With What Authority does a Public Philosopher Speak?

In the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0, we have (so Internet gurus like to suggest) moved from a top-down, “authoritarian” approach to web content to an interactive, user-generated, kaleidoscopic, and, above all, more “democratic” social experiment. As Elie Ofek, a professor of marketing and expert on business innovation, recently put it, consumers “now want to customize content and products to fit their preferences and personality, get immediate feedback on their actions and opinions, and be rewarded for their contributions.” If the bromide that Internet content wants to be free is actually true, then how much more true is it that people in an open society, those committed to a virtual public sphere as well as to each individual’s right to self-expression, want their voices to be heard? In the Internet Age, an author, we are told, mustn’t feel comfortable with approaching a subject as if from on high; he must be ready and willing to testify on his own behalf and to field all kinds of relevant queries.

We are witnessing, in principle if not exactly or not yet in fact, the death of the august expert; in her place stands the reverent facilitator, the friendly collaborator. Concomitant with the death of the expert is, of course, the demise of the book as a source of ultimate authority. Indeed, the genre of the book whose essential ingredients are single authorship, a reader’s solitary experience, and the transmission of knowledge and understanding from the first to the second—a “triumvirate” that reached full consciousness in the English reading society of the eighteenth century—is slowly being supplanted by the genre of the blog. Here, a writer registers bits of information or nascent lines of thought while a coterie of readers tacks onto the writer’s short entry or engages in cross-comment conversation. Throughout, the exchange among the parties is, in theory, underwritten by a principle of provisional knowledge: I only know so much, and so do you.

During this epochal change in consciousness from the book to the blog, Web 2.0 has made us all into armchair sociologists as well as into skeptics of all kinds of authority. For in the comments section appended to online articles can be found an array of reader opinions ranging from praise to blame, from perplexity to inquisitiveness. An analysis of these comments yields fruitful insights into common values held among American citizens and into the many traditions of thought coursing, often at cross purposes, through many of us. For Aristotle, these data would have been regarded as being roughly equivalent to doxa, or common opinions, the starting point of philosophical investigation whose end point was the best account of the topic under consideration. Additionally, he might have noted, in the current climate, how unwilling people are to budge from their original views and how much they dislike unbidden authority as though all authority came by way of fiat and lacked ultimate justification.

In a period which Mark Lilla, in a recent The New York Review of Books article, has aptly characterized as one of “radical individualism,” there is such a resistance to institutional authority—that of the state, above all—that the only power seems to reside in each individual’s desires, preferences, and ambitions. For this reason, I am particularly struck by The New York Times editors’ bold experiment called “The Stone,” the aim of which is to do philosophy in the public sphere with professional philosophers being charged with the task of writing about issues of ultimate importance for a general audience. As a litmus test of success, we might say that these blogs, which in most cases conform more to the genre of the philosophical pamphlet than to the conversation starter, can be deemed successful if and only if they are written in lucid, jargon-free prose, they are relevant in some basic, ultimate sense, and they are illuminating—more illuminating than punditry, straight-up news, or garden-variety op-ed pieces.  

Since “The Stone” was kicked off in May, the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer has raised the question of whether this should be the last generation to inhabit the earth, the Hegelian social theorist J.M. Bernstein has analyzed the role of anger in the Tea Party movement, and the applied ethicist Nancy Sherman has written about the value of Stoicism in the lives of veterans seeking to make sense of their time at war. More recently, in a blog entitled “Authority and Arrogance: A Response,” Nancy Bauer, a feminist philosopher at Tufts University, replied to comments posted regarding the relevance of treating Lady Gaga in her original entry, “Lady Power,” in a philosophical manner as well as to those questioning the authority that philosophers like to arrogate to themselves. As one reader indignantly claimed upon reading the original post about Lady Gaga, “That such intellectual consideration would be given to ‘Lady’ Gaga in the New York Times astounds” as if to suggest both that some topics are so commonsensical or self-evident as to not warrant any philosophical consideration whatsoever and that The New York Times fails to live up to a standard of cultural decency when it permits someone (here, Bauer) to write in a serious vein about something intrinsically ridiculous.

