How to write a good public philosophy book

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 4, 2022

As I might have mentioned here before, I am currently working on a book (provisionally) entitled Limitarianism. The Case Against Extreme Wealth. It will be what publishers call a trade book – that is, written for any reader of nonfiction. I’ve been doing this kind of writing (and talks) in Dutch for much longer; this book I write in English. It will be published by Astra House for North-America, and by Allen Lane/Penguin for the UK and the rest of the world (with translations also in Dutch, German, Italian, Spanish, Korean, Japanese and Russian).

As I am also engaged in academic-philosophical debates on limitarianism, it is striking to see what is considered relevant and important in each of those strands of writing. Some pre-occupations by academic philosophers are of little or no importance to the public, such as whether argument A for limitarianism is truly distinct from argument B, or whether limitarianism can be reduced to (a combination of) other distributive principles. For the public the most important question is whether this is an idea that makes sense, and some philosophical preoccupations are about other (more technical) issues. On the other hand, in my experience the public cares a lot about some things that many philosophers find irrelevant, such as what we can learn from the empirical facts (e.g. about the urgency of a problem, or whether a proposed intervention has ever worked in the past), and what a general (or abstract) discussion implies in a concrete context. Academic discussions can be at a level of abstractness that will make you lose most of your readers of nonfiction, even of serious nonfiction.

What else would make a public [political] philosophy book good? Here are my thoughts on this.

  1. Readability. This can be achieved by illustrating general arguments with examples, but also with style, e.g. the choice of words that are used, and the use of an active voice and of short(er) sentences. For example, I have a tendency to use a lot of subclauses in my academic writing, and should take care not to use them too often when writing nonfiction.
  2. Enjoyability. In academic philosophy, writing can be very dense and boring, but if it still entails some novel insights, that won’t be seen as a liability. In trade writing, it’s very important that the writing is enjoyable – after all, reading a book shouldn’t be hard work for the reader; it seems totally fine that it requires some effort, but it is much better if the same insights and arguments can be conveyed in an enjoyable style. Perhaps some jokes can help?

  3. Accessibility. The writing should not assume any specialist background knowledge; you shouldn’t have done an undergraduate degree – not even a minor – in philosophy or related discipline to understand the text. A former publisher of a Dutch publishing house once told me that this was in his experience the biggest problem with academic philosophers writing for a broader audience. I get this, but also think that accessibility comes in degrees, and that a scholar writing a trade book can herself choose for which audience to pitch. Just think about newspapers – they also come in different styles, and some newspapers are clearly more accessible to a much broader group of readers than other newspapers.

  4. Interdisciplinarity. In general, the public doesn’t care about disciplinary boundaries. In academic debates, philosophers will sometimes say that something is an interesting philosophical question, or that another aspect is an economic/sociological/legal etc. question, and hence not relevant for their discussions, or nothing they can or have to say something about. Non-fiction readers are interested in the topic of the book they are reading, and don’t care about disciplinary boundaries. Philosophers (and other academics) need to be willing to develop themselves into interdisciplinary writers if they want to write nonfiction for a broader audience.

I see a couple of challenges for academic philosophers/other scholars from the social sciences and humanities who are writing a trade book.

First, the desiderata of accessibility and enjoyability create a worry that it might force scholars to cut corners, and that rhetoric might take over from truth-seeking. I’ve read a number of nonfiction books, written by academics and non-academics alike, (and on topics on which I know something), which in my judgement crossed the line into dogmatism, rather than just trying to make the best possible argument for a certain proposal/view in a sufficiently nuanced way. If there are objections to what one is arguing for, one should consider and discuss them. Of course, not necessarily all, since some objections are silly or only represent an extreme fringe view.

Second, in academia there is a very strict code that we should not present ideas as if they are ours, if they are in fact someone else’s. (Again, I’ve seen non-academic trade writers to my mind not care enough about this, and I think they should care about it as much as we do). But non-fiction publishers generally prefer that the author of the book can be portraited as someone who has all these really great novel ideas. I think the solution to this challenge is to flag the intellectual shoulders on which one is standing regularly enough in the main text (and hope it doesn’t get edited out), as well as make sure you have the space to write as many footnotes as you want, which will allow you to do all the proper crediting. When I talked to various publishers before signing a contract with Allen Lane and Astra House, I asked all of them about their “footnote policy”, and told them that it is really important for me to have the freedom to write as many footnotes as needed (I should say that almost all of them were totally easy going with this; I should not have had to worry about this).

