Alienation, The Academy, Public Philosophy


Once upon a time, there was a wildly popular “school” of thought called “existentialism.” Ordinary educated persons read works of existential writing and attended plays by existentialist dramatists; existential themes were bandied about in pubs and cafes; even the mass media took note of the way in which existentialist philosophy had broken the boundaries of the academy and been taken up in the streets. Eventually, of course, the badge “existentialist” became exhausted and dismissed, parodied, travestied, and ignored until its favor collapsed. It’s hard to say today whether there are any existentialists and, if so, where they are hiding.

— Jeffrey Hanson


Socrates practiced philosophy in the marketplace, not in an academy. He paid for that commitment with his life. Aristotle was more prudent, giving lectures outside the city.

Philosophers today find their home in the university, but should they find it outside their institutions, as well? It’s not plausible John-Dewey-Laboratory-School-1859-1952that they should abandon the academy and follow Socrates to the public square. One has to pay the bills. While living in the academy, however, should they leave a footprint outside? Could they, if they wished?


John Dewey was an educational reformer and pragmatist of great renown. His work spoke to those concerned with democracy and public education. He practiced a philosophy that spanned the university and the citizenry, in 1896 founding the radically innovative “Lab School,” which was linked to the University of Chicago, and, in 1937, presiding over a retrial in Mexico of Leon Trotsky.

images-5Trotsky was condemned to death in a Stalin show trial and fled to Mexico. In March 1937 Dewey traveled to Mexico to expose the sham of the Stalin “court.” He walked the talk, defending the democratic value of a fair trial. The USA wouldn’t let Trotsky into the country.

When Dewey died in the early fifties a Canadian historian wrote, “Dewey has been to our age what Aristotle was to the later Middle Ages . . . not a philosopher, but the philosopher.” His death was not widely mourned. The US Postal Service honored him with a 30¢ postage stamp.

France has a better tradition of honoring their philosophers. When Jean Paul Sartre died, 50 thousand Parisians descended onto Boulevard Montparnasse to accompany his cortege.

Why do some cultures, like the French, value their philosophers and others, like North Americans, hardly acknowledge their existence? If philosophers are overlooked or held in low esteem in North American culture, is it because they make no effort to connect with the public — or is it that the public has no interest in what philosophers contribute – or does the fault run both ways?

Zeteo readers would expect that philosophers would step out of their academic specialties, at least once in a while, to speak to the generally informed and interested public.


When John Kennedy, Jackie, Bobby and Ethel wanted to add class to the White House, they invited the British Philosopher A. J. Ayer to speak. Apparently they did not know any substantial American philosophers. The side-story is that Ethel Kennedy raised her hand at the end of the lecture to ask, “Where does God fit in?” Bobby whispered “Can it, Ethel! ”

jean-paul-sartre_-510x287The Harvard philosopher John Rawls re-invigorated political theory in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but was never invited to the White House (to my knowledge).

His colleague Willard V. O. Quine reinvigorated logic, but there was no cortege in the streets at his, or at Rawls’, demise. The postal service will not honor them.

In France, but not in the USA, philosophy is part of the high school curriculum. When Sartre openly distributed leftist leaflets against Government policy, in defiance of the law, de Gaulle responded “One does not arrest Voltaire.” Would a civilly disobedient American academic receive such a presidential pardon?


einstein5The founding board of directors for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem included Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Chaim Weizmann.

All four had sizable footprints in the public square, and could write – in the broadest sense – as philosophers.

images-4The top-tier philosophers Carol Gilligan and Martha Nussbaum deserve a place in the pantheon of academics who speak in the public square.

Unlike Super-bowl victors, they have not been offered invitations to the White House.

We might speak of public intellectuals. Cornell West, David Brooke, Paul Krugman, or Oliver Sacks, could start a long list. None, to my knowledge, has been invited to meet the President.


Bill McKibben, an environmental philosopher of note, may get arrested this spring at a planned non-violent, trespassing protest meant to call attention to global warming.

In May campaigners around the world will converge on the world’s biggest carbon deposits: the coal mines of Australia, the tarsands of Canada, the gasfields of Russia. And they will engage in peaceful civil disobedience, an effort to simply say: no.

If he is arrested — suit, tie, and all — he won’t receive a White House pardon. There will be no de Gaulle pardoning Sartre.

