Metaphors for philosophical people [Updated]

Recently I argued that philosophers aspire to possess four virtues: rigor in argument, reason-responsiveness in dialogue, humility in commitment, and insight in belief. [*] In all things philosophical, the philosopher tries to avoid being like King Lear — i.e., someone who asserts without argument, responds to reasons with evasions, is incapable of intellectual change, and believes only in what is expedient or socialized into them. In a subsequent post, I argued that you could build a taxonomy of philosophical archetypes by classifying the philosopher according to the virtues they exemplify.

Those posts attempted to think about the ideal character types of some excellent philosophers. I did not make many specific references to the contemporary institution of philosophy, or to the great lumpenprofessoriat that staff university departments across the world. But, actually, it is misleading to characterize a discipline by showcasing its best members; not every golfer is Tiger Woods. Philosophy is not just a scholastic curio bequeathed to us from a bunch of dead icons. Philosophy is a living practice, performed by real people, and done for a point. The point of philosophy is personal growth — to try to become wiser, and to live better lives.

So I would like to start to set the record straight, just in case the record needed straightening. I’d like to use the ‘four virtues’ framework to talk about the self-image of philosophers in general, both professional and otherwise. In particular, I would like to articulate some of the different ways that philosophers have thought that their education helped to affect their development as persons. In this, my aim is both critical and reverential. Each metaphor describes a disposition or skill-set that is evenly balanced between virtues and vices. [**]

The point can be made clearest by drawing analogies to people and practices that we are already acquainted. In this post, I examine four metaphors for philosophers as people: you can think of philosophers as intellectual detectives, as rational therapists, as curious children, or as devil’s advocates. I might examine other metaphors in a future post, assuming readers do not heave this post overboard as they would a dead sailor at sea.


I think I can see why Wittgenstein loved detective stories. On some occasions, I am tempted to think of the philosopher as a kind of intellectual detective. Like storybook gumshoes, the philosopher has a problem to solve, and has to rely primarily on their wit and sense of reason to come to a solution. Like the detective, the philosopher needs to have a healthy acquaintance with forms of reasoning in order to try to resolve their problems — namely, the use of deduction and inference to the best explanation.

Although he never explicitly compares the philosopher to a detective, I think the following passage from Barry Stroud [***] gives expression to the general idea:

“The philosophers I admire most possess [a] kind of acute sensitivity to philosophical difficulties. They are open to potential philosophical riches, and they find them, in what look to most of the rest of us like very unpromising places. And, what is equally important, those philosophers I admire most know how to keep searching when they know they haven’t really found the right thing yet. This is not the only kind of philosophical ability there is… but for me, those I most admire have a firm foothold in reality and a “nose” or feel for real problems, along with the patience to unfold the detail of what has to be overcome to achieve the kind of understanding that can mean the most to us.”

This analogy gains strength when we think about how some epistemologists think in earnest about philosophical problems. The philosophical detective has a few intuitive questions — a few real hum-dingers, a pocket full of paradoxes — and she believes that any philosopher that is not attempting to find the correct answer to these questions is not doing philosophy at all. The detective wants to actually get to the bottom of philosophical worries, and not just settle for a lingering sense of satisfaction with basking in the aura of the big questions. And many of the greatest philosophers of our time have arrived at systems of intuitions which indicate that finally, at long last, the great questions have either been solved or mooted.

The detective metaphor is a healthy source of motivation for the independent thinker. If you think you have good reasons to believe you have arrived at the truth, then there is usually no fault in saying so. The truth is out there and sometimes the truth is frickin’ awesome.

But, that having been said, the metaphor of the intellectual detective is sometimes misused when it only serves as a smokescreen for dogmatism. The author linked [here] is right when he makes just this narrow point. On occasion, students of philosophy will sometimes treat the informal fallacies as if they were falsity-detectors, divining rods which lead the philosopher to strike pay-dirt. But actually, any competent teacher of logic will tell you that a skill for critical thinking does not by itself confer the expertise to determine which conclusions are true and which are false. Rather, part of the value of critical thinking is that it helps the good-faith reader and listener to figure out for themselves how they stand in relation to arguments put before them.


When I lived in Toronto, the subway commute was generally unpleasant. The Toronto subway was decorated with advertisements for a sketchy new-age institute that branded itself as a school of Philosophy. I experience similar feelings of grouchitude when I walk into a bookstore and notice that the Philosophy section is invariably bookended by sections on Religion and Spirituality. Any student of analytic philosophy will reliably try to avert their eyes when exposed to commercial efforts that conflate philosophy and spirituality, else be forced to suffer through the minor indignity of being audience to false advertising.

Well, whatever. To some extent, the philosophical tradition has it coming. One of the worst kept secrets in analytic philosophy, and philosophy in general, is that part of the point of learning philosophy is to learn how to cope with living. When conceived in this way, the philosopher functions as a kind of rational therapistwho attempts to persuade people to accept palliative insights. With few exceptions, modern professional philosophers are generally quite lousy at providing such consolations. (It is instructive that De Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy ended with two 19th century philosophers, both of whom were by reputation inconsolable.)

