The Immanent Frame

by Henry on November 3, 2007

Jonathan van Antwerpen at the Social Science Research Council emails to tell me about a new blog that they have set up examining questions of “secularism, religion, and the public sphere.” They’re starting off with a discussion of Charles Taylor’s new book, A Secular Age, including posts by Taylor himself, Robert Bellah and others. Unsurprisingly given my own interests in academic blogging, I’m happy to see the SSRC doing this – it’s a great way to broaden debate about these issues beyond the usual suspects.

Also worthy of note for pol theory types is Public Reason, a new blog set up to:

create an open forum for political philosophers and theorists to post their own papers, along with conference announcements, ideas about philosophical problems, etc., in a way that is conducive to discussion among and communication between political philosophers/theorists



engels 11.03.07 at 10:53 pm

Not all that “public” though, are they?

As Public Reason is an academic website, comments will only be accepted from students or faculty of an academic community. Please include a university website at left for verification if you do not have a .edu or .ac domain email address.


Seth Edenbaum 11.04.07 at 12:30 am

ditto ditto


SCM 11.04.07 at 4:39 am

Thanks for the post Henry. Public Reason is not public in the sense that it wants to emulate Crooked Timber. It’s an academic blog for academics working in academic political philosophy, many of whom could very much use a bit of enhanced communication with their peers about the content of their work.

It’s called “Public Reason” because that’s a technical term in Rawlsian political philosophy that struck me as half-way decent as a name somewhere on the I-95 between Ft. Lauderdale and Miami about a month or so ago, as I was changing gears, trying to dodge the prick in the SUV. I’m terribly sorry that the engels and seth edenbaums of the word think that cause for comment.

Nevertheless, we would very much welcome participation from those who work in political philosophy. At the moment we are requiring completion of PhD studies for full membership, but we’d also like graduate students to comment and make use of the site. The intent is to create, ultimately, an open forum for the academic political philosophy community, where anything of interest to us (papers, conference announcements, problems, literature discussions, etc.) can be posted by members, in much the same way that the Garden of Forking Paths serves as the homepage for the philosophy of action/free will community.

Interested political philosophers should have a look and contact us here.


Badger 11.04.07 at 1:03 pm

You mean the engels and the seth edenbaums of the wor[l]d? Count me in too, Badger’s the name. I missed the connection with the prick in the SUV.

I guess you should really put Public Reason in quotation marks then if it’s a technical term, to make it clear you don’t deal with issues like government use of torture and things like that.


engels 11.04.07 at 1:31 pm

Simon – I’m afraid I don’t really know what to make of your sarcastic ‘apology’. I understand that you do not wish to emulate Crooked Timber and that your aim is, as you say above, to provide a forum for ‘those who work in political philosophy’. What I don’t really understand is why you have antecedently prohibited most members of the public from participating in your conversation at Public Reason on seemingly arbitrary grounds, which come awfully close to being grounds of social class.

If you had restricted the permission to leave comments on your site to professional researchers and graduate students in your field that might have been easier to justify in terms of the aims you state above, although I would still maintain that it was unnecessary. As far as I can see though, your policy is limit such permissions to members of a university, of any field or position, which seems to me both more arbitrary and harder to justify.

I appreciate that there is a problem with the quality of the discussions on many blogs but there are various ways of dealing with this–from forbidding anonymous comments to banning individual commenters–which do not involve such discrimination. Perhaps some of the material you post will not be of public interest, but if so, why do you imagine open comments would be a problem? A cursory examination of your blog reveals that not all of it is of this nature and that some contains philosophical argument about substantive political issues. As far as I know, none of the major philosophy blogs, including Garden of Forking Paths, has a policy like yours and I think that as a new development within the academic blogging world your policy is regrettable.

Finally, a brief note on the term “public reason” might not be out of place. It is, as you say, a Rawlsian term, and one early use is the following passage (from ‘The Domain of the Political and Overlapping Consensus’):

Other great values fall under the idea of free public reason, and are expressed in the guidelines for public inquiry and in the steps taken to secure that such inquiry is free and public, as well as informed and reasonable. These values include not only the appropriate use of the fundamental concepts of judgment, inference, and evidence, but also the virtues of reasonableness and fair-mindedness as shown in the adherence to the criteria and procedures of common sense knowledge, and to the methods and conclusion of science when not controversial, as well as respect for the precepts governing reasonable political discussion.

However, as you may also be aware, the term did not originate with Rawls and also occurs in some of the classic texts of liberal and democratic political philosophy going back to Hobbes. For example, in the First Inaugural Address Thomas Jefferson includes among “the essential principles of our Government… the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason“.

Another use of the phrase occurs in Kant’s ‘What Is Enlightenment?’:

For this enlightenment, however, nothing is required but freedom, and indeed the most harmless among all the things to which this term can properly be applied. It is the freedom to make public use of one’s reason at every point. But I hear on all sides, “Do not argue!” The Officer says: “Do not argue but drill!” The tax collector: “Do not argue but pay!” The cleric: “Do not argue but believe!” Only one prince in the world says, “Argue as much as you will, and about what you will, but obey!” Everywhere there is restriction on freedom.

Which restriction is an obstacle to enlightenment, and which is not an obstacle but a promoter of it? I answer: The public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men. The private use of reason, on the other hand, may often be very narrowly restricted without particularly hindering the progress of enlightenment. By the public use of one’s reason I understand the use which a person makes of it as a scholar before the reading public. Private use I call that which one may make of it in a particular civil post or office which is entrusted to him. Many affairs which are conducted in the interest of the community require a certain mechanism through which some members of the community must passively conduct themselves with an artificial unanimity, so that the government may direct them to public ends, or at least prevent them from destroying those ends. Here argument is certainly not allowed – one must obey. But so far as a part of the mechanism regards himself at the same time as a member of the whole community or of a society of world citizens, and thus in the role of a scholar who addresses the public (in the proper sense of the word) through his writings, he certainly can argue without hurting the affairs for which he is in part responsible as a passive member.

Whether in the light of such values the title of your blog is appropriate is perhaps for the public to judge.


Seth Edenbaum 11.04.07 at 2:57 pm

I’ll just stick with badger, someone all of you should read.


engels 11.04.07 at 4:22 pm

Simon – Could you at least give some kind of justification of your comments policy, bearing in mind that “emulat[ing] Crooked Timber” is clearly not the only alternative?


engels 11.04.07 at 4:35 pm

Here is possible alternative, Simon, which seems less elitist to me:

Public Reason is a blog which aims to facilitate discussion of political philosophy among academic philosophers. Comments will be accepted from students and professional researchers in the field of political philosophy. Relevant and well argued comments will be accepted from members of the public, at the sole discretion of the moderators.

What is your justification for choosing your comments policy over something along the lines of the above? Or is it your view that such decisions do not need to justified to others?


SCM 11.04.07 at 4:46 pm

Engels — the blog isn’t about, much less an endorsement of, Rawlsian public reason. That’s just a name, thought up on the spur of the moment, with little intended significance and at most some small irony. It could have been called “A Big Blog for Political Philosophers” but that would have been dull. So please don’t read anything into that.

Naturally the blog has as much of its content philosophical discussion of substantive political issues (including torture if someone wants to write about that). That does not mean it is intended to be of interest to the public generally. We’re not trying to be another Left2Right in the slightest. It’s intended, primarily, as a way for academic political philosophers to communicate with each other and share their work.

The restriction on comments does exist to limit the discussion to professional workers in political philosophy or adjacent fields; the academic domain IP or email address requirement is the only effective way we can do that. Many academics are dissuaded from blogging precisely because open comments can become unproductive and unpleasant very quickly. One might think that that could be avoided by prohibiting anonymous comments, but it turns out some people don’t mind being unproductive and unpleasant under their real names.

