Monday, October 31, 2022

Public Philosophy at UC Riverside -- an Invitation to PhD Applicants

Not everyone knows it yet, but starting next fall, Barry Lam, host of the awesome philosophy podcast Hi-Phi Nation, will be joining the Philosophy Department at UC Riverside.  This will -- in my (not at all biased, I swear!) opinion -- make UCR one of the best places in the world for public philosophy, and I hope that students interested in pursuing a PhD in philosophy with a strong public philosophy component will consider applying here.

The following faculty all have significant profiles in public philosophy:

Myisha Cherry, who also has a terrific podcast: The UnMute Podcast.  Her book The Case for Rage had great public reach, and her forthcoming The Failures of Forgiveness is also likely to draw a wide public audience.  Cherry has also written op-eds for leading venues including The Atlantic, The New Statesman, and the Los Angeles Times.

Carl Cranor, who regularly writes for broad audiences on legal issues concerning toxic substances, for example in Tragic Failures: How and Why We Are Harmed by Toxic Chemicals.

John Martin Fischer, who has written for broad audiences especially on the issue of death and near-death experiences, for example in his book Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife and related public pieces in The New York Times and elsewhere.

Barry Lam, whose Hi-Phi Nation podcast is one of the best and most-listened-to philosophy podcasts.  Barry is invested in building up public philosophy instruction here.  He plans to teach a regular graduate seminar on writing and producing philosophy in various forms of mass media, including trade books, magazines, newspapers, podcast, and online video, as well as an interdisciplinary podcast production course aimed at students and faculty in the humanities.  Barry has connections with regional and national media organizations to help students who want to pitch op-eds, articles, podcast segments, etc., and he welcomes graduate student research and reporting for Hi-Phi Nation.

Eric Schwitzgebel who has, I'm sure you'll agree, a pretty good philosophy blog!  I've also published op-eds in the Los Angeles Times, Salon, Slate, The Atlantic, and elsewhere, as well as philosophically-themed science fiction stories in Nature, Clarkesworld, F&SF, and elsewhere.  A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures contains several dozen of my favorite blog posts and other popular pieces.  Students interested in philosophical science fiction might also note that UCR has an interdisciplinary graduate program in Speculative Fiction and Cultures of Science which awards students a "Designated Emphasis" in the area alongside their primary degree.

I'm hoping that UCR will soon develop a reputation as a great place to go for training in public philosophy.

[image of Barry Lam by Melissa Surprise Photography]


Phil Tanny said...

The highest ranking authority on all matters great and small, Wikipedia, :-) defines public philosophy this way...

"Public philosophy is a subfield of philosophy that involves engagement with the public. Jack Russell Weinstein defines public philosophy as 'doing philosophy with general audiences in a non-academic setting'."

To the degree this definition is generally accepted, the following questions might arise.

1) Where is this engagement between academics and the public happening? Ok, on this blog, so that's great, and THANK YOU, but...

The most efficient and accessible method of such engagement would be an online discussion forum. A forum would facilitate many academics engaging many members of the public, in a very convenient manner for all. I hope to be wrong on this, but as best I can tell the field of public philosophy has had a couple decades to establish such a forum and has failed to do so. I would establish such a forum myself, but I know that academics wouldn't show up. So unless I can be corrected on this, for now I'll give the field of public philosophy a grade of D. I won't fail them though as blogs like this do exist to a limited degree.

2) Are those academics working in the field of public philosophy capable of prioritizing issues of public concern in order of importance? It seems easy to make the case that there is no larger and more imminent threat to the continuation of this civilization than nuclear weapons, a topic overwhelmingly ignored by academic philosophers everywhere. So here I feel no choice but to issue a grade of F. This is too important to be polite about.

If this were a public philosophy forum then 23 academics could immediately jump in to dispute my claims above, which would be great. We could go back and forth for months on such issues, and maybe all learn something, with "all" including the academics.

A key problem I see is that academics have turned philosophy in to a business, and this introduces agendas which compete and conflict with philosophy and public dialog. There's no crime here, just an obstacle.

As example, if I was being paid $500 for each comment I post here and I needed the money to put my kids through college, I would be understandably reluctant to challenge the status quo in public as I've done above. What if I piss someone off, what if they fire me, what if my reputation is ruined, what if I don't get tenure, what if some high school kid presents an inconvenient challenge that I can't refute?

This post should be easy for the Philosophy Department at UC Riverside to debunk. Just open an online discussion forum where academics and the public can meet to discuss the most pressing issues of the day, which I will argue is nuclear weapons. I have years of experience with forums at every level, and would be glad to assist if asked.

