Philosophers as “Public Intellectuals”

In a recent article for, Paul Gillespie explores the work of Jürgen Habermas and the role the man has played as cultural polemicist. Gillespie focuses on Habermas (who he calls “one of the worlds leading philosophers”) as purveyor of the “critical theory agenda” in which the philosopher focuses on “criticizing and changing the world as a whole.” Drawing off of Marx’s observation that, “philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is to change it,” Habermas views the primary role of philosophy as that of awareness raiser in which the issues that matter most mainly through political analysis and polemical engagement. The article surveys Habermas’s philosophical development over the years and his writings that have caused a stir primarily in Europe.

The article—which illustrates the very point Gillespie appears to be making--raises some important questions about how philosophy and philosophers should function in the world. This becomes even more relevant as scientists largely have displaced philosophers as the voice of culture authority and action. Certainly practical philosophy in the Western tradition has always sought to be practical. Socrates’ model was nothing if not practical. Indeed the very etymology of the word ‘philosophy’ implies that better living is the goal not merely abstract analysis. Gillespie presents Habermas as an embodiment of that ideal.

Still, do philosophers sacrifice something if they not only analyze and teach but proscribe and declare? One may argue that the complexities of life demand that philosophers go beyond mere analysis to clear declarations of how that analysis ought to be applied. And doing so will inevitably keep the discipline relevant to more people—at the very least, it will keep people talking. But it also could be argued that it is precisely because life is complex that a deep analysis of some issue should provide the foundation for pragmatics and not include practical proscriptions. Philosophers provide the critical foundation for politics but should leave the politicizing to the scores of individuals that are closest to the situations that politics affects.

In reality, any theory worth anything has practical implications. But implication is the operative word. A robust epistemology for example may not directly tell the consumer of that epistemology what he or she should believe about a given subject. But it most likely will provide a foundation for how to think about one’s beliefs or the way one forms beliefs, or what types of epistemic pursuits are worth following or all of the above. There’s an analogue in the sciences. Suppose science tells us that human nature is fully and exhaustively a product of our genes and environment and that free will is merely an appearance—a phenomenological product of the complexity of our brains—but isn’t “real” in the classical sense. Should science then tell us that current judicial systems like those found in the West are ill-conceived and wrongly applied? That prisons are evil? That society should not judge those who commit crimes like theft or rape as culpable?

“Well no,” the response may quickly come, “that’s for the philosophers.” And here is the rub. Is the role of the philosopher to take “raw facts” about the world and tell people what to do with them? Perhaps there is one more layer of abstraction that the philosopher provides. Instead of determining that the prison system is evil, the philosopher may question the conclusions of the scientist or point out logical problems within a nexus of factual information on the topic. Or the philosopher may agree with the findings of science and describe abstractly their implications (e.g. holding a person entirely culpable for their actions is inconsistent with what we know is true about the moral make up of the individual). Once a philosopher (or scientist) makes particular, practical claims about specific scenarios, hasn’t he or she abandoned the pure role of the discipline and crossed over into politics or law as the outworking of the analysis? And once this is done, doesn’t it become more difficult to view the philosopher (or scientist) as dispassionately analyzing an issue for its own sake—at least insofar as that’s desirable and possible?

This, it seems to me, is why politicians “take sides” and can’t approach political issues “philosophically.” I recall the drumming John Kerry took in the 2004 elections in the United States as a clear example of this dynamic. He was called too cerebral and a “flip-flopper” being caricatured as one who couldn’t make up his mind. He saw, to his detriment, that complex issues don’t have easy or simple answers and may require an ongoing change in one’s position as one learns more or analyzes more deeply. While this is fine for a scientist or philosopher, for a politician, it’s an easy path to losing elections. (I should add that many intellectuals excoriated George W. Bush—Kerry’s rival--on this very point. His “You’re either with us or you’re against us” claim was seen as too dogmatic, too inflexible, too morally assured, though his confident position did seem to resonate with many citizens. This may be because the West is rapidly shifting to a postmodern epistemology in politics—embodied in my ways by Barack Obama—which still requires surety but reduces the scope about what one can make hard-and-fast claims.) Philosophers by nature are expected to come to conclusions tentatively and to be very careful about hard and fast proscriptions for complicated situations. Philosophers and scientists are expected to provide the fuel but the engine of change is driven by “the people” or “the representatives” or whomever else is seen as the appointed decision-maker.

Modern atheists have seen this problem of late and have stepped over that pure analytical line and seen the need for active cultural engagement. Richard Dawkins spent most of his career working to disseminate the factual truth of evolution and largely left it up to the people to come around. But many people haven’t come around. He viewed with disgust the challenges to evolution in American schools in the early 2000s and the bombing of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It was then that the proverbial gloves had to come off and he made a dramatic switch from merely claiming what is true to telling people what they must do with that truth.

Philosophers are experiencing the same dynamic. As Gillespie notes in his article, Habermas’s approach has wide “appeal to students in an era of such arcane specialisation in philosophy and other disciplines that renders their subjects incomprehensible to other students and researchers, not to mention ordinary citizens.” If philosophical topics aren’t made explicitly practical, nobody will listen. This is indeed a problem. I worry that the solution many philosophers are choosing will cost a bit too much.

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