Seeing philosophers as people

“It is the profession of philosophers,” David K. Lewis writes, “to question platitudes that others accept without thinking twice.” He adds that this is a dangerous profession, since “philosophers are more easily discredited than platitudes.” As it turns out, in addition to being a brilliant philosopher, Lewis was a master of understatement.

For some unwary souls, conversation with the philosopher can feel like an attack or assault. The philosopher’s favorite hobby is critical discussion, and this is almost guaranteed to be — shall we say — annoying. (Indeed, I am tempted to say that if it weren’t annoying, it would be a sign that something has gone wrong — that the conversation is becoming stale and irrelevant.) Ordinary folk, on the other hand, generally try to do what it takes to get along with others, which means being polite and trying to smooth over conflict, and it may seem as though the philosopher has terrible manners for asking too many uncomfortable questions. And the ordinary folk are sometimes quite right. Indeed, sometimes what passes for philosophy really is just a trivial bloodsport, a pointless game of denigration and insult with no productive bottom line that is disguised as disinterested inquiry (as illustrated by this hilarious spoof article).

The estrangement between philosophers and non-philosophers might owe to the fact that there is no strong consensus about what it means to be a philosopher. For one thing, philosophers are under external pressure to tell the world just who the hell they think they are. As funding is increasingly being diverted away from the humanities, the self-identity of the philosopher has started to be put under increased scrutiny. For another thing, the discipline is suffering from some internal strain. Analytic philosophy once had a strong mission statement: to clear up conceptual confusions by revealing how people were being fooled by grammar into committing to absurd theses. Unfortunately, over the past few decades the analytic philosopher’s confidence in their ability to do conceptual analysis has suffered. The tried and true philosophical reliance upon aprioristic reasoning has fallen increasingly out of favor, as greater awareness of insights from psychology and the social sciences have begun to undermine the credibility of distinctively philosophical inquiry. The harder that the social sciences encroach upon aprioristic terrain, the harder that rear-guard philosophers try to push back, and it is not at all obvious that they are winning the fight. It is against this background that Livengood et al. confess: “Many signs point to an identity crisis in contemporary philosophy. As a group, we philosophers are puzzled and conflicted about what exactly philosophy is.”

I don’t really think that philosophers should worry very much about their sense of identity, because there is a pretty straightforward way of characterizing the ideal philosopher. But in order to see why, it’s worth taking the time to think about what it means to be a philosopher: why it’s worth it, how non-philosophers can benefit from whatever the philosopher is up to, and how philosophers can figure out how to do their business better. We should start thinking more often about what the philosophical personality looks like, so that everyone can relate to philosophers as people.

A not-awful definition of philosophy could begin thus: “All philosophers are lovers — they are lovers of wisdom”. This gives due credit to the etymology of philosophy (which, of course, is commonly translated as ‘love of wisdom’.) But it also sounds a bit perverse. Indeed, when little Johnny comes back from Oxford after a year of study philosophy, and tells Mom that he has fallen in love with an abstract noun, one ought not be surprised if Mom frets for Johnny. So what I mean needs to be unpacked a little.

In the abstract, I would argue that wisdom involves at least four virtues: insight, prudence, reason, and fair-mindedness. In practice, I think, wisdom involves a degree of self-insight (the ability to articulate and weigh one’s intuitions), intellectual humility (the ability to actively poke at and potentially abandon those intuitions), intellectual rigor (the ability to reason through the implications of what one thinks), and cooperatively engaged (the ability to communicate one’s own convictions in a cooperative and illuminating way). That is the sort of person that the philosopher ought to be.

This is not to suggest that this ideal of the philosopher is one that every philosopher in every time in history would endorse. To choose a recent example, one prominent philosopher argued (tongue-in-cheek, I think) that contemporary philosophers just aren’t like that. He argues: “What is literally true is that we philosophers value knowledge, like our colleagues in other departments. Do we love knowledge? One might reasonably demur from such an emotive description.” Evidently, the working assumption is that the reader learning this information is better served if they lower their expectations of philosophy, instead of lowering their expectations of the people working in philosophy departments. I cannot think of any way to reasonably motivate this assumption.

But even if we thought that somehow the quoted author had it right, the history of the future would show him wrong. The greatest luminaries in philosophy, the great wise and dead, have a tendency to crowd out the loud and supercilious living. Their ability to command our attention owes to the fact that philosophical luminaries have always filled an essential cultural need: namely, they have helped to reinvent the idea of what it means to come to maturity, by striving to be insightful, humble, rigorous, and engaged. ‘The love of wisdom’ is not [just] a roundabout way of speaking about valuing knowledge — it is a way of talking about trying to be better as people. Philosophers ask us be at our best when they ask us to study wisdom for its own sake, because philosophy is as essential to adulthood as preschool is to the young.

