HASTAC 2015 and the Public Philosophy Journal


Photo Credit: Bill Hart-Davidson (@billhd)

Last week, I joined some other members of the Public Philosophy Journal project team to present on Reimagining Scholarly Publishing at HASTAC 2015.1 My colleagues from MSU’s Matrix Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences intoduced the general ecosystem of the journal (Dean Rehberger, aka @deanreh), provided a glimpse of the user interface experience (Ethan Watrall, aka @captain_primate), and discussed aspects of the system for peer-review and review of reviewers (Bill Hart-Davidson, aka @billhd). They left me with the simple task of trying to explain to our audience what public philosophy is and why Chris Long (aka @cplong) and I have been working (with the support of a cast too large for each to be given the credit they deserve here)2 to leverage the community-building and collaborative possibilities of web 2.0 technologies in service of the various ends shared by those practicing one or another form of it.

If you are not familiar with HASTAC, it takes its name from an acronym for Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratorium.3 Accordingly, I expected the audience for the panel to be on board with the importance of research and teaching in the humanities more generally and to be comfortable with the idea of using technology to enhance community collaboration in and around these practices. Whether correctly or not, I took it that my real rhetorical challenge was in assuring them (with the intent to convince, even if convincing was too ambitious a conversational act to take as my aim) that there are people who identify themselves with philosophy and yet who, despite that, are actually like them in being interested in i) working collaboratively, ii) with others who don’t identify themselves in the same way, iii) to address the real challenges we all face as members of the general public.

The last of these points, i.e., the orientation to issues of public concern, is what I highlighted as the most salient feature of a prevalent way of understanding the contribution made by the adjective ‘public’ to the meaning of the phrase ‘public philosophy’. I made the connection to technology through noting another way of understanding this contribution to the meaning of that phrase; namely, by referring to the kind of public practice that Chris Long sometimes refers to as ‘doing philosophy out loud’.4 This way of incorporating public-ness5 into one’s philosophical work has less to do with the specific topics addressed than it does with the way in which publics are invited to observe and to participate in the discourses we are involved in at various stages.6

With these two ways of thinking about public philosophy ‘on the table’, I briefly articulated my own understanding of the different rhetorical gestures that can be made through a focus on each. The former, or publicly oriented philosophy, stresses the connection to the public, both out of concern to promote its good and as a way of responding to the common stereotype of philosophy as being a largely theoretical enterprise that requires and priveleges a kind of detachment from the everyday practical concerns that most of us are forced to deal with. The latter, or publicly performed philosophy, stresses this connection also out of concern for the public good, and as a way of responding to the equally common view of philosophy as being carried out by and for academically trained experts.

My own way of bringing all of this together and relating it to the journal project was to frame things, roughly, like this:

The Public Philosophy Journal is something of an experiment designed to test the hypothesis that the most effective way to achieve the ends of publicly oriented philosophy might be through pursuing them along the path of publicly performed philosophy.

Because web 2.0 technologies present new possibilities for doing philosophy out loud, it would appear likely that they also present new possibilities for philosophical engagement with one another around the practical issues that we collectively agree are most in need of being addressed. This, I suggested, is a way to understand the project as involving both innovative uses of new technology and fairly traditional commitments concerning the public value of philosophical discourse and the core mission of public research universities like Penn State and Michigan State (where the principle members of the project team are located).

As is the case with the other aspects of the project that we presented, there is a great deal of work that remains to be done before the plan according to which we have been working becomes evident in and through the products we are striving to bring about. Rather than waiting to unveil the project until all its parts have been assembled into a well-organized and optimally-functioning whole, however, we have opted to share our ideas as early, as often, and as broadly as we can, and we continue trying to remain as open and responsive to constructive criticisms addressed at our current state as we are to enthusiastic assurances concerning the value of what we are aiming to help bring about. This, too, we believe is in keeping with the spirit of openness and collaboration that we assure you–despite whatever experiences you may have had with academic philosophy and academic philosophers–is alive and well in many of us who identify ourselves with one or more historically and culturally situated philosophical tradition, or, if you prefer, with one or more relatively distinct and culturally unique strand within the philosophical tradition.



  1. A somewhat comprehensive overview of the conference can be found on the Journal of Interactive Technology & Pedagogy‘s This Week in Digital Humanities

  2. Kate Miffitt has been serving as our project manager on the PSU side, and Alicia Sheill has assumed those responsibilities on the MSU side. Seila Gonzalez has been leading the programming at Matrix, and Daniel Jaquint has taken care of our graphic design needs. PSU graduate students Kris Klotz, Andre Avilez, and Tiffany Tsantsoulas have been involved in nearly every aspect of the project over the last year and a half. Joan Troyano, Lisa Rhody, and Stephanie Westcott very graciously shared their wealth of inside knowledge of PressForward and the workflow of Digital Humanities Now in helping us begin our community curation practices. Daniel Brunson, Christina Rawls, Michael Burroughs, and Adriel Trott have served as Guest Curators, and many others have agreed to serve as Curators-at-Large

  3. For more about the HASTAC community, visit their site 

  4. For a host of examples of his practice, visit Chris’s site

  5. The more natural term, ‘publicity’, has unfortunately become saddled with connotations that prevent me from using it here. 

  6. Current norms concerning when, how, with whom, at what stage, in which venues etc.–in other words, how loudly–we undertake and discuss our work are reflective of the ways we have decided to (or, importantly for many, have been forced to) exist within closer-knit communities and communicate with members of larger communities who exist outside of these closer-knit communities in some ways. While there are clearly any number of other factors involved, some of our conventions concerning these things arose and became fixed during times that differed quite a bit from our own in terms of available means for communication, archiving, and retrieval of information. I would not suggest that there is nothing more to understanding, knowledge, or wisdom than the manipulation of information, but facts about how we carry out these processes do appear to be relevant for understanding how our pursuits (both those that are more philosophical and those that are more scholarly) are situated. Why shouldn’t changes in how we communicate more generally bring with them changes in our conventions concerning how to communicate as scholars both amongst ourselves and with others who are called to different tasks that are no less challenging than ours and no less important? 

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