Popular Philosophy, “Populist Philosophy,” Mind-Manacled Philosophy, and Real Philosophy.

A civilized society has popular philosophy just as it has popular physics, popular psychology, popular history.

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In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.[i]

[P]hilosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of [humanity].[ii]

“Popular philosophy” and “public philosophy” are all the rage these days, although those much-bandied-about terms in fact comprehend several importantly different metaphilosophical conceptions.[iii] Indeed, that fully imitable organ of professional academic philosophical orthodoxy, The Daily Nous, is even currently running a mini-series on “The Philosophy of Popular Philosophy.”[iv]

In early June 2020, the current Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford and ultra-professional-academic philosopher, Timothy Williamson, published an installment in this mini-series, called “Popular Philosophy and Populist Philosophy,”[v] in which he condescends to popular philosophy and also criticizes an especially objectionable brand of popular philosophy he calls “populist philosophy”:

A civilized society has popular philosophy just as it has popular physics, popular psychology, popular history… So, one might expect the relation between popular and academic philosophy to resemble the corresponding relations for other disciplines. Thus, popular philosophy would communicate recent research in academic philosophy to a wider audience.

In my experience, a surprisingly high proportion of popular philosophy is not like that. Instead, it sets itself up as a rival to academic philosophy, which it portrays as trivial, sterile, pedantic, irrelevant logic-chopping. This popular philosophy claims to be the real philosophy, the true heir to what was done in ancient times. It asks and answers the questions that really matter, going straight to the point by arguments that can be understood with no previous training. It speaks over the heads of the scholastics to laypeople who approach philosophy fresh and unprejudiced.

The message that with little effort one can do better than the professionals is naturally gratifying to non-professionals; it finds a ready audience. One might call that populist message the Michael Gove view of philosophy, in honour of the British politician who, when asked during the 2016 referendum campaign which economists favoured leaving the European Union, replied “people in this country have had enough of experts”—though Covid-19 has changed his public attitude to experts.

Like Gove with economic expertise, populist philosophers are uncomfortable with the idea of genuine expertise in philosophy. They may admit that there are experts on the history of philosophy, who understand numerous difficult texts hardly anyone else has even read. They may also accept that there are experts on formal logic, and expert teachers of philosophy. But such concessions are consistent with the populist idea that the apparatus of academic philosophy—all the to-and-fro of point-by-point discussion in conferences and refereed journals—contributes nothing of significance to answering central questions of philosophy, and should be bypassed…..

Philosophy is more vulnerable than natural science to the populist belief that laypeople are just as qualified as professionals. This belief derives from the ideal of the radically autonomous inquirer, who takes nothing for granted and uses nothing second-hand. In other words, such a thinker refuses to learn anything from other people. That’s a recipe for the endless repetition of the same elementary mistakes, generation after generation. Anyway, the instructions cannot be carried out; all thinking takes much for granted. The ideal of the radically autonomous inquirer is itself stale and nth-hand.

In short, popular philosophy, which normally “would communicate recent research in academic philosophy to a wider audience,” often unfortunately falls into “populist philosophy,” which, like other forms of populism (note Williamson’s use of the rhetorically loaded and currently pejorative term ‘populist’), is arrogant, ignorant, and rabble-rousing; and, although it pretends it can out-philosophize the professional academic experts, nevertheless it miserably fails to do so, because (i) “populist” philosophers are “uncomfortable with the idea of genuine expertise,” and as a consequence they inevitably fall into “the endless repetition of the same elementary mistakes, generation after generation,” and (ii) they are guided by the phoney “ideal of the radically autonomous inquirer,” which is itself “stale and nth-hand.”

