What Could New Public Thinking Be? Three Reflections

March 29th, 20118:45 pm @


To the Reader:

This is the first of a multi-part series devoted to the question: ‘What could new public thinking be’? We invite you to think with us about what it could mean to think in public today.


Keith Kahn-Harris, Pat Kane, & Andrew Taggart


Keith Kahn-Harris writes:

The eminent UK sociologist Anthony Giddens once referred to sociology as the ‘reflexivity of modernity’. As a sociologist myself, I cannot help but find this a rather flattering description of my discipline. What Giddens is arguing is that sociology is the space within which the modern world is subject to extensive scrutiny. Even if there are other spheres of thought, as well as art, that also provide this kind of space, sociology certainly does provide this kind of scrutiny. The discipline is a source of  multiple insights into how our world has come to be the way it is.

The trouble is, the idea that sociology is the reflexivity of modernity is total bullshit.  That’s not because sociology doesn’t have  a lot to offer, indeed I’m proud to be associated with this kind of enquiry. The problem with Giddens’s formulation is that it totally neglects the embeddedness of sociology within institutional structures that all too frequently prevent precisely the kind of reflexivity that Giddens recommends. Reflexivity, as opposed to simple reflection, implies a process in which practice looks back on itself in order to reformulate it in the light of experience. Sociology certain manages the looking back on itself part, but its ability to reformulate practice is significantly impaired. It is impaired because, as a discipline that is largely confined to universities, think tanks and other institutions, it has little purchase on everyday practice itself. Sociology is a specialism that communicates with a specialised vocabulary within specialist contexts. Developments within the academy in the last few decades have only exacerbated this situation. In the UK for example, the requirements of managerialism within the academy, exemplified by the Research Assessment  Exercise, have meant that sociologists are discouraged from public communication in favour of churning out journal articles and measurable ‘outputs’. For sociology to be truly reflexive it would have to resist this trend and some prominent sociologists have certainly criticised it. The great majority – Giddens among them – simply went along with it.

Sociology is particularly vulnerable to being ‘cut off’ from society in that it has less of a public profile than some other disciplines. Psychologists, historians and natural scientists have a presence in public debates that sociologists generally do not. For every Laurie Taylor there are ten Richard Dawkins and Simon Schamas. But even among those disciplines that have managed to work better outside the  academy than sociology, the general trend has been towards specialism and institutionalisation. There is a wider dynamic at work in which some of the most developed forms of thought that humanity has produced are effectively a private conversation.

I’m not sure what new public thinking is and what it could be. I do know though that it must be something that sets its face against the insulation of academic discourse. It has to be something that takes seriously the importance of thinking hard about what it is to be human, that asks the difficult questions, that strives for an intensity and profundity. It also has to be something that is predicated on a desire to reach out to those who do not ask the same questions and encourages them to ask them. New public thinking has to be embedded within a constantly expanding public sphere.

Reflexivity is to me an ideal that we all should strive for, whether sociologists or not. If it is possible for something as abstract as ‘modernity’ to be reflexive, it can only happen through the most extensive possible widening of public thinking. There is nothing new about public thinking. But new public thinking, as an aspiration to widen the space in which deep thinking is done, could be something truly novel.


Pat Kane writes:

For me, the ‘thinking’ part of this title has to crucially involve meta-thinking – an attempt to get into a synoptic space above the many competing sciences, both social and natural, used by authorities (and indeed counter-authorities) to legitimate their power strategies. I don’t think it’s easy to access that space – but certainly a wilful pursuit of both eclecticism and generalism helps. Or sometimes, a long and deep dive into expertise, driven by some not-quite-fully-self-aware animus in the public thinker, that gives you a sudden new light on an expedient consensus.

For example, this is where I find myself with behavioural economics at the moment – and indeed the vast labour of evolutionary-psychological inquiry that have built up to the current triumph of ‘Nudge’ thinking. As someone who has been trying to synthesize the various sciences describing the phenomenon of play in humans (and higher mammals), the arrival of ‘Homo Economicus’ – the short-termist, savannah-limited citizen, needing a paternalist hand with those self-destructive urges – has been something of a shock.

The neuroscience I’ve been reading (say, Antonio Damasio and Gerald Edelman) casts the consciousness that arises from the brain as a dynamic, emergent phenomenon; the sociobiology I’ve been reading (say, Brian Sutton-Smith and Marc Bekoff) asserts that a zone of playfulness throughout adult development (known as neoteny) should be socially secured for optimum health.

