Seeing philosophers as people

Originally posted at Talking Philosophy Magazine blog in a three-part series.

Abstract. Philosophers are best understood as people trying to better themselves and the world they are in. As members of a vocation, philosophers direct themselves to the pursuit of intellectual virtues: especially, in striving to be insightful and humble in belief, while being rigorous and cooperative in dialogue. Together, the virtues assemble into rough philosophical archetypes: what I call the ‘programmist’, the ‘lone wolf’, the ‘informalist’, and the ‘syncretist’. Typically, philosophers are both vilified for lacking in these virtues, and lionized when they possess them.

Autobiographical note: Originally published on Talking Philosophy blog, intended for a general audience, and written in a jocular style. It was generally well-received, and is a favorite of mine. Later, I learned that a similar typology was formulated on the basis of a statistical analysis of personality profiles (programmists as “builders”, informalists as “explorers”, lone wolves as “directors”, and syncretists as “negotiators”). That is a happy convergence of opinion.

“It is the profession of philosophers,” David K. Lewis writes, “to question platitudes that others accept without thinking twice.” He adds that this is a dangerous profession, since “philosophers are more easily discredited than platitudes.” As it turns out, in addition to being a brilliant philosopher, Lewis was a master of understatement.

For some unwary souls, conversation with the philosopher can feel like an attack or assault. The philosopher’s favorite hobby is critical discussion, and this is almost guaranteed to be — shall we say — annoying. (Indeed, I am tempted to say that if it weren’t annoying, it would be a sign that something has gone wrong — that the conversation is becoming stale and irrelevant.) Ordinary folk, on the other hand, generally try to do what it takes to get along with others, which means being polite and trying to smooth over conflict, and it may seem as though the philosopher has terrible manners for asking too many uncomfortable questions. And the ordinary folk are sometimes quite right. Indeed, sometimes what passes for philosophy really is just a trivial bloodsport, a pointless game of denigration and insult with no productive bottom line that is disguised as disinterested inquiry.

The estrangement between philosophers and non-philosophers might owe to the fact that there is no strong consensus about what it means to be a philosopher. For one thing, philosophers are under external pressure to tell the world just who the hell they think they are. As funding is increasingly being diverted away from the humanities, the self-identity of the philosopher has started to be put under increased scrutiny. For another thing, the discipline is suffering from some internal strain. Analytic philosophy once had a strong mission statement: to clear up conceptual confusions by revealing how people were being fooled by grammar into committing to absurd theses. Unfortunately, over the past few decades the analytic philosopher’s confidence in their ability to do conceptual analysis has suffered. The tried and true philosophical reliance upon aprioristic reasoning has fallen increasingly out of favor, as greater awareness of insights from psychology and the social sciences have begun to undermine the credibility of distinctively philosophical inquiry. The harder that the social sciences encroach upon aprioristic terrain, the harder that rear-guard philosophers try to push back, and it is not at all obvious that they are winning the fight. It is against this background that Livengood et al. confess: “Many signs point to an identity crisis in contemporary philosophy. As a group, we philosophers are puzzled and conflicted about what exactly philosophy is.”

I don’t really think that philosophers should worry very much about their sense of identity, because there is a pretty straightforward way of characterizing the ideal philosopher. But in order to see why, it’s worth taking the time to think about what it means to be a philosopher: why it’s worth it, how non- philosophers can benefit from whatever the philosopher is up to, and how philosophers can figure out how to do their business better. We should start thinking more often about what the philosophical personality looks like, so that everyone can relate to philosophers as people.

A not-awful definition of philosophy could begin thus: “All philosophers are lovers — they are lovers of wisdom”. This gives due credit to the etymology of philosophy (which, of course, is commonly translated as ‘love of wisdom’.) But it also sounds a bit perverse. Indeed, when little Johnny comes back from Oxford after a year of study philosophy, and tells Mom that he has fallen in love with an abstract noun, one ought not be surprised if Mom frets for Johnny. So what I mean needs to be unpacked a little.