Third, there is one challenge specific to philosophers who develop arguments for a certain claim. Sometimes, at the level of the structure of the argument, argument A is not different from argument B. But when written in an empirically grounded context, it can be illuminating for the reader to see both argument A and argument B spelled out, for examples because reading them both gives a better sense of the pervasiveness of the phenomenon, or helps to better grasp what argument A/B implies for actions that need to be taken. What is relevant for philosophers, is not always what is seen as relevant by a lay audience. Another variant of this challenge is that many philosophers are pretty obsessed by to what extent the different reasons we have for A are distinct, and which reason is to be preferred in we need to choose for one reason over another. For nonfiction readers, it is often much more important to know that there is/are very strong reasons for A – and whether the listed reasons are distinct is often of no importance at all. Put differently, it is important to ask what the reader cares about when reading the book.

Are there any other desiderata/challenges for non-fiction writing by philosophers and other academics from the social sciences and humanities?



Matt 07.04.22 at 11:24 am

I’m glad to see that this will come about, Ingrid – it sounds great.

I’ll say that, on this bit: ” some things that many philosophers find irrelevant, such as what we can learn from the empirical facts (e.g. about the urgency of a problem, or whether a proposed intervention has ever worked in the past), and what a general (or abstract) discussion implies in a concrete context.” I agree that many philosophers undervalue this, but not all (not me, for example.) I think it’s mostly to the detriment of philosophy when people don’t value this.

On point 4, I see your point, but worry that sometimes in such “general” books we get half-baked interdisciplinarity – so, maybe good philosophy, but bad economics or sociology or physics, and of course often bad philosophy by some people, too. Now, you’re better situated to mix some fields here than many people are, so I’m not worried in your case, but in many cases, I do think it might be better for people to focus mostly on what they are experts in.


Mike Huben 07.04.22 at 12:31 pm

Emotion. There should be no pretense that analysis is developed and read in an environment devoid of emotion: it isn’t, at the very least in the motivation of the philosopher. A large part of your potential audience will be looking for an enemy to hate. Another segment will be looking for a virtue argument. Sure, keep a dividing line between the emotion and the abstract philosophy, but show the symbiotic relationship.

“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
David Hume


Ray Vinmad 07.04.22 at 1:04 pm

It helps to get ideas across to turn them into stories or tell stories that you can associate with them. Even if you oversimplify –and you can always flag if you oversimplify them.

Popular science books always do this. The story is generally the origin of the idea but another kind of story is who cares about these ideas and why they matter to people


steven t johnson 07.04.22 at 2:44 pm

1.As much historical and international comparison as possible, for perspective.

2.Empirical evidence for propositions, to establish that this or that really is a problem for instance wealth and income inequality is a bad thing or that some alleged principle or entity is a real phenomenon, for instance regulatory capture.

3.The Great Man Theory is not dead in the history of ideas, so when appropriate cite the Great Men most readers have heard of, however vaguely, especially those often misrepresented.

4.Address the basic methodological issues as they arrive in context of evidence or analysis, rather than a long introduction. Fish may need water explained but a preface is less likely to do this than when discussing why the water in the bowl gets changed.

5.Reframe propositions as often as possible, as in stating the contrapositive.

Maybe these would help? The most doubtful recommendation is #5.


John Quiggin 07.05.22 at 5:13 am

It’s great that you are doing trade books – it has many of the benefits of blogging but with time to develop an argument. I’ve done a few, with one big success (Zombie Economics) and one that did well in Australia but didn’t get any attention elsewhere (Economics in Two Lessons). Some general points

I don’t think you need to be as punctilious about citation of sources, and treatment of opposing views in a trade book as in an academic article. It’s closer to a blog post or opinion piece in these respects. Of course, you shouldn’t present someone else’s big idea as if it’s your own. But I think there is a middle ground, particularly for arguments that have been “in the air” for a while.