Lots of people working outside political philosophy have absolutely brilliant things to say about the kinds of questions political philosophy asks. That’s why the blogosphere is a big place, why we can link from site to site, and why we still get to read Atrios, Digby, and Meteor Blades, no matter how a few dozen professors decide to talk to each other.


SCM 11.04.07 at 5:17 pm

Engels – re: your comments at #7-#8, there’s no way I can read through all incoming comments to discern if they are sufficiently well-argued to warrant inclusion. That would put a great deal of pressure on one person’s judgment and, once an editorial committtee is established, the collective judgment of a few people.

But I really want to disagree about the charge of elitism here. It would be elitist to say that only political philosophers have something intelligent to say about politics, and hence only professional political philosophers can set themselves up as public intellectuals. But that’s emphatically not what we are trying to do. We’re simply trying to enhance communication between members of a particular professional community.

I don’t want a CT thread to be dominated by discussion of one other blog in particular. Perhaps people have thoughts about academic blogging more generally.


Badger 11.04.07 at 5:56 pm

You’re “not saying only political philosophers can set themselves up as public intellectuals”? I think you’re getting close to the point here. It’s not just an “enhanced” e-mail list for hobbyists, is it? By putting your stuff up on a blog for professors only, and calling it Public Reason or whatever, to include among other things substantive public-policy issues, you are setting yourselves up as public intellectuals, and at the very least you should be prepared to withstand comment from other than your colleagues.


Badger 11.04.07 at 5:58 pm

italics didn’t close properly after only


SCM 11.04.07 at 6:07 pm

Badger … that’s really just not true. One may as well say that contributors to Philosophy & Public Affairs are ipso facto trying to be public intellectuals. The blog format doesn’t inherently alter the aim of the site. It just makes facilitating communication between political philosophers that much easier.


Badger 11.04.07 at 6:21 pm

leaving out the ipso facto, you are a public intellectual, or not?


SCM 11.04.07 at 6:39 pm

God no.


Badger 11.04.07 at 6:50 pm

Somehow I didn’t think so. This simplifies matters greatly, because when I see the expressions “public” and “policy” and so on on your blog, I can take all of that in the non-public sense and dispense with reading any of it. You were about to discuss academic blogging generally ?


SCM 11.04.07 at 6:58 pm

In the same way that you would take Philosophy & Public Affairs to be about public affairs in a non-public sense, then yes.


engels 11.04.07 at 7:38 pm

Simon, thanks for responding and I’ll try to respect your wish to move this discussion away from the specific case of your blog.

Having said that, your blog is the first one I have seen that adopts this ‘facebook approach’ to commenting permissions, namely drawing the line at the edge of the ‘academic community’. (Perhaps there are others; I’m not terribly well informed about these things.) I understand the purpose of your blog and I realise that nine tenths of it is not really of interest to non-professionals. If it doesn’t sound too melodramatic, I am mostly concerned about the precedent I think you might be setting.

I agree that open comments can be a disaster (although they sometimes seem to work just fine). However, I do think that the facebook approach is arbitrary, socially exclusive and seems to abandon much of the promise the internet seemed to have for breaking down some of the walls which exist between academic discussion and the outside world. There is something that I find quite troubling about your reasoning that the vast majority of the population must be categorically excluded from an important discourse because there are a number of ‘unproductive and unpleasant’ types among them. Surely there are other approaches? If disruptive (or, conceivably, well-intentioned but incompetent) participants are really the issue, aren’t there more meritocratic ways of addressing it, eg. registration for commenting privileges which could revoked at your discretion. (I wasn’t suggesting you should vet every comment individually, which would make unacceptable demands on your time.)

Perhaps the foregoing isn’t really the issue, and what you are concerned about is conducting a conversation within a particular intellectual culture and at a particular level of sophistication, which would not be possible if it were to become dominated by participants who do not share your training and expertise, however reasonable or well-behaved they might be. (I do think that the conception of political philosophy which seems to underlie this raises significant problems…) But this would seem to be an argument for strict credentialism, rather than the facebook approach.


Badger 11.04.07 at 8:28 pm

On the general academic-blogging issue: scm says his issues are “public” but “in a non-public sense”, taking refuge in the fact that in the old days people other than colleagues couldn’t comment because the material was in a limited-circulation print journal. Now you, engels, are suggesting that perhaps even with the advent of the net, people can’t comment on public issues to the degree they don’t have some academic level of “training and expertise” or “sophistication”. But doesn’t or shouldn’t one’s “training and expertise” in the whole area of the humanities include developing the ability to express oneself plainly? So people can see what you mean? Particularly on matters of public importance? (I’ll refrain from commenting on what I’ve seen on the scm site so far, since I’m talking generally here…) The approach I see here implies that training and expertise in the humanities take you away from public discussion rather in the other direction. Don’t you have some obligation to try and take the process in the other direction? That’s what bothers me. Clubbiness has always been with us, but this idea that public affairs traditionally subject to public debate are now by training and expertise beyond the ken of non-specialists is something else entirely. And this whole “disagreeable… unproductive …well-behaved, well-intentioned, incompetent” line of adjectives referring to the universe of other people strikes me as … can’t find the word


SCM 11.04.07 at 8:51 pm

Engels — I agree that there may very well be better formulations of the comments policy than the one we now have, although I don’t think that the blog should set out to break down the barriers between academia and the rest of the world. It is enough for me if it builds bridges between members of my profession, many of whom actually have very little access to ongoing discussion with their colleagues. Any other benefit it may or may not have is entirely secondary.

I’m not quite sure if I understand what strict credentialism is, but I can’t see how it is practical to check on the particular credentials of each person who would like to comment.
Moreover, I think relying on the threat of revocation of commenting privileges is a heavy-handed approach that would embroil any decision-maker, whether me or an editorial committee, in too many substantive disputes.

Moderation of comments should ideally be something one can accomplish in a matter of seconds, with little thought, and as infrequently as possible.

Since I’m wary of boorishly abusing the hospitality of Crooked Timber, I’ve opened a thread on the specificities of Public Reason policy over there. The question of how best to develop an academic blog, and what aims it ought to have, is still an interesting discussion to have here, given the success of places like Crooked Timber, the Garden of Forking Paths, and the network of legal theory blogs, and the unfortunate demise of Left2Right. Since we have a much more open-invitation membership policy than these other sites, much of what we are doing is experimental and hence quite risky.


Seth Edenbaum 11.04.07 at 9:02 pm

“a public intellectual, or not?”
“God no.”

Wow. And I’m the one who’s accused of elitism? That comment crosses the line from defending the need for some sort of technical rigor to a defense of gross snobbery. It would be one thing if it involved me directly since I enjoy causing trouble, but Badger is an acknowledged non-academic expert, and if Marc Lynch reads him and links to him, logic and empiricism, would say you find knowledge where you may.

Another example of a community of experts circling the wagons and ghettoizing itself. Do you think this behavior is any different than that of the “serious” American press? I wouldn’t repeat myself so much, but you give me so many opportunities.
What happens to an institution when self-preservation becomes the central focus, becomes the subject and the object?

“God no”
That’s contempt for democracy. In a nutshell.


SCM 11.04.07 at 9:30 pm

“God no” = “I greatly admire people in my profession who can write so quickly, intelligently, and eloquently that what they have to say is an immediately valuable contribution to public discourse, but I don’t presume to have those skills myself.”


magistra 11.04.07 at 9:47 pm

It’s not just that it’s academics only invited to be involved – it’s that the ones it wants are ‘full time’ academics. The implication is that if you’re part-timers, adjunct staff, unemployed postdocs, we don’t want you lowering the tone around here.

In the field I’m in (medieval history) there are a lot of people with PhDs who are still trying to do research and get into academia, but having meanwhile to do part-time teaching, McJobs etc. These are people who don’t get the academic support from anyone that PhD students or permanent staff do. If this kind of policy spreads it’s another kick in the teeth to them.


thompsaj 11.04.07 at 10:11 pm

they should make a “late night shots” political theory website where THEY come to YOU.