Wisdom, as far as I understand it, is the capacity to see the potential in things, especially the potential for goodness. In the abstract, I would argue that wisdom involves at least four Thomistic virtues: insight, prudence, reason, and fair-mindedness. In practice, I think, wisdom involves a degree of self-insight (the ability to articulate and weigh one’s intuitions), intellectual humility (the ability to actively poke at and potentially abandon those intuitions), intellectual rigor (the ability to reason through the implications of what one thinks), and cooperatively engaged (the ability to communicate one’s own convictions in a cooperative and illuminating way). That is the sort of person that the philosopher ought to be.

This is not to suggest that this ideal of the philosopher is one that every philosopher in every time in history would endorse. To choose a recent example, one prominent philosopher argued (tongue-in-cheek,I think) that contemporary philosophers just aren’t like that. He argues: “What is literally true is that we philosophers value knowledge, like our colleagues in other departments. Do we love knowledge? One might reasonably demur from such an emotive description.” Evidently, the working assumption is that the reader learning this information is better served if they lower their expectations of philosophy, instead of lowering their expectations of the people working in philosophy departments. I cannot think of any way to reasonably motivate this assumption.

But even if we thought that somehow the quoted author had it right, the history of the future would show him wrong. The greatest luminaries in philosophy, the great wise and dead, have a tendency to crowd out the loud and supercilious living. Their ability to command our attention owes to the fact that philosophical luminaries have always filled an essential cultural need: namely, they have helped to reinvent the idea of what it means to come to maturity, by striving to be insightful, humble, rigorous, and engaged. ‘The love of wisdom’ is not [just] a roundabout way of speaking about valuing knowledge — it is a way of talking about trying to be better as people. Philosophers ask us be at our best when they ask us to study wisdom for its own sake, because philosophy is as essential to adulthood as preschool is to the young.

This, I think, is a not-totally-unsatisfying way of looking at the ideal philosopher. But there is a lot missing. It doesn’t really capture the kind of energy that goes into doing philosophy, the nerdy thrill that goes into tackling the biggest questions you can think of. I have not given you any reason to think that the ideal of wisdom tells us anything about what real philosophers are like.

However, I have given you a starting point from which we can think about the ideal-type of philosophers. Now we can put it to work. In what follows, I will use the four-virtues in order to generate a means of thinking about a few of our philosophical heroes (so to speak). Then I will move to a discussion of how these ideals can be perverted in practice to create less-than-perfect echoes of the philosophical ideal in real institutional contexts. Finally, I will say a few things about how the virtues become vices when they are out of sync with each other, leading to patterns of philosophical insults.


The ideal philosopher lives up to her name by striving for wisdom. In practice, the pursuit of wisdom involves developing a sense of good judgment when tackling very hard questions. I think there are four skills involved in the achievement of good judgment: self-insight, humility, rigor, and cooperative dialogue.

Even so, it isn’t obvious how the philosophical ideal is supposed to model actual philosophers. Even as I was writing the last post, I had the nagging feeling that I was playing the role of publicist for philosophy. A critic might say that I set out to talk about how philosophers were people, but only ended up stating some immodest proposals about the Platonic ideal of the philosopher. The critic might ask: Why should we think that it has any pull on real philosophers? Do the best professional philosophers really conceive of themselves in this way? If I have no serious answer to these questions, then I have done nothing more than indulged in a bit of cheerleading on behalf of my beloved discipline. So I want to start to address that accusation by looking at the reputations of real philosophers.

Each individual philosopher will have their own ideas about which virtues are worth investing in and which are worth disregarding. Even the best working philosophers end up neglecting some of the virtues over the others: e.g., some philosophers might find it relatively less important to write in order to achieve consensus among their peers, and instead put accent on virtues like self-insight, humility, and rigour. Hence, we should expect philosophical genius to be correlated with predictable quirks of character which can be described using the ‘four virtues’ model. And if that is true, then we should be able to see how major figures in the history of philosophy measure up to the philosophical ideal. If the greatest philosophers can be described in light of the ideal, we should be able to say we’ve learned something about the philosophers as people. And then I shall sing to the Austrian mountains in my best Julie Andrews vibrato: “public relations, this is not“.


