Engaging Philosophy Conference Aspirations

March 25-26, 2011
Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA 01075
All sessions in Gamble Auditorium

From its very beginnings, Western philosophy has been conceived of as useful, as a public activity that not only touches, but is necessary for, ordinary people in the conduct of their lives. Socrates engaged philosophical issues on the roadside, in public squares, in the banquet hall with a glass of wine in hand. (“The unexamined life is not worth living,” he proclaimed, arguing that philosophy is the most useful of all studies.) It is only more recently that philosophy has acquired an “ivory tower” reputation – understood less as a social, public activity, and more as a set of products, created by solitary thinkers and of interest only to a few who are themselves out of touch with the concerns of every-day life.

In the latter 20th century we see the reëmergence of the idea of applied ethics – the idea that apart from ethical theory is a separate field concerned with how we apply theory to concrete moral concern, particularly concerns that arise in professional and social spheres – thus notions like medical ethics, environmental ethics, and business ethics.

But while applied ethics as a field has attracted increasingly many practitioners, and courses in applied ethics are pro-forma in most philosophy curricula, most of applied ethics talks about applying ethics to real-life issues, rather than actually applying ethics to real-world issues.

In recent years we have seen increasingly many philosophers who are moving into the so-called “real world”, bringing theory into contact with problems and issues of ordinary life. On one hand, we see philosophers serving on ethics boards at hospitals, or at Fortune 500 businesses, grappling with concrete moral/professional issues. On another hand we see “guerilla philosophy” – philosophers engaging citizens in surprising ways in public settings with philosophical issues. We see growing movements to view children as “natural philosophers” and to teach philosophy – not just ethics, but metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, and other branches of philosophy. In elementary schools, we see summer philosophy camps. We see philosophers engaged in confronting important moral issues, racism for example, through public school curricula.

Engaging Philosophy will bring together philosophers, other academics, professionals from other fields, students, and ordinary people, to showcase and explore this exciting new dimension of philosophy. Some participants will be philosophers who have worked “in the trenches” of engaging philosophy outside of academic circles. Some will be philosophers who will reflect on the significance of academic work for regular people and regular concerns. Some will be students who have launched or participated in efforts to bring philosophy into community settings. Many will just be there to learn from the collaboration.

By bringing together philosophers working in the trenches, philosophers thinking about the trenches, students, and members of the community, we hope to share ideas and to ignite new thinking about how philosophy can enhance skills, enrich lives, and help to improve our shared world. We hope all will share the sense of excitement as philosophy increasingly permeates and informs the issues that face us in our lives.