This, I think, is a not-totally-unsatisfying way of looking at the ideal philosopher. But there is a lot missing. It doesn’t really capture the kind of energy that goes into doing philosophy, the nerdy thrill that goes into tackling the biggest questions you can think of. I have not given you any reason to think that the ideal of wisdom tells us anything about what real philosophers are like. I’m saving that for the next post.

[Substantial edit for clarity on Aug. 21]

(BLS Nelson is the author of this article. For more information about him, click here.)

19 Comments.

  1. » Philosophical personalities Weblog - pingback on August 10, 2012 at 9:02 pm
  2. I would argue that wisdom involves at least four virtues: insight, prudence, reason, and fair-mindedness.

    I really like this assessment.

    A slightly unrelated question: Do you get the sense that Philosophers have stagnated at all? I don’t necessarily think that it’s true it’s just something I’ve wondered about.

    Is it like the music industry? Where most new songs are simply a repackaging of old material, with a truly original idea only every so often?

    It’s also entirely possible that I’m simply not reading or doing enough Philosophy. A problem I would gladly remedy.

  3. I’ve followed this and other philosophy blogs for about 5 years now.

    Often I’ve felt attacked and at times treated in a condescending way by professional philosophers or simply ignored by the pros, as if my arguments were not even worth refuting.

    I recall a pro, in another blog, referring to the arguments of the non-pros as being like the finger-painting of a child compared to the work of a real artist.

    At the same time, I often have seen the pros as suffering from the tax accountant mentality, an obsession with unimportant details or as afraid to commit themselves, taking refuge in laberynths of argumentation, which finally so very often lead them to terribly bourgeois conclusions, to affirming the establishing order of things and its values.

    I had expected philosophers to be more radical, more like Nietzsche or Sartre, two thinkers whom I read many years ago and whom I still enjoy rereading.

    Still, I have learned ever so much from my contact with the world of philosophy and philosophers online: my reasoning has become much more careful, logical and thought-out.

    I examine my own motives and reasons more, and I believe that I fool myself less.

    I have become a more effective arguer in political arguments (most everyone I know is involved in politics) and in family matters.

    A downside is that I feel more of an outsider because I see through arguments that many of my friends accept and I realize that if I go about criticizing all my friends say, I’ll soon have even fewer friends than I now have.

    In any case, I would like to thank the folks of the TPM blog for these years of adult education online and the bloggers, Ben included, for their patience with my arguments and their willingness to answer them.

  4. Thanks folks!

    [fistbump S.Wally]

    @Ben:

    A slightly unrelated question: Do you get the sense that Philosophers have stagnated at all? I don’t necessarily think that it’s true it’s just something I’ve wondered about.
    Is it like the music industry? Where most new songs are simply a repackaging of old material, with a truly original idea only every so often?

    I’d say it’s a mixed bag.

    The most focused / least impressionistic answers to this question will depend on the subdiscipline. e.g., while few are now hiring in the philosophy of language, and theories of reference have not gone unpunished by the rising tide of experimental philosophy, there is enormously interesting work being done there. The problem I have as a graduate student is in trying to see where the interest can be justified by empirical skepticism.

    There is certainly work out there which is fascinating. Graham Priest’s dialetheism is perhaps the most dramatic example. In addition to being a logician with superlative talents, he has an interesting grand metaphysical theory in the offing which I am beginning to warm up to.

    I’m sure there are pockets of stagnation. But philosophers from every generation will complain about that. We (teachers of philosophy) often conveniently forget that just about every philosopher ever prefaced their work with a laundry list of complaints about The Schoolmen. Sometimes those complaints had solid grounding. Normal philosophy is almost always a cultural institution, and sometimes those institutions are bonkers. But that’s to be expected, if we think philosophy serves some vital function in how people think about themselves and the world.

    I’m going to go into this a little bit in the next two posts, where I will be talking more about the real-life approximations of the ideal. The next post will be about figures in philosophy who are closest to the ideal. The post after that will be about those who are, er, not as close to the ideal, but relatively more common. Then you’ll see what I mean when I say it’s a mixed bag.

  5. Thanks! I appreciate the response and look forward to your next posts.

  6. Re:- BLS Nelson Aug 11th.

    “For some unwary souls, entering into a conversation with the philosopher can feel like an attack or assault”

    If you are say, a professional boxer, and you agree with someone who is interested, to spar with you, the ability of the person rapidly becomes evident. If they are merely of average ability the boxer surely does not make mincemeat of them. Does the same not the same hold for professional philosophers engaged in conversation with the so called unwary soul? Being a professional philosopher should not additionally embrace pomposity and/or impoliteness.
    I suggest that Philosophical thinking is an innate propensity we all do it. Some are better at it than others, take training in the subject, and they call themselves first and foremost Philosophers. Almost everybody has opinions and beliefs and will respond to questions about God, the hereafter, is stealing good or bad, and so on. Philosophy is in fact embraced by what one would call living. Professional philosophers may be due to their training, more adept at so called critical thinking, and communication, but they are far from fool-proof. I suggest that nobody of normal mental ability could really be described as Non-philosophically appraised, any more than they could be described as unable to run; we can all do it, but vary in our ability that is all.

