Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s information ecosystem.
In his 16th century fresco The School of Athens, Raphael sought to capture the essential spirit of philosophy. The artist depicts Plato as an old, gray, barefoot man beside his most famous student, Aristotle. The two Greek philosophers hold thick bound books as they walk together beneath a magnificent stone archway, discussing their very wise and very serious ideas.
Whether they know it or not, many people continue to hold this Raphaelite view. Philosophy is seen as ancient, slow-moving, formal, and cerebral—not anything that is typically associated with TikTok.
A running theme of press coverage is that TikTok content isn’t very intellectual. Although TikTok recently announced that it was expanding the maximum video length to 10 minutes, popular posts tend to be much shorter, often 30 seconds or less. When a new user joins, the app’s automated “For You” feed tends to serves up the kind of fun, short-form videos that have made it so popular—things like cute couple pranks and videos of dancing twins. The initial dose of TikTok content is short, fun, and smile-inducing. But it’s not exactly nudging users to ponder the deepest questions of the human experience.
Indeed, the first time TikTok’s notorious algorithm decides you might like something philosophical, it can feel jarring. It could happen like this: You have just finished another TikTok video repurposing a popular audio trend—perhaps one of millions of clips based on Disney’s Encanto—when, suddenly, two Notre Dame philosophy professors come on-screen. Only, instead of overlaying their video with a trending audio track, the two philosophy profs perform an original rap critiquing the theory of utilitarianism. Other videos are dedicated to big ideas from philosophy’s heavy hitters, ranging from the Greeks in Raphael’s painting to more recent sages like Hannah Arendt and Peter Singer. As I scrolled through the most popular TikTok videos under the hashtag #Philosophy, I wondered: Why are contemporary philosophers, including tenured university professors, suddenly making TikTok channels?
“In recent years in academic philosophy, there’s been a major push for what’s called ‘public philosophy,’ the attempt to engage the public in philosophical thinking,” said Nathan Nobis, a professor of philosophy at Morehouse College and an avid TikTok creator. The basic premise is that trained philosophers have some practical tools for evaluating problems, and that there is value in extending philosophical thinking beyond the borders of the university. Instead of holing up in the metaphorical ivory tower, today’s philosophy professors have been writing op-eds—for instance, on the philosophy of Wordle—or producing philosophy podcasts such as Overthink and Slate’s own Hi-Phi Nation.
There is a sense among philosophers that they are behind other disciplines when it comes to public engagement. For instance, there have long been science-themed television programming, like 1980’s Cosmos and its sequels, and podcasts like Radiolab. Science has well-known venues for public engagement—think of field trips to a planetarium or science museum. By contrast, most people are not aware there is such a thing as a “philosophy museum.”
Psychology is another subject that seems ahead in terms of outreach. The “pop psychology” movement emerged in the 1950s and 1960s and has elevated public intellectuals like Brené Brown, a Texas professor once called the Beyoncé of self-help. “I think philosophy has a lot to learn from these other disciplines,” said Paul Blaschko, a Notre Dame philosophy professor, TikTok creator, and co-author of The Good Life Method. “There are lessons we can learn about how to do it well, and also things to avoid.”
Part of translating philosophy into TikTok form is finding a comedic or narrative frame that can keep someone’s attention before they scroll. When writing videos for his TikTok account @profblaschko, Blaschko relies on skills he picked up from working at an improvisational comedy theater. Blaschko noted that both TikTok and improv require creativity under constraints. “There’s something really exciting and fun about the challenge of trying to pack a big idea into 30 to 90 seconds,” said Blaschko, whose weekly videos include sketches like a “boxing match” between a priest and a businessman as they debate which career is morally superior.
Sure, it sounds fun. But can an app that’s specifically designed for our increasingly short attention spans really do justice to the heady subject matter of philosophy? That concern was raised by Jim Moster, a senior at Notre Dame majoring in political science and the program of liberal studies, who wrote an article for the campus newspaper titled “TikTok ‘Philosophy’ Is Corrupting the Youth.” Three minutes (at the time, TikTok’s maximum) is a “woefully short period for explaining complex ideas,” Moster wrote, adding, “Unfortunately, TikTok’s very structure encourages wishy-washy intellectualism.”
But Gonzaga University’s philosophy faculty pushed back on the idea that TikTok was inherently anti-intellectual. (The Gonzaga philosophy department operates its own TikTok channel, and one of its videos, featuring the professors reading their meanest student reviews, unexpectedly went viral last year.) “There’s nothing inherent to the medium that says it’ll definitely produce crap content,” Gonzaga professor Charles Lassiter told me. He recalled the historical example of Dante being criticized for writing in the vernacular Italian instead of Latin. “If philosophers don’t make their stuff accessible, we’re going to die as a discipline,” Lassiter said.
