PhD research description "Philosophy in public space, its cultural forms and social impact: between oppression and emancipation"

Yasna I. Philosophy in public space, its cultural forms and social impact: between oppression and emancipation. Thesis for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. G.S. Skovoroda Institute of Philosophy, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. 

Publication genre
Area of expertise
Public philosophy

Subject matter and relevance of the project. In my thesis, I focus on the phenomenon of philosophy in the public sphere, or public philosophy. The idea is inspired by Michael Burawoy’s intellectual project of “public sociology” and a number of later trends like public history or public theology.

Since the end of the 20th century, and most noticeably at the beginning of the 21st century, we are witnessing increasing public demand for philosophy (and humanities in general) outside the academy. In this situation that I call the “public turn”, philosophy is becoming more and more embedded into public life on a scale comparable to Antiquity or Enlightenment, and its social impact is increasing rapidly. I should highlight the unique Ukrainian burst of public philosophy projects that happened due to several specific factors including the first russian invasion in Ukraine in 2013-2014, which coincided with the reformation of the Ukrainian educational system.   

In this process, philosophy develops new forms, specific ways of presenting knowledge, methods, functions, language, actors, and institutions, and they differ significantly from academic philosophy. These transformations and their social effect outline the area of my research interest.

Research gap and aim. While in practice, the number and variety of public philosophy forms are growing rapidly, it is an issue of under-representation within academic philosophy. Public forms of philosophy are often masked due to the lack of tradition to examine the history of philosophy from this point; they are seldom discussed and often invisible or even ignored in the professional philosophical community. Thus, I want to make these forms explicitly visible, to discover forms in which philosophy is embodied in broad culture and public life. So, I aim to lay bare unseen representations of philosophy in the public sphere and make them explicitly visible.

Research question. I analyse how philosophy takes part in public debate, embodies in public life and the broad culture, contributes to it, influences the production of knowledge and truth, and forms political consciousness. In common, what is its public effect? However, the essential theoretical conflict I pretend to solve concerns the deviations philosophy undergoes when it leaves academia and goes out into the public space.

I highlight three broad types of deviations: emancipatory (when philosophy gives birth to liberal and other emancipatory movements), oppressive (when it turns into normative, monologue, or oracle philosophy; following Karl Popper’s warning of transforming philosophers into oracles), and commodity (simplification, vulgarization, massification, and turning into a commodity or service). I ask how, when and why philosophy, which we use to relate to freedom of thinking rationality and reflection, transforms into opposite cultural and social projects: awakening emancipatory movements, oppressive ideologies, and vulgarized “mass philosophy”.  

There are several sub-questions:

  • Are deviations imminent when philosophy enters the public sphere?
  • Are these deviations destructive or productive?
  • What preconditions, intrinsic traits, and public interactions make a philosophical system prone to this or that kind of deviation? Is the risk of destructive mutations higher in societies with an underdeveloped public sphere?  
  • What moral obligations do academic philosophers have to prevent destructive deviations of philosophy in the public sphere?

Methodological framework. My major research perspective is based on the constructivist paradigm, namely social and political epistemology, sociology of knowledge  and philosophy of concepts, and critical theory with an emphasis on epistemic (in)justice and freedom).

I use the critical theory approach when analyzing the interrelations between philosophy and ideology.

I apply historical reconstruction and problematic history of philosophy approaches to analyze historical cases from previous historical periods and cultural studies methods (case study, interviews, survey) to analyze up-to-date real-world cases.

Finally, I touch on applied ethical questions, analyzing the risks of public philosophy and the moral ought of contemporary philosophers.

Historical cases. I reveal this topic by comparing historical cases, respectively, to each kind of deviation of philosophy:

  • emancipatory projects: philosophy of the Great French Revolution, contemporary feminist and postcolonial projects, and the public philosophy of the early 2000s;
  • oppressive projects: totalitarian philosophical project of the soviet communism;
  • commodity projects: simplified quasi-philosophy of the end of the 20th century and nowadays, in line with mass society theories.

Contemporary cases. I also analyze the current state of the subject matter. Until 2022, I was actively engaged in Ukrainian public philosophical discourse, including lecturing for several educational projects, coordinating the First Ukrainian Competition of Philosophical Start-ups, and publishing a series of interviews on this topic with major Ukrainian philosophers.

Regarding my current involvement in Polish and Austrian philosophy, I consider it a good idea to extend this part of the research to these countries and conduct interviews with Polish and Austrian colleagues.