  7. In a Greek Dictionary I find under ‘Sophia’ (fem) (sophos) cleverness or skill in art. (2) cleverness , skill in common things, prudence; also cunning, shrewdness, craft.
    (3) perfect scientific knowledge, wisdom, philosophy.

    The empirical is definitely a part of philosophy but not the endless gathering of data, more a sufficient empirical acquaintance to get a sense of first principles. Possibly more self styled philosophers, would have more interesting things to say if they were engaged in some other job. There’s an assumption that philosophy only takes place in university amongst teachers of it which is bizarre and a tacit and a tacit admission of failure as many thousands of graduates in the subject are released each year.

    It may be noticed that there is no mention of ‘the good’ in the definition of ‘sophia’. Philosophers have been found on every side of every moral question and in support of every obnoxious political movement. John Carey’s The Intellectual and the Masses is a chastening read for the liberal intelligentsia and bien-pensants of every hue.

  8. Re:- michael reidy.
    “Possibly more self styled philosophers, would have more interesting things to say if they were engaged in some other job.”
    Good brains going to waste maybe?

  9. Don Bird August 12, 2012 at 6:30 am

    Re:- BLS Nelson Aug 11th.

    “For some unwary souls, entering into a conversation with the philosopher can feel like an attack or assault”

    “If you are say, a professional boxer, and you agree with someone who is interested, to spar with you, the ability of the person rapidly becomes evident. If they are merely of average ability the boxer surely does not make mincemeat of them. Does the same not the same hold for professional philosophers engaged in conversation with the so called unwary soul? Being a professional philosopher should not additionally embrace pomposity and/or impoliteness.
    I suggest that Philosophical thinking is an innate propensity we all do it. Some are better at it than others, take training in the subject, and they call themselves first and foremost Philosophers. Almost everybody has opinions and beliefs and will respond to questions about God, the hereafter, is stealing good or bad, and so on. Philosophy is in fact embraced by what one would call living. Professional philosophers may be due to their training, more adept at so called critical thinking, and communication, but they are far from fool-proof. I suggest that nobody of normal mental ability could really be described as Non-philosophically appraised, any more than they could be described as unable to run; we can all do it, but vary in our ability that is all.”

    I think you have some good ideas. I feel that we all have the ability to become ‘philosophers’ although some of us are more open to questioning the world and maybe even our own belief systems. It worries me that the article used to words “attack or insult” to describe conversations with a philosopher because I thought that being a philosopher who can connect to the external world would require better communication skills.

    p.s. please pardon my ignorance. I have been reading Sophie’s World…

  10. Hey MSM, I said “can feel like” an attack or assault. That’s not the same thing as attack or assault.

    Sophie’s World is nice for getting your feet wet. But the ending is… strange.

  11. Don Bird:
    One can think of many philosophers who were persons of great practical capacity. Monumental sculptor, lens grinder, cabinet maker, aero engineer and architect and primary school teacher and a gardener, inventor of urban public transport, carpenter. The title of philosopher in its modern acceptation is contrary to the definition of philo-sophia that the Greeks would have understood and as this is is the ur-definition we must deny the title to those who inhabit the older sections of the university campus and walk into pillars.

    From internal evidence I award the title of ‘Greek’ to Mike LaB. as an athlete who fixes things even to the extent of putting himself in harm’s way. Ye other posters I ‘suspect’ I may have to take away the ‘r’.

  12. Re Michael Reidy aug 13th
    As a humble Geek, I am risking being shot down in flames, when I say had the failed schoolteacher and gardener, architect whom surely no one would employ but his sister, stuck to Aero engineering the World may have been better enriched by his efforts in that direction. Would I be correct in saying you have amongst other things, an expertise in cryptic crosswords? I am hopeless at them.

  13. Nicola Jamieson

    What a wonderful blog! Thank you. So wonderful in fact that I want to comment! And as none of you know me, that is within itself no mean feat! As a real person, formerly an “unwary soul” trying to define what Philosophy is and the role or part it should/ought or does have, perhaps the action, this action is a leap embracing and embraced by the subject.

    To be antagonised by Philosophy or indeed philosophers serves the antagonised, not for the sake of antagonism. It is perhaps at these points that the very real essence of Philosophy is at its closest.

    On the other hand, sometimes, people just need a hug!

  14. RE:-Nicola Jamieson August 14,
    “On the other hand, sometimes, people just need a hug!”
    Yes we have done that one too, and recently. Have a look.

  15. Thanks Nicola! Welcome!

  16. Four kinds of philosophical people | Talking Philosophy - pingback on August 18, 2012 at 7:29 pm
  17. My attempt at being a philosopher - pingback on August 20, 2012 at 7:05 pm
  18. Metaphors for philosophical people | Talking Philosophy - pingback on April 10, 2013 at 1:21 pm

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