The Cop-out Armchair Philosopher’s Dilemma

Or: what does it take to be a philosophile?

Image credit: Jacques-Louis David (source)

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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