The Public Philosopher comes to town

The Public Philosopher starts on Radio 4 tomorrow, the tagline being: ‘Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel questions the thinking underlying a current controversy’.  Change ‘thinking’ for ‘history’ – or even just add ‘historical’ – and you have the pitch for The Public Historian.  But would it ever happen?

Radio 4 listeners clearly like their history and historical perspectives, explicit and implicit, are to be found everywhere (for example, the amazing interview with Konstanty Gebert in One to One on the underground press in Poland, in which he discussed comparisons with journalists in Arab spring countries, or Chris Stringer’s highly engaging recollections on The Life Scientific).  So audience interest probably wouldn’t be an issue.  But what about the academic side of things?  Would historians be keen to take on the mantle of The Public Historian, even if the intention was no more radical than to ‘look for the past behind the present’ (the tagline of The Long View)?  Or is the term ‘public history’ too contested, too misunderstood, too elusive or even too restrictive in this country?

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One thought on “The Public Philosopher comes to town

  1. I think you raise a fundamental question here. Historians are not generally seen as thinkers, but rather as people who know stuff that might be of interest and relevance to the present. There is a lot of interest in the past, of course, but in the media big ideas and creative and innovative ways of understanding the world are not perceived as the province of historians. So I think this is not so much about public history in particular, as history in general, and is connected with the kinds of empiricism that are associated with it. Which historians have a track record of thinking rigorously about matters of public interest? And how does the idea of lessons from history fit in with the reluctance to see historians as having thinking skills from which the public might benefit? Again, I think lessons are about specifics and not about the abstract generalisations philosophers are deemed capable of providing. Furthermore, what is the role of historical theory – might it be a way of speaking to publics in the ways that philosophers can and do? So far I see no evidence of this. The task is for historians to show that they can speak convincingly and accessibly about the contribution of their discipline to public life, or perhaps it is first to persuade the media that they should be given (high profile) opportunities to do so.

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