But even so, this is not a reason to disbelieve that many philosophers throughout history have done what they do in order to learn how to live in the right kind of way. And on some occasions, the enterprise can be productive. After you read Nietzsche, Arendt, Russell, Nussbaum, or JS Mill, you may come away a different kind of person. Anyone who receives a philosophical education without reading and reacting to any of these figures is someone who has received an education unfulfilled. Certain strains of philosophy have been influential as vehicles that help to live the everyday life: for example, according to its adherents, the technique of cognitive-behavioral therapy owes a debt to the writings of the Stoics.

This is not necessarily to suggest that even the best rational therapists are always good at it. I might as well share a personal anecdote to illustrate the point. We all have difficult times in our lives, moments where we look for guidance and for wisdom. One night, after a stressful day, I laid in bed, shivering from melancholy. Thinking he could help, I plucked a copy of Meister Eckhart‘s writings from the shelf. Eckhart was a Dominican philosopher with a (mostly deserved) reputation for deep, probing insight. I am not much of a believer in the divine, but occasionally Eckhart is able to pin down an idea with such honesty that it is difficult not to admire him.

So I opened the book to a random page. I read this passage:

All that [perfect detachment] wants is to be. But to wish to be this thing or that — this it does not want. Whoever wants to be this or that wants to be something, but detachment wants to be nothing at all.

…and then I threw the book across the room and opted for sleep. I’m sure the contradiction in that passage can be resolved, but the only time you should try is in the light of day.


Increasingly, professional philosophers will try to paint themselves as expert reasoners, capable of handling difficult problems using sophisticated logical techniques. But this is a feature of the modern academy. In the past, it was more often said that the philosopher is like a curious child, constantly engaged in dialogue, asking questions that others think too obvious to contemplate.

Consider: Why is there something rather than nothing? If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and good, why is there evil? These are highly general, entirely reasonable questions, and you do not need any special authority to ask them. All you need is humility, and to seek to persuade others to be humble in kind. Socrates is maybe the most obvious example of someone who pretended to be a curious child, a patient rational inquirer who was given to constant self-effacement when interrogated. The Socratic Method is also meant to be intellectually egalitarian: hence, the intuitions of Socrates and the slave child Meno are supposed to be on the very same level.

There is nothing wrong with approaching a subject afresh, as if you were the first Martian anthropologist put in charge of understanding the people of Earth. Actually, there is quite a lot that is right with this approach.

But the trouble with innocence is that there is only a finite supply. When the would-be philosopher has thought about some subject matter for a significant length of time, they must either claim that they have found a special form of expertise, or else persist in assuming a pretence of innocence and hope no-one will see behind the ruse. Nietzsche may have been a mean old man, but he puts the point in an amusing way: “What’s attractive about looking at all philosophers in part suspiciously and in part mockingly is not that we find again and again how innocent they are… but that they are not honest enough in what they do, while, as a group, they make huge, virtuous noises as soon as the problem of truthfulness is touched on, even remotely.”

To think through difficult issues philosophically often means making an attempt to dump one’s prejudices as far as it is possible, and to let inquiry guide you to the right solution. But the elimination of prejudice must not come at too high a cost. The elimination of prejudice should not be used as grounds for undermining a capacity for good judgment.


[Updated 4/14]

Finally, I’d like to consider the likeness that some philosophers have to devil’s advocates.

When we hear that term, the position sounds, well, devilish and contrarian. But actually, it is not so simple as all that. The devil’s advocate is a colloquial term used to describe the position of being appointed by the Catholic Church to argue a case against the canonization of would-be saints. For a long time, the official title of the devil’s advocate was “Promoter of the Faith”. The task of the devil’s advocate is not to formulate a consensus opinion, or even to speak from honest conviction. Instead, the devil’s advocate is supposed to cast doubt on the proffered argument in a rigorous way.

Devil’s advocates are intellectual attorneys at heart. They are people who are annoyed by salespeople who only give one side to the story, and who want to hear the other side before coming to judgment. In their way, they are motivated by a kind of charity: they want to hear the strongest case that can be made for the other team, so that the final synthesis does not end up being dull and short-sighted. Devil’s advocates are not as interested in getting at the facts of the matter (like the intellectual detective), or exploring the mystery of life (like curious children), as much they are interested in getting an alternative point of view out there. Like the contrarian, the devil’s advocate is motivated in reaction to other peoples’ arguments. But unlike the contrarian, the devil’s advocate actually has an intellectual spine. They can put forward an argument that holds together on its own merits.

The devil’s advocate is, at the end of the day, a kind of sophist. In principle, the sophist is the arch-enemy of the philosopher, and the accusation of a would-be philosopher of “sophistry” is supposed to be a slap in the face. Hence I would wager that consensus opinion in professional philosophy would have it that the metaphor of ‘devil’s advocate’ is a truly degenerate metaphor. The worry is that if we accept that the devil’s advocate is doing philosophy, then it would signal that the discipline is hopelessly corrupt.

