A couple of different articles recently have spoken to the need for the humanities in general, and philosophy in particular, to become a more active voice in contemporary matters, particularly with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic. One article (which I’ll get to below the fold) was especially critical of the “failure of philosophy,” singling out as the basis of this sweeping claim a famous European scholar’s decision to become publicly and egregiously stupid. A second article (which I’ll get to after the first) is not focused on philosophy so much as the humanities in general, and even here the author (a former Chancellor of UC Berkeley) is more concerned on the social sciences than upon the humanities as such. This second piece brings us back to C. P. Snow’s famous lament about the “two cultures”, and argues that the problems Snow argued about have only gotten worse, even as “the players” have in many respects reversed positions.i
My concern here will be with philosophy rather than the humanities writ large, and specifically the impact that philosophy and philosophers can and ought to have upon the world. This latter topic falls under the general heading of what is called “public philosophy.” This is an instance of “what is old is new again;” in terms of the contemporary academy, public philosophy is a fairly new idea (one which many academic philosophers openly object to.) In terms of the history of philosophy, it is as old as the topic itself. I’ll not engage the debate about whether or not one should engage in public philosophy here, since its need is so manifestly obvious such “debate” is as silly as arguing over whether or not we should breathe. Rather, I wish to talk about the ways (and possibly the “ifs”) of how public philosophy has failed us in these last 18 months of global pandemic.