Footnotes: I love footnotes, hate endnotes. My solution has been to use footnotes for actual explanatory notes, and include a brief section at the end of each chapter, giving references and further reading.

“whether argument A for limitarianism is truly distinct from argument B”

This seems to be a concern that is specific to philosophers, and one I find frustrating when a substantive discussion is derailed by this kind of second-order question. There are plenty of economic arguments for and against limitarianism, but I can’t imagine an economist spending much time on the question whether two arguments for a given conclusion are or aren’t distinct.


oldster 07.05.22 at 3:37 pm

IR: “whether argument A for limitarianism is truly distinct from argument B”

JQ: “This seems to be a concern that is specific to philosophers, and one I find frustrating….”

I suspect it is borrowed from mathematics (e.g. establishing the independence of axioms). So, not strictly specific to philosophers, but typical of their insecure cargo-cult attitude towards mathematical methods.


Ray Davis 07.05.22 at 3:52 pm

I’m a non-academic who reads a mix of academic & trade publications with a mix of enjoyment & frustration. Most of what you’ve written here describes my reader-response well, but I hope it’s OK to append a few footnotes of my own.

Credits: Through my academic friends, I know that a thorough accounting of what, specifically, is the author’s contribution & who, specifically, is responsible for every other thing that’s mentioned is considered an ethical matter. From outside the game, however, it looks like pointlessly extended jockeying for a reserved seat at a very large & heavily populated table, checking IDs all the way. The problem’s not that I want to (or would) pretend that you invented centuries-full of ideas all by yourself; on the contrary, boisterous claims to originality are the most annoying play in that game. The problem’s that this fussing-about delays & distracts me from what you want to tell me & what I want to hear. “Too much plot for the story,” as a friend of mine used to say.

Because I can access excellent libraries, I want a way to track the sources of particularly enticing quotes or empirical results. Otherwise, relegating literature reviews to a “Further reading” section or introductory endnote can be an attractive compromise.

Humor: “Humor is personal” (Foucault, 1975), which is to say it’s a matter of style rather than genre. If it comes naturally (or uncontrollably), why stifle it? If it doesn’t, oy. I’ve followed some engaging, elegant, & quietly witty writers in academic journals whose first commercial book introduced prose so laden with hand-holding, baby-stepping, & gentle joshing along that I had to start skimming. Then there are the bullying, boorish types, presumably encouraged by the nervous laughter of their students. So I guess the only moral I can derive is “Everybody’s a critic.” (Kant, 1790)


Dominic Roser 07.05.22 at 4:44 pm

@John Quiggin — I much prefer footnotes to endnotes, too, when it comes to academic texts. However, for a trade book, I really think there is something to be said for endnontes. It allows one to have a very clean, nicely flowing main text (which is much more important for a trade book) and it still gives any interested reader the possibility to look things up. A great example is Toby Ord’s The Precipice: only about half the book is the main text and the rest is appendices, notes, resources, etc — it’s sort of having one’s cake and eating it…


Ingrid Robeyns 07.05.22 at 9:27 pm

Hi all, just wanted to thank you all for the discussion – some really interesting points here worth considering.
@Ray David – yes, you are probably right regarding your first point – it’s a matter of ethics and there is probably some professional bias involved (being a philosophers who does/teaches applied ethics and political philosophy) that I worry so much about this. I’ve in the past also criticized some famous trade books for not crediting others enough, which makes me double sensitive to this. But you are putting the finger on teh right spot that the person that matters most is the reader.
That’s why I agree also with Dominic @8 that if one “burries” the credits in the endnotes, it doesn’t undermine the flow of the main text; those who don’t care about either factchecking or credit-giving, can ignore the appendix.


