The Public Philosopher: "Committing acts of public philosophy"
It’s great spending time with a rock star. Everyone’s gazing at you, or rather at your new best friend. Teenagers wait yearningly for their chance just to ask nervously for an autograph or even – OMG! - pose for a photo with their hero. It’s hormone city. It’s exciting. It’s wild. And who is the rock star? Mick Jagger? Bruce Springsteen? Or perhaps a newbie like Ed Sheeran?
Well, actually he’s er…Michael Sandel. Not a man to strap on a Telecaster or that likely to crowd surf, but a rock star all the same. A rock star of political philosophy.
We were at the London School of Economics to record the first in a series of discussions titled The Public Philosopher. We knew that Michael Sandel, who’s a professor at Harvard, had something of a following. After all, he had had a fantastic reception when he delivered a memorable series of Reith Lectures in 2009. But even in those three years, things had changed.
The first sign was when the tickets were released. The twittersphere went insane. “Anyone who doesn't apply on Tuesday is daft,” one fan tweeted. “Got a ticket for LSE Michael Sandel Lecture! ” wrote another.
There were 2,500 ticket requests in just a few hours. The application was window was hurriedly closed before things went too nutty. When we arrived at the venue, there was a long, long queue for return tickets, and the LSE was forced to open up two overflow rooms.
So why the excitement? It has a lot to do with Michael Sandel’s remarkable teaching style – or what he sometimes calls “committing acts of public philosophy.”
He starts with a current controversy and then throws it out to his audience, via a series of deceptively simple questions. “What do you mean by that? Who disagrees? Tell us why that’s bad? Who has an answer to that question?” and his favourite: “What do you think?”
At the LSE, one question he addressed was whether universities should give preference to applicants to poorer backgrounds.
One audience member called Lucy argued that they should. So Michael Sandel posed a scenario where he was an applicant who had done well, but wasn’t admitted because of preferences given to poorer students.
“What do you say to me Lucy?” he asked.
Lucy began: “Well I think that if the other person got…”
Sandel interrupted “No, no talk to me...” And by challenging her managed to extract what he described as Lucy’s “radical thesis”.
Through this exciting, interactive style he gets to the roots of the philosophical notions we hold – often unconsciously – about notions like fairness and the public good. No wonder that the televising of his Harvard series of lectures on justice have been a massive internet hit and won him a global following.
So that’s why he gets rock star treatment in London. But as he rather abashedly told me, that’s nothing. You should see what happens when he goes to Tokyo….
Hugh Levinson is Editor of The Public Philosopher on BBC Radio 4