Accessible philosophy: What can we do to make philosophy more accessible, and less weird, for the general public?

Recently, the famous American scientist and media personality Neil DeGrasse Tyson made a grand sweeping dismissal of philosophy. Read about it here.

My knee-jerk reaction, of course, was to dismiss Tyson as one who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. His argument misrepresents philosophy in general, misrepresents the philosophy of science, and comes dangerously close to painting all branches of philosophy with the same tar that he paints philosophy of science. These are the fallacies of straw man, and hasty generalization. His style was patronizing and asshole-ish, too.

Suppose we set that aside for a moment and asked where this anti-philosophy attitude came from. Tyson is not the first to declare the end of philosophy – philosophers themselves have done so a few times over the years. Here’s Martin Heidegger doing it, in a 1975 documentary film. As observed by my friend GB, on my Facebook page (where I shared the link to Tyson’s comments yesterday) philosophers tend to do a bad job communicating to the public what we do. Philosophers often use a unique and highly specialized vocabulary, and we talk about very weird and obscure concepts, making the whole thing seem esoteric and confusing to outsiders. I suppose that’s what makes it easy for people like Tyson to dismiss us so casually.

Yet another friend of mine, also with the initials GB, observed that this isn’t the case, well not as much, outside the English-speaking world. Here in Quebec we’ve got Charles Taylor, who was one-half of the Taylor-Bouchard Commission on “reasonable accommodation of religious minorities”, a major political policy research text. Francois Lyotard was commissioned by the government of Quebec to write a report on “the state of knowledge” (i.e. an education policy report), which effectively initiated postmodernism.

In the English speaking world, there’s Bertrand Russel, who invented the peace symbol, and campaigned for the total abolition of nuclear weapons. Did six months in jail for it too. There’s Peter Singer, who invented the animal rights movement, almost single-handed. John McMurtry is one of the leading intellectual influences on the Occupy movement and its predecessor the Anti-Globalization Movement, and also one of the forces behind the Zeitgeist films. And he’s a former footbal player with the Calgary Stampeders – how cool is that! And there’s Alain de Botton, who has done lots of TV and film, and who curates museums, publishes a philosophical tabloid magazine, and runs a kind of humanist life-coaching organization called “The School of Life”.

But I suppose these outstanding examples look like no more than exceptions that prove the rule. Ask someone at random to name three philosophers, and they might name two of the ancient Greeks and stop there.*

The question I want to ask is this: what can philosophers do to make philosophy more accessible, more relevant, and less weird, for the general public?

Here’s some suggestions.

- Lower the price of philosophy textbooks. For every college and university professor who assigns an expensive textbook, there are hundreds of students who don’t have the money. With the proliferation of free or nearly-free philosophy resources on the internet and in libraries, including my own textbook on logic and critical thinking, there is simply no excuse for any philosophy teacher to put a financial barrier between her students and the knowledge they seek. Indeed, I claim that any philosophy prof who makes their students spend money on a textbook, when there’s a cheaper alternative of equal or greater quality, does a moral wrong. And publishers which charge three-digit figures for books that students will use for 15 weeks and then give away or throw out, also do a serious moral wrong.

- Make philosophy, especially the critical thinking skills and the history of ideas, compulsory at high school and/or college and university. No, I’m not kidding. Most European countries do it; Quebec does it at the CEGEP level. The rest of Canada should get with the program already. So should America. No, it would not be hard. I once taught logical positivism to a group of 10-year-old kids. It was easy and fun. Anyone who says that analytical thinking skills are beyond the abilities of the average high school student is simply wrong. And I can prove it.

- When philosophers write books, they should write for the public, not just other philosophers. I mean it when I say I don’t give a shit about the academic publish-or-perish rat race. I think professional philosophers should stop caring about trying to impress each other and justify their tenures, and start caring about the love of wisdom again. I’ve written 15 books now and none of them are published by “academic” publishers who distribute mainly to specialists and libraries. Some were written for the pagan community (a move which, it now appears, may have been limiting.) But the books I’m most proud of were written for everyone. Of course, this means that I’ve probably shut myself out of ever working for a university ever again. Hiring committees take one look at the spine of my books, then declare them “not academic books” and dismiss them. I saw it happen once. But I stand by my claim that philosophy belongs to everyone, and therefore, philosophers should write for everyone.**