SCM 11.04.07 at 10:18 pm

Magistra — that is indeed an unfortunate implication. We will have to rework how to put the point that we want people who are at least genuinely committed to being professional academics.
I think this should be my last comment on the specifics of Public Reason policies in this thread.


SCM 11.04.07 at 11:57 pm

Badger — I don’t think philosophical reflection on political questions is the same thing as intelligent discussion of political questions. The former is, when done well, only a very small subset of the latter, and not necessarily the best exemplar of it at all.

Possibly the confusion of the two is behind much of the discussion in this thread.

Certainly, if I wanted to think intelligently about the Middle Eastern politics, I’d go to places like your site, or Abu Aardvark’s or Juan Cole’s, rather than someone specialising in Kant’s political theory. But I might also want to ask whether Rawls’s Law of Peoples is the best philosophical framework for approaching foreign policy issues, and that’s not a question that interests most people who are blogging about political issues. Nor is there any reason it should.


engels 11.05.07 at 12:10 am

Now you, engels, are suggesting that perhaps even with the advent of the net, people can’t comment on public issues to the degree they don’t have some academic level of “training and expertise” or “sophistication”.

No, I’m not suggesting that. People of whatever ‘academic level of “training and expertise” or “sophistication’ are entitled to comment on public affairs. I was talking about participation in a website for political philosophers. Also, even in this case I wasn’t “suggesting” any of that, but assuming it for the sake of argument.


novakant 11.05.07 at 12:34 am

engels, I sympathize with your general point, but you might want to take into account what happened at the Left2Right blog – as far as I can remember the place was literally torn to shreds by a horde of vicious commenters


Badger 11.05.07 at 1:35 am

You blocked and then excerpted my comment so you could make a fairly cheap debating point. The gist of my comment, which you didn’t include, was that “training and expertise” in the humanities, for political philosophers or anyone else, ought also to develop the ability to express yourself clearly enough so that people can tell what you are talking about, particularly on matters of public interest, so they can comment and you should welcome that comment. It is part of our liberal tradition. By raising this question of training, expertise, and sophistication as a bar (hypothetical you say) to people commenting, you have it backwards. These are issues that have traditionally been in the sphere of the general educated public, and while in the old days there were physical constraints to broad comment because print publications were of limited circulation and so on, now that there is the web, you are saying: no, political philosophers are still entitled to their private communications. And so they are. But if you are defending putting stuff up on the web on public issues that are traditionally part of the humane sciences, publishing them in that way to all the world, then say it might be too complicated for any but the small group of registered, certified, trained professional, (and besides other people can be disagreeable, unproductive, well-meaning but incompetent, and all of your other adjectives applying to those outside the group), then I think you should reflect on the meaning of what it is you’re doing. “It’s a website for political philosophers” as if you were saying “It’s a website for comic-book hobbyists” isn’t a good answer.


Badger 11.05.07 at 1:58 am

The above is addressed to engels re the italicized remark he excerpted from a blocked comment of mine.

SCM, philosophical reflection may be more widespread than you think. I don’t know anything about the Rawls thing, but is there any reason for you not to put something up on your site and say “is this the right way of looking at these regional current events, or is there some better way”? Putting it another way, I think you should be trying to encourage philosophical reflection, not squeeze it into some corner… Of course that means putting stuff clearly and sacrificing a tiny bit of “technical rigor”. It’s work, is what it is… (Btw I noted the person with the paper on revolutions didn’t say anything about Iraq and you didn’t bring that up with him. Any reason for that? It’s a fascinating topic, and we could certainly use some philosophical reflection there…)


SCM 11.05.07 at 3:24 am

Badger — Iraq, to use the example, requires a great deal of intelligent thinking, but I don’t know how many of its problems could be productively discussed in a philosophical manner. Allen Buchanan has written a great deal on the legitimacy of secession, so that might be useful to the Kurdish situation. There are also philosophical questions about the role and nature of reconciliation that might become relevant in due course. But the more pressing questions seem to me to be non-philosophical: e.g. if the US left, would more people die, or less?; what’s the best way to write a constitution that doesn’t cause a full-scale civil war? etc. When political philosophers try to answer those kinds of questions, they tend to do a poor job, unless they incidentally possess a good deal of political acumen and actually have the time to research the vast quantity of relevant empirical information.

Using real-world examples, like Iraq, is often a very good way to animate a philosophical discussion or illustrate a philosophical point. But, at the end of the day, there is usually so very little that we can say about these cases from a philosophical point of view that it would be quite misleading for us to set up a discussion as “is this the right way to think about X, Y, or Z regional issue.” What we usually try to look for are points that turn on questions of moral principle, and then develop arguments about those moral principles. But the majority of questions in politics, even morally relevant questions, are not really ones where the key issues are matters of philosophical moral principle.

This is not to say that political philosophy is irrelevant to public political discourse. But the relevance that political philosophy should have for public discourse should be set on a much longer arc and understood in a much more diffuse way. Nor is it to say that answers to questions about moral principles are not often dependent on general empirical truths. But a good political philosophy about some matter should be fairly robust across the various different contexts in which the matter arises.


Seth Edenbaum 11.05.07 at 3:56 am

“When political philosophers try to answer those kinds of questions, they tend to do a poor job,”

Philosophy: the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, esp. when considered as an academic discipline.

Why don’t we just just find another word for what you do other than philosophy? Logicians are logicians, grammarians are grammarians. Why don’t you think up a name for yourselves along those lines: “Political Grammarian” might suit you. Then you could leave philosophy to those who are interested in the relation of thought to action. If you’re not trying to construct a theory of dynamics then you have no business calling yourself a political philosopher.

The academy is getting sillier and sillier, and their use of language shallower and shabbier. That goes for #22 specifically as well as the rest.


Bruce Baugh 11.05.07 at 10:32 am

Seth, Badger, Engels, and the rest, you’re being silly. You’re acting as though the new blog will be the only place such things are ever discussed. If it were, then you’d have an objection. As it is, you’re in the position of someone saying that because I don’t let people smoke in my home, I’ve banned smoking everywhere, or because some research libraries require ID for checkouts, you’ve lost access to the internet, used book stores, and so on.

The existence of a place which is outside the usual hurly-burly is neither an insult nor a suppression of discourse, and this insistence that we all have a right to trample into every place where any conversation of possible interest to us might be taking place, and to throw in our two bits as we choose, is just tiresome.


aaron_m 11.05.07 at 11:12 am

I have to agree that Engels is being pretty ungenerous in his analysis here. I will give you that the specifics on the comments policy and the name could be improved (although I think the idea of revoking accounts fails to consider a host of unintended and pretty negative consequences of such an approach). But this hardly seems to be want the comments are really about.

First the membership limits of the blog are clearly not arbitrary. It is about working together with people in your field. A department working group in political philosophy or a conference in political philosophy are not arbitrary. It seems that it is much more accurate to see the blog as attempting to expand the opportunities for academics to work with other academics on the department working group format than to see it as an attempt to combat the openness of public debate.

Are the membership rules socially exclusive and elitist. Yes but not more so and surely less so than academics as such. It seems that the problems noted here have much more to do with the nature of academics in universities. A certain level of elitism is unavoidable in academics but even if we accept that the current structure of academics is problematic on these grounds I cannot see why it should be required of this blog that it address the over all problems with the academic industry.

There are individual people that are working in universities in a certain academic branch that want to use a blog to do their jobs better. Expanding the opportunities for interaction on the working group model seems to be one legitimate way to go, but clearly does not limit them to only this way.

badger says,

“political philosophers or anyone else, ought also to develop the ability to express yourself clearly enough so that people can tell what you are talking about”

True, but how do you get from this to the view that they must always have discussions with a view to this end? It just does not follow, and it seems that those in a field should have some say in what kinds of forums help them do their job better.

engels says “If it doesn’t sound too melodramatic, I am mostly concerned about the precedent I think you might be setting,” it “seems to abandon much of the promise the internet seemed to have for breaking down some of the walls which exist between academic discussion and the outside world.”

