REVIEW COORDINATOR: Alicia Sheill
Toward Engaging a Broader Public: Children and Public Philosophy
Michael D. Burroughs and Desiree Valentine
The Pennsylvania State University
In recent years, what many refer to as ‘public philosophy’ has gained increasing attention. Public philosophy takes many forms—from ‘applied ethics/philosophy’ and ‘field philosophy’ to ‘philosophy outreach’ and ‘service learning.’ In section I, we outline first, why ‘public philosophy’ has been a topic of increased interest in professional philosophy and, second, what public philosophy is (both conceptually and in regard to its representative forms in practice). With this framework in hand, in section II we discuss both what counts as public philosophy and, further, who is included (and excluded) from the ‘public’ that public philosophers seek to engage. While we applaud the advance of public philosophy we also wish to draw attention to additional forms of and possibilities for public philosophy, including those that engage a broader public. To this end, in section III we discuss ‘philosophy with children’ as an additional form of public philosophy that can expand this domain of philosophical work to be inclusive of and influenced by children.
Section I. What is Public Philosophy?
In his introduction to a special collection on public philosophy (Essays in Philosophy) Jack Russell Weinstein notes that one of the prominent critiques of public philosophy concerns its lack of “established standards” (2014, 2). Weinstein writes, “there is no community agreement as to what public philosophy should look like, let alone, what criteria it ought to privilege” (2014, 2). There are, however, emerging proposals regarding priorities for public philosophy as developed by numerous public philosophers. In what follows, we outline three of these general proposals—the method of ‘field philosophy’ offered and practiced by Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, the emergence of ‘popular philosophy,’ such as books, blogs, and social media seeking to engage the public with philosophical ideas, and what we refer to as ‘activist philosophy,’ or the practice of philosophy in the service of social and political aims.
Surely, there are methods and conceptions of public philosophy that do not fit precisely in these three categories and, further, there are significant areas of overlap between these forms of public philosophy. Our analytic separation of these categories is intended to identify three basic and, in many cases, mutually supporting, orientations to public philosophy1:
1) A focus on practicing philosophy in an interdisciplinary and highly interactional manner
2) A focus on creating more accessible channels for the public to engage in or be exposed to philosophy
3) A focus on creating and deploying philosophical methods that brings philosophy to bear on pressing societal concerns
As informed by these points of focus public philosophers aim to practice philosophy with a broader community and respond to pressing societal and cultural concerns. ‘Field philosophy’ involves the interaction of philosophers with interdisciplinary communities and pressing concerns outside of traditional institutional norms and locations, while ‘popular philosophy’ seeks to make philosophical ideas accessible to a broader public in a user-friendly and popularly accessible form. In addition, ‘activist philosophy’ includes philosophical work in the service of political and social aims, intended to respond to or reform
a. Field Philosophy
In a 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education article, Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle comment on a crisis facing the discipline of philosophy, namely, philosophy’s declining relevance in education and for the broader public. The evidence for this decline is manifold, ranging from “declining budgets, soaring debts, antipathy to tax increases, and new technologies such as distance education” to a “politically and economically unsustainable” model of scholarship resulting in lower enrollment in philosophy courses and a general lack of public interest. In the face of this crisis, Frodeman and Briggle argue, we must “reclaim the public role of philosophy.” Frodeman and Briggle suggest that we do this by practicing ‘field philosophy.’ ‘Field philosophy’ is defined as “a context-driven, problem-focused, and interdisciplinary” approach that leads philosophers to “work in real time with a variety of audiences and stakeholders” (“Socrates Untenured,” Inside Higher Ed). In essence, they are calling for an ‘engaged approach’ to philosophy, one that is responsive to community needs and pressing cultural conversations (“Socrates Untenured”). As they describe it, a challenge for contemporary philosophy “consists in educating students so that philosophy is understood not as an isolated body of ideas, but as indistinguishable from human existence and interwoven throughout contemporary social issues” (Chronicle).
