Four kinds of philosophical people

We’ll begin this post where I ended the last. The ideal philosopher lives up to her name by striving for wisdom. In practice, the pursuit of wisdom involves developing a sense of good judgment when tackling very hard questions. I think there are four skills involved in the achievement of good judgment: self-insight, humility, rigor, and cooperativeness.

Even so, it isn’t obvious how the philosophical ideal is supposed to model actual philosophers. Even as I was writing the last post, I had the nagging feeling that I was playing the role of publicist for philosophy. A critic might say that I set out to talk about how philosophers were people, but only ended up stating some immodest proposals about the Platonic ideal of the philosopher. The critic might ask: Why should we think that it has any pull on real philosophers? Do the best professional philosophers really conceive of themselves in this way? If I have no serious answer to these questions, then I have done nothing more than indulged in a bit of cheerleading on behalf of my beloved discipline. So I want to start to address that accusation by looking at the reputations of real philosophers.

Each individual philosopher will have their own ideas about which virtues are worth investing in and which are worth disregarding. Even the best working philosophers end up neglecting some of the virtues over the others: e.g., some philosophers might find it relatively less important to write in order to achieve consensus among their peers, and instead put accent on virtues like self-insight, humility, and rigour. Hence, we should expect philosophical genius to be correlated with predictable quirks of character which can be described using the ‘four virtues’ model. And if that is true, then we should be able to see how major figures in the history of philosophy measure up to the philosophical ideal. If the greatest philosophers can be described in light of the ideal, we should be able to say we’ve learned something about the philosophers as people.

And then I shall sing to the Austrian mountains in my best Julie Andrews vibrato: “public relations, this is not“.


In my experience, many skilled philosophers who work in the Anglo-American tradition will tend to have a feverish streak. They will tend to find a research program which conforms with their intuitions (some of which may be treated as “foundational” or givens), and then hold onto that program for dear life. This kind of philosopher will change her mind only on rare occasions, and even then only on minor quibbles that do not threaten her central programme. We might call this kind of philosopher a “programmist” or “anti-skeptic, since the programmist downplays the importance of humility, and is more interested in characterizing herself in terms of the other virtues like philosophical rigour.

You could name a great many philosophers who seem to hold this character. Patricia and Paul Churchland come to mind: both have long held the view that the progress of neuroscience will require the radical reformation of our folk psychological vocabulary. However, when I try to think of a modern exemplar of this tradition, I tend to think of W.V.O. Quine, who held fast to most of his doctrinal commitments throughout his lifetime: his epistemological naturalism and holism, to take two examples. This is just to say that Quine thought that the interesting metaphysical questions were answerable by science. Refutation of the deeper forms of skepticism was not very high on Quine’s agenda; if there is a Cartesian demon, he waits in vain for the naturalist’s attention. The most attractive spin on the programmist’s way of doing things is by saying they have raised philosophy to the level of a craft, if not a science.


Programmists are common among philosophers today. But if I were to take you into a time machine and introduced you to the elder philosophers, then it would be easy to lose all sense of how the moderns compare with their predecessors. The first philosophers lived in a world where science was young, if not absent altogether; there was no end of mystery to how the universe got on. For many of them, there was no denying that skepticism deserved a place at the table. From what we can tell from what they left behind, many ancient philosophers (save Aristotle and Pythagoras) did not possess the quality that we now think of as analytic rigour. The focus was, instead, of developing the right kind of life, and then — well, living it.

We might think of this as a wholly different approach to being a philosopher than our modern friend the programmist. These philosophers were self-confident and autonomous, yet had plenty to say to the skeptic. For lack of a better term, we might call this sort of philosopher a “guru” or “informalist“. The informalist trudges forward, not necessarily with the light of reason and explicit argument, but of insight and association, often expressed in aphorisms. To modern professional philosophers and academic puzzle-solvers, the guru may seem like a specialist in woo and mysticism, a peddler of non-sequiturs. Many an undergraduate in philosophy will aspire to be a guru, and endure the scorn from their peers  (often, rightly administered).

Be that as it may, some gurus end up having a vital place in the history of modern philosophy. Whenever I think of the ‘guru’ type of philosopher, I tend to think of Frederich Nietzsche — and I feel justified in saying that in part because I guess that he would have accepted the title. For Nietzsche, insight was the single most important feature of the philosopher, and the single trait which he felt was altogether lacking in his peers.

Nietzsche was a man of passion, which is the reason why he is so easily misunderstood. Also, for a variety of reasons, Nietzsche was a man who suffered from intense loneliness. (In all likelihood, the fact that he was a rampant misogynist didn’t help in that department.) But he was also a preacher’s son, his rhetoric electric, his sermons brimming with insight and even weird lapses into latent self-deprecation. Moreover, he is a man who wrote in order to be read, and who was excited by the promise of new philosophers coming out to replace old canons. In the long run, he got what he wanted; as Walter Kaufman wrote, ”Nietzsche is one of the few philosophers since Plato whom large numbers of intelligent people read for pleasure”.


“He has the pride of Lucifer.” — Russell on Wittgenstein

Some philosophers prefer to strike out on their own, paving an intellectual path by way of sheer stamina and force of will. We might call them the “lone wolves“. The lone wolf will often appear as a kind of contrarian with a distinctive personality. However the lone wolf is set apart from a mere devil’s advocate by virtue of the fact that she needs to pump unusually deep wellsprings of creativity and cleverness into her craft. Because she needs to strike off alone, the wolf has to be prepared to chew bullets for breakfast: there is no controversial position she is incapable of endorsing, so long as those positions qualify as valid moves in the game of giving and taking of reasons. She is out for adventure, to prove herself capable of working on her own. More than anything else, the lone wolf despises philosophical yes-men and yes-women. She has no time for the people who are satisfied by conventional wisdom — people who revere the ongoing dialectic as a sacred activity, a Great Conversation between the ages. The lone wolf says: the hell with this! These are problems, and problems are meant to be solved.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a lone wolf, in the sense that nobody could quite refute Wittgenstein except for Wittgenstein. The philosophical monograph which made him famous, the Tractatus, began with an admission of idiosyncracy: “Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it—or at least similar thoughts.—So it is not a textbook.—Its purpose would be achieved if it gave pleasure to one person who read and understood it.” He was a private man, who published very little while alive, and whose positions were sometimes unclear even to his students. He was an intense man, reputed to have wielded a hot poker at one of his contemporaries. And he had an oracular style of writing — the Tractatus resembles an overlong Powerpoint presentation, while the Investigations was a free-wheeling screed. These qualities conspired to give the man himself an almost mythical quality. As Ernest Nagel wrote in 1936 (quoting a Viennese friend): “in certain circles the existence of Wittgenstein is debated with as much ingenuity as the historicity of Christ has been disputed in others”.

Wittgenstein’s work has lasting significance. His anti-private language argument is a genuine philosophical innovation, and widely celebrated as such. As such, he is the kind of philosopher that everybody has to know at least something about. But none of this came about by the power of idiosyncrasy alone. Wittgenstein achieved notoriety by demonstrating that he had a penetrating ability to go about the whole game of giving and taking reasons.


“Synthesizers are necessarily dedicated to a vision of an overarching truth, and display a generosity of spirit towards at least wide swaths of the intellectual community. Each contributes partial views of reality, Aristotle emphasizes; so does Plotinus, and Proclus even more widely…” Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies

Some philosophers are skilled at combining the positions and ideas that are alive in the ongoing conversation and weaving them into an overall picture. This is a kind of philosopher that we might call the “syncretist“. Much like the lone wolf, the syncretist despises unchallenged dogmatism; but unlike the lone wolf, this is not because she enjoys the prospect of throwing down the gauntlet. Rather, the syncretist enjoys the murmur of people getting along, engaged in a productive conversation. Hence, the syncretist is driven to reconcile opposing doctrines, so long as those doctrines are plausible. When she is at her best, the syncretist is able to generate a powerful synthesis out of many different puzzle pieces, allowing the conversation to become both more abstract without also becoming unintelligible. They do not just say, “Let a thousand flowers bloom” — instead, they demonstrate how the blooming of one flower only happens when in the company of others.

The only philosopher that I have met who absolutely exemplifies the spirit of the syncretist, and persuasively presents the syncretist as a virtuous standpoint in philosophy, is the Stanford philosopher Helen Longino. In my view, her book The Fate of Knowledge is a revelation.

A more infamous [example] of the syncretist, however, is Jurgen Habermas. Habermas is an under-appreciated philosopher, a figure who is widely neglected in Anglo-American philosophy departments and (for a time) was widely scorned in certain parts of Europe. True, Habermas is a difficult philosopher to read. And, in fairness, one sometimes gets the sense that his stuff is a bit too ecumenical to be motivated on its own terms. But part of what makes Habermas close to an ideal philosopher is that he is an intellectual who has read just about everything — he has partaken in wider conversations, attempting to reconcile the analytic tradition with themes that stretch far beyond its remit. Habermas also has a prodigious output: he has written on a countless variety of subjects, including speech act theory, the ethics of assertion, political legitimation, Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, collective action, critical theory and the theory of ideology, social identity, normativity, truth, justification, civilization, argumentation theory, and doubtless many other things. If a dozen people carved up his bibliography and each staked a claim to part of it, you’d end up with a dozen successful academic careers.

For some intellectuals, syncretism is hard to digest. Just as both mothers in the court of King Solomon might have felt equally betrayed, the unwilling subjects of the syncretist’s analysis may respond with ill tempers. In particular, the syncretist grates on the nerves of those who aspire to achieve the status of lone wolf intellectuals. Take two examples, mentioned by Dr. Finlayson (Sussex). On the one hand, Marxist intellectuals will sometimes like to accuse Habermas of “selling out” — for instance, because Habermas has abandoned the usual rhythms of dialectical philosophy by trying his hand at analytic philosophy. On the other hand, those in analytic philosophy are not always very happy to recognize Habermas as a precursor to the shape of analytic philosophy today. John Searle explains in an uncompromising review: “Habermas has no theory of social ontology. He has something he calls the theory of communicative action. He says that the ”purpose” of language is communicative action. This is wrong. The purpose of language is to perform speech acts. His concept of communicative action is to reach agreement by rational discussion. It has a certain irony, because Habermas grew up in the Third Reich, in which there was another theory: the ”leadership principle”.” I suspect that Searle got Habermas wrong, but nobody said life as a philosopher was easy.


Everything I’ve said above is a cartoon sketch of some philosophical archetypes. It is worth noting, of course, that none of the philosophers I have mentioned will fit into the neat little boxes I have made for them. The vagaries of the human personality resist being reduced to archetypes. Even in the above, I cheated a little: Nietzsche is arguably as much a lone wolf as he is a guru. I also don’t mean to suggest that all professional philosophers will fit into anything quite like these categories. Some are by reputation much too close to the philosophical ideal to fit into an archetype. (Hilary Putnam comes to mind.) And other professional philosophers are nowhere close to the ideal — there is no shortage of philosophers behaving badly. I mean only to say something about how you can use the ‘four virtues’ model of wisdom to say something interesting about philosophers themselves.

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


  1. Thanks, Ben.

    Great post. You have a gift.

    You should write a book about philosophers.

  2. A lot to think about. As you say, it’s not clear how often/much the concepts of these ideal types are actually instantiated. But you make it sound plausible. You also manage to make all four sound attractive.