Hun? Too melodramatic, ya think! Could this blog undermine the promise of the internet? No.


Badger 11.05.07 at 1:08 pm

Bruce and aaron, I am only interested in the philosophical side of this, not in barging in anywhere. SCM doesn’t think current wars and so on can be productively discussed in a philosophical way, but I think what that illustrates is that the idea of “philosophical” has been emptied of any real meaning. There is a marked focus on treating “philosophy” as starting and often ending with a hunt for existing philosophical literature, with only cosmetic and reinforcing remarks by the author. That’s the way fundamentalists and literalists everywhere, from radical Islam to radical Christians, go at their basic problems: exegesis of scripture. And my philosophical problem is that if I look to political philosophers for an examination of that issue in the world today, what do I find? They are focused on their own scriptural texts, Rawls and the rest of it. And that’s why they like to be left alone (which, as I said, is fine with me, I’m just making a point here), because it is so much more comfortable and convenient to organize yourself that way. But it has nothing to do with autonomous examination of fundamental assumptions, and certainly it is not philosophy! The fact it is irrelevant to the concerns of the world is only a consequence of that. Putting up the “Public Reason” website and then restricting contributions in the way suggested just highlighted that problem (and in a way as engels seems to perhaps dimly recognize, it actually crystallizes and in some small way hardens it), I’ve just been trying to point that out.


aaron_m 11.05.07 at 1:30 pm


First I think you should consider the fact that all the name calling you guys pilled on scm appears to have had the effect of putting him on the defensive (that is if you really care about open debate as opposed to simply flexing your debate techniques). From my perspective a more generous reading is that he was trying to avoid giving the impression that political philosophers were privy to a lot of special understanding of, e.g. wars, that others just can’t grasp. Alt. generally trying to avoid the charge of elitism in relation to public debate.

Lots of political philosophers are interested in and work on actual politics and social issues and it is pretty clear that political philosophy/theory as academic disciplines are more engaged in the way you say they fail than anything in the humanities and most of the social sciences.

Sure there are lots of surreal types out there, but 1) one should not underestimate the importance of work that you consider to be purely of academic interest in laying the foundations for more politically relevant work and 2) should not expect political philosophy to be any more perfect than other fields/industries.

Finally your characterization of political philosophy as only concerned with an inward examination of its own texts is so far from a fair assessment that it is hard to engage in discussion with you at all on this point.


Sam C 11.05.07 at 1:39 pm

There wouldn’t be much concern if a group of, say, academic computer scientists had started a blog to improve communication in their profession. The underlying worry seems to be (sorry if I’m putting words in people’s mouths) that philosophy was supposed to be something more than just another profession. Is the thought something like this? ‘Philosophy’s promise was that we could understand and improve our lives by thinking about them; but the technical, exclusive, pedantic activities of professional philosophers don’t live up to that promise. Professional philosophy doesn’t help us develop a philosophy of life or speak to immediate human concerns.’

I’m sympathetic to this worry – that promise was what got me into philosophy in the first place, and is still what keeps me at it. But objecting to the Public Reason blog on that basis is a mistake. In the first place, as aaron_m has already pointed out: that political philosophers should be contributing to public conversation on politics (which they should) doesn’t entail that they shouldn’t ever do anything else.

In the second place, more generally, it’s a mistake to move from ‘philosophy should contribute to thinking about life’ to ‘philosophy should never be technical, exclusive, or require hard-to-acquire disciplinary background to understand’. The questions philosophy deals with have the distinctive property of being both obvious – they occur to most thoughtful people eventually – and hard. Their obviousness means that we can all have an interest in them. But their difficulty means that gradual, piecemeal, technical reflection is unavoidable if we want to get any closer to answering them. And that kind of reflection is made easier if we have good contacts across the profession and can talk quietly amongst ourselves. I think that will – eventually – have good results for the philosophy of life, as well as the philosophy profession.


Sam C 11.05.07 at 2:04 pm

I posted my last before seeing Badger’s 35. Political philosophers engaging with public discourse and with immediate political and ethical problems, rather than just rereading Rawls, include Peter Singer, Onora O’Neill, Brian Barry, Ted Honderich, David Archard, Thomas Pogge, Amartya Sen, Thomas Nagel, Adam Swift, Will Kymlicka, and Charles Taylor – and that’s just from a fast scan of my bookshelves.


SCM 11.05.07 at 2:06 pm

SCM doesn’t think current wars and so on can be productively discussed in a philosophical way.

That’s not quite what I meant. What I said is that the most urgent problems facing a country like Iraq are not philosophical problems. Philosophers should not pretend to be able to answer these questions qua philosophers. Presuming to do so usually just leads to airy pontification with lots of footnotes.

But there is a lot of room for taking an issue like Iraq and using it to reflect on, say, whether unilateral invasion of a country is always wrong. This is what just war theory does, for instance. But that’s a very very long way from saying that philosophers, insofar as they know the ins and outs of just war theory, can tell us very much about what ought to be done in Iraq now. And it really didn’t take any philosophical acuity or expertise to recognise in 2003 that the invasion was wrong, ill-considered, and very likely to cause a great deal of suffering.

I don’t know why you think, Badger, that political philosophers don’t try to examine fundamental assumptions. That’s the point. It’s just very difficult to examine fundamental assumptions at the same time as making philosophical argument directly applicable to actual, pressing, real-world cases, since real-world cases don’t usually turn on any deep moral assumptions.

The applied ethics movement has tried to use philosophical argumentation to address specific policy issues, and a lot of good work has come out of that. But it’s not often that good work in applied ethics radically impacts upon fundamental assumptions. Perhaps the literature on animal rights has made a difference about how people think of moral status as such, but these are rare successes. Amartya Sen’s work on capabilities is also first-rate philosophy that’s had a major impact on developmental economics. That’s a fantastic achievement, but very few people have Sen’s intellectual breadth or depth. And, moreover, his work would not have been what it was were it not for the multitude of abstract, apparently irrelevant treatises that philosophers tend to produce (Sen’s bibliographies are voluminous).

I don’t really recognise the monastic attitude you describe. Sure, there’s a canon of literature, but that’s a far cry from scriptural ipse-dixitism.


engels 11.05.07 at 2:20 pm

Aaron – I obviously didn’t make my point clearly enough so I will just try it one more time.

What’s the rationale behind the decision to make the possession of a .edu email address (or .edu website affiliation) a necessary and sufficient condition for the right to comment on a political philosophy blog?

The first explanation I was given was, basically, it keeps out the arseholes. Let’s grant for a moment the assumption that there are no arseholes among the ‘academic community’, even among undergraduates. How is this policy much better than saying that you will only accept comments from people who live in respectable neighbourhoods, or from people who dress nicely? In each case, one is using a more-or-less arbitrary sign of social privilege, which does not appear to track people’s ability to contribute positively to the discussion at all efficiently, as a very crude method for filtering out troublemakers and in the process excluding many people who could meaningfully contribute to and benefit from the site in question, and also allowing in many who presumably can’t.

Now you have the rational behind it has to do with “working together with people in your field”. But how is that a rationale for the above policy? Like I said, if anything this would be an argument for restricting participation to people ‘qualified’ in your field, however you defined that, which is what I was referring to as ‘credentialism’ above.

Anyway, I feel like I am repeating myself.