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Philosophy is an interest of mine. Not a passion, but something I enjoy. Family, save my brother, are unenthusiastic. But, they are not public to me, nor should they be. My physical limitations preclude comfortable, enjoyable travel, so I am appreciative of online access and connectivity. I don't engage in a lot of contentious dialogue on my views, assertions or contentions. I keep it simple. And, civil. I thank the blog owner here for opportunity to express views, theory and a few wild ass guesses about things.I would not expect to engage any of that at the supermarket or corner carry-out. All OK by me. There are other blogs where My comments are aired. To any I have offended, by challenging belief, dogma or doctrine, be advised: I will not waste any more of your time. Or mine. Thank you, to the rest.

Phil Tanny said...

If I found myself holding a microphone in a room full of public philosophy academics I would ask this question...

QUESTION: What is the rational basis for academic philosophers to largely ignore the subject of nuclear weapons?

By "largely ignore" I don't mean nuclear weapons are NEVER mentioned in any academic philosophy writings, but that only the tiniest fraction of academic philosophy writings seem to reference nuclear weapons in any way. As best I can tell, almost every other subject is considered more deserving of attention.

It get why academics ignore me when I ask this question (not just here, but everywhere), but I don't understand why academics also seem to be ignoring Bertrand Russell, a prominent philosopher who apparently considered this issue to be very important.

Observing this lack of interest everywhere I go has led me to question whether academic philosophers really are critical thinkers. And when this challenge is almost always ignored, it has me wondering whether academic philosophers are intellectually honest. Or, I question whether business agendas have trumped rational inquiry. I really don't know, as I'm at a loss to explain this phenomena.

Is this post off topic? Well, that depends on what one feels public philosophers should be focused on. I've cast my vote. What's yours?

Philosopher Eric said...

It could be that academic philosophers don’t say much about nuclear weapons, because they don’t feel that they have much to say about them beyond the obvious — that these weapons are very powerful and so could destroy humanity. I must admit that I don’t otherwise say much about them (not that I’m an academic philosopher). Thus questioning the mentality of those who “ignore” nuclear weapons may be reaching a bit farther than warranted.

Another way to take this would be to ask what you think academic philosophers might achieve if they were to discuss nuclear weapons far more than they do today? And perhaps you ask this question here for the same reason that I might ask a question here? This is to say, perhaps you consider yourself able to provide various worthy answers and thus seek an audience? In that case are your thoughts similar to Bertrand Russell’s thoughts? I’m not currently familiar with either but might at least enjoy some highlights.

Phil Tanny said...

Hi PE, thanks for your thoughts.

Well, yes, your theory that academics don't say much about nuclear weapons because they don't have much to say seems reasonable enough. I don't have a better explanation, other than maybe it has something to do with many academics online being relatively young?

What might academics achieve if they did address the topic in earnest? That's a great question, thanks for that.

My answer is that academic philosophers could become the leading voice in our culture on a dramatically important issue being ignored by almost everyone else.

Academic philosophers are routinely wringing their hands with concern about whether they are perceived as being relevant. Well, here's a solution. Choose to be relevant. What is more relevant than the ever imminent destruction of everything we hold dear???

Yes, I seek an audience with those who are in a position to address a much larger audience than I will ever have. I have the insight, but exactly no talent at establishing the image of authority that is required to be heard. Academics have that talent, but not the insight on this issue. If they can find the insight, I am no longer needed.

If you'd like one example of how nuclear weapons might be addressed in a philosophical manner which transcends politics and activism, click on my name. The article you'll find is just one way to approach the topic, those with PhDs seem fully qualified to find 1,000 other ways.

Apologies if it seems I'm hijacking this thread, but if public philosophers insist on ignoring this issue then I'm afraid we're stuck with commentary from the peanut gallery as our only option.

Thanks again for engaging, you've asked good questions.

Arnold said...

@PE, PT and PD...

Will Barry Lam profess publicly 'Embodied cognition' also...
...seems a the modern comprehensive way to be a philosopher today...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

Phil: I agree that the ethics of nuclear weapons is relatively neglected by philosophers given its importance. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in the shadow of a widespread belief that it was likely that before long there would be global nuclear war. Today people seem to forget how serious a possibility that was (or at least seemed?) at the time when they treat that era as if it were an era of relative political calm and safety! As Phil E suggests, it's likely few philosophers write about the topic because it's not clear how much there is to say beyond the obvious. To this I'd add that there appears to be little demand for philosophers to speak about this, so there's both a supply-side and a demand-side problem.

