A Marketing Plan for Philosophy: Brand Your Thought Experiments

The state of the universe.
June 6 2013 7:36 AM

How to Sell Philosophy

It just needs a product—thought experiments (TXes, if you will)—and a marketing plan.

Diogenes and Plato. Oil on canvas, 1649.
Diogenes and Plato. Oil on canvas, 1649.

Painting by Mattia Preti, courtesy of Capitoline Museums/Google Art Project/Wikimedia Commons

Only the bravest would side with philosophers in the end days of their turf war with scientists. For America’s pipe-puffing perplexity-ponderers, the tweed grows heavy and the hour late. Scientists have the flashy buildings, the splashy headlines, and credit for the “most impressive intellectual feats” of the age. The National Science Foundation has a budget of around $7 billion, while the National Philosophy Foundation—oh wait, there isn’t one.

Commentators refer to “the growing crisis in philosophy” and lament that “within a few decades, the entire discipline may be threatened.” The National Center for Education Statistics reports a 20 percent drop in the share of philosophy and religion majors between 1970 and 2009. The cruelest twist of the blade, say philosophers: “We are ignored at dinner parties.

Amy Ferrer, executive director of the American Philosophical Association, offers reasons to be skeptical of the data on declining philosophy majors. But she acknowledged that at the root of “any perceived crisis” were “mistaken impressions about philosophy’s worth and practicality.” In public relations terms, a perceived crisis is a crisis.


Philosophy’s PR issues, of course, are nothing new (see Socrates, execution of). But really, nothing says “we take you seriously!” like a tall glass of hemlock. Some 24 centuries later, it was easy for a New York Times reviewer to conclude that “academic philosophy in the United States has virtually abandoned the attempt to speak to the culture at large.”

Let’s take it as given that every civilization will want a few philosophers on staff. Someone needs to keep humanity’s oldest intellectual fires burning. Someone needs to keep both comedians (Monty Python) and liquor stores (“I Drink Therefore I Am”) in the style to which they’ve become accustomed. And someone needs to regularly remind us of the value of unanswerable questions.

But if philosophy is so important, then selling itself to the culture at large is important too. So it’s time for philosophers to put their clothespins on their noses, wade into the stench of real-world commerce, and ask some of those tanned and toned marketing majors who skipped out on Philosophy 101 for some help.

What might a marketing plan for philosophy look like? The Four Ps (product, price, place, and promotion) constitute perhaps the best-known marketing template. In a digital era, though, the Four Cs model may be more relevant: consumer, costs, convenience, and communication.

First up is the consumer. Ponder the belching smokestacks at your nearest philosophy factory. What’s the product? The answer is … questions. As physicist Lawrence Krauss put it, “To first approximation, all the answerable [questions] end up moving into the domain of empirical knowledge, aka science.” But what type of philosophical question is best suited to an age of atomizing attention spans? What’s the Odwalla of philosophy—a nutritious, practically predigested grab-and-go for the mind?

Thought experiments. Thought experiments (TXesTM, we’ll brand them) are the perfect philosophical consumer product for our age. The high they produce—a gratifying puzzlement, a perfectly framed issue, an “A-ha!” moment of insight into you and your society’s intuitions and contradictions—is quick and addictive. TXes are accessible and democratic, often by design. They strip out extraneous details and walk the user straight to the heart of a complicated issue. They’re much more democratic than science: By definition they don’t require a lab, special equipment, or any pesky numeracy skills. They’re easily remembered and shared (many fit into 140 characters). They’re fun on your own but wouldn’t be out of place at those dinner parties, either.

Jack Handy, of Saturday Night Live’s “Deep Thoughts,” understood the popular potential of a good TX. (“If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.”) The Trees of Handy share the halls of wisdom with the Ring of Gyges, in Plato’s Republic: Would we behave morally if we could be invisible at will? And the Ship of Theseus, associated with Plutarch. If we replace each plank of a ship, is it the same ship? (And what, asked Hobbes a little later, if we use the removed planks to build another ship?)