Also, much of your comment seems rather unfair. I’m sorry if you feel I was “ungenerous”. I didn’t accuse anyone of trying to “combat the openness of public debate” or “undermin[ing] the promise of the internet”. Each of those claims would indeed have been “melodramatic”. I argued that a particular approach to public participation in an academic discussion (namely, categorically forbidding it) seems to ignore some of the opportunities the internet presents to do some things better than they have been done in the past. I don’t think that anyone is responsible for “address[ing] the over all problems with the academic industry” by himself, naturally.


engels 11.05.07 at 2:23 pm

I posted #40 before seeing #39. Much of #39 was a cut-and-paste from a previous comment so apologies if it is sloppily expressed and/or rude. Anyway, I am getting as tired of this as anyone. Sorry if I have expressed myself badly and thereby, it seems, offended people on all possible sides of this of this issue!


engels 11.05.07 at 2:23 pm

Much of #40 arghhh


aaron_m 11.05.07 at 2:30 pm


The site clearly states that it is looking for people working in political philosophy. I am not sure why you think it is intended to be open to anybody posting from a university IP.

scm says “The restriction on comments does exist to limit the discussion to professional workers in political philosophy or adjacent fields; the academic domain IP or email address requirement is the only effective way we can do that.”

With all the information I have I get the impression that when someone first posts they look to see if the person is affiliated with an academic department related to political philosophy and are at a certain level of education. I certainly do not get the impression that doctors in whatever are the target audience.


engels 11.05.07 at 2:36 pm

I am not sure why you think it is intended to be open to anybody posting from a university IP.

Because on the comment box it said:

As Public Reason is an academic website, comments will only be accepted from students or faculty of an academic community. Please include a university website at left for verification if you do not have a .edu or .ac domain email address.

…which is what I took to be the comment policy.


engels 11.05.07 at 2:39 pm

With all the information I have I get the impression that when someone first posts they look to see if the person is affiliated with an academic department related to political philosophy and are at a certain level of education.

If this is what they do, then it falls under the heading ‘strict credentialism’ as described above, hence I would not argue that it is arbitrary.


Seth Edenbaum 11.05.07 at 2:45 pm

Badger puts it well at #35. And for myself, as I said, I’m not opposed to the rigor that an academy can provide, it’s not a question of black and white. But read the words on the page: the descriptions at Public Reason and the defense by scm. It seems to me a line’s been crossed and claims for academic privilege are being overstated.
How do you recognize when a system has become little more than self-perpetuating formalism? When do assumptions of authority become no more then that? These are questions, not answers. But they’re questions people have been asking for example about the American press, which is based on a similar professionalism. When does the rule of reason become the rule of reasonableness?

Reasonableness having no fixed definition has no philosophical validity. That’s something Joe Lieberman doesn’t understand.
I think he as a lot of company.


engels 11.05.07 at 3:02 pm

Oh yeah and Bruch at #33 for suggesting that I am some kind of demented free speech fanatic who think that “we all have a right to trample into every place where any conversation of possible interest to us might be taking place, and to throw in our two bits as we choose” gets the Engels Memorial Prize for Straw Man of Year!


Badger 11.05.07 at 3:31 pm

re # 39 by SCM

I think we’re getting warm, SCM, where you write:

“I don’t know why you think, Badger, that political philosophers don’t try to examine fundamental assumptions. That’s the point. It’s just very difficult to examine fundamental assumptions at the same time as making philosophical argument directly applicable to actual, pressing, real-world cases, since real-world cases don’t usually turn on any deep moral assumptions”.

Here’s why I think that, by way of an example. Islamic fundamentalism is based on deep moral assumptions. National resistance to armed occupation is generally based on deep moral assumptions. But you say “real-world cases don’t usually turn on any deep moral assumptions”. And what I think that reflects is a conventional acceptance of the “reality” promulgated in the media and elsewhere, to the effect all that is going on in that region is a web of unprincipled struggles for power. That is the conventional spin, and we all know how that works. But in fact these “actual pressing real-world cases”, do in fact turn on “deep moral assumptions”, perhaps not for you, but certainly for others. Maybe you feel you can’t examine them because they aren’t your deep moral assumptions, but that would be a kind of solipsism, wouldn’t it, or is that your point?

And how would you get started examining other groups’ moral principles, because as you noted in an earlier comment, “What we usually try to look for are points that turn on questions of moral principle, and then develop arguments about those moral principles”. This is where I am at a loss with you. Because I think that first and foremost it is a question of recognizing that there are deep moral principles that aren’t our own, but those of others. Recognizing that is my first moral principle. But I can’t get there with you. Because you say the “pressing” (meaning antagonistic) issues don’t usually turn on moral assumptions. I’m against all forms of name-calling, but if you will bear with me, I think you’ll agree there is such a thing as a technocratic view of power that strips these kinds of cases of any moral meaning, in order to insulate them from examination and criticism.

It’s all well and good to say that you need a technical infrastructure, so to speak, nurtured in the quiet environment you are contemplating, in order to launch meaningful political philosophy. Fine if it was true. But what I am trying to point out in my way is that the justifications I have seen here all point in the other direction.


Sam C 11.05.07 at 3:39 pm

“Because I think that first and foremost it is a question of recognizing that there are deep moral principles that aren’t our own, but those of others.” – Badger @ 48

That’s the fundamental point which drives Rawls’s thought: the reality of pluralism, and the possibility of peace and justice in a pluralistic world. I agree with you that philosophy can and should engage with this problem. But it seems from this and earlier posts that you don’t realise that it’s already doing so.


engels 11.05.07 at 3:41 pm

Aaron, in fact now that I look at it, the post linked by Simon above says:

3. Comments policy. I’ve restricted comments to people within the academic community, as evidenced by IP or email addresses or homepages. The goal here is to cut down on unproductive and unpleasant comments that may serve to inhibit academics from making use of the site. Would a less cautious policy generate better discussion between political philosophers? Please bear in mind that any policy has to be practical to implement.

..which suggests that my #40 is a more accurate picture of their approach than your #43, I believe…


aaron_m 11.05.07 at 3:56 pm

OK their membership policy does not match their comment policy (unless we hear to the contrary). I guess the reason sited is practicality. I have no way of judging if it is a good one.

Still I think that it is probably true that if you limit members to professionals, give further strong signal’s that the site is for academics in political philosophy and limit comments to universities you will accomplish the stated aims (those working on PP in academic departments), without excluding too many of the intended audience. The only excluded category in relation to their aims noted thus far are those with PhDs looking for positions.

Surely it is not concerns over this group that has got everybody all excited. I am betting that it has to do with the aim of the site simply irritating some and with an unfortunate name (Engels at #1).


engels 11.05.07 at 4:09 pm

Aaron – Just to make it clear, everything I said above was directed at the comment policy, not the membership policy. The membership policy is very open clearly and it is an improvement on the existing situation at most group blogs. I also think that the aim of the site (facilitating communication between academic political philosophers) is a laudable one.

What I have objected to specifically is what I termed the ‘facebook approach’ to commenting commissions, as outlined in #18 and #40 above.


engels 11.05.07 at 4:10 pm

“permissions”, that would be, not “commissions”


aaron_m 11.05.07 at 4:18 pm

OK, point taken.


engels 11.05.07 at 4:40 pm

So the question as I see it, perhaps badly formulated, would be something like are the restrictions on participation in a given discussion forum fair and reasonable in the light of the legitimate goals which they are intended to serve (bearing in mind practical constraints). I am open to the claim that there are some forums which are purely private and to which these considerations do not apply at all but I do not think that an academic publication or discussion forum falls into this category.

In this case there have been two goals mentioned, I think, (i) keeping out troublemakers and (ii) facilitating communication between professional political philosophers. The question would be whether the ‘facebook approach’ is a fair and reasonable way of advancing these goals, given the range of practical options but keeping in mind the possible effects of such a policy on individuals who are outside the formal ‘academic community’.


Badger 11.05.07 at 4:47 pm

sam c @ 49

All right, good point, there is a book on it. But really I am trying to get at something that goes beyond the librarian function, where people say things in their own words. What I’ve heard so far here is that burning issues usually don’t involve deep moral assumptions. Given what’s happening in the world, that seems to me evasive at best, no matter what books you may have on your shelf. It’s a little like saying, Arnold Schoenberg, who you never heard of, was a great musician, so I can play the piano.


aaron_m 11.05.07 at 5:01 pm

If it assumed from the outset that “facilitating communication between professional political philosophers” is legitimate then the fairness of the rules need not be assessed based on “the possible effects of such a policy on individuals who are outside the formal ‘academic community’” (besides maybe PhDs looking for positions).