As examples of ‘field philosophy,’ Frodeman and Briggle cite their own engagement with the U.S. Geological Survey on problems relating to acid mine drainage and fracking (Chronicle) and their work with the European Commission to devise new standards for peer review of research grants. As another example of (or closely akin to) field philosophy we point to the recent launch of the Public Philosophy Journal. As characterized by its co-founder, Christopher Long, the goal of the Public Philosophy Journal is to facilitate “collaborative activity in which philosophers engage dialogically with activists, professionals, scientists, policymakers, and affected parties whose work and lives are bound up with issues of public concern” (Long, “What is Public Philosophy”). Like Frodeman and Briggle, Long characterizes the aims of public philosophy as collaborative and interactional. Public philosophy is a movement to develop collaborations with diverse experts, stakeholders, and community members on a wide range of issues in order to take action and effect change. The examples cited by Frodeman, Briggle, and Long illustrate a ‘field philosophy’ that engages with issues that impact one’s community and culminates in socially impactful products (well beyond isolated papers in academic journals).2
b. Popular Philosophy
In “The Value of Public Philosophy to Philosophers,” Massimo Pigliucci and Leonard Finkelman define public philosophy as “a conscious attempt on the part of (some) professional (usually, but not only, academic) philosophers to engage the public at large” (2014, 87). While arguing that public philosophy is a worthwhile pursuit in its own right (regardless of external bureaucratic or institutional pressures that have led to its increase) Pigliucci and Leonard point to a particular import of public philosophy, namely, its use to create more accessible channels for the public to engage in or be exposed to philosophy.
In fleshing out this engagement Pigliucci and Finkelman primarily focus on the manner in which philosophy is communicated. They highlight the creation of philosophy texts written for the general public and the use of social media. They note several publishing houses and book
A third area of public philosophy is ‘activist’ philosophy. In this general grouping, we include forms of publicly relevant philosophizing aimed at addressing and catalyzing social and political reforms. Activist philosophy envisions a tight connection between theory and practice and works within a philosophical medium to impact broader social change. Subfields of the discipline such as feminist philosophy, queer theory, and philosophy of race and racism include examples of ‘activist’ philosophizing.
Historically, we can place the work of scholars such as Jane Addams and John Dewey in this category. Both worked in and through a philosophical vein in order to address pressing social problems of their day. Addams, for example, was pioneering in respect to the combination of philosophical ideas and activism. Her work on the creation of Hull House and her social and political philosophy intertwine to form a publicly engaged, philosophically rigorous program for improving the lives of marginalized members of society.
Consider also the work of W.E.B. Du Bois who offered a grounded philosophical approach to the issue of race and racism at the dawn of the 20th century. His work aimed for social reform and a sense of political cohesion and uplift for the African American community. Additionally, we can consider the work of Stokley Carmichael and Charles Hamilton in “Black Power: The Politics of Liberation,” in the vein of activist philosophy given their explicit attention to developing an infrastructure for understanding institutionalized racism and a method for challenging it.
These examples (which are not exhaustive3) take seriously the use of philosophical thinking in addressing social, political, and ethical problems. They unite activism with theory and in this way can be conceptualized as a type of public philosophy.
Of course, our discussion of ‘field philosophy,’ ‘popular philosophy,’ and ‘activist philosophy’ does not exhaust possibilities for public philosophy. There are other histories and forms of public philosophy—such as service learning, applied ethics/philosophy, and public outreach programs. Each of these forms of public philosophy has unique aims, ranging from service to one’s community and applying theoretical philosophical work to ethical, social, cultural concerns to revealing the structure, function, and impacts of social realities such as gender, race, and prejudice. However, each of these forms of public philosophy incorporates aspects of what we are referring to as central methods and goals of public philosophy as described above.
Section II. Whose Public Philosophy?
Each of these forms of public philosophy present unique benefits and offer useful strategies for reforming the profession and discipline of philosophy.
