What Is A Philosopher?

The title of this blog is something that I sometimes get asked and other times get in arguments with people about.  I am not an academic philosopher, but I studied philosophy and have friends who are academic philosophers.   I arrived at my interest in philosophy because it was the only academic subject that could encompass all my varied interests.  I have always felt torn between my interests in science and my interest in the humanities, and by choosing philosophy I didn’t feel as if I would have to choose between the two.   That said, though I considered it for a time, pursuing an academic career in philosophy was one I ended up turning against.

There are various reasons for this.  One is the lack of academic philosophy positions and the state of academia in general.  Another is how little respect philosophy gets with people in scientific fields dismissing the work of philosophers as “just opinion pieces” and some people in the humanities disliking the tendency of philosophers to challenge their underlying assumptions.  From the general public it is even worse.  In the introduction to his book, Experiments In Ethics, Kwame Anthony Appiah says that when people learn he is a philosopher they usually ask him, “What is Your Philosophy?” to which he responds, “Everything is more complicated than you thought.”

My main reason was that I thought academic philosophy was “too rigid” and in the framework that philosophers had been forced into I wouldn’t be able to do the things that I really wanted to do.   In the final essay in her book, Undoing Gender, Judith Butler expresses a similar sentiment.  She states that despite being trained as a philosopher she was shocked to learn at some point in her career that she was no longer a philosopher but “a theorist” and this kind of person had no place in the philosophy department.

For this reason, and also because it was an excellent and entertaining read, I delighted in Justin E. H. Smith’s book, The Philosopher: A History In Six Types.  Smith is a philosopher and historian of science but the question of what a philosopher actually is has seemed to have caught his attention.  For instance, he talks about the struggle to keep his philosophy books at work, while his non-philosophy books at home and not being able to make a clear distinction between them.  He also mentions not being able to decide whether the book he is writing is philosophy and that many people would contend it isn’t, since it is not an exhaustive and rigorous attempt at defining what a philosopher is but an attempt to exhaust his own thoughts on the subject.

Smith’s approach is an interesting one.  He divides philosophers into six job descriptions.  This is not an attempt to put individual philosophers into set boxes, because many philosophers fit into more than one of these categories, but one cannot deny that these “job descriptions” have all historically, and in some sense in the contemporary colloquial ideas about philosophy.

The first category is the Curiosa, so named because Smith based the ideal example of this type on Margaret Cavendish.  It isn’t much of a surprise that Smith, being a philosopher of science, would start with this one, but it does get to the core of how philosophy has developed throughout history.  Since the beginning, philosophy has largely been about how things worked and expanding the realm of human knowledge.  As this state has evolved, different fields have been “cut off” from the branches of philosophy in order to inhabit fields of their own.  This hasn’t just happened in science, but now it is where something ceases to be philosophy and “becomes science” we see people arguing the hardest distinction.

There are a large number of people who think of themselves as “natural philosophers”  and their stated goal is to use philosophy to develop a universal understanding of science.   I personally think these philosophers often do great work and there is value in what they do, but I also think that their mission does not encompass all of what philosophy is or should be.  I also think that developing a “universal understanding” of science, meaning a criteria for interpretation that everybody agrees on as fact, may actually be harmful to science and strip from the enterprise some of what makes it vital in the first place.

The second category is The Sage.  This is probably the closest to what the general public thinks of a philosopher and also one I think has value.  There is a definite cultural idea of the person who devotes much time to thinking and can pass on wisdom to others.    We can see this kind of philosopher in many ancient societies, or in Native American Culture.  Many people appeal to the idea of sage wisdom when they consult a religious authority like a Priest or a minister but this would be mocked by most “professional philosophers” today if you suggested that this person is a philosopher.

Skipping around a bit, the fourth type by Smith,  The Ascetic,  has some significant overlap with The Sage.  The life that The Ascetic leads, looking for the good instead of material wealth and power is something we would associated with The Sage as well.     Though, this is not something that we would automatically define a Sage by. You could consider somebody like Jean- Paul Sartre a Sage, but you certainly would not call him an Ascetic. In our contemporary culture we could see a Sage as somebody with a large media celebrity, somebody who is even successful in capitalism.  While the two have significant overlap they still justify their place as separate categories.