But it would seem that professional philosophy does not practice what it preaches. The fact of the matter is that many undergraduate philosophy programs primarily teach their students to be able to think on either side of an issue, and to argue for it in a critical way. Moreover, the ability to think of opposing arguments is exactly one of the skill-sets that are used to sell students on the practical value of an education in philosophy. So, to the extent that one believes that the value of philosophy consists in its ability to produce a supple mind that is able to think around curves, one is saying that the value of philosophy is in its value of teaching how to be a devil’s advocate. If philosophers are to be more honest, and more coherent, they must be able to come to terms with the fact that the devil’s advocate is not necessarily doing bad philosophy.

I do think that there is a problem with this kind of sophistry, but the problem is not that the position of devil’s advocate is essentially corrupt or degenerate. Rather, I think one ought not be satisfied with advocating for the devil, unless it is as a means of first advocating something that really matters — for the truth, or for the good, or whatever. In other words: anyone who is satisfied with a life of being a devil’s advocate, is someone who is settling for philosophical mediocrity. But while the charge of mediocrity is a potent one, it does not uniquely belong to the devil’s advocate. After all, as a matter of fact, I have already shown that the accusation of mediocrity can be levelled against every single one of the metaphors in this post. For a good enough definition of ‘mediocrity’ is, “Someone who is split equally between virtues and vices” — as they all are.

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[*] The first post received a welcome debugging from Eli Horowitz over at Rust Belt, whose focused attention forced me to think about how I can improve the presentation of the argument I’m trying to make. Still, whatever its faults, I think the basic thrust of the first post was defensible. And the second post received attention from diverse quarters, so I guess I got something right (or at least got something wrong in an interesting sort of way).

[**] It is easy to sell philosophy by characterizing it in terms of one kind of trope or another, or to mock philosophers for their ostensibly unearned pretentions. By looking closely at each metaphor, and finding the imperfections of each, we are in a position to appreciate the best philosophers as ones who cannot easily fit into a caricature.

[**] Hat-tip to my friend and colleague Olivia Sultanescu for the quote.


  1. Great post!!

    I’m not sure that innocence is in finite supply.
    There is an infinity of common sense wisdom to be questioned or if not an infinity, enough to keep anyone busy for a lifetime.

    I bet that one could spend the next 20 years or more asking intelligent questions about all the assertions of liberal, upper middle class, “studied in a good university”, U.S. mentality found in today’s New York Times., much as a curious and/or rebellious child would.

  2. emily isalwayswrite

    Hi Ben, thanks for your (very well-written) thoughts.

    I guess my main points would be that to say that “philosophy changes you” is trivial in the sense that all experiences can be said to change us; and that even if philosophy could be said to change us in some special way that this would not establish its social value: we could say “Atlas Shrugged” or “Mein Kampf” changes people in the same sort of special way.

  3. Thanks S.Wally. I’m sure that it sometimes pays to look at things from the naive point of view. But in the relevant sense of the word ‘innocence’, a bit is lost whenever we learn something new. That’s all I mean when I made the remark about there being a finite supply.

    Hi Emily, I can see why you say that. But when I looked at some the ideal philosophers (in my second post), I couldn’t help but think that they conceive of the spirit of philosophy as a project of changing or refining themselves as persons. In many of these cases, the ‘philosophy’ part of their lives achieved dominant status above the other parts, and both helped and hindered those other parts. This is even true for those who wanted to get philosophy over and done with, as Wittgenstein did.

    It might help to say what I mean by ‘changing yourself as a person’. In this context, I mean roughly two things. First, I mean that philosophy ends up structuring the way the subject experiences and acts in the world in a lasting manner; and second, that philosophy affects how a faithful observer would describe the subject’s legacy.

    (Aside: I am very happy to say that Ayn Rand was altered by her exposure to philosophy. In a romantic sense, there was no Ayn Rand, just Alisa Rosenbaum, and then philosophy — well, if the rumours are true, philosophy via Nathaniel Branden — made her something different. But that’s fine. I don’t think “personal growth” is an unmitigated virtue. Personal growth can be awful for the rest of us if the subject in question wants to be awful to the rest of us.)

    So I do think I can avoid the claim that I am thinking of personal growth as any old trivial change. I do think it’s possible to study philosophy, and to gain something from philosophy, without being changed as a person. There are important skills you learn from philosophy, like the close reading of difficult texts, methods of critical reasoning and decision making, civil discourse, and (if you’re lucky) warranted intellectual autonomy. Learning one or other of these things does not necessarily alter you as a person in the relevant sense.

    What do you think?

  4. Ben:

    It seems to me that learning something new often leads to new questions and those questions to other questions.

    Thus, the curiosity is unending or at least lasts a lifetime.

    For example, take Rupert’s post about transgender people and about how we define identity or who has the right to define identity, etc.

    That conversation, far from settling anything for me, raised more and more questions that I could spend years trying to clarify without ever
    reaching a definitive answer.

    Many other value-oriented questions are similar.

    It may be that some people with an interest in philosophy are more like rational detectives looking for a solution, while others are more like curious children asking bothersome questions. Still others are more like rational therapists.

  5. Ben – as I read your blog it is purely – and interestingly – descriptive. Yes, some or all of these elements do seem to be present in the mind-sets of trained philosophers – I certainly can think of many individuals in those ways.

    Sadly one of these elements, plus the dogmatism you mention and other routinely observed approaches such as over-use of jargon to intimidate, may dominate in a detrimental way. This is especially true in teaching. Detectives may be absorbed in their own current research and bored by the kind of rational therapy that helps undergraduates to develop critical thinking. Rational therapists may roam sympathetically down side alleys, ignoring the premise under discussion so leaving no clear research options. The curious child is the perfect ‘type’ to take up philosophy, but I agree that being curious is not being a critical thinker.

    I would like to see a greater focus on professional ethics among philosophers and would-be philosophers. It is really dismaying to have to include in any current typology the bored time-serving academic, the elitist who considers 95% of other philosophers “idiots” (the quote is genuine, and the pedant who has no mental setting for dealing with quirky views.

    If I may offer a metaphor which I think depicts the ideal if rare philosopher it is the philosopher per se – defined as the lover of wisdom, always learning, always reflecting; typified by caution, cool reason, courtesy and compassion (in the sense of respectful listening). It is why I respond to your blogs, Ben, and flinch at many others.

  6. S.Wally, I suppose you’re probably right about innocence. It was mostly just a quip.

    Hi Margaret,

    Thanks for the note and kind words.

    I think there’s a tacit normativity running through the whole ‘four virtues’ framework, because I need to specify the ideal before I talk about deviation from it. But you’re right that this post is mainly descriptive, since I’ve started to talk about people in philosophy that don’t approximate the ideal. It’s in the previous post that I really concentrate on those who have most of the four virtues, and so that post may seem more ‘fraught with ought’ than this one is.

    As you suggest, it’s technically possible that some people exemplify all four virtues, either in a particular context or across time. That’s the ideal philosopher. And it is certainly something worth aiming at. However, I guess I don’t know if you can manage a solution to some deep, vexing, controversial problem with all your virtues intact. You need a tiny bit of vice in your life to be productive. Something always has to give.

    The trick is not to give away too much. If you abandon most of these virtues, it reeks of overcompensation, and has obnoxious results. You mention one kind in your example above, the dogmatist. I would name a few others: the puzzle-pusher, the sycophant, and the contrarian. None of these habits of character are philosophical, or have any philosophical merit. (Indeed, they don’t even make for effective sophistry…!)

  7. Ben –
    Having a tiny bit of vice in your life is undoubtedly part of one’s more-than-mere-survival kit. But displaying enough of it when philosophising for it to become a tiresome characteristic works against rational productivity. I have for one example isolated the personal vices which undermine Spinoza’s arguments and in some cases destroy them. I think such slanted and alienating claims to wisdom can be worked on and ironed out by anyone capable of self-knowledge. Your investigation should aid this.

    As I may now risk being classified as the philosophical type that likes to take and hold the high moral ground, I must argue further that absence of any distinctive philosophical tick does not render an argument insipid. Indeed you say at the end of your blog that we may “appreciate the best philosophers as ones who cannot easily fit into a caricature”. I suggest in this connection that(for example)the measured clarity permeating the otherwise insistent arguments of A.J. Ayer and John Rawls are impressive and invitational to rational response, rather than being in any way ‘detached’. Conversely, a rant clearly originating in subjective experience or riddled with self-promoting style be a cul-de-sac.

    But on with the analysis of philosopher types. Please. It’s good for us.

  8. Margaret,
    I certainly hope one that day this ‘four virtues’ model could be useful in that sort of way, as a tool for guidance on how to be a better philosopher. I think it’s useful in some intuitive sense, and I’m really glad you think so too! I use it in my daily life in order to curb my temper. e.g., when I find myself frustrated by the verbal outpourings of philosophers with whom I have a personality clash, I ask myself if they are giving expression to commitments that are philosophically more virtuous than vicious. But also, as you say, it should be useful as a way of reading texts and reframing arguments so that they carry some kind of philosophical authority.

    [Aside — At the moment, I worry that the ‘four virtues’ model has all the external validity of a horoscope. (Andrew Sullivan called it — fondly, perhaps — “a philosophical Myers-Briggs”, which is in some ways just as damning, given the pseudo-scientific pedigree of the Myers-Briggs test.) In the abstract, I think that the contrarian (who is overall a philosophically vicious person) is very different from a lone wolf (overall, a virtuous person). But is there any set of strict empirical features that we can assign to one and not the other, which would satisfy the requirements of an expert in personality psychology? I can’t say for sure. And if there aren’t any tacit regularities that we can more or less agree on, then I run the risk of making things worse by just giving people ammunition for malicious ad hominems — or, worse, of whitewashing vices by reframing them in terms of virtues.]

    You mention Rawls as an approximation of the ideal, and I agree wholeheartedly so long as we’re talking about the young Rawls. He is one of the few philosophers I can think of that manifests those qualities. In contrast, the later Rawls seemed to veer off towards syncretism. (Which is not a bad thing.)

    Anyway, there is at least one more post before I wrap up this series. The next is about degenerate metaphors. I could also do a post about philosophical viciousness, if I can think of a way of writing it that doesn’t involve naming names and saying “You stink”. Such a post may have career-limiting effects.