  3. This is an excellent post, extremely thought provoking, and I must come back to it when time permits as philosophical personality has always interested me. There is one point which perhaps someone can set my mind at rest because, with the greatest respect to everybody, especially Ben, I find it unbearably irritating, and I am not by nature an irritable person.
    Why do philosophers eschew the use of “his/her” or “their” and insist that everybody, where the sex is undetermined, be referred to as “she” “her” “hers”? It must have its origins in Political correctness, or some pressure from the feminist quarter, with whom I hasten to add I also have the greatest respect.
    Yes it is not really correct to refer to all philosophers as “he” “him” or “his”, as there are also female philosophers in this world. So whilst “he” “him” “his” is not acceptable how does it come about that “she” “her” “hers” has been for some years now used almost exclusively. Is there something I have missed here like some mutual agreement made by philosophers. I am sorry to burden people with my mental problems and I wonder if anybody else has a similar condition. However do not hesitate to reply severely if you think I am just speaking trivial time wasting nonsense.
    I was brought up on “He” “Him” “His” and realise now this is unsatisfactory, but why replace it with “She” “Her” “Hers”. The constant use of “She” “Her” “Hers”. does seem to have an underlying patronising tone, which says ‘look, we are now remembering the women.’

  4. I expect you would classify George Santayana as an informalist. He was also a poet and once wrote the following in a letter to William James:

    “If philosophy were the attempt to solve a given problem, I should see reason to be discouraged about its success; but it strikes me that it is [page-break] rather an attempt to express a half-undiscovered reality, just as art is, and that two different renderings, if they are expressive, far from cancelling each other add to each other’s value . . . I confess I do not see why we should be so vehemently curious about the absolute truth, which is not to be made or altered by our discovery of it. But philosophy seems to me to be its own reward, and its justification lies in the delight and dignity of the art itself.”

    Letter to William James, 1887-12-15, quoted in Kirkwood 1961, pp. 43-44.

    M. M. Kirkwood [1961]: “Santayana: Saint of the Imagination.” Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

  5. Don:
    It is the politically correct habit of using ‘she’ for the unmarked pronoun, in effect destroying a useful distinction. It is of course an American academical barbarism which by the pervasive colonisation of the banal has come to infect good English. The ‘their’ and ‘they’ that Partridge Usage and Abusage deprecates is at least idiomatic and has the sense of an indefinite ungendered multitude. and is used by Austen, Thackerey and Shakespeare.
    Wikipedia has an informative article on gender specific pronouns. 

  6. Thanks all!

    @Peterv — Santayana would be a great illustration, I’m sure. I actually did think about using him as an example, but was less familiar with his work, so decided against it. It’s been many years since I read anything by him.

    @Michael/Don: I don’t get accused of political correctness very often so I’ll take it as a compliment.

    Personal preference says a lot about how to use pronouns. “He/she” is inelegant, “they” is serviceable as a one-off instance but leads to confusion if you make a habit of it. Initially I alternated between “he” and “she” between paragraphs, but disliked how it felt. So I opted for an imbalance of “she”. I regret nothing.

  7. Great blog post particularly when many early career academic philosophers (e.g., graduate students) might think that there is only one type of philosopher that defines one as a legitimate philosopher.

    Regarding the he /she usage debate…I don’t view the matter so much in terms of political correctness–even within the PC paradigm, I don’t think replacing “he” with “she” is such a predominant or widespread phenomenon–so much as a matter of replicating gender bias in language. I remember as an undergraduate that in my writing seminars such language usage was strongly discouraged, and apparently that only applies to college students seeking the right grades but not to working professionals.

  8. Peter Schwarz:
    I’m confused. Which usage was strongly discouraged, the general usage of ‘he’ as the unmarked personal pronoun when no particular person is referred to and therefore could be either male or female or the special usage which Ben favours which turns ‘she’ into the unmarked personal pronoun. I presume it was the latter ‘special’ usage which was encouraged. Aspirant academics in the egg would be imprinted with this behaviour like Tinbergen’s ducks and remain true to it.

