The Unnoticed Power of Pop Philosophy, Composing, 21/05/2015

Over my time in the university system, I’ve heard a lot of casual talk dismissing some books as less serious than others because they were written for a popular audience. It’s of no use saying who in particular, as I’m thinking of a general trend notable because of how frequently the same points recur over seven years of my experience in a particular system and culture, academia.

Pop philosophy and the pop versions of all the other disciplines have their problems. Most of them do revolve around a common academic complaint, and a genuine one: they oversimplify problems, and draw more of a conclusion than we’re really able from the selection of experiments and examples that often occur in the pop psychology of the Gladwell model. 

The owl shriek'd at thy birth,--an evil sign; 
The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time; 
Dogs howl'd, and hideous tempest shook down trees; 
The raven rook'd her on the chimney's top, 
And chattering pies in dismal discords sung.
Yet there are advantages to Gladwellism, even though it’s so easy to write like a terrible Gladwellian. I’d say Gladwell himself writes like a poor Gladwellian more often than not. Reading Dan Ariely’s Dishonesty, I find some moments of very poor Gladwellianism. His brief use of the famous image of Schrödinger’s Cat as a metaphor to explain how people are more tempted to cheat about their performance when no one but them knows what really happened is a special mangle of both ideas. 

But the form of Gladwellism – discussing actually fundamental ideas of human life in a hyper-casual tone – is bigger than any one practitioner. I wonder how it works.

Let’s return to that quote from yesterday
“We would be unwilling to ask our neighbours to bring in our mail while we're on vacation, fearing that they would steal our belongings. We would watch our coworkers like hawks. There would be no value in shaking hands as a form of agreement; legal contracts would be necessary for any transaction . . . We might decide not to have kids because when they grew up, they, too, would try to steal everything we have, and living in our homes would give them plenty of opportunities to do so.”
It reads like over-the-top rhetorical language, utterly unsuitable to serious academic work. Its descriptions are cartoonish, and makes no real argument against a basic mathematical foundation to scientific models whose conclusions shape governments’ policies around the world. You don’t unsettle professional economists from the very presumptions of their fields with talk like this.

Yet it speaks to a profound human truth: There is more to human society than the question of “Can I get away with it?”. This is an essence question, a rhetorical formulation that nonetheless gets its readers thinking about fundamental matters of reality.

No respectable economist would ever be taken
seriously as a brilliant scientist again if he were to
start writing journalism.**
** I hope you get the irony in this caption.
Wondering about such questions is not the task of disciplinary economics. These aren’t the kinds of texts that economists are ever asked to write, until they begin to write journalism. That would make them less lofty than when they wrote in stern professional journals that were hidden from popular consumption by paywalls.

Writing in such a crass popular form means their thinking must be on the level of any old amateur. And we can take his words just as flippantly. The work and ideas you win Nobel Prizes for isn’t meant to be consumed by the popular press. Asking such a question would be almost philosophical, and we can’t have a psychologist talk like that.

Good philosophy can be understood by anyone who can follow a word in the context it’s written in, and think about what you just read. Anyone, with any background and of reasonable intelligence, can understand philosophical concepts. They’re the concepts we use to make sense of our world.

Sometimes, there can be good philosophy in popular philosophy.*

* Of course, not all the works of popular philosophy are good philosophy, just as good philosophy doesn’t come from every academic article in the discipline. 

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