Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The Nature of Philopolis, pt. 1

Over the last few weeks, I've been thinking about the Philopolis festival, and wondering what it really is. These thoughts come up every time we need to create a new call for activities, but this time in particular I was sparked by a discussion with Ajay Heble, who asked me what Philopolis does that's unique. "It's the only festival of philosophy; there are no others." That was my response, but in giving it, I realized that I didn't really know what a "festival of philosophy" really is, or what it should be. That sparked these reflections, and so after much soul-searching, reflection, conversation and investigation, I've written up a piece that discusses how Philopolis fits into the intellectual and cultural landscape around it. The piece is quite long, so I've broken it up into four section. Here is the first:

            Philopolis is an event that’s been extremely recalcitrant to definition since its inception. It picked up where La Nuit de la Philosophie left off, meaning that it was basically an attempt to bring ideas from academic philosophy back into contact with the general public. That means taking these (sometimes hyper-)technical ideas and presenting them in a language accessible to the broader community, and bringing them into contact with issues that matter to that community as well. We need to find in common a language and a set of concerns. Philosophy simply cannot continue to be a jargonistic, self-referential and entirely insular investigation, as it has been in academia for far too long. (For those who think that it always was, I suggest reading Plato’s dialogues in which he documents the very concrete and accessible examinations carried out by Socrates. I’m sure there are more contemporary examples as well…)
            Why should academic philosophers concern themselves with problems outside of their professional domain? First off, because philosophy has the power to do so. Its Socratic beginnings show that philosophy can be eminently relevant. Second, because (at least here in Canada) academics are publicly funded. In taking public support, academics tacitly agree to be the researchers of the people. To turn our backs on the people, then, and to research things that do not even concern, much less interest, the broader society is to fail in our duty as public researchers. Simply put, we must offer a return on the public investment. Third, the principles of democracy rely on an educated and critical public, and philosophy play an important role in the development of critical skills.
            Fourth, the adequacy of philosophical ideas rests on being in contact with material outside its own confines. One need think only of how bad some philosophy of science has been as a result of being totally divorced from any scientific practice. Philosophy often has impact on real-life problems, as opposed to those found only in internal academic dialogues, and so the adequacy of those ideas is jeopardized by the utter segregation from those problems. Reflection does not take place in a vacuum. Even Descartes, who famously withdrew to the solipsistic confines of his chamber to write his Meditations, could not withdraw from language and the sense of self that are the marks of communal existence. He may have isolated himself physically for a short time, but his isolation was limited in important ways. Notice that the first thing he does after wiping the slate clean through hyperbolic doubt is to engage God in his writing. Way to isolate.
            Philopolis is a festival of philosophy, where ideas are publicly displayed, discussed and developed in the name of promoting reflection in the broader community, but also in the name of improving philosophical research by putting it back in touch with the real world. So this is the beginning of a definition, but it’s still pretty preliminary. Let’s have a look around at some events like Philopolis and see if we can use a comparison/contrast to help us define our event.

Here is the second part of the series.

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