  9. What about the hermeneutist? If I were to suggest, the hermeneutist sees that no other ideal type can sever the historical development of conversations, and would likely remind the lone wolves of the world that what they are feigning as individual insight had been said by another in the past.

  10. @Michael: Yes, I was referring to the usage of “he” as the unmarked personal pronoun when not referring to a particular person. But I don’t recall writing instructors encouraging the use of “she” as a substitution for correcting gender bias (alternatives usually involved trying to rephrase the sentence in a different manner, such as BLS Nelson describes above).

  11. Those of you interested in both philosophy and the problem of usages (in the case of this post, the usages of he or she) should take a look at Ortega Y Gasset’s work, “Man and People”. In it, an eminent philosopher sheds considerable light on the entire problem of society and the social by means of his doctrine of usages.

  12. Does this account for why some philosophers consider others not to be? I’d say Dennett is a syncretist, but many people love to say he’s just a popular science writer.

  13. Hey JB, it depends on the case.

    On the one hand, there really are ways of legitimately saying, “That person is not a philosopher”. In the above, I only gave an account of what the ideal philosopher looks like as a person. But some people in the broader population might have the virtues of philosophers as people, but not do anything related to philosophy as an activity — so, e.g., Candide the gardener might have given up all the big questions in philosophy, and hence not be a philosopher, but we might think he still has all the right virtues. And some might think about those big questions, without having most of the virtues. So in principle there is room to say that some professional philosophers aren’t really philosophers.

    That having been said, you have to be on your guard when people say “That’s not philosophy” (or, “How is this philosophy?”, which states the same thing as a thinly veiled interrogative). The problem is that these claims are often made by people who don’t know very much about their colleagues or their history. (IIRC, there was a post about this obnoxious practice over at NewAPPS blog not too long ago, though I can’t find a direct link, sadly.)

    FWIW, I’m inclined to say that anyone who seriously doesn’t think Dennett is a philosopher, either doesn’t know/care much about Dennett, or doesn’t know/care much about philosophers. Sour grapes can hit a lot of people hard, especially in philosophy. It’s hard not to attribute that kind of bad faith to those who would assert pretentious and hostile claims towards a senior, well-cited, and well-respected member of the discipline.

  14. I have no idea of the origins of the usage, but court opinions now regularly use the feminine singular when referring in the singual to a non-specific person.

  15. Correction “singular,” of course.

  16. Re:-BLS Nelson August 24

    That having been said, you have to be on your guard when people say “That’s not philosophy” (or, “How is this philosophy?”,
    I would say to “That’s not Philosophy” that is a philosophical statement, let’s discuss it, that will be philosophy.
    I would say to “How is this philosophy?” I will tell you, you will reply and that is philosophy.
    Philosophy is not restricted to deep barely understandable discussions which often lead nowhere. Everybody has opinions which they will often utter and replies will be made. That is Philosophy. The degree of difficulty does at times need a professionally trained philosopher to comment usefully but philosophy is not restricted to such people alone. Everybody has some degree of philosophical aptitude it varies from almost negligible to deep profundity. We can for instance, all run, some are just better at it than others.
    So far as Dennett is concerned he is either a good philosopher or a poor one. It seems preposterous for anybody to claim he is not a philosopher at all.

  17. Interesting categorization. For a more complex and rigorous (and perhaps harder to read) approach, see the various items at, particularly the publication “Philosophic Semantics and Philosophic Inquiry.”

  18. Thanks for the link, Andrew. For anyone who is interested in reading the suggested essay, click here. It will indeed be tough going for anyone who hasn’t got philosophical training. I myself find it challenging on first reading.