In 2014, biologists honored McKibben by naming a new species of woodland gnat— Megophthalmidia mckibbeni–in his honor. Is that as good as a postage stamp?

Perhaps Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life would enlighten us on the difference between the tradition of French and Israeli recognition of thinkers, and the American patent neglect.


The Times has a regular column filled by philosophers commenting on all things public. It’s called “The Stone,” an echo of “the philosopher’s stone,” reputed in Medieval lore to turn base metals into gold. If you have $6,495 to spare you can buy a first edition (1997) of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Can a Times column change dross to gold?

A few weeks ago this alchemical site featured a piece arguing that philosophy has lost its way.

Before its migration to the university, philosophy had never had a central home. Philosophers could be found anywhere — serving as diplomats, living off pensions, grinding lenses, as well as within a university. Afterward, if they were “serious” thinkers, the expectation was that philosophers would inhabit the research university. Against the inclinations of Socrates, philosophers became experts like other disciplinary specialists. This occurred even as they taught their students the virtues of Socratic wisdom, which highlights the role of the philosopher as the non-expert, the questioner, the gadfly.

This is a good place to start. But perhaps the public shuns philosophers as much as philosophers shun them. In any case, the situation in the states is not the situation in Europe. It’s better there across puddle. Trump and Cruz do not value philosophy or academic thinkers. Do Clinton and Sanders do better?

images-3Medical Doctors, pastors, and lawyers are often associated with the academy, but unlike university full timers, they are professionally required to be skilled in talking with their non-academic public.

Many in the humanities, my “field of expertise,” don’t acknowledge a non-university public to talk to. Too many indulge a taste for buzz words that serve as fraternity handshakes (A real professional paper title: “Toxic Borders and Bondages: Intersecting Ecology with Capitalism, Racism, Heteropatriarchy and (Dis)possession.”). See my recent Zeteo spoof of this love of jargon.

Of course some sectors of any humanities discipline — say formal logic or painting restoration — will remain properly specialist. But there’s no reason professors can’t wear two hats and sometimes make forays into public space. The danger is thinking it betrays one’s training to do so.


A lament for philosophy’s retreat from the public square into the specialized university should distinguish two species of alienation. The university is a conglomeration of disciplines, each relatively isolated from its neighbors.

Art Departments may have little to say, except in matters of governance, to colleagues in Chemistry or Biology. There is even alienation within departments. Art Historians can work in isolation from those in Studio Art, and even within Studio Art the “flat world” (painting, etching) may have little to say to the “round world” (pottery, sculpture).

images-6Department members may be alienated even from their immediate colleagues. They are often far more interested in their prestige among distant others who share their sub-specialty (say, Ming Dynasty Sculpture).

The second species of alienation occurs between university inhabitants as a whole and what I’ve called “the public square.”

Members of the wider culture could benefit from a conversation with experts — say, about public support of the arts, or an economic policy’s impact on the community. And “experts” could benefit from contact with non-academics. Alienation is a two-way street.


Both might enjoy the bits of wisdom we find in Zeteo, where one can eavesdrop on philosophers and other non-specialists discussing the nature of justice, evil, literature, or meaning in life.

—Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor

See his Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, Bloomsbury, 2015, and Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy From Thoreau to Cavell, Continuum, 2009– See more at:

Credits: Opening quote, Jeffrey Hanson, review of my Excursions with Kierkegaard,; The Stone, “When Philosophy Lost Its Way,” Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, Jan 11, 2016, NY Times.  Thanks to Google for helping fact-check items from the lives of philosophers, and for images of Dewey, Trotsky, Sartre, Einstein, Martha Nussbaum, and Bill McKibben, a Professor of Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, who was the 2013 winner of the Gandhi Prize and the Thomas Merton Prize. Foreign Policy named him to their inaugural list of the world’s 100 most important global thinkers, and the Boston Globe said he was “probably America’s most important environmentalist.”


  1. John Sumser

    I think one problem is that philosophy is considered a distinct discipline rather than what happens when people transcend disciplines. Although I have degrees in philosopher, I think it should no longer be considered a “major.” Let people study history, literature, or the sciences, arts, and social sciences; some will move beyond their training and begin to speak of the experience of being in the world, of values, and of ways of living.


  2. Ed Mooney

    A provocative proposal. There certainly are a wide spectrum of “styles” in philosophy, more, I think, than in history or the sciences. And there IS something “non-disciplinary” or “plural-disciplinary” about it . . . Much to ponder.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: