What is philosophy's place in modern life?

Michael J. Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he has taught political philosophy since 1980. He is the author of Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge University Press), Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1996), Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics (Harvard University Press, 2005), and The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (Harvard University Press, 2007). His writings have also appeared in such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, and The New York Times. The recipient of three honorary degrees, he has received fellowships from the Carnegie Corporation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Ford Foundation. From 2002 to 2005, he served on President Bush's Council on Bioethics, a national council appointed by the President to examine the ethical implications of new biomedical technologies. A summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Brandeis University (1975), Sandel received his doctorate from Oxford University (D.Phil.,1981), where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He lives with his wife and two sons in Brookline, Massachusetts.
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Question: What is philosophy's place in modern life?

Michael Sandel: Right. There are different ways of doing philosophy. And some highly technical ways have their natural home in the academy and among scholars. And there’s enormous value and integrity in that part of philosophy. The part of philosophy that I deal with – and political philosophy in particular – has to be engaged with the world. I don’t think it’s possible to do political philosophy without tending to the actual political circumstances that we face in our world. And in fact, if you look back at the history of political philosophy, most of the great political philosophers have responded to worries of challenges, or even fears about the condition of public things in their own time and in their own lives even. And so very often, political philosophy has grown out of unease, or dissatisfaction, or protest against political conditions of the day. And so I don’t think it’s possible – at least for me I haven’t found it to be possible – to do political philosophy without taking an interest in the hurly-burly … the messy world of actual public life, trying to understand it; and also trying to bring philosophy – philosophical arguments and ideals – into actual contact with the public – men and women – the citizens who will decide the fate of public life, and democratic life in our own time. So I think philosophy has to have – political philosophy has to have – a public face, a public dimension. Teaching is part of that. Writing for general publications that reach beyond the academy is also part of that. And so it’s public philosophy in that sense that I’ve tried to contribute to and participate in.

Recorded on: 6/12/07

 


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