Today, an invited guest post on Political Transformative Experience that I authored appeared at Daily Nous (thank you Justin and Helen--recall this post (when I called it Transformative Political Experience; do I have to settle on a stable name?); go check it out and explore the whole discussion.
By public philosophy one can mean three things: first, interventions or participation in public debates by professional philosophers and those trained in professional philosophy. The previous sentence is still vague, but I am relying on a distinction between philosophy withdrawn from the public and geared toward fellow philosophers and would-be-philosophers (e.g., journal articles and seminar discussion are not 'public' in the relevant sense), and those philosophical utterances oriented toward a non-philosophical audience (a newspaper editorial, a television appearance, etc.). There are some tricky cases: a (taped) lecture to a university-wide audience may well drift into such public participation; expert advice to technocrats is not really public in the relevant sense, but may well influence the public. Second, a genre of writing and speaking by intellectuals, who are not professional philosophers -- and do not engage in the debates/discussions among professionals --, yet engage public(s) on philosophical topics. (Sometimes these are topics that are not much discussed by recent professional philosophy.) Both species of direct public philosophy can draw on the results/insights or distinctions of professional philosophy, but need not do so.
Both kinds of public philosophy require special skills that are distinct from those that allow one to flourish in professional context(s). These special skills involve an ability to combine communicative, accessibility (note, not clarity or simplicity) and public agenda. Much public philosophy ignores intellectual specialization within the profession in order to offer a broader narrative, even a corrective to the public speech of specialist experts, in order to promote some (or a) common good. Such public philosophy can be done by way of public unmasking of practices, by the introduction of distinctions, by clarifying conceptual entailment, and by deploying systematic narratives, etc. There are contemporary examples of philosophers who are very good at public and professional philosophy (and here I ignore the divisions between analytical and continental styles). There are also interesting issues associated with cases of professional philosopher leveraging status (gained from the professional credit economy) within the profession in order to participate in and benefit from public philosophy (and vice versa).
I am a friend of public philosophy (although do not think it should be expected from professional philosophers) because it enriches public life, even though (a) it can be dangerous to the public and, thereby, to philosophers, and (b) give the public a false image of what philosophy is (public philosophy gets to be taken to be philosophy as such) or what the consensus of all (professional) philosophers might be. Both (a-b) involve tough questions on both the nature of responsible, public speech that I tend to explore under the heading "Socratic Problem" (which also involves the public role of experts) as well as what I have been calling philosophical integrity, that is, the way(s) in which one's professional arguments, professional credit, and public utterances and comportment cohere.
Before I turn to the third indirect species of public philosophy, I would like to distinguish public philosophy from two closely-related activities: i) punditry and ii) advocacy by professional philosophy. Professional philosophers can be pundits (from the Hindi pandit)--opinion-makers informed by learning. I don't think professional philosophers have any special expertise as pundits (and on the whole I try to avoid it, although last week with less success). A lot of would-be-public-philosophy is really service to a cause or a political agenda and often certain cosmopolitan preferences are taken to constitute rationality. To be sure, such partisan or service philosophy -- be it in the seminar room or in public -- is real philosophy (recall that according to Dotson this just is philosophy.) But such service does not tend to presuppose a common good--if anything it is often legitimately suspicious of the common good; it recognizes that the status quo is zero-sum and, it nobly, wishes to redress a political (economic, etc.) imbalance in the name of justice, truth, morality, etc. There is also a species of (naive) philosophy that fails to understand how its public utterances predictably facilitate the rise of injustice (we may call it disservice philosophy).
Thus, I associate the 'public' in public philosophy with a shared life or common good. That is, public philosophy so understood is committed to a form of minimal political unity--a unity that is constituted by (educational) practices, narratives, and public understandings that facilitate some dispositions conducive to minimal, political union. (In a community of angels or philosophers there would be no need of public philosophy.) Public philosophy plays (as Platonizing philosophers have long recognized) a role in the would-be-civic religion of society.
I have no doubt that many of my peers think that what I have called philosophy as 'advocacy' (or Dotson's service) just is public philosophy and that civic religion just is a bunch of lies and (if they were to comment on this post) will accuse me of a lack of warmth (if not worse) toward justice. Some of these (my closest intellectual friends), accepting as an article of faith the priority of the right over the good, are convinced that it is the duty of (public) philosophy to promote public justice and cosmopolitan morality. Allowing that there exists some such duty, I demur from accepting that is the main or only duty of philosophical speech.
So far, I have emphasized the role of individuals as public philosophers. But facilitating or enhancing social norms, public practices, and political institutions conducive to a common good can also be an indirect species of public philosophy (that is the third kind of public philosophy). For such practices can instantiate rational arrangements that make possible, perhaps, constitute a common good which I will provisionally define (recall) as mutual accommodation and modest forms of mutual receptivity such that public conversation -- not war or domination -- can be continued.