  9. Ben:

    Even if your criteria would not satisfy an expert on personality psychology, I would find them quite illuminating.

    The distinction that you make between the contrarian and lone wolf is very helpful to me.

    When I read a good novelist (I’ve been reading Conrad), I learn a lot about personality, about which traits are virtuous and which not, even though the psychology found in a novel is not scientific, so maybe if you compare your work to that of a novelist rather than to that of social scientist, you’ll feel encouraged (I hope) to pursue it.

  10. Thanks S.Wally. 🙂 We’ll see how it turns out.

    Update: I’ve added a fourth metaphor, the ‘devil’s advocate’.

  11. The devil’s advocate….great!

    You put the four of them together in a room and you’ve got a work of theater.

  12. Just one character away from this (perhaps):

  13. BLS Nelson,

    “the great lumpenprofessoriat that staff university departments across the world.”

    Okay. First we have a little problem here that warrants a mention. In the way professors of literature are not automatically great novelists. Or professors of music, great composers. Professors of philosophy are not automatically philosophers.

    Teaching, researching or commenting on philosophy is not in itself the creation of philosophy. There is an extra distance that is required – which I won’t define here.

    It’s not really valid for professors of philosophy to designate themselves or their colleagues as philosophers. As for the purpose of career advancement, they will probably say, do, have said and have done anything for career advancement.

    “I could also do a post about philosophical viciousness, if I can think of a way of writing it that doesn’t involve naming names and saying “You stink”. Such a post may have career-limiting effects.”

    Which demonstrates my point. Ben’s unwavering and absolute dedication to the “truth”, right up to the point too much truth will have career-limiting effects. If only Socrates would have considered the career-limiting effects of his truths, he could have had a great academic career, house in the country, great salary, he could have got out of teaching, and been under no pressure to create original work. The man was an idiot.

    Ben, the slippery slope is not a fallacy – it’s a real greasy slope and you’re on it, in motion. It’s starts with the petty crime of ommision – which doesn’t really feel like a crime at all. Then minor commission. Until come the day you are writing papers praising to high heaven the “framework” of an academic you absolutely despise. Someone whose work you believe to be of the highest order of drek – bogus word salad, or word sewage even. But they’re a ticket to a hot job.

    Ben, did you really believe you could be the crawling cabbage grub of real politic, only to emerge someday, once you’ve established your career, as the beautiful white butterfly of truth.

    Not to worry. That whole four virtues thing; no. A philosopher can be completely devoid of all virtue, bar one. And that single virtue is the creation of a work that merits their title.

  14. JMRC:

    I’m sure, given your learning, that you know Theodor Adorno’s saying: wrong life cannot be lived rightly.

    It’s probably true, yet we try and Ben is trying to live rightly too.

    He has to eat. We all do too.

    Since he is obviously struggling to live rightly, unlike many of the academic philosophers whom you refer to, why not greet him as a comrade instead of trying to trash him?

    Socrates managed to avoid the hemlock until age 70, so he must have had some ability to avoid
    pissing off those in power.

    Anyway, Socrates is a fictional character created by Plato, a great artist.

  15. JM,
    All of that was highly presumptive.

    Flouting professional convention, I would like to agree that the term ‘philosopher’ doesn’t belong to everyone who teaches and researches philosophy professionally. If I were in charge, it should only be granted to those who have earned the title by approximating the ideal. [So, e.g., if given the option, I might prefer to call myself a ‘scholar of philosophy’, out of modesty.] If this makes a difference to how you read this post, feel free to replace all instances of “philosopher” with “scholar of philosophy”. I don’t mind.

    I suppose your final paragraphs mean to suggest that I have done an injustice to truth just because I am not interested in levelling ad hominem arguments. After all, that is all that I said in the passage you quoted, and which you evidently struck you as being off base.

    There may be some reasons to think that playing the “little white butterfly” leads to philosophical disaster. Here are two claims that I think are legitimate and true:
    (a) When you stifle your ability to give a direct critique of the work of others, you inevitably end up committing a kind of intellectual euthanasia. One must maintain critical thought by way of critical speech, of the right kind.
    (b) There is a deep and meaningful connection between critiquing a person’s philosophical work and critiquing them as philosophers. So, inevitably, critiques of a person’s work will involve confrontation of other persons as persons.

    Notice that if I did not believe in (a) and (b), then I would not be able to talk about ‘philosophers as people’ using the kind of language that I did. I have to believe in them in order for these posts to even make sense.

    Now contrast those two convictions with the following claim, which I think is a mistake:
    (c) In order to critique, you have to be willing to make ad hominem arguments.

    If you’re saying anything relevant to the conversation, it seems to me that you must be saying something like (c). And, interestingly, on first blush it might seem like (c) follows straightaway from (a) and (b). But actually it doesn’t. For an ad hominem argument is an argument made against a person, and which a reasonable listener can interpret as being part of the speaker’s intended meaning. And you can intend to criticize an argument without criticizing the person. (a) and (b) only tell us that faint-hearted critics shall always fail to avoid a measure of confrontation. That doesn’t mean there can be no benefits from trying.

