I’ve lately been contemplating the question of what makes a popular philosophy book a good book. I am focussing on the case of philosophy professors who are writing a book that is explicitly aimed at a broader audience, and who may or may not also have written scholarly articles on the topic of their popular-philosophy book. Which quality-criteria should that book meet? Here are some thoughts.
1. Trust. The reader has to be able to trust the author that she has done the research needed to be able to write a book on this topic (please do swap ‘he’ and ‘she’ if you prefer so). Since it is a popular rather than a scholarly book, the author doesn’t need to elaborately demonstrate that she has done her homework (for example via references and careful summaries/overview of the literature as it has developed), but she must have done that homework. The reader has to be able to trust the author that she does know what she is writing about. For this criterion, I think it makes a difference whether the author is also a professor, since the general public tends to grant professors the status of an expert on the topics they are writing about. Hence if a professor of philosophy writes a popular book, most people will be assuming that she also knows the scholarly literature well, and that the popular book reflects that literature. Professors do know that the default position is that readers trust them to have expert knowledge on what they are writing, and therefore our professor who writes a popular book should not damage that trust.
2. Accessibility. An important difference between a scholarly philosophy book and a popular philosophy book should be its accessibility. It is fine for a scholarly philosophy book to be written for fellow specialists and hence to be specialised and very likely ‘technical’ in some sense. By contrast, a popular book can, at best, assume an interest in philosophical questions and, perhaps, some basic philosophical background, but definitely nothing more. It should be accessible, and that accessibility will show itself both in the lack of assuming much specialist knowledge, as well in its writing style, which will tend to be less dense, and more infused with lively examples.
3. Arguments. The popular book should not merely be based on rhetoric, intuitions and emotional appeals, but should consist of arguments that an educated layperson can follow. Hence, the examples or other stylistic devices that may be needed to meet the accessibility criterion should not do all the work: there should still be an argument that explains or justifies the intuitive conclusions that the examples provoke. Conclusions should never merely be reached by the force of emotional appeal or examples, but be based on arguments.
4. Not for profit. The quality of the argument will be different if the book is aimed at a broader audience. I am deliberately saying ‘different’ rather than ‘poorer’, since quality criteria for scholarly work are different from quality criteria for popular work. For example, if a piece of popular philosophy wants to be good, it needs to be accessible, whereas in scholarly philosophy this is generally not an aspect of quality. But that said, a popular philosophy book should not sacrifice the quality of the book to the profit motive of either the author or the publisher. Or indeed any other motive that may harm the quality of the book, such as the author’s vanity or need for attention or affirmation of her star-status.
5. Plagiarism. Plagiarism is a capital sinn in scholarship, possibly the capital sinn. In scholarly philosophy, plagiarism should be avoided at all cost. In popular philosophy, that is still the case, though one could argue that the reader may not need to be given the same amount of details in terms of references. Still the fact that a book is written for a broad audience doesn’t absolve a person from proper acknowledging how one builds on and uses work by others. One shouldn’t create the impression that one has created new work when what one is really doing is to reformulate or re-apply the insights and analysis done by others.
6. Noblesse Oblige. With social and intellectual status, and the corresponding power, come certain duties and responsibilities. Philosophers (and anyone writing a book) should not cause harm – and if an author has a high social status (which is quite often the case with professors writing popular philosophy books), one has to be extra careful. If one has a high status, then one has relatively much power to do good – but also much power to harm or do bad. As an author of a popular philosophy book, one is not only able to significantly contribute to a certain debate, but also to pollute or damage such a debate. In normative philosophy, an important aspect of Noblesse Oblige is to (try to) do as one preaches. Of course, no ordinary human being lives like a saint, but one shouldn’t defend a normative claim and not make a serious effort in living up to that norm. This sixth criterion is more context-dependent and therefore (as a criterion) vaguer than the other criteria; but still some elements of Noblesse Oblige sometimes play a role in deciding what makes a popular philosophy book a good book.
Do these criteria make sense? Are these criteria perhaps biased towards political philosophy/theory and (applied) ethics, the areas in which I work most?
Full disclosure: If these criteria survive the typically-smart-and-sharp discussion on this blog, I’ll use them to assess a particular book in a follow-up post.