The Acetic might be a category as well that we put a great many ethicists.  Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer comes to mind.  He preaches a philosophy of self-sacrifice in order to achieve the good, which to him is maximum utility.  He practices what he preaches as well, giving large percentages of his income to charity, but still there are those that might think Singer has too much of The Mandarin (Smith’s fifth category) to be a true Ascetic.

The category of philosopher that I find myself most relating to is The Gadfly.  This is the philosopher who is mainly concerned with challenging the norms of his society.  Smith argues that Socrates was a Gadfly and that since Western philosophy started with him it is hard to see how this is not an essential identity to discuss while trying to define the philosopher.   He also mentions Nietzsche who was an expert at “how to philosophize with a hammer.”  I would also include David Hume in this category, as well as the twentieth century philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend.

This category would include a great many artists.  Smith mentions Walt Whitman.  I would say there is a lot of the Gadfly in somebody like Simone De Beauvoir, who challenged assumptions about women in particular in her philosophy and novels.  When we look at the intersection between art and philosophy we really see Gadflys everywhere and this is why Smith had such a hard time separating his books, thinking that the novelist and poets he admired were as much deserving of the title philosopher as the scientists and academics.

The last two categories have a significant amount of overlap as well. The Fifth category is The Mandarin, to which Smith refers to the learned men of academia who take on the title of professional philosopher.   It is worth noting that many of the most important figures in philosophy never worked in the philosophy department.   Academic philosophy, as much as I enjoy reading it, seems like a closed off enclave of people communicating to each other in obscure language about things of little consequence.  This is a stark contrast to somebody like Karl Marx who thought the purpose of philosophy was not to describe the world but to change it, or Friedrich Nietzsche who wanted to communicate to a specific audience of free thinkers wherever they may be.

This finally brings us to The Courtier, and it is hard to think of where The Mandarin and The Courtier leave off since it is defined as a philosopher who plies his trade for money.  Since Smith defines The Courtier as including “the public intellectual” it is easy to see how somebody could be a Courtier but not a Mandarin.  Somebody like Sam Harris delivers his own version of philosophy without holding any academic position.  His aim seems to be making money exclusively by his expressing of his opinions.

Smith’s point is that professional philosophers such as himself are “all sophists” though in my example of somebody like Sam Harris, some are obviously more sophists than others.  Smith even recounts an experiment where he made extra money while living in Paris by offering to have conversations about philosophy with tourists for money.   He found the conversations to be surprisingly interesting.

The book reaches no conclusions, but I suggest you read it yourself if you are interested. It’s a lot of fun and thought provoking.  I’m still not sure what counts as philosophy myself I just know what interests me.    Maybe pursuing one’s own path thoughtfully and critically is all you really need.



One Reply to “What Is A Philosopher?”

  1. Hey dude,

    I’ve been trying to find a way to convey this moral philosophical definition, but it’s something to advance bell hooks’ conception of domination. Or in this case, relational domination, which is to have direct control of an individual. Anyhow, here’s what is called relational vulnerability, patterned by Lina Papidaki in her 2010 essay “What is Objectification?” in response to Martha Nussbaum’s 1995 essay “Objectification”, and coined by Marrie Gurrau and Cecile Laborde in their 2015 essay “Relational Equality, Non-Domination, and Vulnerability”. Without further ado, here is my summarizing of the definition:

    Relation Vulnerability or the indirect and unintended exploitation of another is one moral consideration that comes to my mind. Especially in cases where a parent might be over-protective of a child, but not realizing that such over-protectiveness might have an effect on their development or how in the case of lovers where one takes advantage of an intoxicated person in the relationship, and indirectly commits a rape. Same in the case of a doctor who is attempting to find a cure for aids by injecting a cat with FIV to develop a vaccine. A way to deprive flourishing no doubt on my part.

    So I feel that this should give a heads up on our actions towards others, by broadening it, without going too narrow. Anyways, would you like me to send you some digital copies of my sources of my sources on Facebook?

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