In terms of opening up a public discussion forum for philosophy, again I wonder about demand, or about what a forum would end up looking like. Back in the mid-2000s, blogs served as forums for this sort of thing. Most eventually closed as Facebook and Twitter gained in popularity, suggesting limited interest in such forums. Some blogs specialized in specific topics, such as Flickers of Freedom on free will and Feminist Philosophers. Others were more wide open, like the meta-blog and meta-meta-blog. The level of conversation on those two blogs, unfortunately, was not high and obnoxious behavior was unfortunately common. Currently, Twitter and Facebook both have a fair bit of philosophy discussion. There's also a Reddit for philosophy. The EA Forum is a good resource for high level discussion concerning effective altruism issues. So there already are some public places for discussion to happen, and I'm inclined to think that opening a new one would change the overall situation much, unless it brought something new and compelling in terms of content or structure.

Phil Tanny said...

Hi Eric, thanks for your reply.

Ok, we agree that the topic of nuclear weapons is under addressed, both by academics and the wider public. That's great. So, what are we going to do about this?

We might start by addressing one obstacle that's been mentioned in this thread, that it's not entirely clear what there is to say about nuclear weapons.

A public philosophy professional might invite their peers, and perhaps the public, in to a thread whose purpose is to brainstorm topics which address nuclear weapons in a philosophical manner which transcends politics and activism. Those topic ideas which show promise can be developed in to articles and books. If the public is invited in to such discussions, I'd be happy to contribute some topic ideas.

Yes, agreed again, the public is not demanding philosophers write about nuclear weapons, because nearly the entire culture is trapped in a highly irrational nuclear weapons denial.

This is why we have professional philosophers on the public payroll Eric, to uncover and address such dangerous false assumptions in the group consensus. It's the job of intellectual elites to lead.

If public philosophy professional aren't sure how to get started on the topic of nuclear weapons, the following post will share some claims about our relationship with knowledge which can be examined and challenged, dissected, built upon, unraveled, etc.

Some form of nuclear war is coming. When that day arrives public philosophers will either be seen as having little to contribute, or they can be seen the leading cultural commentators on this existential threat.

Phil Tanny said...

Hmm... Your form won't accept the article I've promised (too long perhaps) so if you wish to read this example of a more philosophical approach to nuclear weapons I guess the solution is to click my name and read the article on my Facebook page.

Phil Tanny said...

Here's an exercise which might help...

Public philosophers can continue to write on any topic that interests them, with the following edit added.

NEW FEATURE: At the top of each article write a sentence or two summarizing why the chosen topic is more deserving of attention than nuclear weapons.

The point of this exercise would be to examine and challenge what seems to be a wide spread assumption in academic philosophy that nuclear weapons are just one of a thousand topics, and not an especially interesting one.

Whatever topic one wishes to address, why is that topic more deserving of professional attention that the ever imminent destruction of modern civilization?

Phil Tanny said...

Returning to the subject of forums and public philosophy...

First, if it's true that public philosophers wish to engage the public (is that true?) then there is no more efficient and convenient mechanism for such engagement than online discussion forums.

Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, social media in general, and even the EA forum are all low quality environments unsuitable for discussions worth having. Been there, done all that, largely a waste of time.

Forums have had tons of problems too, but all these problems are a function of poor management, not the technology itself, which is perfect for this purpose. That is, all the problems forums have experienced can be fixed.

To keep it simple for now, imagine a forum populated only by public philosophy academics. This would provide the public with a single place to learn about this field of philosophy, instead of these academics being spread out all over the Net in a million different places.

In this limited example case, there would presumably be little to no need for moderation. There are no substantial cost or technical barriers. The best forum software I've seen is only $50 per month, and the host takes responsibility for all technical management.

The real obstacle here is that the business model of academic philosophy does not allow academics to be seen learning anything from the general public. Public philosophers don't really want to talk with the public so much as they want to talk at or about the public. And so any suggestion from the public will be deflected or ignored, the academics themselves don't have the necessary experience, and so nothing happens.

In the last few days I've exchanged a few emails with a very prominent academic philosophy blogger (not Eric). He's been working on his blog pretty much daily for at least a decade. And it's only now that he's starting to understand that his blog is in somebody else's domain. What this means is if that somebody else closes up shop, all the work the academic has invested in his blog over a period of years will vanish in a flash.

And the same is true here on this blog.

I'm a retired forum software developer and have been considering such issues at length for over twenty years. I really should stop considering them at this point, but old habits die hard apparently.

Philosopher Eric said...

