What History Can Learn from Public Philosophy

This past week, our department came to the realization that we have to do more to improve our visibility on campus. In general, we are an active, engaged, and professional department, but we largely keep to ourselves and focus on our own work, our students, and being good colleagues and citizens of academia. The university is beginning a process of reflective critique and involves the prioritization of programs across campus. Our fear is that without increasingly our profile on campus, we will slip between the cracks in the process and lose the modest resources that we have at our disposal.

So there is an instrumental value to promoting the work of our department and working to engage a more diverse audience than our academic peers. This week my colleague and neighbor Jack Wienstein published an article titled “What Does Public Philosophy Do?” (pdf) in a volume of the journal Essays in Philosophy that he guest edited. The article focused on the question in its title, but offers useful challenges to  some basic assumptions about the public humanities in general. I think this article puts forward some useful points of consideration as we move forward as a department to make our work more visible and to expand its impact.

In general, once historians move beyond the idea that making our work publicly visible is pandering to the uneducated and unspecialized, we have viewed our work as vital to creating better citizens of a democracy. Historians have hoped (to generalize) that by creating a more inclusive, dynamic, and complex past, we can create more reflective citizen invested in creating a future that both carries forward the best of the past and seeks to redress historic wrongs. In short, the historical method (such as it is and whatever that might mean) produces a valid and usable past to inform decision making in the present. By presenting our work in public and expanding who has access to the tolls of a professional historian, we dream that we can make inform how the democracy functions and make our world better. It has, of course, vaguely troubled students of history (even in my introduction to the historians’ craft class) that despite our best efforts, historical actors rarely seem to learn from the past or, if they do, it is not in a consistent predictable way.

Jack’s article noted that there has never been any convincing link between public philosophy and more sophisticated, consistent, or rigorous political awareness. In fact, he noted that surveys have shown that Americans tend to respond unpredictably even to issues subjected to sustained engagement in the national media and involving basic historical “facts” salient to political decision making. In other words, deliberate critical engagement with historical issues does not lead the general public’s ability to conclusions consistent with careful historical analysis. Walking a “birther” through the process of evaluating historical evidence is not likely to change his or her mind.

Moreover, Jack points out that claims by philosophy (or any of the humanities) to produce “better” citizens are deeply problematic. At least some part of our modern democracy depends upon the idea that we are intrinsically capable of participating in the political life of the community. The idea of being better or worse at being a citizen would imply the there are those whose participation in the political process would be less valuable because they are not citizens of the better sort. This is anti-liberal.

In many ways, Jack’s critique of public philosophy can apply to how historians have approached engaging the public. If historians or philosophers are not engaging the public to create better citizens, but there remains practical and real benefits associated with raising our profile in the community, we need to find ways to articulate what it is that we do when we step out of our offices and into the public sphere.

Jack cleverly parallels the work of the public philosopher with that of the drug dealer. His job is to try to get people hooked on philosophy and to cultivate it as a particular form of entertainment. He does not mean this to trivialize public philosophy and he clearly regards it as a more healthy form of entertainment than say crack cocaine. His arguments are complex and don’t entirely align with what we do as historians, but they do give us a start. The entertainment value of public philosophy provides a point of entry for a range of experiences:

“It models thinking, is individualistic not collective, it is built on personality not ideas, is passionate and not detached, and advocates for people not ideas. It seeks to prepare ground for future philosophical endeavors, and while the questions asked may be about any area of life, knowledge or inquiry, it should become obvious that public philosophical investigation skews towards the individuals who happen to be there. Most public philosophy involves examination of one’s own personal life. It is about self-knowledge before it is about anything else.”

Of particular utility for historians is the idea that public philosophy models thinking. The philosopher lays bare the process of engaging ideas by standing in front of an audience and taking their comments, observations, and ideas seriously. Modeling thinking then becomes one take-away and positions the audiences’ encounter with public philosophy as less of a collective act of community building and more of an individual act of contemplation. Watching the public philosopher think and understand, begins a process of normalizing reflective thinking that carries on after the event. To affect this the public philosopher has to reveal themselves as much as their ideas to the audience.  The audience has to see the philosopher as someone who is not so different from themselves. Making careful, critical, and reflective thought visible gives the audience permission to reflect in their own lives and, as he summarizes: “public philosophy creates the groundwork for philosophical reflection in personal life with the hope and that this reflection may inspire future wide- ranging conversations about culture and meaning in life.”

Porting these ideas to practice of history in the public sphere is not straight forward. Public history has taken on the trappings of a sub-discipline with all those conceits. Public philosophy, in contrast, is more raw and intimate and personal and open-ended. As a department full of historians without the burden of public history (as a sub-discipline), I wonder if we’d be well served to think carefully about Jack’s ideas. To consider public history as a moment where we can show the community what we do as part of who we are. Rather than falling back of problematic platitudes about making better citizens or building “a sense of community” (whose community? for whom?) we can communicate the idea that doing history is one way to mediate between the individual and the community. The entertainment value of public history gets people into the room and our job is, to use Jack’s phrase, “to prepare the ground and to let people figure it all out on their own. I turn the dirt and watch what grows.”


  1. But what do we do with this. On one occasion I asked a guy if he knew much about Byzantium. His answer was “No, and don’t want to know.” OK, that is extreme but it is the way people are. People (myself included) prefer to stick with our personal prejudices rather than look at anything that will disturb our comfortable stereotypes. Ergo, Tea Party types watch only Bill O’Reilly and only listen to Rush Limbaugh. The same can be said of liberals and NPR. Often we want to believe things though they are simply not supported by facts, You mention the birthers. Would they care where Obama was born if he were a right wing politician? Is his birth place actually an issue or simply a red herring? Even presidents Bush II and Reagan reportedly only wanted information in their morning briefings that supported their prior beliefs. What, then, the can be expected of the man in the street?
    So it isn’t sufficient to open a window. People will either close it again, use any stale “fact” to dispute what the breeze waves in, or acknowledged it in theory but shelve it in practice. Depressing? Yes. This is where the fourth estate raises its provocative head. These grubby scribblers have spoken truth to power (E. R. Murrow vs Joe McCarthy, Woodward & Bernstein vs Nixon) and people have listened – probably more so than to intellectuals like William F. Buckley writing in the National Review.
    Unfortunately, many people prefer to close their eyes and believe the scurrilous and unsupported (The History Channel) rather than the less provocative conventional history learned in their high school history books. I recently read a post about the medieval Cathars written by a relative of mine. Whatever the truth of the incident he writes about, it is completely uncritical and no sources are mentions. Personally I suspect a lot of elaboration somewhere between the original source material and where he got the story. Be that as it may, I sent him articles from the 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia about the Cathars and Albigensians and xeroxed the chapter on the Cathars from Steven Runciman’s Medieval Manichee.) These are likely outdated but what recent popular retellings I’ve seen whitewash the Cathars. However, the 1912 CE is not what bloggers want to post, or readers want to read. It is more interesting to pick and choose and give fun anecdotes instead of understanding and analysis.
    As you know, I’ve written two Byzantine novels in which I have tried to avoid sensationalism in favor of historical accuracy. I don’t think that they are therefore boring. However, I’ve had almost zero success in interesting the academic community in promoting them, presumably because they prefer whining in their academic towers and don’t want to let anyone whom they deem inexpert muck about in their field. I sent copies to fifty eminent medievalists. Only one deemed it worthy to acknowledge them. May we not therefore blame them if no one knows anything about Byzantium and doesn’t “want to know?”


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