“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.)