If the argument is that they ought not to use an open blog format if they want to have such a limited audience, one needs to consider the fairness of limiting the technological options of the group. I would say that under current conditions they group would not be able to achieve their aims at all if the public blog option was not available.

If alternatively the argument is that they must take into consideration the interests of those outside their target audience, then we are back to all the counter arguments against this view found above which you claimed were misdirected in relation to your argument.


SCM 11.05.07 at 5:04 pm

Badger — I realise that, e.g., Islamic fundamentalists are motivated by what they take as moral premises. But I think there is very little that political philosophers generally can do about that. I don’t even know if there is very much that liberal philosophers deeply trained in the Islamic tradition can do about that. This then just leaves open the problem of how best to conduct foreign and domestic politics so that such fundamentalism is minimised. That’s not a particularly philosophical question itself, although here and there it may provide some fodder for philosophical thought — as sam c. notes that the existence of ineliminable moral pluralism animates much work in contemporary liberal theory (including my own).


SCM 11.05.07 at 5:13 pm

Badegr — the Schoenberg analogy is precisely the wrong way around. My point, in the terms of the analogy, is that just because some people have interesting things to say about the radical nature of atonal music and modernism, doesn’t make them good pianists. And it’s no criticism of people who like to write about musical theory to say, “But you’re not demonstrating your worth in a public piano concert! Where everyone else can play their glockenspiel too!”


engels 11.05.07 at 5:18 pm

Aaron, I’m sorry if I haven’t been clear. I don’t understand your last comment completely–maybe you could run some of it by me again–but I didn’t think that the principles behind my #55 were especially controversial although perhaps I haven’t expressed them very well. I didn’t think it was controversial to suggest that in many cases when people take decisions regarding the membership rules for a group they must consider (to some extent) the interests of outsiders as well as insiders and I don’t understand how this opens up my argument to objections which I have previously dismissed as irrelevant.


Sam C 11.05.07 at 5:22 pm

Badger – I don’t agree with SCM that ‘burning issues usually don’t involve deep moral assumptions’; and I agree with you that professional political philosophers should be involved in public conversations about those burning issues. My points are just: (1) this doesn’t mean that technicality and private conversations are out – they’re needed if political philosophers are to develop and make use of our professional skills in public (as I said @ 37). (2) Many academic political philosophers are already directly involved in the public debate and in policy-making (I listed a dozen of the more well-known ones off the top of my head @ 38). (3) It’s not having books on your shelf that’s important, it’s reading them. Political-philosophical problems are hard – too hard for any one person – and taking a communal approach to them by reading and engaging with others’ attempts is necessary to make any progress (for me, anyway – geniuses’ milage may vary). Good for you for doing some hard thinking about political philosophy, but I think you’re missing a trick if you’re not working with books as well (I would say that, since I teach this stuff – but I honestly believe it, too).


SCM 11.05.07 at 5:39 pm

Sam — I do think burning issues can involve deep moral assumptions. This is why we have just war theory and the philosophy of human rights. But I don’t think that solving the most urgent issues turns on solving the philosophical questions about these deep moral assumptions. It’s not as if correcting the errors in Walzer is going to do much good for Iraq.


Seth Edenbaum 11.05.07 at 6:18 pm

Badger, I think the problem of technocratic logic stems from the pretense of technocrats that their logic is impersonal, which makes it easier for them to accuse others of simple emotionalism, or to claim that emotional engagement is mere superstructure. But the rhetoric of impersonality is just that. Mathematics may be impersonal but a taste for mathematics and a desire to see it applied to an expanding list of areas is not. It’s deeply personal. If you see the world in terms of ideas then there are problems to be solved. If you think of it in terms of aporias then the question becomes one of consistency in navigation. That consistency must be dynamic, since the ambiguity leads to questioning not only others’ assumptions, but your own. Either way it’s a question for philosophy, but the choice reflects your priorities.

real-world cases don’t usually turn on any deep moral assumptions.

That’s just odd. Real world cases are founded on deep moral assumptions filtered through experience. To say otherwise is silly. It’s like saying language has little relation to its use.



Sam C 11.05.07 at 6:24 pm

SCM – ah, I see: sorry to have misrepresented you. You’re of course right that correcting Walzer isn’t going do much for Iraq now. But a higher quality public debate about the justice of war involving philosophers, soldiers, historians, independent thinkers, a well-informed general public, etc., might change things for the better in the longer term. Philosophy lecturers might even be able to do some good here, by helping our students become the kind of citizen who could power that public debate. None of this is any objection to the Public Reason blog, of course. As already noted, we also need to be doing the private technical work if we’re to be any use to the public debate.


Sam C 11.05.07 at 6:26 pm

“going do much for Iraq now” > “going to do much…”. Doh.


Dave 11.05.07 at 6:29 pm

Given everybody is taking pointless offence at this, I feel I should pile in and say that a picture of a bunch of terrorists as your title pic. is in very bad taste.


SCM 11.05.07 at 6:41 pm

Sam — Yes, part of what I take the pedagogical role of political philosophers to be is to demonstrate to students that the fundamental questions of moral principle are often very difficult to get right, and that the connections between positions are often much weaker than they think. (E.g. being a liberal does not necessarily make you in favour of judicial review; not recognising the legitimacy of foreign regimes does not necessarily mean you favour bombing them, etc.).
That said, I don’t know if the antidote to a media that focuses, in this country at any rate, on Hilary Clinton’s cleavage is more philosophical reflection as such. There are just so many intelligent ways of having a productive discussion about political matters before we even get to points that are well-suited to philosophical reflection.


SCM 11.05.07 at 6:45 pm

Dave — ssshh! — it’s subliminal anti-Catholic bigotry.


Walt 11.05.07 at 7:02 pm

Wow. Just wow. The policy at Public Reason and scm’s defense of it is so embarrassing that I find myself cringing in sympathy. It’s rare that you see someone disgrace themselves so publicly.

Do academic societies require credentials to join them? (The one I know best, the American Mathematical Society, only requires that your check clear.) Do academic journals require credentials to submit articles for publication? (The ones I’m familiar with don’t.)

If you want to have a technical website about the mechanics of an academic field, then the comment problem solves itself: almost no one outside the field will comment. The few abusive or off-topic comments can be deleted by hand. Honestly, only the most popular blogs have to worry about anything other than spam.

Some things worth doing are not worth doing badly, and this is one of them. Academics is not a job like any other — it is both an honor and a duty. SCM clearly understands neither.


SCM 11.05.07 at 7:14 pm

Walt, that’s just being really silly. The policy seems to be the preference of the people at the site, and for reasons similar to those raised by aaron, sam_c and novakant here. And neither I nor the members of the site are accountable to your peculiar notion of honour and duty, any more than we have to be responsive to Seth Edembaum’s latest brilliant insight.


Badger 11.05.07 at 7:27 pm

sam c @ 61: There may be something in books as you say, but I doubt it. Of course you mean English language books, which I particularly shun. Btw, where you teach, do they have a strong foreign-languages program to go with their excellent philosophy instruction?