In my experience, many skilled philosophers who work in the Anglo-American tradition will tend to have a feverish streak. They will tend to find a research program which conforms with their intuitions (some of which may be treated as “foundational” or givens), and then hold onto that program for dear life. This kind of philosopher will change her mind only on rare occasions, and even then only on minor quibbles that do not threaten her central programme. We might call this kind of philosopher a “programmist” or “anti- skeptic“, since the programmist downplays the importance of humility, and is more interested in characterizing herself in terms of the other virtues like philosophical rigour.

You could name a great many philosophers who seem to hold this character. Patricia and Paul Churchland come to mind: both have long held the view that the progress of neuroscience will require the radical reformation of our folk psychological vocabulary. However, when I try to think of a modern exemplar of this tradition, I tend to think of W.V.O. Quine, who held fast to most of his doctrinal commitments throughout his lifetime: his epistemological naturalism and holism, to take two examples. This is just to say that Quine thought that the interesting metaphysical questions were answerable by science. Refutation of the deeper forms of skepticism was not very high on Quine’s agenda; if there is a Cartesian demon, he waits in vain for the naturalist’s attention. The most attractive spin on the programmist’s way of doing things is by saying they have raised philosophy to the level of a craft, if not a science.


Programmists are common among philosophers today. But if I were to take you into a time machine and introduced you to the elder philosophers, then it would be easy to lose all sense of how the moderns compare with their predecessors. The first philosophers lived in a world where science was young, if not absent altogether; there was no end of mystery to how the universe got on. For many of them, there was no denying that skepticism deserved a place at the table. From what we can tell from what they left behind, many ancient philosophers (save Aristotle and Pythagoras) did not possess the quality that we now think of as analytic rigour. The focus was, instead, of developing the right kind of life, and then — well, living it.

We might think of this as a wholly different approach to being a philosopher than our modern friend the programmist. These philosophers were self-confident and autonomous, yet had plenty to say to the skeptic. For lack of a better term, we might call this sort of philosopher a “guru” or “informalist“. The informalist trudges forward, not necessarily with the light of reason and explicit argument, but of insight and association, often expressed in aphorisms. To modern professional philosophers and academic puzzle- solvers, the guru may seem like a specialist in woo and mysticism, a peddler of non-sequiturs. Many an undergraduate in philosophy will aspire to be a guru, and endure the scorn from their peers (often, rightly administered).

Be that as it may, some gurus end up having a vital place in the history of modern philosophy. Whenever I think of the ‘guru’ type of philosopher, I tend to think of Frederich Nietzsche — and I feel justified in saying that in part because I guess that he would have accepted the title. For Nietzsche, insight was the single most important feature of the philosopher, and the single trait which he felt was altogether lacking in his peers.

Nietzsche was a man of passion, which is the reason why he is so easily misunderstood. Also, for a variety of reasons, Nietzsche was a man who suffered from intense loneliness. (In all likelihood, the fact that he was a rampant misogynist didn’t help in that department.) But he was also a preacher’s son, his rhetoric electric, his sermons brimming with insight and even weird lapses into latent self- deprecation. Moreover, he is a man who wrote in order to be read, and who was excited by the promise of new philosophers coming out to replace old canons. In the long run, he got what he wanted; as Walter Kaufman wrote, “Nietzsche is one of the few philosophers since Plato whom large numbers of intelligent people read for pleasure”.