    Last, but not least — no, I do not think a philosopher can merit the title of “philosopher” without manifesting most of the virtues. I believe that, in part, because I believe in (a) and (b). You say you disagree, but gave no reason for thinking so.

  16. JMRC –

    There is some sort of slippage going on here re the job specification of ‘philosopher’. In my previous comment I mentioned the nature of, and need for, professional ethics in philosophising i.e. practising as a trained and paid philosopher. I regret that my term ‘ethics’ may appear to endorse a theory of virtue. What I endorse is a proper code of practice, as is found in any other profession. Philosophising is not demonstrating how we should live, but abiding by how we should conduct our trade. Ben’s stereotypes, and those subsequently added to his list, represent biases or negligence in practice. Each hinders growth in the ability to think critically. Virtue is far less relevant in philosophising than proper practice.

    “A philosopher can be completely devoid of all virtue, bar one. And that single virtue is the creation of a work that merits their title.”

    The job specification of ‘philosopher’ is not limited to original creative work. Those whose work proves to be seminal are rightly revered as elite subjects for philosophical study by other philosophers. Those other philosophers are also philosophising (thinking critically),and guiding students into professional philosophical practice.

    It does sometimes seem that paid philosophers have little respect for their profession. In this they resemble the dentist interested only in making money, and the geographer only interested in getting filmed in exotic situations.

    Doing your job within a code of practice is important. They also philosophise who only raise the status of their chosen profession.

  17. M,
    I think philosophy most certainly is about the question of how we ought to live and who we ought to be (among other things). The deficits of the stereotypes above are expressed in terms of virtues that are lacking.

    It’s true that professional philosophy (mere scholars of philosophy) has lower aspirations. Maybe codes of conduct will help, or maybe not. But whatever self-regulated satisficing practices are set up, these practices will need to be guided by something. And I suppose a very good first stab on how to guide people to be philosophers is to tell them about the ideal, and then hash out the details of what falls too far short of it.

    But if that’s right, then we’ll need to get back into the business of talking about approximating virtue, even if it’s just a moment on the way to set up rules and regulations of professional conduct.

  18. There are those who produce significant original work intended to raise or (dis)solve philosophical problems and there are those who primarily research/elucidate/teach the work of such thinkers or so one might think.

    I’ve some intuitive sympathy for the idea of reserving the title ‘philosopher’ for the former group. But, though there are those one might think of more as, say, historians or teachers of philosophy (or indeed teachers of critical thinking) than philosophers as such, I’m not at all convinced that we can make a clear-cut distinction in this area in the way we can between, say, novelists and literary critics/teachers of English literature etc. I don’t think there’s a large class of people in academia (or indeed outside of it) who don’t ‘do’ philosophy themselves but ‘only’ write about it or teach it – there aren’t two groups engaged in a completely different type of task (or so it seems to me).

    There are other types of dispute about who is, or isn’t, a philosopher including those pertaining to those thought by some to have done significant original work of philosophical interest but thought by others to have been engaged in pseudo-philosophy. A fair number of notables accused Derrida of being in the second category and Schopenhauer accused a fair number of notables of the same (most especially Hegel.) I don’t think making argued accusations that x isn’t a philosopher are generally fruitful – though they might not be entirely unwarranted in some cases (cough, Ayn, cough, Rand) – what matters, it seems to me, is not whether x is ‘really’ a philosopher but of how much philosophical interest their work is.

    That said, there does seem space on Ben’s list for those philosophy scholars who, as Searle put it, give bullshit a bad name…

    (PS nice post Ben, thanks)

  19. Hey Jim,
    I do think there are standards — there’s got to be a point where some people aren’t even scholars of philosophy. King Lear doesn’t even stand downwind from philosophy.

    But it’s interesting. There are some kinds of personalities which are philosophically degenerate, and I don’t know that these kinds of people even qualify as scholars of philosophy. They ‘give bullshit a bad name’, in Searle’s phrase.

    I’ll save that discussion for the next post though.

  20. Margaret Gullan-Whur,

    “I regret that my term ‘ethics’ may appear to endorse a theory of virtue.”

    But this is in fact what happens, in terms of institutions, where for one ideological reason or another, a very specific and limited theory of virtue becomes the only allowed theory. For example, a complete fiction to illustrate my point. Take a university where a right-wing Catholic bishop sits on the board. He dictates to the philosophy department a precise list of writers and topics they are forbidden to teach or mention. He also has a hand in selecting the head of the department – who fits his ethos; a nasty, dishonest, right-wing Catholic nut.

    That’s not even an extreme case. It’s the reality of universities. They can be shaped in different ways.

    “What I endorse is a proper code of practice, as is found in any other profession.”

    Like electricians or plumbers? There is no real way to objectively evaluate the person or the work as philosophy. And who gets to say. You can have stuffy constipated English academics dismissing continental philosophy. For when it comes down to it, that it’s something coming out of continental Europe, and not little england in its’ splendid isolation. And similarly, right-wing Catholic “scholars of philosophy”, dismissing anything written by left-wing atheists.