Later in the same month, Massimo Pigliucci, also a professional academic philosopher, and in particular a much-published philosopher of science, posted on his Medium blog a reply to Williamson, “Popular vs Populist Philosophy: A Response to Timothy Williamson,”[vi] in which he notes Williamson’s somewhat sophistical slide from “popular” to “populist,” criticizes Williamson for his scientism, and, as

a “popular” philosopher, meaning someone who devotes a significant amount of time to bringing philosophy, and particularly practical Stoicism, to the general public,

he then defends non-populist popular philosophy by (i) distinguishing between

two conceptions of philosophy, at the very least since Socrates, in the western tradition[: o]n the one hand, philosophy as a type of inquiry into the way the world works, into the nature of human existence [aka theoretical philosophy], and into abstract problems of logic,[and o]n the other hand, philosophy as the art of living [aka practical philosophy],

and (ii) promoting non-populist popular philosophy as a legitimate sub-species of practical philosophy.

To Williamson and Pigliucci alike, I want to say: a plague on both your houses. And here is my four-part argument for that conclusion.

First, I will define—riffing on William Blake’s lovely phrase, “mind-forg’d manacles”— what I call mind-manacled philosophy, which is a three-part weak disjunction consisting of either (i) a normalized and even punctilious compliance with, and a coercive moralist enforcement of, the conventional norms and rules of professional academic philosophy, together with a valorization of its careerist culture, or (ii) a covert or overt dogmatic commitment to scientism,[vii] or (iii) a relentless pursuit of “trivial, sterile, pedantic, irrelevant logic-chopping” (to borrow Williamson’s unintentionally bang-on reflexively accurate phrase) and a correspondingly relentless avoidance of a radically borderless and independent philosophy that consists in what I and at least a few others call “real philosophy”:

By real philosophy, we mean authentic, serious, synoptic, systematic reflection on the individual and collective human condition, and on the natural and social world in which human and other conscious animals live, move, and have their being. Real philosophy fully includes the knowledge yielded by the natural and formal sciences; but, as we see it, real philosophy also goes significantly beneath and beyond the exact sciences, and non-reductively incorporates aesthetic, artistic, affective/emotional, ethical/moral, and, more generally, personal and practical insights that cannot be adequately captured or explained by the sciences. In a word, real philosophy is all about the nature, meaning, and value of individual and collective human existence in the natural cosmos, and how it is possible to know the philosophical limits of science, without also being anti-science. Finally, real philosophy is pursued by people working on individual or collective writing projects, or teaching projects, in the context of small, friendly circles of like-minded philosophers. Like-minded but not uncritical! Real philosophers read both intensively and also widely inside philosophy, and also widely outside of philosophy, critically discuss what they’ve read, write, mutually present and talk about their work, re-read, re-discuss, and then re-write, with the primary aim of producing work of originality and of the highest possible quality, given their own individual and collective abilities. They also seek to disseminate their work, through publication, teaching, or public conversation.

In view of this conception of real philosophy, we also share some serious worries about contemporary professional academic philosophy. More bluntly put, we think that professional philosophy is seriously fucked up in various ways that, ironically and even tragically, oppose and undermine the ongoing project of real philosophy….

Another, more classical way of stating the purpose of [real philosophy] is that it is essentially the same as Kant’s, in the justly famous opening sentences of “What is Enlightenment?”

“Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his own self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction from another. This immaturity is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding! is thus the motto of Enlightenment.”

In other words, we think that it’s up to all of us, as lovers of real philosophy, to dare to think for ourselves against the conventional wisdom of contemporary professional academic philosophy. But that’s only the beginning. We hope to help contemporary philosophers, whether inside or outside the professional academy, to (re)discover their true vocation as rational rebels for humanity

“When nature has unwrapped, from under this hard shell, the seed for which she cares most tenderly, namely the propensity and calling to think freely, the latter gradually works back upon the mentality of the people (which thereby gradually becomes capable of freedom in acting) and eventually even upon the principles of government, which finds it profitable to itself to treat the human being, who is now more than a machine, in keeping with [her] dignity.”[viii]

Second, Williamson and Pigliucci are both mind-manacled philosophers under one or another (or all) of the three disjunctive parts of the definition of “mind-manacled philosophy.”