Lone wolf

Some philosophers prefer to strike out on their own, paving an intellectual path by way of sheer stamina and force of will. We might call them the “lone wolves“. The lone wolf will often appear as a kind of contrarian with a distinctive personality. However the lone wolf is set apart from a mere devil’s advocate by virtue of the fact that she needs to pump unusually deep wellsprings of creativity and cleverness into her craft. Because she needs to strike off alone, the wolf has to be prepared to chew bullets for breakfast: there is no controversial position she is incapable of endorsing, so long as those positions qualify as valid moves in the game of giving and taking of reasons. She is out for adventure, to prove herself capable of working on her own. More than anything else, the lone wolf despises philosophical yes-men and yes-women. She has no time for the people who are satisfied by conventional wisdom — people who revere the ongoing dialectic as a sacred activity, a Great Conversation between the ages. The lone wolf says: the hell with this! These are problems, and problems are meant to be solved.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a lone wolf, in the sense that nobody could quite refute Wittgenstein except for Wittgenstein. The philosophical monograph which made him famous, the Tractatus, began with an admission of idiosyncracy: “Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it—or at least similar thoughts.—So it is not a textbook.— Its purpose would be achieved if it gave pleasure to one person who read and understood it.” He was a private man, who published very little while alive, and whose positions were sometimes unclear even to his students. He was an intense man, reputed to have wielded a hot poker at one of his contemporaries. And he had an oracular style of writing — the Tractatus resembles an overlong Powerpoint presentation, while the Investigations was a free-wheeling screed. These qualities conspired to give the man himself an almost mythical quality. As Ernest Nagel wrote in 1936 (quoting a Viennese friend): “in certain circles the existence of Wittgenstein is debated with as much ingenuity as the historicity of Christ has been disputed in others”.

Wittgenstein’s work has lasting significance. His anti-private language argument is a genuine philosophical innovation, and widely celebrated as such. As such, he is the kind of philosopher that everybody has to know at least something about. But none of this came about by the power of idiosyncrasy alone. Wittgenstein achieved notoriety by demonstrating that he had a penetrating ability to go about the whole game of giving and taking reasons. But he did it in his own way: to quote Russell, “He has the pride of Lucifer.”

The syncretist

Some philosophers are skilled at combining the positions and ideas that are alive in the ongoing conversation and weaving them into an overall picture. This is a kind of philosopher that we might call the “syncretist“. Much like the lone wolf, the syncretist despises unchallenged dogmatism; but unlike the lone wolf, this is not because she enjoys the prospect of throwing down the gauntlet. Rather, the syncretist enjoys the murmur of people getting along, engaged in a productive conversation. Hence, the syncretist is driven to reconcile opposing doctrines, so long as those doctrines are plausible. When she is at her best, the syncretist is able to generate a powerful synthesis out of many different puzzle pieces, allowing the conversation to become both more abstract without also becoming unintelligible. They do not just say, “Let a thousand flowers bloom” — instead, they demonstrate how the blooming of one flower only happens when in the company of others.

The only philosopher that I have met who absolutely exemplifies the spirit of the syncretist, and persuasively presents the syncretist as a virtuous standpoint in philosophy, is the Stanford philosopher Helen Longino. In my view, her book The Fate of Knowledge is a revelation.

A more infamous [example] of the syncretist, however, is Jurgen Habermas. Habermas is an under- appreciated philosopher, a figure who is widely neglected in Anglo-American philosophy departments and (for a time) was widely scorned in certain parts of Europe. True, Habermas is a difficult philosopher to read. And, in fairness, one sometimes gets the sense that his stuff is a bit too ecumenical to be motivated on its own terms. But part of what makes Habermas close to an ideal philosopher is that he is an intellectual who has read just about everything — he has partaken in wider conversations, attempting to reconcile the analytic tradition with themes that stretch far beyond its remit. Habermas also has a prodigious output: he has written on a countless variety of subjects, including speech act theory, the ethics of assertion, political legitimation, Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, collective action, critical theory and the theory of ideology, social identity, normativity, truth, justification, civilization, argumentation theory, and doubtless many other things. If a dozen people carved up his bibliography and each staked a claim to part of it, you’d end up with a dozen successful academic careers.