Put aside for the moment the question of whether Lady Gaga merits the attention of feminist philosophers, cultural critics, or any educated person, really. The larger question this reader raises—indeed one of the most prescient questions aimed at any self-respecting apologist for the philosophical life —can be recast as a challenge: Why, this reader demands, should I listen to you? What gives you as a philosopher the authority to speak?

In order to clarify the nature of the challenge, we need to distinguish between freedom of expression and the question of legitimacy. We are not concerned here (nor, to be sure, is the reader I cite) with whether the philosopher can speak and be heard in the public sphere; she is so capable and so entitled—capable insofar as she has the opportunity to enter the public sphere and entitled just to the extent that she can carry on about serious topics worthy of all our consideration or, if she prefers, about silly things that scarcely merit a moment’s notice: she is free to waste our time. Rather, we are seeking to draw attention to the question concerning whether philosophers have any special insight into the world, whether those who make no special claims to being philosophers ought to listen to those who do, and whether philosophers should have any influence over non-philosophers in the matter of how the latter make up or change their minds.

Bauer is right to frame her response in terms of authority and arrogance. On the one hand, philosophers, certainly since the time in which Socrates was living, have appeared to be arrogant, audacious, brazen, and, most of all, shameless, speaking in a manner that others might (and did) find appalling, objectionable, and, in some cases, obviously false. What, after all, do they know that others do not? What special knowledge do they have at their fingertips, what secret funds of understanding, what access to divine wisdom or to supernatural entities beyond the reach of common sense that non-philosophers lack? And how can they be so certain that what they claim to be true is, as a matter of fact, true? To be arrogant, it can be inferred, is to make loud, unjustified claims to authority.

On the other hand, philosophers have donned the garb, real or feigned, of humility since the turn from the natural philosophy of the Presocratics to Socrates’s examination of the good life. For it is philosophers such as Socrates, Aquinas, and Kant who have declared that they lack wisdom because sophia is beyond the realm of human comprehension. Human beings, tender as the night, are creatures of finitude: limited in their cognitive capacities to grasp only what appears, they cannot ascend to some final position beyond the here and now. Reason enough, for philosophers of this ilk, to acknowledge their own ignorance and, they thought, to enjoin us to live modestly. 

How can philosophers be seen as arrogant in one breath while regarding themselves as humble in the next? This is but another formulation of the challenge to the public philosopher’s peculiar claim to authority, a formulation that can be parsed in one of three ways. Either the public philosopher’s claims to esoteric knowledge remain incommunicable to the uninitiated (he speaks in tongues or, in an updated version, in academic jargon), or he speaks against what is so commonsensical and self-evident that his statements have to be untrue (in some sense, he is no more than a court jester or fop), or his utterances, in virtue of their being unverifiable, can, at best, neither be confirmed nor rejected (he is closer to a theologian than he is to a rigorous scientist). In a sense that is as of yet unclear, he can be heard, but he can’t be understood.

What would count, therefore, as a legitimate claim to authority is the very question that issue to be considered. There are six such sources that come almost immediately to mind (three come straight out of Max Weber’s work) but that a public philosopher cannot reasonably hope to reference in his writing.

First, there is the claim to specialized expertise. Unlike an economist, a medical doctor, or a policy analyst whose expertise is such that we are apt to listen to her conclusions, to take seriously her recommendations, and to trust that she will help us to make well-informed decisions, a public philosopher cannot, in good conscience, appeal to some bit of well-researched knowledge that falls within her ken. Recall that as a public philosopher she is not donning the hat of the professional philosopher whose intensive study of philosophy of language might very well dispose us to regard her conclusions about language as ultimately sound. No, insofar as she identifies herself as a public philosopher she is a generalist opining about topics that concern all of us and writing in (though at the limits of) a public language we all share.   