Third, Williamson is clearly and even outrageously mistaken in holding, or at least implying, that all those who are explicitly or at least self-consciously anti-professional-academic or extra-professional-academic philosophers are “populist” in his sense. For by that criterion, Socrates, Diogenes, Søren Kierkegaard, Arthur Schopenhauer, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Peter Kropotkin, C.S. Peirce after 1884 (i.e., after his dismissal from Johns Hopkins), Bertrand Russell after 1916 (i.e., after his conviction for pacifism and his dismissal from Trinity College; he was also later imprisoned in 1918 for pacifist public lecturing), Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, Simone Weil, and Iris Murdoch after 1963—note the presence of three Nobel Prize for Literature winners in this group of brilliant, life-changing, world-changing rational rebels for humanity—are all “populist” philosophers who are “uncomfortable with the idea of genuine expertise,” inevitably fall into “the endless repetition of the same elementary mistakes,” and are guided by the phony “ideal of the radically autonomous inquirer,” which is itself “stale and nth-hand.” Wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

Fourth and finally, if the conception of real philosophy that I spelled out above is correct, then Pigliucci is clearly (although not as outrageously as Williamson) mistaken that theoretical and practical philosophy are somehow sharply distinct or even mutually exclusive modes of philosophy: on the contrary, the theoretical and the practical modes of philosophy are essentially interwined in real philosophy, and even beyond that, they are also both essentially intertwined with a robustly aesthetic-artistic mode of real philosophy.[ix]

So I will conclude by strongly rejecting any and every kind of mind-manacled philosophy, and by also wholeheartedly recommending radically borderless and independent philosophy (brilliantly exemplified in various ways by the anti-professional-academic or extra-professional-academic philosophers I listed two paragraphs above[x]), in the sense of a radically enlightened[xi] and activist theoretical, practical, and aesthetic-artistic autonomy in thinking, acting, feeling, and creating, via philosophy—i.e., precisely insofar as it is real philosophy, as I spelled that out above—and therefore fully satisfies John Dewey’s description of a “reconstructed” or “recovered” philosophy:

[P]hilosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of [humanity].[xii]


[i] W. Blake, “London,” in his Songs of Experience (1794), lines 5-8.

[ii] J. Dewey, “The Need for A Recovery of Philosophy,” in J. Dewey (ed.), Creative Intelligence: Essays in the Pragmatic Attitude (New York: Holt, 1917), pp. 3-69, at p. 65.

[iii] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “How to Escape Irrelevance: Performance Philosophy, Public Philosophy, and Borderless Philosophy,” Journal of Philosophical Investigations 12 (2018): 55-82, available online at URL = <>.

[iv] Available online at URL = <>.

[v] Available online at URL = <>.

[vi] Available online at URL = <>.

[vii] Scientism is the epistemic and metaphysical valorization of formal &/or natural science, which says (i) that all reliable forms of knowledge (including reliable philosophical knowledge) bottom out in formal &/or natural scientific methods, and (ii) that what is really real is what our leading current formal &/or natural sciences tell us is really real. See also S. Haack, Science and its Discontents (Rounded Globe, 2017), available online at URL = <>.

[viii] W, X, Y, and Z, “Introduction, 2013,” Against Professional Philosophy (2020), available online at URL = <>.

[ix] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “How to Philosophize with a Hammer and a Blue Guitar: Quietism, Activism, and The Mind-Body Politic,” Borderless Philosophy 3 (2020): 85-122, available online at URL = <>; and J. Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Capricorn, 1958).

[x] It’s true that as a member of the Founding Trinity of Analytic philosophy (along with Frege and Moore), Russell was dogmatically committed to scientism, and so is “mind-manacled” in that respect. See, e.g., R. Hanna, THE FATE OF ANALYSIS: Analytic Philosophy From Frege to The Ash-Heap of History, (2020 version), ch. IV, available online at URL = <>; but in this connection, I’m thinking primarily of Russell’s writings on practical and political philosophy.

[xi] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “Radical Enlightenment: Existential Kantian Cosmopolitan Anarchism, With a Concluding Quasi-Federalist Postscript,” in D. Heidemann and K. Stoppenbrink (eds.), Join, Or Die: Philosophical Foundations of Federalism (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016), pp. 63-90, also available online at URL = <>.

[xii] See note [ii] above; see also J. Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (2nd edn., New York: Mentor, 1950).

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Robert A. Hanna, PhD

Published a month ago