Philosophers: philosophical, proper, and professional

Philosophy is a big tent kind of thing. There is a world of difference between being philosophicalbeing a proper philosopher, and being a professional philosopher.

As far as I can tell, the practice of doing philosophy is intimately related to the state of being philosophical.  To do philosophy is to be philosophical about some characteristically general subjects, for the purpose of increasing understanding and reducing confusion. In the ideal case, being philosophical involves manifesting certain virtues: you must have the right intentions (insightful belief, humble commitments), and you must proceed using a reflective skill-set (rationality in thought, cooperation in conversation). The bare requirement for being philosophical – even when you do it badly – is that you should be able to manifest at least some of right intentions and at least some of the right ways.

It is possible to be philosophical without being a proper philosopher or a professional philosopher. The requirements for doing actual philosophy are quite a bit lower than the requirements for doing actual engineering. To do philosophy you have to approach some of the general questions while behaving philosophically; to do engineering, you have to be a proper engineer. [It is seldom claimed that] Meno was a proper philosopher, but we won’t hesitate to say that Meno was seriously doing philosophy with Socrates; in contrast, professional engineers would probably not say that a child playing with Lego has really seriously done some engineering. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Lego. If it came to that, I’d be more inclined to say there’s something wrong with engineers.)

In philosophy, there are unusually high barriers to success. A person who does philosophy in a middling way is not a proper philosopher; if you can describe her philosophizing in a cheap metaphor, it is a sign that things have fallen short of the mark. Proper philosophers do productive work that is worthy of attention, however you would like to cash that out.

The merits of a work in professional philosophy are only obliquely defined in terms of their philosophical traits. Professional philosophers are judged according to various things, including their scholarly competence, their intelligence, their papers, peers, prudence, and pedigree. Professional philosophers are not directly tested on whether or not they have philosophical acumen; indeed, it is rarely stated outright what ‘being philosophical’ amounts to. At best, it is assumed (with some justification) that the professional desiderata will overlap substantially with the philosophical traits. At worst, professionals will float blissfully along from one encounter to the next operating on the assumption that whatever they are up to is all aces, and good riddance to the rest of the profession.

[Edit: In comments, Phillip points us to this video on the rise of professional philosophy. It helps to give you a sense of the difference between ‘being philosophical’ and ‘being a professional philosopher’.]

[Edit 2: I also recommend reading comments in this thread, which touch on similar themes but from a different view.]


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