How to get people talking philosophy

Dani Nicholson, a friend of mine at the University of Exeter, often says that philosophy is a truly democratic exercise. To the extent that “doing philosophy” refers to “having an inquisitive attitude toward well-established platitudes”, then I agree. Unfortunately not everyone is lucky enough to do philosophy for a living. Whilst this is no threat to the democratic character of philosophy per se, it certainly tells us something about the participatory aspect of philosophy. Its inclusiveness relies on the ability to talk the talk, and the public is sometimes excluded from philosophical discussions solely on this basis. Are those lucky folks somehow responsible for promoting philosophy to the public? This is an highly controversial (and difficult) question. Let us assume the answer is yes. Then, question is (a) what is the goal (b) how to accomplish.

As far as I’m concern, if the problem is inclusiveness then we should engage with people in the same way we (should) engage with students in seminars: we should get them talking. The sensible question is how. Students have a duty to attend seminars, but not people. I see two strategies to address the public.

First, ask people to move where you are. I’m thinking about festivals, public lectures, but also websites and non-philosophical publishing. Although this a good way to do public philosophy, my worry is that we will only engage people that are already interested in debating. In the context of seminars, we will not consider this as a positive result, so I don’t see any reason why we should think otherwise in the case of public philosophy. Second, move where the people are. This is my favorite, but it is by no means easy.

When I was a undergraduate student at La Sapienza University of Rome, Berlusconi was Prime Minister. There were a lot of protests going on against critical cuts on Universities’ budgets and freedom, inter alia. At the time, I was working on philosophy of law and political philosophy (I’m still a H.L.A. Hart fan). Together with our tutor, we agreed to run two seminars outside the faculty. Where? On public transports. Because what better place in Rome than the one people are forced to use on daily basis? Overall, the experience was successful. In many cases, people have stopped reading their books and newspapers and started listening, and then engaging in discussion with us. Have a look.

I’m not saying this *is* the way, but to my experience it’s worth trying. If you are a lecturer or a TA, think about arranging at least one seminar of yours in a public place, whether a public transport, a square, a coffee bar. It’s good fun and people will be surprised to see something definitely out of the schemes. Their take-home point will be simple and effective…