But, in addition to discussing the what and why of public philosophy, we want to ask who composes the “public” referenced in public philosophy and, in turn, who is in position to benefit from this movement? We take this to be a central question as the public we intend to engage—along with their interests, needs, capabilities, and social location—will influence and shape a responsive, public philosophical practice. Additionally, it is striking to us that many of the prominent manifestations of public philosophy tend to assume a thoroughly adult public. That is, if we consider discussions of public philosophy as increasing the quality of published scholarship, developing interdisciplinary research collaborations, or reshaping the discipline of professional philosophy itself it seems that—although not explicitly mentioned—adults are the primary audience and beneficiaries of this work. Seen in this light, public philosophy is “by adults and for adults,” assuming a public domain solely composed of adults.
It is understandable, in some sense, that children are overlooked in discussions of public philosophy. In much of Western philosophy children solidify a tacit conception of the public through their exclusion and, we contend, trouble many of the boundaries that shape public philosophy. First, consider the constitution of the public in Western philosophy. As used in central works of political philosophy it has been common for children to be excluded from the public domain. For example, in Aristotle’s Politics children are “incomplete” citizens; they possess the potential for full citizenship but, until reaching adulthood, are not members of the public realm. We find a similar distinction in Kant’s Doctrine of Right, where children are passive (not active) citizens, and, thus, are excluded from general consideration in public matters.4 Or we can turn to Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in which, as with liberal philosophers before him, children seem not to exist in the public realm. In the Theory children are not parties to the Original Position and though principles of justice that are “universal in application” result from this position the universe under consideration is ostensibly limited to ideally rational and moral adults. Children are subject to the principles of justice insofar as they have the potential to become adults and insofar as they are the wards of these full agents. This well-established exclusion of children from the public is not limited to philosophy. We find a similar elision of the views and preferences of this population in general polls of public preference and beliefs (e.g., 50% of the American public prefers or believes x to y), where it is assumed that the public just is an adult public.
It is not surprising, then, that well-intentioned public philosophers also overlook children in their discussions of the “public”;
Taken together, this brief discussion points to some ways in which children are excluded from philosophical discussions of the public or are not take seriously in a way that would call into question numerous adult-centered assumptions. If philosophy and the public are both shaped at their core by adult capacities, expectations, and interests, then children will not be included, or will be, at best, an afterthought or add on to these adult realities. So, we ask, what would it mean to accept the “trouble” that children raise? What would it mean to rethink public philosophy such that (1) children are part of the public under consideration and (2) public philosophy is responsive to and informed by this population?
Section III. Children and Public Philosophy
To understand what a public philosophy inclusive of children would look like we can turn to a philosophical tradition known as philosophy with children.6 This work takes many forms but, at its core, is a philosophical and pedagogical practice aimed at introducing and exploring philosophy with children and adolescents, primarily in K-12 classrooms. For our purposes, philosophy with children is important to consider for several reasons. First, philosophy with children is a well-established tradition that engages the broader public in philosophy, including the development of interdisciplinary partnerships.7 As such, and though it is underrepresented in current discussions of ‘public philosophy,’ it advances many of the aims currently motivating public philosophers. Second, it is a form of public philosophy that, by working with children—across gender, race, class, age, and sexual
The tradition of philosophy with children has origins in the work of philosophers such as Matthew Lipman and Gareth Matthews and continues to develop today through the work of contemporary philosophers such as Jana Mohr Lone, David Kennedy, Joanna Haynes, and Karin Murris, among others. From its origins philosophy with children engaged with issues of public concern, including the improvement of K-12 education and the opportunity for students to develop important philosophical skill sets, critical engagement with social concerns, and, further, to have a structured opportunity to explore philosophical questions and concepts. A key aspect of understanding philosophy with children hinges on a distinction between philosophical practice and philosophical study. In the latter, teacher and students are primarily concerned with studying particular philosophers, arguments, and traditions in the discipline of philosophy. In the former, teacher and students seek to engage in discussion and exploration of particular philosophical questions, problems, and concepts (often without reference to specific philosophers and minimal jargon). The focus here is to cultivate the fundamental experience that underlies the work of many professional philosophers; that is, the experience of curiosity about and desire to better understand basic existential, ethical, metaphysical, and epistemological questions we all encounter.
