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Today is the official UN World Philosophy Day. First celebrated 17 years ago by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO, and made official in 2005, World Philosophy Day aims at honoring philosophical thought worldwide and promoting philosophy to the general public.
Commonly shared values, such as reason, critical thought, moral integrity, kindness, empathy, friendship, tolerance, inclusivity, equality, democracy, peace, justice, and fundamental human rights, originated in, and continue to develop, as a result of philosophical reflection and debate.
But this is becoming harder and harder for non-philosophers to see because, like most academic disciplines, academic philosophy has become increasingly specialized and inaccessible to the general public over the years.
That wasn’t always the case. In Ancient Greece public philosophical debate played a crucial role in educating the youth and bringing social problems to the attention of the critical public, politicians and policy-makers. In the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s dialogues, we meet Socrates, who is walking the streets of Athens, asking people questions like: “Should a man you deem innocent accept the prison sentence given to him following a fair trial?” The questions look innocent but beneath the innocence lies deep philosophical insight with potential dire consequences. Plato tellingly refers to Socrates as a “gadfly”—an insect that regularly stings the Athenians, leaving an annoying itch.
The tradition of public philosophy has been resurrected in various forms throughout the centuries but has recurrently been brought to a halt because of its potential threat to traditional values and policies. The public sphere of Vienna at the turn of the century remains one of the most vivid examples of the public lushly engaging in philosophical dialogue. If we could travel back to the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, we might have spotted Ludwig Wittgenstein at an outdoor café, discussing the role of language games in political life with physicists, struggling artists, and lunching store owners.
Regrettably, philosophy today is a far cry from what it once was. Its isolation from the rest of the world makes it look like an excuse for introverted narcissists to perform intellectual mind games in oversized armchairs and earn a living by doing it. This could not be further from the truth. Philosophy is meant to have an impact on society by poking holes in existing ideologies and policies.
But how do we return to a popular culture permeated by a desire to engage in philosophical inquiry? How do we cultivate unyielding Socratic gadflies that can shake up conventions and existing policies? The answer is that we need to find a way to bridge the gap between academic intellectuals and the general population.
Philosophers can learn a thing or two from scientists who have already taken a big step in this direction. Most scientists have long ago realized that citizen involvement may help make real scientific progress. Amateurs eager to contribute to scientific research are commonly referred to as “citizen scientists.”
The notions of citizen science and citizen scientist were first used in the mid-1990s, although they didn’t enter the Oxford English Dictionary until June 2014. Citizen science is scientific research carried out by amateurs with no formal training in the area in which they conduct research. While the terminology is new, the practice of amateur science is not. Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, and Charles Darwin were all in an important sense citizen scientists. But unable to rely on today’s resources for crowd sourcing and networking, they worked mostly in isolation from the establishment.
Today’s citizen scientists have individually or collectively made astronomical scientific advances. in areas such as linguistics, genetics, ornithology, zoology, oceanography and astrophysics. In some cases, citizen scientists have contributed in collaboration with professional scientists, as in the case of Sharon Terry whose two children suffer from PXE—a rare genetic condition that destroys elastic fibers in the skin, eyes and blood vessels and can lead to premature atherosclerosis. Together with professional scientists Terry has helped develop tests, conduct clinical trials and identify the gene for PXE.
But not all citizen scientists work as volunteer members of a professional team. In some cases, citizen scientists are collecting data via crowd-sourcing made possible by advances in technology. Crowdsourcing can help conduct large-scale scientific studies that would be too costly and time consuming for any regularly-sized professional team of scientists to conduct. A good example of discoveries that have been made by crow-sourcing is that of the Galaxy Zoo project. Within the boundaries of this project, lay people have contributed significantly to the classification of distant galaxies that have been detected by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.
Advances in technology help explain the new ways in which citizen science can be a useful tool for making scientific progress. But technological development is not the only factor facilitating citizen science. Public outreach is essential in order for amateurs to obtain the kind of basic science education needed for public contributions to be of value to science as a whole.
For philosophy to reclaim its social role of being paramount to educating the youth and building a better world, philosophers need to be willing and able to engage the critical public and involve them in philosophical debate as citizen philosophers. But the critical public likewise needs to be open to philosophical dialogue that goes beyond the smalltalk and self-advertisement that currently dominate social media. We all need to be willing to explore difficult political, social and personal issues through civilized philosophical discourse, without holding grudges and without resorting to hateful attacks when we come across people who disagree with us. Let’s all make an effort to make a peaceful and sincere contribution to public philosophy today!