John Quiggin 07.05.22 at 11:14 pm

Oldster @6 Economists are even more devoted to math-worship than philosophers, so it must be something more subtle


oldster 07.06.22 at 10:58 am

JQ —
I grant that economists and philosophers both worship maths, but philosophers would argue that their reasons for worshipping math are truly distinct from the economists’ reasons for worshipping maths, thus explaining how philosophers can fixate on the distinctness of arguments because of their worship of maths while economists do not fixate on the distinctness of arguments despite their worship of maths.
Now, perhaps you’ll argue that the argument that philosophers fixate on the distinctness of arguments because they worship maths is distinct from the argument that philosophers fixate on the distinctness of arguments because of the distinct reasons on the basis of which they worship maths.
But you’d need to give some reason for that argument, and a reason that was truly distinct from your reason for rejecting the initial argument that philosophers are fixated on the distinctness of arguments because of their worship of maths.
(You might argue that this material should not go in the main body of the book, but in a footnote, or an endnote. But arguing that this material should not go into the main body of the book is distinct from arguing that it should go into a footnote, and distinct from arguing that it should go into an end note, and does not settle either of those arguments, since it might instead demonstrate that it should not appear in the book at all. I address this question in an appendix.)


Ingrid Robeyns 07.07.22 at 1:01 pm

I was thinking about Mike Huben’s @2’s suggestion to add “emotion”. I think I am on two minds here. On the one hand it increases enjoyability and possibly also readability. So to the extent that making emotions implicit adds to those, I must and do agree.
Perhaps it also has a function independent of those to text-virtues. One thing I am a bit worried about, is that in so many people’s heads, emotion stands in opposition to reason, and one wants to convince the reader based on arguments (at least, as long as one is not an Ur-Fascist, on which see this wonderful essay by Umberto Eco: )
Additionally, writing as a woman, there is an additional risk of showing too much emotion, given that stereotypes that come with women being too emotional and that being a bad thing. So I think the trick, and a fine balance to strike, is how to let the arguments/reasoning and the emotions strenghten eachother. I have never thought about this in theoretical terms (I am sure colleagues who study writinstyles and -strategies could explain this to us), but I have some intuitions on when they reinforce eachother, and where emotions undermine the reasoning (this has also been a process of learning by doing and learning from mistakes!).


steven t johnson 07.07.22 at 2:10 pm

John Quiggin@10 says economists are even more devoted to math-worship than philosophers. But if math-worship means a devotion to mathematical rigor, I’m not altogether certain that economists are not devoted to math at all. And if math-worship includes a rigorous adherence to statistical analysis, I’m not altogether certain economists aren’t flagrant abusers of math.

The math-worship of philosophers seems to me to be very much an expression of “Platonism,” the notion that a pure realm of ideas(=numbers=geometric figures) exists eternally and changelessly and that is what is true and real. I think what is true and real has a beginning and an end and changes throughout but then I am neither a philospher nor an economist.


Phil H 07.08.22 at 2:49 am

One other consideration that struck me as I was reading this is comprehensiveness. This is related to your point about interdisciplinarity, but perhaps a bit stronger. In an academic work, it’s fine to say, I’m only going to look at aspect X of this problem. In a general nonfiction book, I’d find that very frustrating. For example, in this case, if you were able to make a compelling moral argument why limitarianism is better, but neglected to tell me that there are important economic reasons why it can’t work, then I’d feel a bit cheated. So it’s more than me not caring about disciplinary boundaries: I actively demand that you cross them to make sure you cover all the relevant ground.
Another possible difference might be: you have to do more work explicitly stating your premises. You’d think that rigorous academics would be good at that, but actually working within research paradigms means that often, you don’t have to. When you write for a general audience they will bring a much much much wider range of background assumptions to the book, so to get everyone on the same page, you need to do more preparatory work at the beginning of the book and the beginning of each argument. This doesn’t have to be explicit laying out of premises: something narrative like an anecdote or thought experiment can settle readers into the right groove. But they need something.


engels 07.08.22 at 11:47 am

I don’t think you need to be as punctilious about citation of sources, and treatment of opposing views in a trade book as in an academic article.

Seconding this. “Play for the audience and not the musician at the back of the hall,” as one of my teachers used to say.


engels 07.08.22 at 12:08 pm

Also appreciate this is a sidetrack on to a likely well-trodden battlefield but I really don’t like the term “public philosophy” because it seems to imply that philosophy is naturally a private/academic activity.