How philosophy with children as a practice—collaborating with young philosophers in the experience of philosophical questioning and exploration—gets carried out in schools will vary depending on the population with which one is working.9 Philosophy with children sessions can focus on wide range of topics and can be more or less formal (e.g., once-per-week discussion sessions to full on philosophy courses). In each case, however, the development of a community of philosophical inquiry is essential. Characterizing such a community, Matthew Lipman writes:
Students listen to one another with respect, build on one another’s ideas, challenge one another to supply reasons for otherwise unsupported opinions, assist each other in drawing inferences from what has been said, and seek to identify one another’s assumptions. A community of inquiry attempts to follow the inquiry where it leads rather than be penned in by the boundary lines of existing disciplines. A dialogue that tries to conform to logic, it moves forward indirectly like a boat tacking into the wind, but in the process its progress comes to resemble that of thinking itself (Thinking in Education 20-21).
The idea here is to develop a philosophical praxis with children, a give and take between philosophical theory and pedagogical practice, that centers on bringing children’s insights and experiences to bear on philosophical concepts and questions. This is often catalyzed through the introduction of an accessible discussion prompt (e.g., a work of literature, a work of art, a game, a question, etc.) and subsequent development of questions and
In turn, this practice helps us to see what a broader public philosophy could look like. We mentioned above the ways in which children can “trouble” the boundaries of public philosophy and the discipline more generally. Philosophy with children is, in part, a practice that embraces this “trouble.” That is, rather than continuing the tradition of excluding children from philosophical consideration or maintaining a conception of philosophy that is inaccessible to children and adolescents (such that they are then seen as lacking philosophical ability or interest), this practice attempts to approach philosophy as a means for learning from and with this population. For one, philosophy with children practitioners learn a great deal about what it can mean to do philosophy in diverse contexts. In the professional discipline philosophical practice generally centers on participating in conferences and developing publications. Given that, by and large, these forms do not interest children philosophy with children practitioners seek ways to bring out the philosophical interests and ideas of children. An essential aspect of this requires that we are open to learning from children—the task is not to fill the tabula rasa with our knowledge, but to listen and develop productive discussion with children. For the attentive practitioner there is an abundance to learn in this process.
In essence, what we are pointing to here is that the quality of philosophical work and philosophical contribution (whether between adults, between children, or between adults and children) is a relational matter. If we take adult forms of contribution—publishing and rigorous argumentation—as the standards for doing philosophy then, no, children will not contribute much (aside from the philosophical prodigy here and there). But if we trouble this notion of philosophy and our own positions of power as adults, or at least question it as the way that philosophical practice should be understood, we open new possibilities that children can make robust contributions. If we adapt our philosophical practice (for example, instead of delivering a lecture on Plato’s Republic or assigning volumes of reading, we present core philosophical issues through alternative child-centered mediums such as artwork, games, and children’s literature) then children of all ages will have much to say that can inspire and inform our own philosophical thinking. We suffer from a lack of imagination when we fail to consider the ways in which those outside its ranks can trouble philosophy and adult-centered practices that compose the discipline. What is more, we miss out on key knowledge and insights if we do not reconsider/broaden the forms that philosophy and in particular, public philosophy, can take. In adapting our practice we are presented with numerous areas for philosophical learning. For example, questions might arise such as: What is philosophy? What is a philosopher? And how do methods external to philosophy itself—research on
It is also important to note that given the location of many philosophy with children sessions—public K-12 schools in the United States—the student population encountered by practitioners is vastly more diverse than is encountered in many philosophy departments at colleges and universities. Practitioners of philosophy with children work in a broad range of public and private schools and, in doing so, learn from and practice philosophy with children of diverse racial, gender, class backgrounds and sexual orientations. This is an additional way in which philosophy with children, as form of public philosophy, opens up philosophy to and, in turn, can benefit from, work with a much broader public. What relevance does philosophy have to questions of justice, race, and gender, as experienced by student in K-12 classrooms? What are we missing in regard to these questions, concepts, and the experience of being raced, gendered, classed, if we don’t consult the insights and voices of children as well? It is important to remember that the public that experiences these realities is as much composed of children as of adults.