Second, there is the appeal to prestige. To remain true to his calling, a public philosopher, however, cannot (or, in any event, should not) point to his attachment to a prestigious university as granting his claims the proper authority. For one thing, he may be an independent scholar—in Russell Jacoby’s words, a “last intellectual”—working at a distance from powerful institutions. For another, even for one who is employed by a well-recognized and highly esteemed university, his statements should be rendered independent of the institution’s official policies so that the university that pays him is not impelled to put its imprimatur on his arguments or proposals. In both cases, then, when a public philosopher comes before us, he does so alone, on our terms, of his own volition, and, in a sense, in full anonymity. In his lectures, interviews, and writings, he presents himself to us in the light of day.

Third, there is the ultimate appeal to divine authority. In the present case, though, it should be clear that no transcendent being can underwrite the public philosopher’s discourses and this, not unsurprisingly, because he cannot appear to us in the garb of a divine messenger, prophet, or medium. It follows that a public philosopher cannot exempt his discourse from examination or rational scrutiny but must submit himself to all forms of reasonable queries, replies, and rebuttals. If God happens to be on his side, then so much the better for God: God’s endorsement of the view of a certain public philosopher must be the result of the latter’s having the right reasons for believing that something is the case and not the consequence of God’s so willing it. 

Fourth, neither can he allude to some analogy between philosophy and science for ultimate support. As regards the question of modern legitimacy, science has no conceptual problem (by which I don’t mean that the science wars of the nineties were somehow unreal or that Americans’ general skepticism toward science will soon vanish) because science has demonstrable utility. Science manifests its power to change the everyday routines that govern our lives through paradigm-shifting technological innovations. What’s more, scientific discoveries have extended the realm of human freedom by means of predictability and control. In the scientific picture inaugurated during the scientific revolution and coming into full view some 400 years later, nature has become less unruly and mysterious and, in consequence, more amenable to human understanding as well as more subject to technological manipulation. Since philosophy has no such practical utility and since it exerts no such power over the physical world, it follows that philosophy cannot draw its reason for being from scientific sources.  

Fifth, nor can the public philosopher bedazzle us with his charisma. For Max Weber, the charismatic figure seems to draw his power and influence from the godhead and to be endowed with magical qualities. The charismatic man, much like the shaman, bewitches us with his incantations, his lilting cadences, the force of his speech. Perhaps, as the beautiful, wayward boy Alcibiades suggests in Plato’s Symposium, there was something of this quality in Socrates. And yet unlike the sophists, Socrates was always plain-spoken and forthright—one reason why his defense failed to incite pity in the Athenian jurors in The Apology—and throughout the dialectical portions of the early and middle Platonic dialogues he sought to refrain from rhetorical flourishes. It is not, of course, as if he was or, by extension, public philosophers themselves are without style or panache or that philosophical substance somehow comes unpackaged, pure, and transparent. It is only that public philosophers do not gain our assent by realizing a common desire in us for mystical oneness.

Finally, public philosophers are by no means justified in claiming that tradition is on their side. To say that this is how things have always been done or to assert that this is how we’ve always gotten along around here and to conclude that this is how things should continue to be is not to make a defensible philosophical assertion. In a full-blown traditionalist appeal, the speaker is grounding his case in a community’s reverence for its past and its elders—that is, in a kind of collective vision that, just insofar as we tacitly or explicitly endorse it, binds us all together. It is true that some philosophers such as Edmund Burke or, in a much different vein, the twentieth-century anti-modern René Guenon have argued on behalf of different versions of traditionalism, and yet their defense of traditionalism was characteristically untraditional. Both adduced reasons and both enjoined us to reach similar conclusions: in the first case, that society was best re-jiggered not at one blow but bit by bit; in the second, that the modern world is a final phase through which we are now passing and that will soon give way once again to mystical harmony.

Since the public philosopher does not have at his disposal the legitimate use of expertise, prestige, divine sanction, scientific truth, charisma, or tradition, he is therefore left with the option of making appeals to Dame Reason. How easy it would be to scoff at this superannuated idea: if the history of the twentieth century has taught us anything, it is that Reason is a rather flimsy guide. Consider Darwin’s, Freud’s, and Nietzsche’s insights that we have considerably less rational control over our lives than we would like to think; or neuroscientists’ experiments that seem to show that conscious free will is an illusion; or the terror brought on by state socialism that seem to indicate that social engineering destroys not only lives but also human freedom; or genocides, world wars, and colonialism that apparently give the lie to absolutism and to the global actualization of human rights. Consider, too, the rise and prevalence of multiculturalism and moral relativism in our time, an integral part of the education of skeptical, authority-rejecting young persons in the US. Arguably, when someone refers to Truth, we should be overly generous in our interpretation, translating Truth into “truths,” “opinion,” or, even worse, “self-interest.” Or perhaps he is simply a figure of fun, and so we should treat him kindly, holding our laughter till he hobbles out of view. 

