed philosophy before getting something of a handle on a problem. I think part of the job of any good philosophy writing for lay people must be to disabuse readers of the notion that the understanding they already have is adequate. I would strongly encourage writers on philosophical topics to actually talk to philosophers and really engage with the issues. I think professional philosophers can do much more in this regard. Not only can we explain some of the seriousness of certain arguments, and the problems with some of the commonly-seen responses, we can also do something to educate people about how to spot bad arguments (as we'd like to educate people how to spot bad science - witness the ongoing Jenny McCarthy brouhaha detailed on this blog). Now that so many philosophers have blogs, it's a start! I appreciate your humility in approaching philosophical topics - I wish many more writers would realize just how much knowledge there is to be gained by reading what philosophers who have already written on it.

    Gadfly - The one I still recommend above all is Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. It's written for lay people. Since it was written in 1912, it naturally misses some more recent developments, but nothing gets at some of the core problems of metaphysics and epistemology in a more engaging, accessible way. He comes closest to being our Feynman. Today, Daniel Dennett is probably the most well-known, but he only works in one area (phil of mind) and has a way of making lay audiences think the solution to a given problem is his own. (I've had more than one lay person recite Dennett's view as if it were settled fact). James Rachels is good for ethics. I'll think about it and post something if anything else comes to me.

  5. Also -

    Julian - I'll totally write for Shrug!

    Gadfly - one other resource is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://plato.stanford.edu/). It's organized by philosophical topic. Each article is written by someone reasonably prominent in the field, and cites a lot of the relevant literature. I believe (not sure about this) that it is intended for use mostly by philosophers or academics (I use it when I want to brush up on the main arguments and relevant literature in an area not my own), but should usually be accessible to lay people. The articles are of widely varying quality, but it's always good to take a look there.

  6. “Discourse at this level can’t possibly accomplish anything beyond giving people some simulation of justification for what they wanted to believe in the first place.” I disagree with this contention, at least as far as political philosophy plays itself out as policy. The acceptence of the notion of gay marriage has come far more from this type of low level discourse than it ever has from academia. If people were as malleable to the echo chamber and groupthink then the notion of gay marriage would never even have taken hold.
    In fact, I think there are far more upsides to pop philosophy than anyone here is willing to give it credit for. Most of our own modern day civil rights emanated not from academia but from the pulpits of Southern evangelical preachers.

    As to teaching philosophy to undergraduates you have my deepest sympathy. I imagine sometimes it is akin to performing dentistry on cats.