Philosophy and Outreach

I think Philosophy is the most profound discipline. I learned so much about the world and myself on my journey to completing my PhD, and it is the accomplishment I am most proud of in my life. Yet during my time in graduate school I began to feel a distance from the discipline as I came to view far too many philosopher detached from real world engagement. When I expressed these views I was told every discipline needs people who can chisel away at the edges where you may not find direct application in the real world. There is truth to that, but from my perspective too many academic philosophers were doing this.

As I’ve read about philosophy departments being reduced in numbers or even being shutdown, I feel sadness at the loss for the philosophers and that of the students who may now never have the opportunity to see the world in a new way. And yet with so many philosophers not engaging with the public and demonstrating the relevance and vital importance of their discipline to lived life, there is a part of me that thinks this may be a good thing in the long run, perhaps it can shake the discipline enough to actually go out and demonstrate its importance. The great philosophers of the past engaged with the people and places of their times and had impact on their society (e.g. Socrates, Plato, Locke, Russell, Sartre), more need to do it in our time.

In the half decade since I’ve moved on from academia I still do a lot of reading, but I am surprised how much smaller a portion of my reading time is dedicated to philosophy. At any given time I have several philosophy books in my large academic library which I’ve partially pulled out from the surrounding books on the shelf to remind myself to sit down when I have a free moment and dip into them. Yet when the free time comes I usually find myself reaching other books. My field of specialty was in 4EA Cognition (Embedded, Embodied, Enactive, Extended, and Affective). The field emerged in the early 90’s, and when I jumped into it from 2007-2014 there was a large amount of time spent arguing how the 4 E’s and the A should be defined. This is an area which could have important applications in areas like education, psychotherapy, and sport when it comes to how we teach, learn, navigate, and dwell in the world, and yet I struggle to see much real-world application being done in this area.

Still, there are a few academic philosophers who get together with others outside their discipline to examine the challenges of our time, and the DailyNous blog post linked below discusses some of these gatherings as well as a recent eBook made available for free called Pandemic Ethics.

“If philosophy is to thrive, it must be sensitive and responsive to the world it is meant to engage with. The non-philosophers in our reading group shed light on a world that may be difficult for us philosophers to see and point out aspects of  lived experiences that we may not have access to.”

Conversing with a Philosopher…

I have spent the last 6 1/2 years living in Scotland. During that period I was a Masters student, a PhD student, and then (briefly) a full time tutor. Moreover, I was doing this in a Philosophy department.  If there is one thing that happens in upper level academic environments like this (especially Philosophy), it is the need to constantly demand evidence and support for the statement(s) people you are conversing with have. You are trying to work out the different lines of reasoning behind their claims so that you can trace step-by-step the journey they are making from one point to another, and see if it all holds up. As you adjust to this environment (from Masters student, to PhD student, to full Academic), the conversational intensity and demands grow. At first this can be quite daunting – even off-putting – but after a while you acclimate yourself to this environment and sometimes you even come to enjoy the demanding give-and-take of a rigorous philosophical exchange, and look forward to a competitive head-to-head of critical reasoning.  Conversations with your colleagues and students are all based on this demanding requirement for an exchange of evidence and reasoning. The vast majority of my Scottish friends were academics, so that has been virtually all I’ve known for the last 6 1/2 years in a postgrad environment.

But now I’ve left Scotland and have returned to Minnesota (where I am currently not employed in academia), and virtually none of the people I know here are even remotely academic.  I have found in the few weeks I’ve been back, that my interactions with people can quickly be misunderstood, with the person I am conversing with thinking I am being confrontational with them (or that I’m being ‘a bit of a dick’).  They sometimes are taken aback and wonder why I am being ‘confrontational’. But this is not my intention at all, I simply want to understand the different threads of their thought and reasoning, and to work out how it all fits together within a larger framework (I want to see the fine points of their argument as well as the ‘big picture’).

Philosopher’s are naturally skeptical of claims that people make. So if you find yourself in conversation with a philosopher like myself, please don’t take personal offense to my questions. I am simply seeking clarity of thought, and I am used to the rigorous and forthright demands for evidence that one finds in a lively academic environment. I am not trying to ‘be a dick’, or trying to humiliate you, or find some creative ‘intellectual’ way to put you down and make you feel stupid. In fact, it is quite the opposite, for if I am spending a good deal of time with you, and asking you a lot of questions, then this is because I am very much interested in what you have to say and want to know more. My questioning  –  and the way I am going about doing it – is so that I can get hold of the best and strongest argument you have for your viewpoint. Instead of seeing me as wanting to tear your idea apart, think of me as trying to sort through your idea and bring forth your strongest position. As a philosopher I seek clarity, I have been training in this for over a dozen years (when you add together my undergraduate and postgraduate years of study). It is possible that I might not just come to understand what you are saying, but also that I might be able to help you draw out and clarify your position even further. Think of me as your conversational and intellectual ally and friend.

In the original Greek ‘Philosophy’ means ‘love of wisdom’, and I take that idea very seriously. I can never claim to be of the same calibre as Socrates, and yet I strive to follow in his footsteps in the way he drew is friends close to him and attempted acquire a greater understanding of concepts and ideas through extended dialogue and conversation. If there is one thing I’ve learned in my philosophical journey so far, it’s that a viewpoint can acquire a stronger foundation the more it is analyzed and assessed.  I know there are a lot of people who we converse with out there who are ‘dicks’ and love to take on the role of a troll and sabotage conversations, but a philosopher might just be your friend.

Before I end, there is one concern I have regarding this matter, and that is whether I can maintain the stricter and more demanding philosophical/academic approach I’ve acquired in analyzing ideas in conversation, with the expectation which the non-academic is familiar with. I hope this gap can be bridged, but does doing so mean the philosopher has to ‘lower’ their methods and approach, or can we expect to ‘raise’ the level of normal, everyday discourse?