In two articles that have previously appeared in Butterflies and Wheels, “Taking Relativism Seriously” and “Philosophy in the Popular Imagination,” I considered to a greater or lesser extent the proper use of public reason. Though consistent with the arguments I make there, in what follows I wish to strike out on a somewhat different path, advancing the thesis that the authority of public philosophy can be defended on the grounds either that it furnishes us with conceptual frameworks through which we can grasp modern phenomena or that it invents new concepts which proffer a richer, more adequate understanding of our life-world.

In his book entitled Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, Richard Posner recognizes that philosophy has been hampered as much as any other humanistic discipline has by the slow but steady trend toward professionalization: increasing specialization, the prevalence of academic jargon, writing meant for publication in academic journals to be read only by fellow colleagues at work on similar research questions, and, not the least, insulation from the common concerns of lay persons. Still, in his chapter on public philosophers he wonders whether philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and Richard Rorty can play a vital role in the public sphere; his conclusion is that they cannot. For Posner, the unit of analysis in public intellectual discourse is the issue, the main target of discourse that nebulous, protean term “public opinion,” and the speech act the policy recommendation. But, he aims to show, neither issues nor policy statements require philosophical thinking about first principles; instead, they are best examined in terms of the calculus of cost-benefit analysis, judgments best reached as a result of carefully weighing the likely consequences.

Suppose we grant this much about the realm of public policy. Still, Posner’s verdict regarding the failure of public philosophers to weigh in meaningfully on issues of the day only follows if one assents to the premise that the public philosopher’s object of study is the issue. To see why Posner’s conclusion doesn’t follow, we need only read J.M. Bernstein’s recent blog entry, “The Very Angry Tea Party,” which, tellingly, appeared in “The Stone” long after the Tea Party Movement had already become a household name. In his philosophical investigation into the metaphysical commitments of the Tea Party Movement, Bernstein does not speak at any length about health care reform, taxes, Wall Street bailouts, big government, state sovereignty, or any other hot button issue about which Posner might expect him to chime in. Rather, he seeks to ask a rather simple question that no pundit, Bernstein notes, has sincerely considered—why are Tea Partiers so angry?—and then to trace the Tea Partiers’ anger back to the false metaphysical view according to which a subject can be absolutely free from all social and institutional attachments.

Their anger, Bernstein wishes to demonstrate, arose in the very moment that they had to acknowledge, while at the same time disavowing, their ultimate dependence on the institutions from which they gained their independence. If we let the name “Hegel” stand for the way that a subject comes into being as a consequence of a set of primitive social attachments and social recognitions and the name “Descartes” designate the subject which is a self-affirming solitary being who has privileged access to his thoughts, then the best way of accounting for Tea Partiers’ anger, Bernstein believes, is to insist that we are primitively Hegelians and only derivatively—which is to say, traumatically—Cartesians. Fragile social beings all, we become angry when our attachments to others are violated. Only then do we recoil into Cartesianism, half-forgetting the past and half-rejecting the very things that give our lives meaning, purpose, and direction. Thus, according to Bernstein we are warranted in holding that the Tea Party Movement is metaphysical, not political, in nature.

The fundamental lesson that Bernstein’s article admirably illustrates is that public philosophy has value just to the extent that it reveals how certain social phenomena actually fit together within some basic conceptual schema. In other words, one of public philosophy’s chief ambitions is to fulfill the speculative demand that social phenomena be categorized according to how they shed light on the conceptual contours of the modern world, on a world, hitherto vague and indistinct, that is all our own and now familiar. The truth is indeed the whole.

