If you are interested in philosophy — being here you probably are — you might’ve noticed a recent increase in philosophy content for the general public. From podcasts, like Hi-Phi Nation, and The Partially Examined Life, to publications like Philosophy Now, and New Philosopher, and even interviews with academics on free-to-air television. Public philosophy is well and truly on a roll. There are two natural questions for those curious about the rise of public philosophy. 'What explains this nascent interest in public philosophy?' and 'What is the point of public philosophy?'. Finding answers to both questions is vital if we want public philosophy to continue to grow. If we don’t seek to understand the thriving public engagement with philosophy, then there is little hope of retaining this recent attention. Furthermore, if the aims of public philosophy are unclear, how can we be confident that it is doing any good?
The contemporary motivation for public philosophy is threefold. It is explained partially by academics, frustrated by the increasingly restrictive nature of disciplinary practice, and partially by public disillusionment with the current economic, political and environmental state of the world. Thirdly, there is a growing sense that academic philosophers are obliged to contribute tangible good to the wider community.
This is evidenced in a rising movement that advocates for the inclusion of lived experiences in philosophical discourse. Examples include discussions about the concept of personhood, the morality of abortion, the phenomenology of illness, and the case for anger in anti-racist struggles. The trajectory is one that sees philosophers more oriented to 'the outside world', to concerns beyond the academy, to urgent modern challenges, and to the experiences of people who are not philosophers. And, in seeking ways to connect with this world, they naturally start to do more public philosophy.
Of course, there have long been difficult times both in the academy and in broader society. However, one issue today is the growing distrust between the public and experts. Consider the mistrust of medical advice by anti-lockdown protestors during COVID-19 restrictions or the widespread public fears about government inaction on climate change. There is a vital need for critical discussion, argument, and honesty. And these are the skills that the practice of philosophy demands.
Certainly, some people respond to these feelings of distrust by leaning into various conspiracy theories. But, as Sunstein and Vermeule point out,
Extremism stems not from irrationality, but from the fact that they [extremists] have little (relevant), information, and their extremist views are supported by what little they know.
A similar point is made in the Netflix documentary on the flat Earth conspiracy theory Behind the Curve. One of the interviewed scientists, Lamar Glover, claims that the conspiracy theorists are, by and large, not irrational, they are instead 'potential scientists gone completely wrong'. Perhaps they are also 'philosophers gone wrong'. In a sense, then, conspiracy theorists and extremists are usefully seen as seekers of information they do not have, do not trust, or do not understand. They are attempting to engage in critical thinking.
On the other side of the coin are people engaging with public philosophy. This might be understood as stemming from the same thirst for critical analysis that drives conspiracy theorists. In other words, when news outlets, politicians, and public intellectuals fail to offer answers to key questions and confusions, it is perhaps true that at least some members of the public trust the philosophers instead. David V. Johnson makes a similar point when he states that,
Philosophers can play a special role not simply in voicing opinions—we have more than enough writers proffering their opinions—but in raising vital questions that are not being asked by the general public.
This sentiment, we think, also captures why public philosophy is important—i.e., why philosophers who engage with the public are doing some good. Public philosophy discourse fosters a community spirit of trust, intellectual pursuit, and fundamental reflective practice.
We, the editors of Sagacity, agree with many of the above sentiments. Public philosophy is important. However, what is often left out of accounts of the conversation between academics and the public are the students. Where do both undergraduate and postgraduate philosophy students fit within this growing movement of public philosophy? Just as importantly, where should members of the public who are considering studying philosophy look for direction? It’s very likely that public academics inspire members of the public to pursue their philosophical interests in the context of higher education. Further, they open spaces that show philosophy students how big ideas can fit into the wider scheme. But what about those curious to see what their fellow students think about topical matters? What about those interested in the conversations unfolding between academics and students around pressing current issues? What about those wondering about the importance of more abstract topics, like metaphysics and the philosophy of mathematics, and why they’re worth studying?
We think students deserve a seat at this table and an entryway into the discussion. After all, we were, until recently, ordinary members of the public as well. Accordingly, the purpose of this magazine is to bring together the public, those interested in studying philosophy, undergraduate students, and postgraduate students for philosophical discussion. The magazine will include postgraduate research, postgraduate views on current affairs and philosophy as a discipline, and postgraduate-led interviews with academics and other students.