    “Philosophising is not demonstrating how we should live,”

    No, the job of the philosopher is not to write anodyne self-help books. I’m not really sure what you would term the people who do write these books. Charlatans? Mountebanks? Sociopaths?

  21. There is no real way to objectively evaluate the person or the work as philosophy.

    Maybe, maybe not. There is no current way, at any rate. I wouldn’t pretend anything I’ve said here is a science.

    No, the job of the philosopher is not to write anodyne self-help books.

    Needless to say, I don’t think any philosopher aims to be “anodyne”. But there is a vast literature, both in Eastern and Western traditions, dedicated to providing both guidance on how to live, and on consolation for living. I don’t really know your background, but you come across as someone who might benefit from reading more widely. Even Russell was in the consolation business, if you look at some of his non-analytical works.

  22. JMRC –

    “What I endorse is a proper code of practice, as is found in any other profession” (my disputed comment)

    Yes, there is a way to evaluate a piece of original work or a critical analysis as sound or unsound philosophy. The philosopher’s code of practice has the same function as the rule-governed practice of electricians, plumbers or writers of train timetables. It is observed in all properly conducted philosophy departments, and the lack of it undermines any work or comment submitted as philosophy. Sadly it is all too often flouted by academic philosophers, while contributing in specifically philosophical contexts.

    The philosopher’s code of practice is clearly outlined in all Anglo-Saxon encyclopaedias and dictionaries of philosophy. It involves a list of fallacies (false transitions from a set of premises to a conclusion). Many of these fallacies are officially named in Latin, so indicating centuries of philosophical use, from Aquinas right through continental philosophy. The FALLACIES entry in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy goes further than this classical code of practice, deprecating the tendency of passion and prejudice “to favor anything, however loosely, with what we already like, respect and admire, and to extend our hostility to anything linked with what we already dislike, despise or fear …” The FALLACIES entry is a must-read for all scholar-philosophers in that it raises standards of argument, ironing out non- sequiturs, inconsistencies, irrelevant reflections, anecdotes and personal experience presented as evidence, offensive ad hominem references and postulating within a straw-man framework.

    Ben’s latest comment has just come in, so I will add here that in my view philosophising is to this extent a science.

    In response to Ben’s blog and my comments I note JMRC’s invalid argument in emotive, crude and aggressive language designed to intimidate or ridicule. This only signifies the desperation of an angry opponent who is short of rational argument.

    I am still bothered by Ben’s emphasis on the non-scientific concept of “virtue”, which is culturally or subjectively perceived and thus merely a value judgement. Also in my view “insight in belief” resists analysis, is not subject to verification and so is ineffable. Ben’s other “virtues”, namely “rigor in argument, reason-responsiveness in dialogue and humility in commitment” are in contrast examples of proper philosophical practice.

    “Philosophising is not demonstrating how we should live” (my disputed comment)

    “Insight in belief” highlights the dodgy interface between the philosopher’s code of practice and the philosopher’s extra-philosophical practices. Philosophers may (for example) indulge their obsession with promiscuous sex, video war games, climbing mountains, politics, astrology or a particular sectarian belief. They may write romantic novels or travel guides. None of these activities makes the philosopher a charlatan as long as it is not claimed to be philosophy.

    I am not sure which of Russell’s non-analytical works Ben refers to, but did Russell consider that work to be philosophy?

    I personally have no problem with sorting philosophical sheep from non-philosophical goats. If the fallacies which make a work or critique lack the rigor of philosophical discourse we should switch to another mind-set and enjoy the discourse on its own terms – from self-help to some of Nietzsche’s rants.

    Goats are not inferior to sheep, just different.

    As for demonstrating philosophy in the way we live I think there may be – may be – a case for keeping rule-governed philosophy out of everyday life. It can be alienating, destructive and wounding in personal and professional relationships, being aggressive, even sociopathic, if used to humiliate. There is a big difference between arguing rigorously in an arena of philosophically-trained consenting adults, and trying to browbeat non-critical thinkers into accepting your analysis. In many social situations involving belief the most appropriate philosophical response may be shutting the mouth.

    I look forward to Ben’s next blog in this sequence – very thought-provoking.

  23. Margaret,
    Thanks for the considerate note.

    For the purposes of critique, it might be helpful if I expanded on the most contentious ‘virtue’, insight, to see how far it could be examined objectively.

    On first blush, it seems to me that insight can be cashed out in terms of rational creativity. Following Margaret Boden, I will say that something is creative just in case it is novel, surprising, and valuable. So an insightful belief is one that is rationally tractable, novel, surprising, and valuable. A person is insightful only so long as they have a track record of having insightful beliefs, understood in that way.

    When you break it down into its component parts, the contentious part of ‘insight’ appears to be the idea of being ‘valuable’. So, e.g., we don’t want to say that verdicts delivered on the basis of mere taste or mere opinion are objective.

    But I’d like to take a Spinoza-Damasio line of argument when it comes to values and objectivity. The dividing line between objectivity and subjectivity is not just that some items are value-laden and others are not. A “value-judgment” is not necessarily unscientific. After all, Kuhn suggested — quite plausibly — that scientific explanations are measured against cognitive values, like simplicity, precision, accuracy, replicability, and so on. So we say that Copernican theories are more scientifically valuable than Ptolemaic ones, and nobody really bats an eye.