In addition, as a public philosophy practice, philosophy with children has extensive evidence of positive outcomes. The public benefit of this work is evidenced in numerous empirical studies that demonstrate the benefits of philosophical practice for children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development (Trickey and Topping, 2004; Trickey and Topping, 2006; Walker et al., 2012). These benefits are important for children in their own right; they contribute to children experiencing healthy and happier lives and enrich their educational experiences in schools. But philosophy with children can offer downstream benefits as well, supporting the development of a citizenry that values thoughtful dialogue with others and capable of civil and logical discourse.
Taken together, there is good reason for philosophers to practice, or at least acknowledge, philosophical practice that is informed by a broader conception of the public. To see this we can consider the ways in which our public practice must adapt and grow in order to work productively with children, no longer assuming an adult public. First, we can’t take as a given that our models for doing public philosophy (whether in interdisciplinary collaborations or in greater activism and use of social media) will be viable as we expand our work with children. Especially with young children we must think of creative new possibilities for engaging philosophically with a substantial portion of the human population and, further, the ways in which our practices can be informed and improved by this population. Second, we cannot assume that there is a uniform mode of introducing philosophy, whether public or not. An area of broader significance of this work is that we as professional philosophers and students have the opportunity to interrogate philosophical norms regarding the nature of philosophy, prevailing conceptions of the ‘philosopher,’ and the broader value of philosophical practice for our communities and schools.
IV. Philosophical Fieldwork: An Example from the Field
Let us now turn to a brief example from our own work with children in order to make this discussion more concrete. Over the past two years, we have been engaging in ‘philosophical fieldwork’ in the form of weekly to bi-monthly
For example, we have found productive possibilities for philosophical work with children through the use of children’s literature, artwork and group discussions in classroom settings. This work centers on a set of interconnected abilities, including the ability to communicate in a language readily understandable for children (something philosophers aren’t well known for even in engagements with adults!) and the ability to facilitate a group discussion that is open to student responses, interests, and concerns. This facilitation also includes the ability to actively listen to children, using philosophical prompts (from hands-on activities to stories), encouraging language, and a willingness to adapt discussions based on the questions and interests of students. Learning these skills as academic philosophers is part of what makes working with kindergarteners so valuable. From the first day, our classes are full of curiosity and active participation, with students eager to hear a story or interact with their classmates. Our learning begins as we attempt to address the philosophical questions and concerns with which the children are already wrestling (such as friendship, identity, exclusion, and fairness) and discover what philosophical practice can offer these children as they consider these questions, develop, and attempt to understand their world.
As a society, we often don’t think of children (or even most adults) as philosophers. But in our work with kindergarteners it is clear that these five and six year olds have clear philosophical interests and positions (such as how we ought to interact with one another and elements that compose a good friendship or community). Additionally, our students are capable of articulating these conceptions when engaged with child-centered questions and discussion prompts. Over our many shared years of philosophical work with children we continue to learn the significance of a relational conception of philosophical practice and capability. Children are quite capable of participating in robust philosophical discussion when we begin with and affirm their concerns and utilize child-centered pedagogy. The key lies not only in the bare abilities of young people, but even more importantly, in our own ability to think creatively about diverse forms of philosophical practice that can benefit children and connect with their experiences of the world around them. For example, in discussion of