    In that article, the author mainly understands philosophical activity in terms of philosophical semantics — the business of untangling knotted meanings when asking the big questions. Dr. McKeon reminds us that there are four different philosophical ‘methods of thought’, or ways of making things clear: the “dialectical” (aiming at dialogue), “operational” (aiming at debate), “logistic” (aiming at proof), and “problematic” (aiming at inquiry). At just an impressionistic level, this reminds me of the syncretist, lone wolf, programmist, and informalist (respectively). I can see why Andrew brought it up.

    Yet the main point of the article is quite different from the point I wanted to make in mine. I wanted to talk about philosophers as people: their virtues (if you buy that term), their aspirations, the kinds of people that the best philosophers want to be. I think that McKeon notes that philosophers can switch between the ‘methods of thought’ depending on what problem they’re tackling at the moment. But one does not switch temperaments quite so easily.

  19. rc douglas:
    As I wrote It is of course an American academical barbarism which by the pervasive colonisation of the banal has come to infect good English.. You say that it is common in court opinions. I rest my case. Perhaps it arises out of a largely monoglot culture. We have to imagine that a person becomes more or less sexist as they move from one language to another, a philosophical position that is absurd but if you are a ‘duckling’ and the first thing that you see is the great bearded prof then your mind may be swayed to accept it.

    One thing I’ve noticed about contemporary philosophers of the broadly analytic persuasion is that their ‘literary’ reading is often in science fiction. We are offered phantastic thought experiments involving brains in vats etc without any discernable irony.

  20. Philosophical Papers or court hearings I still mentally writhe when I read it or hear it. “If a bricklayer needs more mortar she should make it known to her site manageresse.” Does that give any indication of what I am trying to convey?

  21. @Don Bird, an alternative from the trans community:

    quote from Taking Up too Much Space:

    Ze/hir: “Ze” and “hir” (pronounced like “here”) are gender ambiguous, singular pronouns. They are used in preference to “they” and “their” because many trans people find those words dehumanizing, as well as to make ze & hir more accessible options for trans people who choose to use them for themselves. For the purposes of this document, they are used not only about people who actively prefer those pronouns to be used, but for anyone whose gender is not specified. (example: ”Ze went to the grocery store to buy hirself some ice cream.”

  22. Re Storm Aug 31st
    Thanks. I was reading about this on Wikipedia a few weeks ago, but lost interest. I shall return to it and the website you recommend with renewed interest.

  23. @Don Bird
    In ‘Woman On The Edge of Time’ (Marge Piercy, 1976) “per” replaces ‘him’ and ‘her’ and “Person” replaces “She” and “He”. By midway through the book this felt easy on the tounge – much more so than Zi/hir.

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  25. People!!!! :cry:
    Far too much silly pronoun speak, betokens distracted minds. The biggest social issue of today is planetary wellbeing for future generations, no doubt in my that’s way ahead in importance over any individual sectional concern, so guess that makes me an antisectionalist longbigpicturist. hmmm..clunky but catchy?

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  27. Look, an odd-lve among the-ists. :-)

  28. @peterv: I’ve never seen the literal quoting of a page-break in a quote, as you’ve done here in reference to Santayana’s letter to William James.

    I’m curious as to what value you believe it adds to the quote, as I confess that I see none whatsoever.

  29. I don’t suppose I qualify as a competent enough philosopher to say good or ill of anything here but one item, and that’s this, from Searle:
    ““Habermas has no theory of social ontology. He has something he calls the theory of communicative action. He says that the ”purpose” of language is communicative action. This is wrong. The purpose of language is to perform speech acts.”
    No, Habermas had that exactly right. All life forms communicate, and all communication has a meaningful purpose, which is to share knowledge in a wide variety problematic circumstances. Language has evolved accordingly and human language “performs” speech acts for essentially cooperative purposes. It’s not the individual speakers purpose to communicate with the goal of enjoying speech. Although to some extent that may have been true for Searle.

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  32. What about prelinguistic communication? All the information that comes in my direction,to my senses,is already a communication. Therefore my experience,my very being is a communication.

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