Monday, January 23, 2012

Being a Philosopher

People who teach, study, and write about philosophy routinely refer to themselves as “philosophers.” Lately I have become deeply ambivalent about this language. At first glance it seems weirdly pretentious. If someone asks me what I do, I don’t answer “I’m a philosopher.” I do not expect my discomfort with this label to decrease the more I have written and the longer I’ve taught. Now I am a graduate student of philosophy. Eventually I hope to be a professor of philosophy. But a philosopher?

But as I've mulled over my discomfort, I've come to think it is far deeper than worries about apparent pretentiousness. The uneasiness I feel, however, is not with the notion of being a philosopher itself, but with making “philosopher” a professional term—as if one only need to teach and write on the right topics to be doing philosophy. Being a philosopher is not an academic accomplishment. After all, as Pieper reminds us, anyone can do philosophy:

Anybody can ponder human deeds and happenings and thus gaze into the unfathomable depths of destiny and history; anybody can get absorbed in the contemplation of a rose or human face and thus touch the mystery of creation; everybody, therefore, participates in the quest that has stirred the minds of the great philosophers since the beginning.

When is someone a “philosopher?” Maybe that’s not an important question. Maybe the better questions are "what is philosophy?" and "am I doing philosophy?" (doing philosophy, whatever exactly it amounts to, doubtless means more than teaching or writing about it)? And if the answer to the latter question is “yes,” or at least, “I’m doing my best,” that is all that matters.


  1. I used to be shy about this too. I'm not so shy about it anymore. Anyone can do philosophy and so, in that sense, they can be a philosopher. But not everyone can do that for a living. When people ask me what I do, I say I'm a philosopher. When they ask me what I do for a living, I say I do philosophy.

    I've become much more comfortable calling myself a philosopher now that I hang out with business faculty, and teach business students in a business school. I'm not entirely sure why, but that's what happened.

  2. I guess I don’t much mind it either when I’m talking to other academics. It doesn’t seem as weird to me to tell an economist or political scientist that I’m a philosopher. All I’m doing in that setting is saying what department I’m from. But if a normal person asks me what I do it seems weirder. It seems best to say I’m a graduate student, and I hope to be a professor. But to answer that I’m a philosopher seems odd.

    I guess the part of my qualms is that I’m inclined to think that as an academic I’m not actually getting paid to do philosophy. This depends, of course, on a rather thick notion of doing philosophy. Consider ethics, for example. I think Aristotle got it right: ethics is about living, not just getting right answers about how people should live. So teaching and writing about ethics isn’t really doing ethics. If I’m not really aiming to figure out how to live as I should, then I’m a poor excuse for an ethical philosopher, even if I manage academic success. But moral philosophers don’t (and probably shouldn’t) be hired based on how well they live their lives. I’m inclined to think philosophy in general is like this. To “do philosophy” in a meaningful sense is to do more than go through academic exercises. And the truth is, being a professor of philosophy does not require anything more than the academic exercises. I’d like to think that most of us are in it for more than that, that we really want to make sense of the world and human existence, find the truth, live as we should, and so on. But that isn’t what we’re paid for. And, of course, it probably shouldn’t and even can’t be. After all, it’s hard to tell who’s invested in the questions they’re asking and who’s just engaged in a giant intellectual pissing contest.

    Does all this mean it really is a bad idea to call myself a philosopher? I don’t know. And I’m not sure it much matters. That was the conclusion I reached at the end of the post: the important question is not “is it appropriate to label myself ‘a philosopher’?” but “what is philosophy? Am I doing it?” What will I answer if a non-academic asks me what I do? Probably still not “I’m a philosopher.” But I suspect that much of the time that will have more to do with wanting to avoid being perceived as pretentious than deep-seated worries about whether I’m really paid to "do" philosopher.