SCM and others: I guess I’m not with you on what “philosophical reflection” is, but I haven’t been able to formulate this very well (or at all). Last try: Where you have the standard-bearer of the liberal-democratic tradition justifying the continuation of a brutal armed occupation of another country on grounds of humanitarianism (and I guess you have some well-known “social scientists” at the forefront of this), and authorizes the use of torture at home, you can explain that on one level by a history of the US administrations and so on. But it seems to me self-evident that there is an underlying philosophical issue: What exactly was that liberal-democratic tradition. This is not a “philosophical problem to be solved” in a way to “do much good for Iraq” or anything like that. Similarly in Iraq, you can explain the rivalry between Islamist resistance and secular-nationalist resistance by looking at recent history, but there too (and this is something that is currently a burning issue for the resistance) there are fundamental questions about the traditions, how they ended up in this predicament, and how to foster some kind of meeting of the minds. These are not problems to be solved, these are dimensions within which to try and understand. Pedagogy and policy-advice and all the rest of it are secondary. The questions are: What the hell is all of this, and more particularly who the hell are we? Because idf you don’t approach it that way, you end up with another rendition of “Take up the White Man’s burden”, and I think the time has gone by for that…


SCM 11.05.07 at 7:44 pm

Badger — I certainly think it is an interesting question to ask how the United States got to where it is. I don’t really see it as a philosophical question though, since I don’t really see that there are very many interesting philosophical justifications for the position it finds itself in, particularly with the characteristics you mention. Perhaps there are some political philosophers who will have something interesting to say about this crumbling of liberal republican norms, but if so, they’re going to be drawing on a hell of a lot more than just philosophy to say that.
In short, I don’t think people should look to political philosophy to take the lead in intelligent public discourse about important political questions. As such, I don’t think people should take offence when philosophical discourse is not conducted in exactly the same way that intelligent public discourse more generally should be conducted. We’re really not trying to change the world here. Most of us are just trying to have colleagues read our work and give us comments so we can publish better papers. And that’s just not going to happen if we try to be another Crooked Timber or DailyKos for Rawlsians.


magistra 11.05.07 at 8:09 pm

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to want a site for academic discussion of technical issues of philosophy, rather than one that aims more at popularising political philosophy ideas for a non-academic/mixed audience. But if you say it is only for those already in universities, then that seems unreasonable. Surely what you need is firstly a declaration that all those actively engaged in research in the field are welcome to contribute. Then you need to allow an option for those who are not at universities to get “manually validated”, i.e. tell us what you’re researching and/or your recent/forthcoming publications and we’ll let you become a member. So people who are serious researchers, but who aren’t currently academics are allowed in.

I think this does matter because of equity. Back in the prehistoric days before the web, there were a number of studies of the academic networks sometimes known as ‘invisible colleges’, where you could find out ahead of publication who was doing what, what the hot topics were etc. And all the studies suggested that such networks worked on the Matthew principle: to him who has, more will be given. So those who were more junior, in less prestigious colleges, marginalised because of sex or race etc, tended to get left out of the loop and fall even further behind.

The use of the web doesn’t entirely negate such problems, but it can reduce them. Geographical distance is no longer so key and there’s no extra cost to making a preprint available for 300 people to download than for 30. The net thus provides one possible way to ‘democratise’ the academic community and assist those at the edges of it to get into the mainstream. The restrictions proposed seem to me to be having the opposite effect, to try and keep out not just the riff-raff, but all those who don’t fit a particular narrow academic stereotype.


engels 11.05.07 at 8:17 pm

The restrictions proposed seem to me to be having the opposite effect, to try and keep out not just the riff-raff, but all those who don’t fit a particular narrow academic stereotype.


The policy seems to be the preference of the people at the site

IOW: people inside your little circle are happy to keep drawing the line exactly where you do. The whole point is that you also have a responsibility to people outside of your club.


SCM 11.05.07 at 8:17 pm

I don’t want to keep talking about the details of our policy, but Magistra I have reworded the membership policy to take into account the concerns you raised. Certainly not every genuine member of the academic community is currently employed. And I would very much like the site to help those in or on the borders of the profession, who are marginalised in the way you mention, to get greater exposure to their work.


SCM 11.05.07 at 8:27 pm

Engels — good lord, you’re really losing perspective. In four weeks we’ve gone from nothing to being one of the largest, most-inclusive philosophy blogs on the internet. We are the *only* academic blog that I know of that doesn’t work on a private invitation-only basis. I’ve personally emailed dozens of people whom I’ve never met to ask them if they’d like to join, and to extend the invitation to any other member of the profession they think might be interested. I’d very much like it if we ended up with five or six or seven hundred members. If my “little circle” means the entire academic discipline of political philosophy, then it looks to me like a very welcoming club. And no, we don’t have any responsibility to be welcoming to people not genuinely involved in that discipline when we are merely trying to improve, and democratise, communication within that discipline.


Badger 11.05.07 at 8:40 pm

you sound like a high school science fair administrator


engels 11.05.07 at 8:49 pm

one of the largest, most-inclusive philosophy blogs on the internet

In terms of membership you may be–if you have sufficiently addressed the problems Magistra raised above. In terms of comments, you appear to be the opposite, namely, one of the least inclusive academic blogs on the internet. And you are the one who has lost perspective if you think that in global terms the ‘academic community’ is anything more than a small circle of highly privileged people.

And most of what you have written here just ignores what I have said. I didn’t say you “have [a] responsibility to be welcoming to people not genuinely involved in that discipline”. I said you have a responsibility to consider welcoming people who are so involved, but who don’t meet your arbitrary stereotype of what it is to be a congenial participant. All this talk of disciplinary boundaries also misses the point, because according to your stated comments policy you do not draw the line in this way.


Walt 11.05.07 at 9:02 pm

scm, you’re the one who’s publicly embarrassing yourself, your field, and the cause of academia, not me. Why do you think the reaction here is so negative? Because you’ve clearly expressed your preference that you belong to an exclusive club, one that has no place for scholars in related fields, for scholars who’s academic affiliation has lapsed, or for the taxpayers, alumni, and undergraduates who underwrite your little career. But hey, I’m sure it’s a really great networking opportunity for you to meet the five people who will ever care about your papers.

I’m touched that you find my idea that academics owe something to the larger community is “peculiar”. I know business school professors (not otherwise noted for their vast altruism) who are less careerist and more inclusive than you.


Matt 11.05.07 at 9:15 pm

Walt asked, “Do academic societies require credentials to join them?”

For what it’s worth the American Philosophical Association askes about the credentials of those seeking to join. It allows students to join and does allow those who are not currently academic philosophers to join, but on the application form there is a section about whether one does work in philosophy or not, the highest degree one has earned, etc. I cannot say if they ever refuse to admit anyone or not, but it is on the application form.

To my mind the discussion so far at Public Reason has been really excellent, to a large degree because it’s been a debate among people who don’t need to be brought up to speed, spend time on ill-informed rants, invoke their mother’s as authorities on topics they don’t understand, etc. The comment sections on many blogs are often worthless, unfortunately. I hope that this doesn’t happen with Public Reason and think the policy (which is obviously not set in stone) will do well to serve this.


SCM 11.05.07 at 9:19 pm

I think we’ve reached the point in the conversation where the only thing coming out now is bluster. The aim of the site has been set out, the policies have been explained (and where appropriate modified), and it’s simply in human nature for there to be some people who remain for whatever reason unsatisfied. That’s life. So thanks for the comments, and I appreciate your keen interest in our site and the nature of the discipline more generally.


SCM 11.05.07 at 9:28 pm

Walt — I’m particularly grateful for your comments as an illustration of what dissuades many academics from using blogging as a medium in the first place.


Walt 11.05.07 at 9:34 pm

Wow, what kind of shrinking violets do they have over there in political philosophy?

We’ve reached the point in our discussion that you have established you are a careerist lickspittle only interested in sucking up to those who can help your career. I’m sure you’ll have a distinguished career as a junior professor making $30,000 a year somewhere in the Midwest, and complaining that your brilliant work is not appreciated by an uncaring world.


Walt 11.05.07 at 9:46 pm

I didn’t really set out to insult you, scm, though my first comment was pretty hostile. I wasn’t going to reply at all, because I assumed one of the other commenters would get through to you about how bad this looks. It was only when I saw you not getting it, over and over again, that I jumped in. It just amazes me that you can’t see how bad you are making yourself and by extension your field look, and that your professional training (as a philosopher, at that!) has done nothing to train you as to your responsibilities as an academic (apparently your definition being restricted to whatever enables to cash your paycheck). It’s not about creating another public space to argue about the Iraq war, or another forum for trolls to infest. Any kind of comment policy for content of posts is completely legitimate. But it just amazes me that you can’t see that the kind of lazy credentialism you are embracing makes you look really, really bad.


