The Objection From Public Influence

Many have argued that philosophical discourse is semantically determinate because philosophy has been influential in the public sphere (e.g., Marx, J. S. Mill, or Peter Singer’s views on animal rights). But is it philosophy that is influential, or the philosopher as rhetorician? After all, there are many equally influential public intellectuals who are not philosophers, and most philosophers have no influence at all in the public sphere. So the argument, from philosophers’ public influence to the semantic determinacy of philosophy as a discipline, is inconclusive. By analogy, the language of the legal profession is pretty much incomprehensible to the layperson, but many lawyers are influential public figures. Clearly, they have not gained influence by swaying public opinion with complex legal arguments. Rather, lawyers, like philosophers, are good at arguing generally. It is not so much access to a specialised body of knowledge that gives lawyers and philosophers impact in the public sphere. Rather, it is the logical, rhetorical, analytical and argumentative skills that they have picked up in the course of doing Law or Philosophy. By the way, one can learn useful skills doing something that is not inherently useful (or generally meaningful).

About the author

Ben Gibran is a writer with an interest in the theory and social science of communication. His work has been published in Journal of Publishing, Publishing Research Quarterly, The Philosopher and Essays in Philosophy, as well as online and in newsprint. He is the author of Why Philosophy Fails: A View From Social Psychology and The DIY Prison: Why Cults Work.