For some intellectuals, syncretism is hard to digest. Just as both mothers in the court of King Solomon might have felt equally betrayed, the unwilling subjects of the syncretist’s analysis may respond with ill tempers. In particular, the syncretist grates on the nerves of those who aspire to achieve the status of lone wolf intellectuals. Take two examples, mentioned by Dr. Finlayson (Sussex). On the one hand, Marxist intellectuals will sometimes like to accuse Habermas of “selling out” — for instance, because Habermas has abandoned the usual rhythms of dialectical philosophy by trying his hand at analytic philosophy. On the other hand, those in analytic philosophy are not always very happy to recognize Habermas as a precursor to the shape of analytic philosophy today. John Searle explains in an uncompromising review: “Habermas has no theory of social ontology. He has something he calls the theory of communicative action. He says that the “purpose” of language is communicative action. This is wrong. The purpose of language is to perform speech acts. His concept of communicative action is to reach agreement by rational discussion. It has a certain irony, because Habermas grew up in the Third Reich, in which there was another theory: the “leadership principle”.” I suspect that Searle got Habermas wrong, but nobody said life as a philosopher was easy.

Yet the syncretist has an important historical role to play in the creation of disciplines and networks. The last word goes to Randall Collins, from The Sociology of Philosophies: “Synthesizers are necessarily dedicated to a vision of an overarching truth, and display a generosity of spirit towards at least wide swaths of the intellectual community. Each contributes partial views of reality, Aristotle emphasizes; so does Plotinus, and Proclus even more widely…”

Everything I’ve said above is a cartoon sketch of some philosophical archetypes. It is worth noting, of course, that none of the philosophers I have mentioned will fit into the neat little boxes I have made for them. The vagaries of the human personality resist being reduced to archetypes. Even in the above, I cheated a little: Nietzsche is arguably as much a lone wolf as he is an informalist. I also don’t mean to suggest that all professional philosophers will fit into anything quite like these categories. Some are by reputation much too close to the philosophical ideal to fit into an archetype. (The late Hilary Putnam comes to mind.) And other professional philosophers are nowhere close to the ideal — there is no shortage of philosophers behaving badly. I mean only to say something about how you can use the ‘four virtues’ model of wisdom to say something interesting about philosophers themselves.

I have so far attempted to think about the ideal character types of some excellent, or ‘proper’, philosophers. I did not make many specific references to the contemporary institution of philosophy, or to the great lumpenprofessoriat that staff university departments across the world. But, actually, it is misleading to characterize a discipline by showcasing its best members; not every golfer is Tiger Woods. Philosophy is not just a scholastic curio bequeathed to us from a bunch of dead icons. Philosophy is a living practice, performed by real people, and done for a point. The point of philosophy is personal growth — to try to become wiser, and to live better lives.

So now I would like to start to set the record straight, just in case the record needed straightening. I’d like to use the ‘four virtues’ framework to talk about the self-image of philosophers in general, both professional and otherwise. In particular, I would like to articulate some of the different ways that philosophers have thought that their education helped to affect their development as persons. In this, my aim is both critical and reverential. Each metaphor describes a disposition or skill-set that is evenly balanced between virtues and vices.

The point can be made clearest by drawing analogies to people and practices that we are already acquainted. In this post, I examine four metaphors for philosophers as people: you can think of philosophers as intellectual detectives, as rational therapists, as curious children, or as devil’s advocates. I might examine other metaphors in a future post, assuming readers do not heave this post overboard as they would a dead sailor at sea.

As intellectual detective

I think I can see why Wittgenstein loved detective stories. On some occasions, I am tempted to think of the philosopher as a kind of intellectual detective. Like storybook gumshoes, the philosopher has a problem to solve, and has to rely primarily on their wit and sense of reason to come to a solution. Like the detective, the philosopher needs to have a healthy acquaintance with forms of reasoning in order to try to resolve their problems — namely, the use of deduction and inference to the best explanation.