Matt 11.05.07 at 10:03 pm

I think that case exists mosly in your mind, walt, and that of a few others who have mostly made themselves look crazy here.


Barbar 11.05.07 at 10:41 pm

From my perspective, it just amazes me that SCM can’t seem to see how bad he looks getting sucked into an 85-comment thread with some cranks. Jesus. Here’s a very serious vote for the EDU email requirement — really, it’s for your own good!


Seth Edenbaum 11.05.07 at 10:59 pm

Brilliant insights, or overreach? Fine with me.
Just read Badger at #71 a few more times, and carefully.
I’m out.


Katherine 11.06.07 at 8:27 am

Shorter version of criticism of this membership and/or comments policy: Wah, they’re not letting everyone in! Get over yourselves. Geez, if this was something put together by a public body you might just have a point, but complaining about the private policy of a private (although academic) blog? What self-important teddy throwing this all is.


Sam C 11.06.07 at 10:20 am

I suspect that this thread has jumped the shark (thanks, Walt – do you ever make comments which aren’t contemptuous personal attacks?). But I can’t let this from Badger @ 71 go past unremarked:

There may be something in books as you say, but I doubt it. Of course you mean English language books, which I particularly shun. Btw, where you teach, do they have a strong foreign-languages program to go with their excellent philosophy instruction?

Badger, do you seriously believe that there’s nothing worth reading in the couple of thousand years of work in the canons of political philosophy? Do you seriously believe that you can get very far with the problems of PP without knowing how others have addressed them? Because if so, you have revealed yourself as a crank. Hopefully you’re just exaggerating for rhetorical effect. And as it happens, yes, my institution does have a highly-rated foreign language department, and many of my students do joint honours in languages and philosophy, although what this has to do with the conversation we were having, I have no idea. I note that you haven’t answered either of the other two points I made at 61. Is this because you now accept that they’re correct?


matt_s 11.06.07 at 5:22 pm

wow. i can’t believe engels and badger and walt and all y’all piling on simon/scm.

so, maybe the wording of the public reason contributors’ policy could have been put a little more diplomatically. but, seriously – if public reason had been a blog for professional linguists and it was titled “public discourse” or something like that, and it had the same contributors’ policy, would you all get ticked off that those without PhD’s couldn’t offer your views on the latest developments in semantics?

you guys really took the piss out of simon for no good reason and in a very good natured manner, he responded politely and without much rancor, even as you all went about deliberately misinterpreting him.

if anything, your behavior is an advertisement condemning the social skills of people who spend most their time blogging, while simon’s behavior is an advertisement for the capacity of academic philosophers to debate vigorously but respectfully, Colin McGinn and Ted Honderich apparently being high-profile exceptions. (And Leiter, too? But, I like Brian’s blog and think he’s actually pretty fair, so i am not going to be a hater.)

In short, Engels and Badger both make the case, through their obnoxious behavior, for the usefulness of an academic-philosophers-only blog.


Walt 11.06.07 at 6:32 pm

No, I do not make comments other than contemptuous personal attacks. I wait until they are deserved, though.

Matt: I’m glad to see you share the same careerist values as SCM, and I’m sure that you’ll do well in law school with those values. Hey, you already have tenure, or you’re going to get it someday, right? Why do you need to care what anyone else thinks? It’s like being a made-man in the mob. Pretty sweet deal you got going for yourself, and now you won’t even have to hear the opinions of anyone outside your little circle. If that’s not upholding the highest values of John Rawls, I don’t know what is.

Katherine: Academics is not a private activity. It’s a public one that receives generous public funding. In some cases, undeserved public funding, apparently.


Matt 11.06.07 at 7:38 pm

Don’t go away mad, walt.


Sam C 11.06.07 at 8:05 pm

Walt: there was some snark, but also some worthwhile exchange in this thread… until you joined in. You derailed a conversation I was interested in by acting as though it was a drunken argument, while failing to say anything useful about the issues under discussion: calling anyone who disagrees with you a ‘careerist lickspittle’ does not count as intelligent critique. This makes you look a bit of a knob, and, more importantly, helps confirms the opinion of the many of my colleagues who don’t think it’s worth the bother getting involved in public discourse, especially on the web. I don’t share their opinion, but changing their minds has just got that much harder.


Badger 11.06.07 at 8:34 pm

sam c, yes, of course I agree on those other two points of yours, as anyone would. On the other remark about books generally, I guess nuance gets lost sometimes, I was mixing together several different ideas going through my mind at the time, including: (1) I spend a lot of my time reading current stuff in my recently-learned Arabic, so I don’t have time or spare eyesight for a lot of book-reading; (2) the material I have seen on Public Reason and the comments here all seemed to start with the question of the applicability or otherwise of theories in books everyone reads, as opposed to expounding original ideas, and approach of starting from authority reminded me of the methods of medieval scholars, (which is where I have my actual academic training, quite a while ago that is);(3) I have enough to think about with what I put up on my blog, without at the moment feeling the need for extra reading and also (4) I do think the importance of teaching people other languages is undervalued, so that was reflected in my other question. On your other point, of course I have the greatest respect for the written traditions in all the liberal arts disciplines. My remark that you refer to was meant in a flip and friendly way, and I am very sorry it didn’t come out that way.


Sam C 11.06.07 at 9:54 pm

Badger – no problem: sorry I snapped at you. I actually agree with you, if I’ve understood you, about the importance of original philosophical thinking, of public conversation which takes that thinking seriously, and of professional philosophers doing their bit in that conversation. I do my best on the last one. I just got pissed off with Walt for messing up the thread, and wasn’t in the state of mind to read your post in the right tone of voice.


Badger 11.06.07 at 10:54 pm

He certainly did mess it up, didn’t he. I’m not that sophisticated, but I don’t see why there aren’t ways to deal with that via IP address and so on, rather than letting people just walk away from the net. Certainly there’s work involved, and you need to develop a bit of thickness in the skin, which is probably new for a lot of people, but if you and I can learn to withstand that kind of thing, surely anyone can. It’s work, but it’s worth it.

Good of you to ferret out what I was trying to get at. I’m particularly interested in trying to “elevate” some of the issues that I write about to a plane where people will take them seriously as topics for real thought. Obviously there are obstacles…


Seth Edenbaum 11.06.07 at 11:03 pm

the material I have seen on Public Reason and the comments here all seemed to start with the question of the applicability or otherwise of theories in books everyone reads, as opposed to expounding original ideas, and approach of starting from authority reminded me of the methods of medieval scholars,

Scholasticism is a good way to describe it, but at the same time Badger I don’t think new ideas as such are the issue, here or on your blog. A sympathetic curiosity has allowed you to come to terms with the events in Iraq in a way others have not. You see the behavior of the insurgents with a clearer eye than most because I think you chose to assume that they were less foreign than many want to think. It’s less about new ideas than a failure of imagination.

That’s not to say one has to agree with everything you say, with every articulated idea, but that I agree at least with your process, and the ideas behind that.


Badger 11.07.07 at 12:23 am

Fair enough. Maybe so. I hadn’t been looking at it that way, but you may be right. Of course you understand my problem is communicating stuff to others, not just understanding my own process as you put it. I guess I have been assuming that the imaginative side and the conceptual side translate back and forth, but I’m going to have to gnaw on that… Interesting point, to be sure.


Thom Brooks 11.07.07 at 11:45 am

There is no scholasticism on the Public Reason blog, a blog I am proud to contribute to. Why in the world would you think otherwise?


Badger 11.07.07 at 12:30 pm

concordemus pacifice quod res ipsa loquitur, et prospere procedamus

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