Observer: Metaphysics in the Megabookstore

The Chronicle Review


Philosophy may have originated with the fascinating dialogues that Socrates provocatively conducted in the Athenian agora, but can it interest a public in the American marketplace of the 21st century? Since philosophy -- unlike cars, cereals, and cosmetics -- is not the sort of commercially lucrative commodity to inspire market research, there is little systematic study of its ability to command and sustain an audience outside the groves of academe and religious institutions. But for the past four years, I have been conducting an informal experiment by playing host to a regular meet-the-author philosophy-discussion series at Philadelphia's Center City Barnes & Noble bookstore, which is handsomely housed in a stylish old bank building on fashionable Rittenhouse Square. At these sessions, I discuss with guest authors their recent books and the philosophical issues that inspire them, so I call the series "Dialogues on the Square." The meetings, held one weekday evening a month during the academic year, have delightfully surprised me (and the bookstore management) by the consistently large and varied audience they repeatedly bring.

Corporate megabookstore chains like Barnes & Noble are not known for being particularly hospitable to academic publishing. Hard-core philosophy books are never prominently displayed in such stores (as they are in European bookshops); they struggle even to find shelf space. Often squeezed out of the philosophy section by commercial books on new age or esoteric "philosophy," serious philosophical works also suffer, like other academic books, from the corporate bookstores' economically brutal policy on the return of unsold copies to the publishers.

I never imagined a chain bookstore would be interested in nurturing a philosophy-author series, nor was I originally interested in such a venue. With an active publishing, teaching, and lecturing career in America and Europe, I was not lonely and yearning for an audience. Besides, as chairman of a philosophy department with a thriving Ph.D. program, it was hard to find time and justification to flirt with new extracurricular arenas. So how did I get into this long-term relationship with a corporate giant? It started with a one-night stand.

In 1997 I published a book called Practicing Philosophy, whose central argument was that long before philosophy became a university discipline, it was most famously conceived and practiced as a distinctive way of life. Philosophy could revive itself, regaining its cultural importance and public role, I suggested, by again becoming a purposeful art of living, aimed not only at knowledge and self-improvement but at improving the polis in which the self is situated.

The book proved appealing enough to get some reviews in the general press, and one article in The Philadelphia Inquirer was so engagingly written as to prompt an invitation from Barnes & Noble for a talk and book signing, the first such bookstore invitation I ever received in the States.

Flattered by the unexpected attention, and keen to promote the book's message of taking philosophy beyond its mere academic pursuit, I eagerly accepted the gig without much thought about what I was in for. I had second thoughts, however, when I saw in the monthly Barnes & Noble calendar that my book presentation was sandwiched between two other talks on different evenings that same week of November, one by a well-known chef outlining innovative recipes for Thanksgiving, the other by an author expert on cigars and liqueurs. How could philosophy compete with such popular sensual addictions? My anxiety peaked when I arrived half an hour before my talk and heard it advertised on the store's PA system in the manner of "Attention, shoppers!," as if it were a special sale on skin creams or salami.

The event turned out to be one of the most exciting experiences in my philosophical career. Facing about two dozen people, crammed into a third-floor space between the film and music books, I felt an adrenaline rush as I struggled to captivate an audience that was not already held institutionally captive by their need to get a grade or satisfy the polite rules of academic etiquette. Teaching philosophy to Temple University's undergraduates had already schooled me in a "Where's the beef?" style of philosophy that my research in pragmatism also taught me to respect.

Now, besides the fun of "keeping it real," there was the thrill of live performance as a "stand-up" philosopher before an unfamiliar, uncertain audience who could at any moment wander off to browse for books or visit the second-floor cafe. They needed to be kept in their seats by the sheer power of philosophical insight, wit, logical argument, and -- perhaps most important -- an ability to really listen to and seriously engage the audience's questions and comments. Such lively interaction benefits both the public and the profession of philosophy, so I resolved to find a way to share this experience with colleagues by establishing a regular forum for such encounters.

Thanks to the success of my Rittenhouse Square performance, the store's program organizer, Marilyn Flanagan, was ready to take a chance on a regular monthly series in which I would hold dialogues with guest authors.

Besides the reassuring sense of continuity in having a regular host, this "dialogue" format has several advantages over solo performances. Audiences are more easily bored by long monologues than when the guest speaker's remarks come in response to questions, as in the typical talk-show format. After the author is introduced and gives an opening 15-minute presentation, my job as host is to bring out the best of the author's book by asking the sort of questions that will prompt her to deliver her best ideas, which she may have omitted in her first remarks.

The host also has other useful roles. Noticing when the audience is getting restless or when the author is losing her train of thought, the host can interject a comment or question to redirect and revive the discussion. After about 30 minutes of such dialogue, the program concludes with a half hour of questions from the audience, principally directed at the guest author.

Even then, the host's role is crucial. More familiar with both audience and author, he can decode initially incomprehensible questions and answers, clear up misunderstandings, and even serve as an intellectual "bouncer" to divert hostile or insensitive questions that could embarrass or offend the author and disrupt the productive spirit of discussion.

Philosophy can deal with emotionally charged topics. Two events were devoted to authors who examined, through personal experience, the shattering of selfhood through the trauma of rape. An obviously insensitive line of questioning directed at one of those guests had to be derailed before the entire room exploded, and the host's established authority made it easy.

The variety of publics making up the audience must be considered in planning a program like "Dialogues." Although a faithful core attended every event, most of the audience varied with the book topics. These ranged from Plato and the pre-Socratics to postmodernism and contemporary French feminism, from questions of taste, art, and the environment to issues of race, gender, and truth in journalism. I was surprised to discover that books on a famously austere philosopher like Kant or on a little-known African-American philosopher like Alain Locke could draw as large an audience as books on trendy thinkers like Heidegger or Derrida.

I also learned that the bookstore never really cared how many copies of the featured book were sold (although the author sometimes did). What mattered was regularly bringing an audience of typically 30 to 60 people into the store. Odds were that some of them would buy something.

Sales of featured books often had less to do with the excellence of the text and performance than with the type of audience and their felt relationship to the author. A brilliant book discussion by a very distinguished Ivy League author generated no visible sales of autographed copies. Admiring listeners were either too humbled by his stature or too proud to request a signed copy. Solidarity sells more, which is why African-American and female authors consistently outsold the rest.

Beyond such anecdotal curiosities, instructive as they may be, there is a much more important lesson to be learned from my four years of running "Dialogues." Philosophers and other humanities professors who yearn to be public intellectuals are often disappointed when their work fails to win the attention of the daily press and general-interest intellectual magazines with wide circulation.

Such theorists wrongly conflate a public intellectual with what is more aptly called a "media intellectual." In an age when everything seems electronically mediated and where intellectual mass-media offerings seem thin and standardized, there is a public hungry for direct, face-to-face discussion of important issues in an open, lively way, free from the tired histrionics and predictable polemics of staged debates.

Drawing a simplistic dichotomy between academe and the general public, we forget that there are ways and venues to engage that public so as to communicate our research and inform opinion. That a public is local and limited does not mean it is insignificant. For the time we belong to it, it forms the world of our experience.

Currently on leave, in Hiroshima, Japan, I am far from the "Dialogues" public but appreciate it even more from this critical distance. I will miss doing the "show" this year, but my research appointment abroad will give me much-needed time for reading new books to furnish the series when I return.

Richard Shusterman is chairman of the philosophy department at Temple University and a visiting professor at Hiroshima University, in Japan. His most recent book is Surface and Depth (Cornell University Press, 2002).
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 49, Issue 11, Page B5
© 2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education