Public philosophy is an oligopoly–and here why this is a problem




Some recent takes on the Enlightenment resonated strongly with the broad public. This includes Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress  (2018), and David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021).

I’m not going to write a detailed analysis of these books (I have done so for Graeber and Wengrow, which will appear at some point). Suffice it to say here, while I think there are some merits in both works, they also suffer from deficiencies in the conceptualization of what the Enlightenment is, its influences, and also the broader implications. 

And this is not a surprise, given that any scholarly domain of expertise requires significant research and experience, which neither of these authors can profess on the Enlightenment. Maybe you, like me, would love to see a book on the Enlightenment reach the big public that is written by an actual specialist in 18th-century western philosophy or history. Sadly, no Enlightenment scholar has been able to resonate so well with the public as these two works (if I am mistaken and there is a NYT bestseller book on the Enlightenment, please let me know!) 

This is a symptom of a larger phenomenon, an oligopoly within pop culture. As backed up with detailed data in this post by Adam Mastroianni, a few franchises (reimaginings, live-action remakes, sequels, same universe movies) dominate pop culture and the phenomenon has worsened significantly over the last decades. A few winners take up an increasing portion of the market share, leading to a decrease in diversity of output.

Sometimes philosophers are still asked “Why don’t you do public philosophy?” as if this is a supply-side issue. It is not. There has never been more public philosophy available than at present, many of it is publicly available. Magazines such as The Philosophers’ Magazine, Aeon, Psyche, and many others feature public philosophy from a wide range of thinkers. Podcasts such as Hi-Phi nation, Philosophy without Any Gaps, and What’s Left of Philosophy  offer professionally produced, engaging and intellectually stimulating content. Individual philosopher YouTube channels make philosophy accessible to everyone, including Ellie Anderson’s continental philosophy series, Greg Sadler’s Speculative fiction series and Bryan Van Norden’s Chinese philosophy class lectures. 

So, when the public turns to Jordan Peterson to look for life advice, rather than to philosophers, it is not because of the supply side. There is really no reason to shame, say, an Aristotle scholar into doing public philosophy in the hopes that her work will reach a disaffected teen who is wondering how to live the good life, and faute de mieux, turns to Peterson. There is already a lot out there (of course, we should welcome and support this hypothetical Aristotle scholar if she wants to do public philosophy!)

We should also recognize that there are very, very few academics who can make it as public intellectuals, for reasons that are totally unrelated to the intrinsic merits of their work, or even to their communication skills. 

What’s happening is that public intellectuals are working in an ecology where a small number of winners get a disproportionate share in public attention and media capture. This is on the supply side part of a more general winner-takes-all mentality. For publishing with the four major fiction publishers, for instance, it was fine a few years ago to be a decent “midlister” (i.e., someone who sells books that make a profit for the publisher but will never reap high figures). But now, a beginning author must exude that ineffable quality of being a rising star, of a potential NYT bestseller author to even get a deal with an agent (and hence a publisher). As a result, many authors are querying in vain, and some have turned to self-publishing. Few self-published authors can break through into traditional markets, though several have a decent readership and make decent money from their work. 

Fortunately, as academics we can still survive and thrive as small fish. Our scholarly books get contracts based on their perceived academic merit rather than on sales potential (especially in academic presses, which are often heavily subsidized). And many of us do reach/have a significant platform beyond academia. This platform is valuable. We should support colleagues and provide institutional support for people who wish to engage in public scholarship. But it is important to note how skewed the field is, and to adjust expectations accordingly. 

It is worth thinking about why people are happy with this oligopoly–differently put, what explains the increasing homogenization in pop culture. Mastroianni speculates: 

As options multiply, choosing gets harder. You can’t possibly evaluate everything, so you start relying on cues like “this movie has Tom Hanks in it” or “I liked Red Dead Redemption, so I’ll probably like Red Dead Redemption II,” which makes you less and less likely to pick something unfamiliar. 

Philosophy is difficult. While the public struggle with philosophical questions on a daily basis (on e.g., the meaning of events in their lives, the abortion debate etc), trying to actively seek out philosophical resources that are publicly accessible is hard. People also have many other non-material needs, such as entertainment, comfort, a bit of joy, spiritual assurance, and philosophy is not a sure route to any of these things. This is why, although I think many people would benefit from engaging with philosophy, their bandwidth for it is very limited. Moreover, without media attention and platform, it is hard for the public to reach sources they might resonate well with.

I’ve got no easy solution how to fix this problem, but I think it is worth fixing.

We benefit from intellectual diversity in the public sphere. When diversity is mentioned, it is often in the context of viewpoint diversity (which often means that a few contentious polarized positions get a platform, e.g., on abortion and gender), but the broader phenomenon of a shared intellectual authority. 

It is no coincidence that many of the most high profile public intellectuals are at research-intensive universities, often Ivy League, where they largely compete with other similarly advantaged people for the limited attention from the public. Competition is fierce, which also provides bad incentives for giving unnuanced hot takes on recent issues. Public intellectuals at smaller colleges are sidelined, and we are the poorer for it. Public philosophers with a significant platform, who get 5-figure speaking fees (I know that this in fact happens!) should try to lift up more voices, especially when asked to speak about areas far outside of their expertise. But because the goods of being a high-profile intellectual are so significant (connections, money) there is little incentive to do so. 

I’d be interested to discuss what we can do to make more of the excellent public philosophy that is being done to trickle toward the general public. Contrary to perception, it is not a zero-sum game. If more people get interested in public philosophy, they might be tempted to engage with more public philosophical works. This would be to great mutual benefit, I think. 

Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More