The Cop-out Armchair Philosopher’s Dilemma Or: what does it take to be a philosophile?

First things first. I am not a philoso­pher. Now comes the caveat: I am a philoso­pher. Ergo, I have a problem. Or, to be more precise, we seem to have stum­bled upon a semantic issue: the word philoso­pher means different things at different times.

The philoso­pher I am not is a profes­sional who has a philos­ophy degree. You know, the kind of philoso­pher that actu­ally knows what they’re talking about. The kind that can tell their epis­temic tele­ology from their axio­log­ical ontology. Or some­thing like that. The kind of “real” philoso­pher who can under­stand a sentence like this without breaking a sweat: The deon­to­log­ical dimen­sion of justi­fi­ca­tion requires, not volun­tarily forming any partic­ular belief, but volun­tarily performing those mental actions that tend to bring about a self-reflec­tive stance in the agent, which in turn increases the like­li­hood that the agent’s doxastic state prop­erly connects back to her evidence (source). If you’re like me, you just pulled out a tissue to wipe your brow.

But here’s the thing. Socrates was a philoso­pher. And yet he never studied philos­ophy at any univer­sity, he never held a PhD, he never even wrote a single article or book. But if anyone deserves to be called a Philosopher with a big P—it’s Socrates, surely. So what gives?

The Love of Wisdom

At the banquet of life you’ll encounter all manner of food for thought, and it isn’t always easy to know where to begin or what to do. This is why it’s good to have philos­ophy on the menu. Philo-sophia means: the love of wisdom, or the love of knowl­edge. That’s not a bad place to start, because anyone who wants to call them­selves a “philoso­pher” should at the very least be engaged in the pursuit of knowl­edge and wisdom, a deeper under­standing of the human condi­tion and the world we live in.

Perhaps the ques­tion is: how do you engage in that pursuit? Socrates (470/​469 – 399 BCE) did so by observing the world around him, inter­ro­gating others to learn of their ideas, and digesting it all into a world view and a way of thinking that seemed to be most consis­tent with reality. This largely continued to be the modus operandi of philos­ophy in subse­quent centuries. (Keep in mind that what we now call “science” and “philos­ophy” were then still very much inter­twined, so that natural philos­ophy is perhaps a more accu­rate descrip­tion.)

As it was pursued in this vein, western philos­ophy was prac­ticed by indi­vid­uals who often belonged to a school of thought, and who devel­oped their ideas based on their personal expe­ri­ences and convic­tions. They engaged in what you might call compre­hen­sive philos­ophy, often inspired by reli­gious or polit­ical ideas and ideals, in which the ulti­mate goal was the under­standing of every­thing. A “philoso­pher” in this context was engaged in a drawn-out boxing match in which, across centuries and across borders, different tradi­tions of wisdom competed in a magnif­i­cent battle for the truth. These philoso­phers were in some sense all chil­dren of Socrates.

A Modern Turn

This changed in the modern era, which starts roughly in the 17th century. And that change brings us back to the ques­tion of how you prac­tice philos­ophy. From this point onward, you can start to see a shift that will even­tu­ally make philoso­phers the profes­sionals they are today.

At this cross­roads, we see two how two very distinct approaches embark on a battle for the soul of philos­ophy. The ratio­nalist move­ment took as its starting point certain eternal “innate ideas” in the human mind. By contrast, the empiri­cist move­ment held that knowl­edge must come from non-subjec­tive obser­va­tion and expe­ri­ence. At this time, then, philoso­phers were not only engaged in trying to under­stand the nature of reality, but also in trying to deter­mine the best method for that pursuit. It is in this same period that, spurred on by the Scientific Revolution, science and philos­ophy slowly start to part ways.

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was perhaps the first philoso­pher in the contem­po­rary sense of the word. He saw it as his mission to end the feud between ratio­nalism and empiri­cism and usher in a new era of philo­soph­ical unity. Kant was not only an orig­inal thinker in his own right, but also a histo­rian of philos­ophy. He looked at the world through the lens of philos­ophy, which defin­i­tively converted philos­ophy from an ongoing histor­ical endeavor into an acad­emic disci­pline.

If philos­ophy had previ­ously been the study of the natural world, from now on philos­ophy was primarily the study of philos­ophy. A philoso­pher was now required to think about thinking itself before he thought about anything else.

The Name Game

Now let’s look at that nomen­cla­ture again. We’ve seen the word philoso­pher move from meaning “someone who thinks deeply about things” to “someone who thinks deeply about philos­ophy itself and then thinks (even more) deeply about every­thing else.” In a nutshell, philoso­phers have become profes­sional special­ists.

A person who special­izes in biology is a biol­o­gist. A person who special­izes in economics is an econ­o­mist. The list goes on and on: physi­cist, chemist, artist, oncol­o­gist… Why don’t we make it easy on ourselves and call a modern-style, post-Kantian, degree-bearing specialist in the field of philos­ophy a philosophist? You know, the kind of folk who don’t shy away from deon­to­log­ical dimen­sions that require volun­tarily perfor­mances to bring about self-reflec­tive stances that increase the like­li­hood of an agent’s doxastic state connecting prop­erly to evidence.

Harking back to this musing’s opening para­graph, I can now rephrase my state­ment: I am not a philosophist. I cannot even lay claim to being an armchair philoso­pher (in the sense of “studious and knowl­edge­able amateur”, not “insuf­fer­able pedantic know-it-all”). That would require a greater invest­ment of time and more intel­lec­tual rigor than I have so far devoted to this project of Philo-sophia. So I suppose that at best, you might call me a cop-out armchair philoso­pher. But that doesn’t have a very nice ring to it. I’ll guess I’ll settle for “philosophile”—someone who loves the love of wisdom and believes that thinking things through is usually the better road to travel.

Tucking in

The reason I bring this up at all is that it matters. The acad­emic disci­pline of philos­ophy matters. The crit­ical, unflinching pursuit of knowl­edge and enlight­en­ment matters. We humans are social beings: we grow up and flourish in a commu­nity, and that commu­nity thrives on the exchange of resources and knowl­edge. But we are also soli­tary beings, keenly aware of being ever an indi­vidual, different and apart from all of the others. Finding our way through life requires us to balance those two aspects of our being, and to contin­u­ously discover and redis­cover how they interact and enrich each other.

Looking at the world, life, our humanity and ourselves through a philo­soph­ical lens is essen­tial. It’s so essen­tial and inborn, I think, that we do it anyway, whether we’re aware of it or not. The choice before us is: do we want that process to be fueled by unob­served ideas that we never stop to ques­tion, or do we want those ideas to be our own?

In the end, it doesn’t matter what kind of philoso­pher you are. Whether you have the love of wisdom as your main course, as a whole­some side dish or as a scrump­tious dessert—be sure to eat your fill. The banquet of life serves up some­thing good to think about every single day.

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Image credit: Jacques-Louis David (source)

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