So You Want To Be A Public Philosopher?

Some ideas, strategies, and advice based on my own experiences. YMMV. 


All photography on this site is by Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa.

1. First ...

  • Do you actually want to? 
    • I strongly believe that nobody should have to be a public philosopher. Although it can be valuable, it can also be risky, and it isn't suitable for every kind of philosopher or for every kind of philosophical work.
    • If you are only here in response to external pressure in this direction, and this is not something you're motivated to do for your own reasons, or for its own sake, IMO you're within your rights to resist that pressure citing the risks and/or the inappropriateness of this kind of work for your situation.
  • Be aware of the risks.
    • Online hate and abuse are disproportionately directed at women, POC, LGBTQ people and other groups who experience discrimination, but anyone can be targeted. There are psychological, emotional, legal, financial, and other risks involved in public-facing work. They are often unpredictable.
    • Hate and abuse do not only occur online, even if they begin there. If you become a public figure your personal safety may be put at risk through e.g. doxxing, stalking, and dangerous physical mail. Academics are typically easy to target as our work addresses and phone numbers are posted freely online by our universities and our physical office spaces are often accessible to anyone.
    • If you belong to a university or other institution, find out what support and protections they provide. If nothing (or too little) is available, you might want to suggest/request/demand that they do better. Especially if your institution, department, or funding agency is actively encouraging you to engage in the risky business of public scholarship, they should support and help you when you do.
    • Some colleagues, in philosophy and elsewhere in the academy, do not respect public-facing scholarship. Some will even view it as evidence that you've lost interest in—or failed at—"real" philosophy. This can be an issue in securing employment as well as for promotion, tenure, and other forms of assessment.
    • Even positive experiences in the public arena can be exhausting and unpredictable. For example, media interest tends to come in viral waves, the timing of which can depend on all kinds of factors beyond your control and won't respect your teaching schedule.
  • Have something to say.
    • It should be something you care enough about, and that enough people will want to hear, to make your efforts worthwhile. If you are going to make a serious investment of time, emotional energy, research funding, and other things into public work, you need to believe in your project and your message.
    • I started to do public-facing work in earnest when I started to research the philosophy of love. My work on the epistemology of arithmetic is no less important to me, but it isn't suitable for the same kind of public audience, and that's OK (see above).
  • Consider who you want to be in the public arena.
    • If you develop a public profile, you will almost certainly be judged both positively and negatively for pretty much anything you do. Under these circumstances, integrity is challenging but essential. I recommend thinking carefully in advance about your intended public image, persona, personal brand, or whatever you like to call it.
      • I created a list of features I would aim to embody in my public-facing self. You don't need to be that explicit about it, but it helps to have a sense of direction and personal ethics to maintain consistency as you build a platform and audience.
    • Think ahead about your preferences with respect to privacy, as well as those of people around you (such as family members, collaborators, and colleagues). Keep these conversations current—people and situations change.
  • Know that you will need different skill sets.
    • Philosophers trained in a typical contemporary philosophy PhD program are not trained to be public philosophers. Don't expect it to be easy to transfer what you already know into the public sphere. Although often ignored, trivialized, or disparaged, everything listed in Part 2 below is an achievement.
    • I've found learning to write and speak for public audiences very challenging. I experienced a steep learning curve. I'm still learning rapidly.
    • A corollary of the previous point is that these skills are learnable. Even if your first forays don't go well, that doesn't mean you're "just bad at this." These are capacities that develop with time, training, and practice.
    • Plan to study and train, whether informally or formally, to develop the skills you need. For example, you can study various kinds of non-academic writing through The Great Courses.

2. What Kinds of Things Can I Do?

3. As You Go

4. Further Resources, Help, and Support


Please send me suggested additions and corrections to any of the above! I can be contacted here.