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?)

If such questions seem like, well, armchair philosophizing, many TXes are jarringly modern. Consider the questions raised for neuroscientists and artificial intelligence researchers by philosophical zombies: beings—and no jokes about Marketing majors, please—that act exactly like a conscious human but have no internal experience. Then there’s the brain in the vat (cue The Matrix). But perhaps the most legendary modern TX is the Chinese Room. Imagine you’re in a room receiving messages in Chinese, a language you don’t speak. But you look up the symbols in a huge series of instruction manuals and write out replies in Chinese according to the instructions. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it:

“The human produces the appearance of understanding Chinese by following the symbol manipulating instructions, but does not thereby come to understand Chinese. Since a computer just does what the human does—manipulate symbols on the basis of their syntax alone—no computer, merely by following a program, comes to genuinely understand Chinese.”

So a computer will never “understand” Chinese—or anything else? Check out the fevered universe of incredibly fascinating replies.

Then there’s the family of TXs known as trolley problems (forming practically their own subdiscipline, aka Trolleyology). Would you flick a switch to send a trolley down a track with one person on it instead of five people? How about pushing someone from a bridge onto a track to stop the trolley from hitting five others?

Trolleyology TXes are useful to anyone thinking about torture, terrorism, or the rationing of medical care. Or consider gun control. Let’s say you see a known murderer threaten a gun-owning homeowner, and at that moment you take the homeowner’s gun away. How’s that different from passing a gun control law? (The fact that Jeff McMahan, a philosopher at Rutgers, has singled this TX out to argue against shows its rhetorical power.) Abortion, too, has its controversial thought experiment: What are your responsibilities if you woke up in a hospital attached to someone who depended on you for life support?

Globalization is spawning new and powerful TXes. Perhaps the most disconcerting of recent years is that of Peter Singer, in his book The Life You Can Save. How would you react to the sight of a toddler drowning in a pond? And what’s the difference between that toddler and the tens of thousands of children who die each day from nothing more than poverty? If that TX leaves you squirming, then it’s working: One review was titled “If You Think You’re Good, You Should Think Again.”

Whatever your reactions to these TXes—unless, like Kenneth from 30 Rock, you believe asking hypothetical questions is “lying to your brain”—it’s undeniable that thought experiments are a damn good product. And yes, scientists use thought experiments, too, a tradition that recalls the happy centuries when philosophy and science were one and the same. But the thought experiment, by its very armchair nature, is begging to be claimed by philosophers, whatever its subject. In marketing terms, philosophers need to “own” it. They need to identify it as a “core competency.” And then—yes, oh yes—they need to leverage it. (Yup. I used to be a management consultant.) 

The next C in our marketing plan is costs. More good news for philosophy. Lots of TXes are already out there, free. Philosophers could try to patent existing ones—America is a land where someone actually tried to patent the concept of patent trolling. But an open-source model is probably more consumer-friendly. And while bench science costs an arm and a leg, new TXs can be produced for little more than the cost of an armchair, the occasional endowed professorship, and some Two Buck Chuck.

Convenience (placement, under the old marketing system) is more problematic. Where is today’s consumer going to encounter TXs? One excellent line of distribution: the podcast.

Philosophers already have some of the best podcasts out there. Top of the list is Philosophy Bites, in which leading thinkers submit to a 15-minute murder board on not-so-bite-size topics like fate, moral responsibility, and Nietzsche. Philosophy Bites goes well with the driving of cars, the mowing of lawns, the awaiting of buses, and the cooking of any dish that doesn’t require constant recipe-reading (my rule of thumb: If you can cook it while drinking, you can cook it while Philosophy Biting).

Not every episode explicitly addresses TXes (though here are a few about thought experiments in general, trolleys, and Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save). But TXes pop up regularly regardless. Indeed, the marriage of TXes and short podcasts isn’t accidental. Designed to play on our intuitions, TXes are meant to be easy to grasp. A more explicit podcast series running through famous TXes would be a good place to start (it’s been tried before, but not by the geniuses at Philosophy Bites). They could even take on scientific thought experiments—again, to “own” the TX method.

Podcasts aside, the philosophy shopping experience desperately needs some glitz. We need more websites like Philosophy Matters, whose creator believes that philosophy has—no!—“a bit of a PR problem.” As for the American Philosophical Association, it announced its Twitter account only this year; its Facebook page has yet to breach 500 likes; the association’s website desperately needs a refreshing facial peel or two. The association seems newly committed to marketing—it was recently hunting for a new logo and “associated branding items.” Perhaps the APA can buy the website philosophy.com from its current owners (“a brand”—see?—“that approaches personal care from a skin care point of view, while celebrating the beauty of the human spirit”).

Which leads us to the last of the marketing C’s, communication. Promotion, essentially, or advertising.

Philosophy needs a slogan. If I say “The Other White Meat,” “The Fabric of Our Lives,” or “Good to the Last Drop,” you know just what I’m eating, wearing, or brewing. When I lived in the United Kingdom, I was fond of the “Nobody Forgets a Good Teacher” campaign. “Philosophy matters” isn’t a bad slogan. Or “Philosophy? That’s a Good Question.” (Got a better idea? Head to the Comments.) Once philosophy has a logo and a slogan, it needs a campaign. One option would be to put some controversial thought experiments onto posters. E.g., using that gun control TX above:

What’s the difference between supporting gun control and taking the gun out of the hand of a gun owner at the very moment he or she comes face-to-face with a home intruder?

Philosophy. The best answers come from the best questions.

Finally, philosophy needs a spokesperson. Someone A-list. I’m thinking a philosophy student who went on to great things (and maybe rich enough to pay for the ads, too). Ricky Gervais? Stephen Colbert? Ethan Coen? Carl Icahn? Peter “PayPal” Thiel? Wes Anderson? Woody Allen? David Souter? Stone Phillips? Carly Fiorina? Gene Siskel? What about Peter Lynch, the former Fidelity Magellan manager, who says philosophy, not statistics, best prepared him for Wall Street?*

Then there’s Bruce Lee (he apparently only claims to have majored in philosophy, but we could fix that with an honorary degree). Or how about Pat Buchanan and George Soros, squeezed into an armchair, with the tagline “Philosophy. What they have in common.” But really, it would be hard to beat Steve Martin: “Hey, there is no cause and effect! There is no logic! There is no anything!” Geology, Martin said, that’s just facts you’ll forget. But philosophy? “You remember just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life.” Spoken like a true believer.

Correction, June 10, 2013: This article originally misspelled Carly Fiorina’s last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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