How to write a good public philosophy book

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Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 04/07/2022 - 5:35pm in

As I might have mentioned here before, I am currently working on a book (provisionally) entitled Limitarianism. The Case Against Extreme Wealth. It will be what publishers call a trade book – that is, written for any reader of nonfiction. I’ve been doing this kind of writing (and talks) in Dutch for much longer; this book I write in English. It will be published by Astra House for North-America, and by Allen Lane/Penguin for the UK and the rest of the world (with translations also in Dutch, German, Italian, Spanish, Korean, Japanese and Russian).

As I am also engaged in academic-philosophical debates on limitarianism, it is striking to see what is considered relevant and important in each of those strands of writing. Some pre-occupations by academic philosophers are of little or no importance to the public, such as whether argument A for limitarianism is truly distinct from argument B, or whether limitarianism can be reduced to (a combination of) other distributive principles. For the public the most important question is whether this is an idea that makes sense, and some philosophical preoccupations are about other (more technical) issues. On the other hand, in my experience the public cares a lot about some things that many philosophers find irrelevant, such as what we can learn from the empirical facts (e.g. about the urgency of a problem, or whether a proposed intervention has ever worked in the past), and what a general (or abstract) discussion implies in a concrete context. Academic discussions can be at a level of abstractness that will make you lose most of your readers of nonfiction, even of serious nonfiction.

What else would make a public [political] philosophy book good? Here are my thoughts on this.

  1. Readability. This can be achieved by illustrating general arguments with examples, but also with style, e.g. the choice of words that are used, and the use of an active voice and of short(er) sentences. For example, I have a tendency to use a lot of subclauses in my academic writing, and should take care not to use them too often when writing nonfiction.
  2. Enjoyability. In academic philosophy, writing can be very dense and boring, but if it still entails some novel insights, that won’t be seen as a liability. In trade writing, it’s very important that the writing is enjoyable – after all, reading a book shouldn’t be hard work for the reader; it seems totally fine that it requires some effort, but it is much better if the same insights and arguments can be conveyed in an enjoyable style. Perhaps some jokes can help?

  3. Accessibility. The writing should not assume any specialist background knowledge; you shouldn’t have done an undergraduate degree – not even a minor – in philosophy or related discipline to understand the text. A former publisher of a Dutch publishing house once told me that this was in his experience the biggest problem with academic philosophers writing for a broader audience. I get this, but also think that accessibility comes in degrees, and that a scholar writing a trade book can herself choose for which audience to pitch. Just think about newspapers – they also come in different styles, and some newspapers are clearly more accessible to a much broader group of readers than other newspapers.

  4. Interdisciplinarity. In general, the public doesn’t care about disciplinary boundaries. In academic debates, philosophers will sometimes say that something is an interesting philosophical question, or that another aspect is an economic/sociological/legal etc. question, and hence not relevant for their discussions, or nothing they can or have to say something about. Non-fiction readers are interested in the topic of the book they are reading, and don’t care about disciplinary boundaries. Philosophers (and other academics) need to be willing to develop themselves into interdisciplinary writers if they want to write nonfiction for a broader audience.

I see a couple of challenges for academic philosophers/other scholars from the social sciences and humanities who are writing a trade book.

First, the desiderata of accessibility and enjoyability create a worry that it might force scholars to cut corners, and that rhetoric might take over from truth-seeking. I’ve read a number of nonfiction books, written by academics and non-academics alike, (and on topics on which I know something), which in my judgement crossed the line into dogmatism, rather than just trying to make the best possible argument for a certain proposal/view in a sufficiently nuanced way. If there are objections to what one is arguing for, one should consider and discuss them. Of course, not necessarily all, since some objections are silly or only represent an extreme fringe view.

Second, in academia there is a very strict code that we should not present ideas as if they are ours, if they are in fact someone else’s. (Again, I’ve seen non-academic trade writers to my mind not care enough about this, and I think they should care about it as much as we do). But non-fiction publishers generally prefer that the author of the book can be portraited as someone who has all these really great novel ideas. I think the solution to this challenge is to flag the intellectual shoulders on which one is standing regularly enough in the main text (and hope it doesn’t get edited out), as well as make sure you have the space to write as many footnotes as you want, which will allow you to do all the proper crediting. When I talked to various publishers before signing a contract with Allen Lane and Astra House, I asked all of them about their “footnote policy”, and told them that it is really important for me to have the freedom to write as many footnotes as needed (I should say that almost all of them were totally easy going with this; I should not have had to worry about this).

Third, there is one challenge specific to philosophers who develop arguments for a certain claim. Sometimes, at the level of the structure of the argument, argument A is not different from argument B. But when written in an empirically grounded context, it can be illuminating for the reader to see both argument A and argument B spelled out, for examples because reading them both gives a better sense of the pervasiveness of the phenomenon, or helps to better grasp what argument A/B implies for actions that need to be taken. What is relevant for philosophers, is not always what is seen as relevant by a lay audience. Another variant of this challenge is that many philosophers are pretty obsessed by to what extent the different reasons we have for A are distinct, and which reason is to be preferred in we need to choose for one reason over another. For nonfiction readers, it is often much more important to know that there is/are very strong reasons for A – and whether the listed reasons are distinct is often of no importance at all. Put differently, it is important to ask what the reader cares about when reading the book.

Are there any other desiderata/challenges for non-fiction writing by philosophers and other academics from the social sciences and humanities?