Although he never explicitly compares the philosopher to a detective, I think the following passage from Barry Stroud gives expression to the general idea:

“The philosophers I admire most possess [a] kind of acute sensitivity to philosophical difficulties. They are open to potential philosophical riches, and they find them, in what look to most of the rest of us like very unpromising places. And, what is equally important, those philosophers I admire most know how to keep searching when they know they haven’t really found the right thing yet. This is not the only kind of philosophical ability there is… but for me, those I most admire have a firm foothold in reality and a “nose” or feel for real problems, along with the patience to unfold the detail of what has to be overcome to achieve the kind of understanding that can mean the most to us.”

This analogy gains strength when we think about how some epistemologists think in earnest about philosophical problems. The philosophical detective has a few intuitive questions — a few real hum- dingers, a pocket full of paradoxes — and she believes that any philosopher that is not attempting to find the correct answer to these questions is not doing philosophy at all. The detective wants to actually get to the bottom of philosophical worries, and not just settle for a lingering sense of satisfaction with basking in the aura of the big questions. And many of the greatest philosophers of our time have arrived at systems of intuitions which indicate that finally, at long last, the great questions have either been solved or mooted. The detective metaphor is a healthy source of motivation for the independent thinker. If you think you have good reasons to believe you have arrived at the truth, then there is usually no fault in saying so. The truth is out there and sometimes the truth is frickin’ awesome.

But, that having been said, the metaphor of the intellectual detective is sometimes misused when it only serves as a smokescreen for dogmatism. On occasion, students of philosophy will sometimes treat the informal fallacies as if they were falsity-detectors, divining rods which lead the philosopher to strike pay- dirt. But actually, any competent teacher of logic will tell you that a skill for critical thinking does not by itself confer the expertise to determine which conclusions are true and which are false. Rather, part of the value of critical thinking is that it helps the good-faith reader and listener to figure out for themselves how they stand in relation to arguments put before them.

As cultural therapist

When I lived in Toronto, the subway commute was generally unpleasant. The Toronto subway was decorated with advertisements for a sketchy new-age institute that branded itself as a school of Philosophy. I experience similar feelings of grouchitude when I walk into a bookstore and notice that the Philosophy section is invariably bookended by sections on Religion and Spirituality. Any student of analytic philosophy will reliably try to avert their eyes when exposed to commercial efforts that conflate philosophy and spirituality, else be forced to suffer through the minor indignity of being audience to false advertising.

Well, whatever. To some extent, the philosophical tradition has it coming. One of the worst kept secrets in analytic philosophy, and philosophy in general, is that part of the point of learning philosophy is to learn how to cope with living. When conceived in this way, the philosopher functions as a kind of rational therapist, who attempts to persuade people to accept palliative insights. With few exceptions, modern professional philosophers are generally quite lousy at providing such consolations. (It is instructive that De Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy ended with two 19th century philosophers, both of whom were by reputation inconsolable.)

But even so, this is not a reason to disbelieve that many philosophers throughout history have done what they do in order to learn how to live in the right kind of way. And on some occasions, the enterprise can be productive. After you read Nietzsche, Arendt, Russell, Nussbaum, or JS Mill, you may come away a different kind of person. Anyone who receives a philosophical education without reading and reacting to any of these figures is someone who has received an education unfulfilled. Certain strains of philosophy have been influential as vehicles that help to live the everyday life: for example, according to its adherents, the technique of cognitive-behavioral therapy owes a debt to the writings of the Stoics.

This is not necessarily to suggest that even the best rational therapists are always good at it. I might as well share a personal anecdote to illustrate the point. We all have difficult times in our lives, moments where we look for guidance and for wisdom. One night, after a stressful day, I laid in bed, shivering from melancholy. Thinking he could help, I plucked a copy of Meister Eckhart‘s writings from the shelf. Eckhart was a Dominican philosopher with a (mostly deserved) reputation for deep, probing insight. I am not much of a believer in the divine, but occasionally Eckhart is able to pin down an idea with such honesty that it is difficult not to admire him.