Ingrid Robeyns 07.09.22 at 8:01 pm

@Engels #16 – I see the worry and certainly agree that one should resist the idea that philosophy is “naturally” (meaning something like ‘in essense’ or ‘primarily’) an acdemic activity. Still, the two can be (and often are) distinct, so I would think it can be helpful to have different names for different branches. I try to use ‘academic philosophy” (rather than just “philosophy” to stand for “academic philosophy”, except when I am interacting with others in purely academic contexts), but then the question is what a better term would be for philosophical work that aims to reach a wider audience? “Popular philosophy” is another term used, but I really dislike that (it would be a serious worry if all philosophy-for-all would strive to be popular!). Another possible term would be ‘accessible philosophy’, but I can’t recall having come across that term. What would you recommend we use as terms?


Mike Huben 07.10.22 at 1:39 pm

Ingrid @ 12:

Reasoning that claims to not be based on emotion would be false according to Hume. You just have to go to the implicit assumptions to identify the emotions. Yes, you are vulnerable to people who don’t believe this or who are misogynistic, but you could preemptively show how their “reasoning” is also inescapably and fundamentally based on emotion.

My favorite example of this problem is Nozick’s “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)”. That’s no more than a Colbertesque gut feeling, an emotional appeal to believe that natural rights are more than just a fairytale.


engels 07.11.22 at 10:19 pm

I might be over-reacting to the relative newness of the word and perhaps it’s alright if it’s contrasted with “academic philosophy” rather than “philosophy”. I think “popular philosophy” is definitely pejorative because it evokes “popular science,” which means simplified science communication rather than actual research. Personally I might slightly prefer “book of (or about) philosophy for a general audience” or something like that, which doesn’t imply the existence of a specific genre (of philosophy or philosophy communication) but I don’t wish to legislate and dislike this kind of language-policing when other people do it.


Robert 07.12.22 at 12:26 pm

Personalities sometimes make reading more interesting to me. I. think of what Paul Feyerabend intended for “Against Method” if Latakos hadn’t died about then. Or Joan Robinson arguing with Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow, who, I think, got along quite well on a personal level. Given my personality, this is not advice I should follow.

Maybe you might not only cite but provide some sort of short intellectual biographical asides once in a while. I think John might do that sometimes in Economics in Two Lessons.

Terry Eagleton’s style of mixing high and low culture references in the same sentence is distinctive and amusing, I think.


JPL 07.14.22 at 10:36 pm

How about “Excessive wealth and the abuse of economic power: The case for confiscation”? Even though I (sadly, I guess) have not read any summary or overview of your philosophical understanding of this social problem, which I assume would involve identifying the ethical principles that tend to be violated by the practice of allowing excessive wealth and the undesirability for a polity of accepting the idea that excessive wealth is somehow a good thing, I am 100% behind your project, just given what you have indicated here, but since I sincerely wish that this project would succeed, I am worried about your term ‘Limitarianism’, especially for a popular audience. That term sounds like a position in a debate that remains in the databases for scholarly journals accessible only to current university staff and students. Apart from sounding similar to “libertarianism”, the exact opposite philosophy (“not libertarianism, but limitarianism” would be the slogan), it seems too limited and subordinated in scope. I assume what you are after involves the struggle that is as old as humanity, but has never been solved, between the principle of power, with the attendant inevitable abuse of power, and the principle of the right, which is what you discover when pursuing the quid juris questions, i.e., the fundamental principles governing (not determining in a concrete physical sense, but determining the rightness of) interpersonal action, in all areas of life. I think our polity needs to work on refuting utterly and in no uncertain terms the unserious rationalizations of the right, rationalizations of a primitive worldview that comes from an ancient cultural residue, as described in, e.g., Corey Robin’s recent New Yorker article about Clarence Thomas, because these assumptions and mistaken beliefs are wrong and can be shown to be wrong. So, my advice would be to think of your audience, pursue the theoretical explanation of the problem all right, but relate it to the current problems we are grappling with every day (e.g., the phenomenon of a criminal Republican party and their insane alternative world they are imprisoned in, etc.). There are cultures living in the world today who have solved fundamental problems of property, inequality of power due to wealth, and the valuing of ethical human interaction; I haven’t read the Graeber and Wengrow book yet, but I am familiar with some of the cultural practices Graeber was hopeful about. I wish you good luck!

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