One possibility is that TikTok philosophy operates as a sort of teaser. For instance, a short video about Wittgenstein could inspire the user to read the philosopher’s biographical entry on either Wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. On the one hand, this hypothesis sounds too hopeful, since TikTok and other social media products are engineered with addictive qualities to keep users on the app (and thus not switching over to a web browser). On the other hand, it’s a bit patronizing to say that TikTok users don’t ever leave the app to engage with in-depth, long-form philosophy. “To think that our students don’t go beyond the three-minute videos is dismissive of the younger generation in a way that’s just not supported by the experience that I’ve had with them,” said Gonzaga professor Maria Howard.
TikTok presents a unique opportunity for public philosophy because the app is still early in its life cycle. On Facebook or Twitter, users have largely self-sorted into their isolated echo chambers based on whom they follow. But the content that a user sees on TikTok’s “For You” page is decided by the algorithm, a mysterious “Sorting Hat” that is not follower-constrained. Blaschko said his TikTok viewers come from very different backgrounds—vehement atheists, radical traditional Catholics, nihilists, ex-Mormons, Marxists, and mold eaters. “In the comments, these people are actually dialoguing, actually talking to each other,” Blaschko said. “I’m sure eventually TikTok will self-sort too, but—for now—it’s a place where you can genuinely encounter people very different from you, and those are the spaces on the internet that I like the most.”
Although TikTok has not fully self-sorted, there are concerns that the field’s most popular creators tend to come from the same demographic group. “Philosophy TikTok is white and male because philosophy itself is like that,” said Gonzaga professor Greta Turnbull, who recalled not having any female philosophy mentors until the end of her graduate program. A 2015 study of philosophy departments at United States universities suggested that women made up only 26 percent of tenure-track faculty members, with faster growth in less prestigious programs. The study also cited research that U.S. women received roughly 30 percent fewer Ph.D.s in philosophy than women in other humanities disciplines.
Yet while TikTok could be a way to reach broader and more diverse audiences, academic philosophers also report mixed views on whether it’s a smart move for their careers. A few said that they have had well-meaning advisers tell them not to engage heavily on social media until they became tenured. Like other humanities, academic philosophy is an incredibly competitive field, with hundreds of applicants for each tenure-track position. The concern is that a young professor who is highly active on social media might not be devoting sufficient time to research and writing. That matters because publishing in prestigious academic journals—not accumulating likes and followers—has been the traditional yardstick for advancement.
But some have pivoted, leaving traditional academia to focus exclusively on social media. Julian de Medeiros has more than 456,000 followers and 11.7 million likes on his TikTok channel @julianphilosophy, which he produces with his partner Jenaline Pyle. Before March 2020, both scholars taught courses at City, University of London. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, they noticed that their students were deeply frustrated by the lack of online course options. The couple started publishing free content regularly on TikTok and YouTube, as well as offering patron-funded classes via Patreon. “Teaching online and platforms like TikTok are easy to dismiss, but we see how our work resonates in a bigger way than if we repeated the same class 20 students at a time,” Pyle said.
According to Pyle, the biggest difference between the traditional education model and social media is that teaching online requires a greater commitment to experimentation. “Being dogmatic and rigid about your approach is alienating, as is assuming that what you find interesting is inherently valuable,” Pyle said. “We’re committed to not being too committed—we try different approaches and see what works.” Since leaving academia, the couple has relocated to the Pacific Northwest, where they film a lot of their most popular TikTok videos in their car. Why there? Because the car has good acoustics and it’s not a comfortable place for them to sit for long stretches of time. Between last year’s summer heat wave and winter temperatures well below freezing, the climate pushes them to be concise. “If it’s taking too long, it’s time to rethink,” Pyle said.
Several philosophy professors told me that they could imagine their favorite philosophers appreciating the app. During his lifetime, Socrates was willing to meander pretty much everywhere for a good conversation, so it’s not hard to see him starting a dialogue in the internet comments. Others thought Nietzsche’s aphoristic style—full of concise, powerful quotes like “Become who you are” and “What does not kill me makes me stronger”—would work really well on TikTok.
Who knows? Perhaps Plato, one of the ancient Greeks memorialized by Raphael, would approve of TikTok dances. After all, Plato strongly believed that dance training should be used to advance the civic education of children, as philosophy professor Aili Bresnahan noted in her May 2020 article about TikTok dancing and the pandemic.
Of course, not every famous philosopher is likely to have been a TikTok fan. “All of my favorite philosophers were curmudgeons, so they wouldn’t touch TikTok with a 10-foot pole,” Ellie Anderson, a philosophy professor at Pomona College, said in an email. “I love thinking about Foucault asking disdainfully, ‘What is this TikTok?’ in a thick French accent.” No doubt a 30-second video interpretation of that will be coming soon to your “For You” feed.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.