So I opened the book to a random page. I read this passage:

All that [perfect detachment] wants is to be. But to wish to be this thing or that — this it does not want. Whoever wants to be this or that wants to be something, but detachment wants to be nothing at all.

…and then I threw the book across the room and opted for sleep. I’m sure the contradiction in that passage can be resolved, but the only time you should try is in the light of day.

As the child of wonder

Increasingly, professional philosophers will try to paint themselves as expert reasoners, capable of handling difficult problems using sophisticated logical techniques. But this is a feature of the modern academy. In the past, it was more often said that the philosopher is like a curious child, constantly engaged in dialogue, asking questions that others think too obvious to contemplate.

Consider: Why is there something rather than nothing? If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and good, why is there evil? These are highly general, entirely reasonable questions, and you do not need any special authority to ask them. All you need is humility, and to seek to persuade others to be humble in kind. Socrates is maybe the most obvious example of someone who pretended to be a curious child, a patient rational inquirer who was given to constant self-effacement when interrogated. The Socratic Method is also meant to be intellectually egalitarian: hence, the intuitions of Socrates and the slave child in Meno are supposed to be on the very same level.

There is nothing wrong with approaching a subject afresh, as if you were the first Martian anthropologist put in charge of understanding the people of Earth. Actually, there is quite a lot that is right with this approach.

But the trouble with innocence is that there is only a finite supply. When the would-be philosopher has thought about some subject matter for a significant length of time, they must either claim that they have found a special form of expertise, or else persist in assuming a pretence of innocence and hope no-one will see behind the ruse. Nietzsche may have been a mean old man, but he puts the point in an amusing way: “What’s attractive about looking at all philosophers in part suspiciously and in part mockingly is not that we find again and again how innocent they are… but that they are not honest enough in what they do, while, as a group, they make huge, virtuous noises as soon as the problem of truthfulness is touched on, even remotely.” To think through difficult issues philosophically often means making an attempt to dump one’s prejudices as far as it is possible, and to let inquiry guide you to the right solution. But the elimination of prejudice must not come at too high a cost. The elimination of prejudice should not be used as grounds for undermining a capacity for good judgment.

As pleased to meet you

Finally, I’d like to consider the likeness that some philosophers have to devil’s advocates.

When we hear that term, the position sounds, well, devilish and contrarian. But actually, it is not so simple as all that. The devil’s advocate is a colloquial term used to describe the position of being appointed by the Catholic Church to argue a case against the canonization of would-be saints. For a long time, the official title of the devil’s advocate was “Promoter of the Faith”. The task of the devil’s advocate is not to formulate a consensus opinion, or even to speak from honest conviction. Instead, the devil’s advocate is supposed to cast doubt on the proffered argument in a rigorous way.

Devil’s advocates are intellectual attorneys at heart. They are people who are annoyed by salespeople who only give one side to the story, and who want to hear the other side before coming to judgment. In their way, they are motivated by a kind of charity: they want to hear the strongest case that can be made for the other team, so that the final synthesis does not end up being dull and short-sighted. Devil’s advocates are not as interested in getting at the facts of the matter (like the intellectual detective), or exploring the mystery of life (like curious children), as much they are interested in getting an alternative point of view out there. Like the contrarian, the devil’s advocate is motivated in reaction to other peoples’ arguments. But unlike the contrarian, the devil’s advocate actually has an intellectual spine. They can put forward an argument that holds together on its own merits.

The devil’s advocate is, at the end of the day, a kind of sophist. In principle, the sophist is the arch- enemy of the philosopher, and the accusation of a would-be philosopher of “sophistry” is supposed to be a slap in the face. Hence I would wager that consensus opinion in professional philosophy would have it that the metaphor of ‘devil’s advocate’ is a truly degenerate metaphor. The worry is that if we accept that the devil’s advocate is doing philosophy, then it would signal that the discipline is hopelessly corrupt.