I detect a bit of frustration from you right now. After 20 years of considering this issue at length, you mentioned in passing that you really should give it up. Ha! You’re clearly no less addicted than I am! Furthermore you interest me given proficiency in a wickedly effective form of rhetoric and thought. I’ve referred to this before as “Gandhi style”. Though I’ve noticed that it can be learned and refined by some, apparently few have personalities which permit them to use it at all. (For anyone unsure what I mean by such rhetoric, I’ll refer you to the 1983 Ben Kingsley movie where he displayed it’s use masterfully. I suspect that Phil already grasps my meaning here though I’ve also found that reviewing the film from the perspective of a given cause can also help provide associated enlightenment.)

Anyway Phil, given that like me your passion will keep your fingers busy until you become halted by means of dementia or worse, how might you get the most out of this particular hobby? Observe that without personal satisfaction you probably won’t help your cause as much you otherwise might. Furthermore if your efforts do at least bring you great satisfaction, well hey, that result should also be pretty good!

Apparently satisfaction is gained here by providing arguments that seem quite sensible, as well as lost by means of arguments that seem flawed. Why? It’s a theory of mind thing. We evolved such that our perceptions of how we are perceived by others makes us feel good/bad given the respect/disrespect that we thus perceive those people to have for us. So beyond just having a solid platform, your satisfaction requires that you find people both able and willing to have earnest discussions with you.

For me finding such people has been more difficult than I’d like. I suppose that’s what incites me right now. Perhaps you could be such a person for me? The converse as well of course. The catch I see here is that you currently imply that nuclear weapons and the need for academic philosophers to help humanity sort them out, is all that you’re interested in. I doubt that’s true, but would you also expand your thesis to address foundational matters that support it? It seems to me that this might be important for a convincing case to be made. But if your various underlying positions diverge with the positions of myself or others, how might they fare? Will you continue to feel like you’re getting the respect of others, or rather their disrespect? In any case I’m currently hopeful that we will have productive discussions.

(For a clerical note, it’s harder to provide hyperlinks here on Blogger than a Wordpress site for example, since pasting a link won’t be clickable. But you can still do them if you get the href code right. Do a search for the details if you like. Make sure to hit the preview button rather than publish to see if you got it right. Most people here seem to just paste a URL for others to potentially copy paste into a browser, though as a computer dude I doubt that will suffice for you. For proof of more however, this one goes to a January post here that might interest you. In it professor S discusses his opposition with Longtermism, or the position that if humanity can get through a particularly vulnerable period right now, then it will naturally become enlightened enough to survive for millions or even billions of years. I also consider that highly doubtful.)

Phil Tanny said...

Hi PE,

You're right of course, I'm totally addicted to this process of impossible missions. It's genetic for me, a product of my family tree, not a matter of choice.

Thank you for applauding what you call my "wickedly effective form of rhetoric". To return this generous favor to my childlike ego, here's a tip on how to make rhetoric even more wicked.

Be relentlessly polite. That way, when your targets find themselves cornered it's much harder for them to change the subject from the post to the poster. However, because I'm a compassionate guy at heart, I usually go easy on the polite part to give them an escape route. :-)

I'll check out the Gandhi movie to refresh my memory on your reference. Yes, it takes a certain personality to do this, it helps a lot to have nothing to lose.

How to get the most of this hobby, I mean, addiction? Enjoy the act of typing for itself, enjoy the illusion of it's importance too, just not too much. It's when I'm stuck in the illusion of typing being important that I get frustrated, and as you correctly observe, that tends to happen rather frequently.

Yes, you are perceptive! My satisfaction requires finding people both willing and able to do the dance of earnest discussions, so true. And yes, finding such people is indeed quite difficult.

Yes again, if you will click on my name you will find an expansion of my thesis beyond just nuclear weapons activism. It's there for those few who want it.

You'll find me very receptive to the process of challenge and counter challenge, so please feel free to write anything you wish, no problem. If I get carried away, just roll your eyes, and tell me to take a breath. :-)

Thanks for engaging, appreciated.

Anonymous said...

I'm not completely familiar with the philosophical discourse regarding nuclear weapons; however, I believe that philosophy generally deals with more abstract principles, such as the right to and definition of private property or the justifications for/against government such as social contract theory. I think the issue of nukes will depend on those answers, so for example I would argue that nukes should be treated as private property. If one agrees with Nozick, then they should be treated as such. I'm sure the issue is far more abstracted than I understand, but that's my general idea.

I think that if one lays the moral/philosophical framework for such concepts, that will inevitably lead to whatever logical conclusion that system reaches regarding nukes. Still, it is interesting to see a philosopher dissect a public issue, such as Judith Thompson in her paper, In Defense of Abortion.

Note: I am an undergrad and do not read philosophical journals; I'd much rather read Nietzche or Descartes because I like philosophical works that deal with the abstract concepts; no one wants to listen to Peter Singer lecture the public about eating meat...