    So if I can get away with judging the value of a person’s philosophical beliefs only according to their cognitive value, then it should fall well within the range of what is scientifically assessable. If not, then probably not.

    That having been said, the biggest worry I have is that I don’t think the four ‘virtues’ could be operationally defined as independent constructs. e.g., even in the definition of ‘insight’, I have used the word ‘rational’, which is very close if not identical to another virtue. And yet, I also propose that rationality and insight can come apart in some cases. These two convictions may put the whole project to ruin unless something more is said about it.

  24. Ben –

    I was about to apologise to you for failing to check if you had unpacked the concept of insight in belief in an earlier blog. Had you?

    Thank you for this explanation, where you argue pretty convincingly for the rational status of such insight. It certainly fits (for me) with the idea of the ‘beautiful theory’ which turns out to be viable and to advance scientific knowledge. Without much thought some great fruitful philosophical works spring to mind.

    I respect Antonio Damasio’s work very much but have always been very wary of Spinoza’s “intuition” (“the third and highest kind of knowledge”) because of the extraordinary claims he makes for it. In the wrong hands such absolute certainty, unmodified by reason, can inspire millions to Hitler-style evil. The scientific understanding of an insight as ready to be put to the test is preferable and I’m sure you will make it work.

  25. JMRC wrote in a redacted comment:
    “Margaret, staggers, groans, clutches her chest and falls. As I blow the last wisps of smoke from the barrels of my guns, I turn my attention to Ben.”

    JMRC is no longer welcome to post in this thread.

  26. Actually, Russell’s popular “self-help” works endorse activism rather than passivity or quietism

    I recall reading an essay of his so many years ago where he claims that older people, having so little to lose, have fewer reasons not to speak out against injustice than do younger people.

  27. Margaret,
    Thanks for the encouragement. No need to apologize, as I hadn’t thought much about unpacking the concepts until recently. Until I can make the account less messy, it will have to remain an ideal-type. This is very much a project I have on the back-burner, though if it keeps progressing at this rate there might be enough material for a monograph.

    I’m not sure that critical thinking will ever be a science. As I say in the OP (echoing another blogger), the informal fallacies are just tools for critique, not ‘truth-detectors’. Even the formal fallacies are systematic in a quasi-mathematical way, but are only scientific or objective in their application. (This is part because I’ve fallen into a kind of structured pragmatism about the issue. i.e., I would like to make the claim that a system of rules is not ‘objective’ so long as we abstract the system away from its productive applications.)

    I realize I didn’t answer a question you posed above. From what I recall, Russell was quite proud of (some of) his works in ethics and politics. True, he did not recognize his works in the practical disciplines as philosophy. But as a historian of philosophy, he knew quite well that the history of the discipline disagreed with him, and it did not stop him from pursuing the subjects. He did not allow his meta-philosophy to blind him from what is going on in philosophy elsewhere. (e.g., in a spat with Gilbert Ryle over the limits of what is worthy of publication in top-tier philosophy journals, Russell mentioned the work of Nietzsche approvingly, despite the fact that Russell strongly disagreed with N.’s fundamental approach.)

  28. Two new posts at TPM | Benjamin Lee Samuel Nelson - pingback on April 29, 2013 at 10:55 pm
  29. emily isalwayswrite

    Hi Ben. Sorry for the super late reply, and thank-you for your very detailed one.

    I think my previous comment did not make clear that I was actually making two separate points. I think your reply addresses the first one, but not the second.

    My second point was: “even if philosophy could be said to change us in some special way that this would not establish its social value: we could say “Atlas Shrugged” or “Mein Kampf” changes people in the same sort of special way.”

    So when you say “philosophy ends up structuring the way the subject experiences and acts in the world in a lasting manner; and second, that philosophy affects how a faithful observer would describe the subject’s legacy” my point is that becoming a libertarian or Nazi “changes you as a person” in the same way. So I don’t see philosophy as particularly valuable for people in this way because many things we wouldn’t call philosophy can have the same effect.

    I agree, however, that philosophy does offer “important skills. . . like the close reading of difficult texts, methods of critical reasoning and decision making, civil discourse, and (if you’re lucky) warranted intellectual autonomy.” I think it is the skills that are important in terms of the value of philosophy, and that if an individual is “changed as a person” from learning these skills then that is just a happy byproduct for that individual.

  30. Hey Emily,

    I’d like to say that the serious study of philosophy makes you a better person so long as the four virtues rub off on you. If a person’s study of philosophy isn’t geared toward those virtues, it churns out some pretty awful people. e.g., Ayn Rand lacked most of the virtues of the philosopher. She did not have humility in her commitments, was not especially rational or reasons-responsive, and held conversations like a tyrant. Another example: certain departments train their students to treat philosophy as a full-contact sport, with mixed results.

    So I think I’m half-ways agreeing with you, while half-ways disagreeing. You can do philosophy and aspire to overcome yourself, or you can sort of stand downwind from it and only end up absorbing its pretentions.

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