- Get philosophers on television and film. And yes, I know how dangerous this is. When philosophers are asked questions by students or other researchers, they take their time and give the most complete and comprehensive answer they can. But when they are asked questions by journalists, and encouraged to give quick sound-byte answers with minimal preparation, they end up sounding like idiots. Philosopher James Rachels wrote about this in a fabulous essay called “When Philosophers Shoot From The Hip.” But suppose there was a TV talk show, Top Gear style (without the casual misogyny and racism), featuring philosophers as main personalities. They could start each episode with a question, then bring on special guests and randomly selected audience members to debate the question, go on location to places around the world where something philosophically interesting happened, play logic puzzle games or strategy games, and crack jokes with each other. It would be a lot of fun. There’s no reason why philosophers should have surrendered all public discourse on philosophical themes to psychologists like Dr. Phil, or well-spoken but occasionally asshole-ish scientists like Tyson, or even religious fanatics like [REDACTED]. Imagine a drama series about a team of philosophers who investigate crimes, or supernatural events, or outer space. That would be no less awesome than shows like House, or Bones, or Breaking Bad. In fact, I volunteer to write the script of the pilot.

Let me close on what might be an “appeal to tradition” point. Some of the greatest philosophers in the canon of Western thought were not professors. Spinoza was a lens grinder. Socrates was a stonemason. David Hume was a pool hall hustler. And they wrote their books or taught their ideas to everyone, and for everyone, not just other philosophers. If we contemporary philosophers can do no better, then it is perhaps partially our own fault that people like Tyson tell us we don’t belong here anymore.

I invite you to use the comments thread on this blog post to make more suggestions about how philosophers could make their work more accessible to everyone.


*Well, if we selected people truly at random, from the whole human race, you’ll likely be asking someone from Asia, and you’ll get Confucius or Buddha.

**I’m a big fan of Open Court’s pop culture and philosophy series. A friend of mine was published in one of their most recent titles, “The Muppets And Philosophy”. Love it.

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5 Responses to Accessible philosophy: What can we do to make philosophy more accessible, and less weird, for the general public?

  1. Sharon Carpenter says:

    I agree with you. Having given up the study of Philosophy at University, because it felt too wishy washy, I gained huge insight from Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy later on. I have always wished to develop my undertanding of the Western Spiritual Tradition and I found your book on Pagan Philosophy to be a fantastic opportunity for me to really get an insight into Western Thought. It was clear and precise, and a real pleasure. I have always thought though, that only those writers who are truly master of their understanding are able to express things in simple and clear language! Maybe a large majority of “intellectuals” are still trying to understand what they are spouting off about

  2. John Beckett says:

    Is your goal to create more philosophers or to make more ordinary people philosophically literate? I’d argue the second goal is more valuable.

    So, my recommendation is for professional philosophers to 1) write in ordinary language, 2) write/publish in places that will be seen (I know, I know – easier said than done), and 3) keep it short (avoid TL;DR syndrome).

    What if you and some of your colleagues all wrote weekly essays / blog posts in the 1500-2000 word range, not as Philosophy 101 but as Applied Philosophy – stuff ordinary people can use. Work in references to great philosophers and philosophical principles, with inline links for more details.

    Call it “I F’ing Love Philosophy” or something cool like that. Circulate via social media and submit to mainstream sites / channels / publications.

    You won’t have ordinary folks quoting Plato and Spinoza the way they quote pop stars, but you might slowly and quietly raise the overall level of philosophical understanding in a critical mass of people who are intelligent but uninformed.

  3. Lorelei Shields says:

    I just finished Philosophy of Human Nature as a required course for my Bachelors of Science in Nursing. I thoroughly enjoyed it. However most of my other classmates had a hard time relating to it. One of the biggest complaints was the use of abstract examples. A sign of the times is that unless it relates concretely to what someone is actively involved in, attention is not held and therefore interest lacks. Many of my nursing peers only understood philosophy in regards to nursing and often questioned why there wasn’t a “nursing philosophy” class. I saw philosophy of human nature as just that, but for my classmates something got lost in translation. Of course, I was also one of two out of 30 who knew who Spock was. Point being that keeping it simple short and topic specific would help in assisting the general public to increase accessibility to philosophy.

  4. As a former Catholic seminarian who decided to stop pursuing the priesthood, it was refreshing to read this post. My Master’s degree in Philosophy is often mocked and under-appreciated, and I’m having difficulty knowing how to apply it.

  5. Julia says:

    I agree. I wish philosophy was taught earlier in school.

    But if you want to make it easier to be digested by the masses, use a little humor. If you haven’t already, you should check out the 3 minute philosophy videos on youtube. They are hysterical.

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