Compared to this rich model, which seeks evolutionary verification for the autonomy of play beyond the boundaries of the human, the Chicago-student-tested banalities of behavioural economics seems like a science most peculiarly attentive to the powers-that-be. Exactly at the point where human creativity and autonomy-in-solidarity have found their most supportive and resilient infrastructure – that is, open digital networks – we are told that our inherent capacities to handle this plenitude are crabbed, broken and mediocre. When the ‘general intellect’ of Marx’s dream is finally presented with its enabling tools, we’re told that our responses are no more elevated than that of a large, yellow, animated dolt.

Sorry: I don’t buy it. But I guess it’s because I’ve allowed myself to be something of a nerdy crank about play, allowing this keyword to resonate in a multidisciplinary way in my thinking, that I’ve managed to establish a distance from this particular policy-science doxa. And I think the lifestyle choices that have enabled my sprawling ruminations on play – i.e., not tied down to an academic discipline or post, able to pursue a handful of key ideas slowly but freely, in the interstices of a freelance media-and-music career – are an essential condition of the “new public thinking” we’re talking about.

The Italian autonomist thinker Paulo Virno recasts the entrepreneur as a ‘recombinant figure of innovation’. Somewhat like a comedian, the entrepreneur has the capacity to make varied use of the same verbal material. The entrepreneur displays a ‘species-specific faculty’ for the creative juggling of ideas, ‘which becomes activated in the case of crisis or stagnation’.

That works for me. As I dodge, dive, duck and weave through a landscape of organisations and institutions – needing to address intractable problems like ownership, employee motivation, the resources of invention – I carry a backpack of deeper, more generative concepts. With a smartphone and a networked e-reader, I can literally be a research institute on the streets. But you take your time, you trust to the capillaries of current dissemination (Twitter/blog), you gather your memes. And whatever you do, you keep writing/iterating (in this circumstance, during the ninety-minute respite of a daughter’s dance class). It’s new ‘public’ thinking, after all.


Andrew Taggart writes:


There is a beautiful line in the late philosopher Robert Nozick’s book The Examined Life about taking a position. Nozick confesses that when he was younger he believed, like any good analytic philosopher, that he had to take a position on everything. As he got older, he realized that ‘position-taking’–the presumed need to make up one’s mind and stand behind something of ultimate importance–might have been his adolescent mistake. Nozick had managed to grow up.

Trying Things Out

What could it mean to try things out?

1. Trying things out is not like taking a position. Its commitment to this way of life is more provisional but, for all that, not nothing.

2. Trying things out is not a dress rehearsal. It is the thing itself, actual and serious like love.

3. Philosophical counseling, the forum in which conversation partners agree to try things out, is a gamble from first to last. For that matter, so is life, and then so is thinking in public.

4. Yet the gamble is not a drunken or an irrational one. Trying out this line of thought, this way of life follows from living out some previous way of life and determining, ultimately, to rule that one out. There is a logic, albeit not a logic of entailment, to this gamble.

5. In addition, this essay–this attempt, this sally–aims at something of ultimate value and does so with some reasonable hope of success. From the outset, it is not clear whether success, however we understand this, is achievable, yet in order to get things underway we must have reason to believe that success is possible.

6. It follows from 4. and 5. that there is a negative (ruling out) as well as positive (aiming at) dimension to the essay.

7. Trying things out is assisted, in its public incarnation, by taking things in. Taking in is the blessing of thinking together. In this lies the joy of public thinking. But, careful, taking in only what clarifies the broader vision or only what reorients one toward the same. I think of all the little cues–the emerging ‘schools of craft,’ my work with The Mycelium School, Bridget McKenzie’s casual reference to ‘learning society’–that led me to modify my educational outlook from

  • education = wisdom to
  • learning society = craftsmanship + wisdom

This, I say, the joy of thinking in public.

8. But then not everything can or should be taken in. An idea, floated our way, might be contrary to the telos of education; might, if taken too seriously, cause us to lose focus; might come, as it were, as a non sequitor. For us too, therefore, the art of silence.

9. But how shall we persist in the tension of the great unknowing? How will we see this thing through to the end? We shall need to cultivate the virtues of persistence (Lacan: ‘Do not give up on your desire.’), resolve (‘Let’s be strong enough to see this thing through), and judgment (‘Caute! How far have we gone? How do we know that we are on the right path? Did we, perchance, make a wrong turn?’)

10. Then, finally, there is an art of letting go, an art of learning how to let fall a line of thought that runs itself out. Yet letting go is not giving up. It is a loosening of desire, a lessening of valuing for what we  have determined, through living this out, simply won’t work. And then holding on may be a sign of being stubborn, of being fearful, tight-fisted, or worse yet, of despairing of alternatives. Holding on is opposed in spirit to trying out (1-6), taking in (7&8), coming through (9), and letting go (10).


I want to learn how to grow up more. Trying things out, together and not alone, and weathering all the letting-go’s: this I want to call wisdom.