a blog about philosophy in public affairs

“Dumbed down for the masses”? Public philosophy in different keys, and why it matters for justice

When one makes one first steps into public philosophy, one quickly encounters a challenge: as academic philosophers, we are used to writing in a slow, careful, sort-of-boring-but-at-least-precise way: to hedge our claims, to qualify the scope of our theses, etc. For public philosophy, editors want the opposite: brief, succinct sentences, never mind a bit of exaggeration and a polemical tone. And often, they request more: “We really need a concrete example here.” “This is too abstract, we’ve taken the liberty of rewriting it a bit.”  “Can you please do a photo session, for a nice picture?” For many of us, these things feel a bit awkward. Different people draw the line in different places – but it seems unavoidable to play this game, at least up to a point, if you want to reach a broader audience. And as I will argue, there is a matter of justice at stake here.

It could be understood as a purely strategic, or maybe aesthetic, question for academic philosophers how far they want to go in playing the “reach a broader audience” game. But arguably, there is a matter of justice as well: do we keep philosophy to ourselves, the educated middle class to which most of us belong? Or do we also try to provide offers for different social groups? What about those who hardly ever read anything? What about those who have difficulties with the language, for example because they aren’t native speakers? If “philosophy” is only ever written and presented in ways that presuppose certain educational and cultural resources, doesn’t that imply that we don’t take “other people” to have any “philosophical” questions? And doesn’t that seem not only terribly arrogant, but also plainly wrong? Isn’t it unjust if philosophy isn’t available for everyone, in the many different keys that are needed to reach many different groups?

One might argue that in an ideal world, all these differences of class and educational background would not exist: all citizens would have at least a certain level of education and could participate in philosophical discussions if they wish. Also, in an ideal world philosophers would come from all kinds of backgrounds and so wouldn’t have any trouble communicating with non-philosophers from different walks of life. But we are far from that ideal world, and there is no reason to think that we shouldn’t at least tryto reach out to broader audiences. If we, as academic philosophers, don’t do it, others will do it. One scenario, which is arguably the case for Germany, is that the public interest in philosophy is, to a large extent, satisfied by other actors, like “TV philosophers”, philosophy magazines, etc. Many of them do a rather good job, but one has to keep in mind that most of them are commercial enterprises. They have to make a living from doing public philosophy, and hence they go to where the purchasing power is. This is not necessarily helpful for addressing the structural injustice that philosophy is made available to some social classes but much less to others.

I take it that as a professional community, we have a responsibility to make philosophical knowledge available to broader audiences than just the “usual suspects”, i.e. the (often retired) educated citizens who come to public philosophy talks. There are many ways of doing so, from newspaper columns to podcasts or youtube clips. Sometimes, academic philosophers – especially at so-called “elite” institutions, in my experience – frown upon such “dumbed down” messages.* But this kind of snobbery seems out of place if we consider that the people who might have an interest in philosophy come from so many different backgrounds and places, both literally and metaphorically. Shouldn’t we aim at a variety of styles and levels of communication?

And yet, I have to admit that I was a bit shocked, and in the end declined, when I got an invitation from the editors of the corporate magazine of a fashion company to do a “photo story” with a bit of philosophy inserted, presumably in really short sentences. I’m still not sure it was the right decision. Did I fail all the teenage girls who might have fallen in love with philosophy while flipping through advertisement for the new winter fashion?

What we need – and what is, fortunately, already taking place, see e.g. this recent post – is experimentation: experimentation with different formats, different styles of communication, different ways of reaching out, online and offline, to people who might be interested in philosophy but have few opportunities to encounter it. One nagging doubt that I have is that there is still a massive classist bias in many of these forms, and I keep wondering how we could do better (please send us ideas and suggestions in the comment section!). I am convinced that this wouldn’t be a one-way street: we would probably learn a great deal, as philosophers, from interacting with people from more diverse backgrounds. But we shouldn’t do it for instrumental reasons – we should do it because philosophy is for everyone!


* One challenge that I still find hard to deal with is that when you write for a broader audience, you often have to give up the authority over the headlines and the frame of your piece. Headlines, I learned, aren’t even done by the editors with whom you interact as an author, but by specialized headline writers, and in online formats, they might be changed if the original one doesn’t attract enough attention. Keep that in mind the next time when you see a colleague’s name under a horrible headline – it’s probably not their fault!

Lisa Herzog

I work on various questions at the intersection of economics and philosophy, currently focussing on ethics and organizations and ethics in finance. Methodologically, I sit between many chairs and I have come to like the variety. I think of my work as critical, empirically informed social philosophy.



5th Annual Conference of the Centre for the Study of Global Ethics


Call for Papers: Stanford Junior Scholars Workshop


  1. Aveek

    It seems to me that you are assuming that public philosophy is a one-way process. The philosopher comes up with their insight doing ‘proper philosophy’. They then translate this insight in a way that the general public can understand.

    I wonder if it might also be possible for the philosopher to get something out of the exchange? For example, does it help to clarify your ideas to be pushed to state them more simply or to draw out their practical implications. And might public philosophy give you a better understanding of the issues and questions that ordinary people care about, and so shift your research in a more practically useful direction?

    • Lisa

      Dear Aveek, as I wrote at the end of the post: “I am convinced that this wouldn’t be a one-way street: we would probably learn a great deal, as philosophers, from interacting with people from more diverse backgrounds.” I fully agree that we can get very valuable insights, both about how to clarify our ideas and about how to find topics of research – at least that has been my experience!

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