Of course, we may feel with good reason that Bernstein has failed to sketch the right metaphysical picture of this social phenomenon, yet it would be uncharitable of us to suppose that such cannot be a legitimate and wholly useful undertaking for public philosophy given that the latter proposes to do nothing less than help us understand some event or set of events in the broadest possible terms—in a word, to give us the right general orientation so that we can see events as falling under the longue dureé, the epochal character of modernity  

I have suggested that this the speculative approach is but one way of conferring authority on public philosophy. Conceptual innovation is another. According to the political philosopher Raymond Geuss, there are political situations in which we are in a deep conceptual muddle: we cannot see our way about and, what’s worse, we cannot identify the root cause or perceive the nature of the problem. Unable to deliberate sensibly about courses of possible actions, we remain mired, unconsciously perhaps, in vagueness and indistinctness. In these sorts of cases, Geuss thinks that conceptual innovation can be “an important contribution to clarifying an obscure situation and to guiding action directed at institutional change.”

The example he cites in his book Philosophy and Real Politics in order to illustrate this point is the concept of the state, which in Weber’s terms signifies the sole instrument of legitimate force within a delimited geographical region. Before the early modern age, the concept did not exist, Geuss holds, and yet Hobbes’s conceptual invention allowed us to see, “aesthetically” as it were, a new social reality that was at once familiar and unfamiliar to us. Afterward, we were able to imagine actions performed in relation to the state as well as take certain stances toward it: we might reasonably hold that its power should be minimized (the liberal stance); that it should be tasked with distributing resources equitably (the socialist stance); that it does not and cannot carry moral legitimacy (the anarchist stance); that, as a result of political struggle, it shall wither away (the Leninist stance); and so on. The state has indeed become such a part of our political experience that it would be difficult to imagine politics apart from the operations of, or resistance to, the state.

Just as the concept of the state clarified the problem for those living in the early modern world and thereafter, so the concept of neoliberalism, we might suggest, directs our attention toward ours. After Margaret Thatcher declared in 1979 that “society does not exist,” a new political reality quickly set in. The invention of the concept of neoliberalism has shown a light on the problem—the state’s reach must be curtailed considerably, the marketplace should be relatively unregulated and unbound, and human freedom should be regarded as being identical both with widespread distrust of institutional authority and, as Lilla sheepishly asserts, with “the divine right to do whatever we damn well please.” Indeed, can we imagine our current economic and political predicament without referring, either explicitly or implicitly, to the neoliberal state?

We have managed to pick out two valuable things that the public philosopher can do and do well. His existence can be vindicated, I believe, provided that he gives us the right perspective with which to see how our world hangs together (the development of a sound conceptual framework) or in those rare instances where he has managed to invent a concept that, after the fact, designates a social phenomenon that is at the heart of our everyday lives, that is, that is integral to our understanding the seemingly self-evident reality that we live and think (timely conceptual innovation). Where once we failed to understand our place in the modern world, now we see it all too clearly; where once things had remained obscure, now they have become clear and distinct.

We can now return, in closing, to the issue of arrogance and humility. The reply to the skeptic’s charge that philosophers are from first to last an arrogant bunch is that the good ones are working at the limits of everyday public discourse: their principal aim is to achieve conceptual clarity, but that aim cannot be reached unless they adopt a certain style of thought that is not entirely familiar to non-philosophers. The rebuke that “I can’t follow you” is symptomatic, I suspect, both of the reader’s unwillingness to give philosophers a decent hearing and of philosophers’ inability to find a mode of expression that adequately balances the need for accessibility with their desire for rigor. Hence philosophers’ humility, an attitude toward life that springs from the feeling that they haven’t arrived at a final view of social reality (after all, they could be wrong, and, in light of new evidence, their conclusions may need to be revised) and from believing that they may not be understood by the neighbors they so wholeheartedly wish to reach. Not to be understood, though, is not the worst fate; that label would have to be reserved for those who lack the courage to write about the ultimate aim that binds us all together: I mean the common good.

About the Author

Andrew Taggart writes about ethics and lives in New York City. He is currently writing a book on philosophy of life.   

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