But it would seem that professional philosophy does not practice what it preaches. The fact of the matter is that many undergraduate philosophy programs primarily teach their students to be able to think on either side of an issue, and to argue for it in a critical way. Moreover, the ability to think of opposing arguments is exactly one of the skill-sets that are used to sell students on the practical value of an education in philosophy. So, to the extent that one believes that the value of philosophy consists in its ability to produce a supple mind that is able to think around curves, one is saying that the value of philosophy is in its value of teaching how to be a devil’s advocate. If philosophers are to be more honest, and more coherent, they must be able to come to terms with the fact that the devil’s advocate is not necessarily doing bad philosophy.

I do think that there is a problem with this kind of sophistry, but the problem is not that the position of devil’s advocate is essentially corrupt or degenerate. Rather, I think one ought not be satisfied with advocating for the devil, unless it is as a means of first advocating something that really matters — for the truth, or for the good, or whatever. In other words: anyone who is satisfied with a life of being a devil’s advocate, is someone who is settling for philosophical mediocrity. But while the charge of mediocrity is a potent one, it does not uniquely belong to the devil’s advocate. After all, as a matter of fact, I have already shown that the accusation of mediocrity can be levelled against every single one of the metaphors in this post. For a good enough definition of ‘mediocrity’ is, “Someone who is split equally between virtues and vices” — as they all are.

While I think there is a conceptual difference between doing philosophy and being a proper philosopher, I admit that people act as if they are substantially linked. In particular, when someone wants to accuse their intellectual arch-nemesis of being a non-philosopher, they will marshal a reliable collection of taunts or insults. The drama that ensues is usually tedious and not worth dwelling on, except for the fact that the insults that self-described philosophers level against each other actually tells us something about what they value most about philosophy. (And also, I suppose, because there is a small cottage industry in philosophy that is now dedicated to the conceptual analysis of naughty words. Recall Frankfurt on Bullshit and Aaron James on Assholes.)

If you want to insult a self-described philosopher, you have to point to their vices. A vice is just a lonely virtue — the thing that makes traits virtuous is that they come in clusters. For example, if you have the gift of insight, but lack any other intellectual virtues, then you are a dogmatist.

As far as I can tell, ‘being philosophical’ involves the manifestation of two kinds of virtues: the right intentions (insightful belief, humble commitments), and the right reflective methods (rationality in thought, cooperation in conversation). One should expect that being philosophical means you should be able to manifest at least some of right intentions and at least some of the right ways. The aspiring philosopher must manifest the right intentions, but their work cannot be all about good intentions. By the same token, the aspirant must manifest some facility with the right methods, but the whole of their work cannot be confined to reflective methods. Philosophers actually have to help us do something, understand something.

In theory, some insults are grotesque offenses to the philosophical mind. No aspiring philosopher should want to be found guilty of being a dogmatist, worry-wart, puzzle-solver, or sycophant; if the definition of ‘philosopher’ ever countenances such habits of mind, then I will finally know that I have lost all sense of what the word means. There is a non-trivial possibility that I have never known what philosophy is, but I am comforted by the fact that I appear to be in good company. Recall the Gellner-Ryle spat, where variations on all four accusations show up in print. First, Russell admonishes Ryle for running the risk of turning Mind into “the mutual admiration organ of a coterie” (sycophancy); then GRG Mure of Oxford accuses practitioners of the OLP movement as being “long self-immunized to criticism” (dogmatism); and later Arnold Kaufner (Michigan) alludes to the possibility that the Oxford group as guilty of “precious cleverness” and “genteel subtlety” (puzzle-solvers) and “ritualistic caution” (worry-warts).

As intellectual romantics

The problem with these sorts of insults is that they are so broad that when they are used by institutional peers the words will probably have no force. These flung arrows are supposed to mark out properties of persons which would be obvious if they were true, and hence would not usually even need to be asserted. Between institutional peers, the barb of an insult is most effective to the extent that it conforms to the facts, and the extent to which the assertion actually reveals something informative about those facts. People fall more in love with the subtler insults, ones that are grounded in the truth and in a potentially surprising way. The more intemperate and thoughtless your insults, the less people need to pay attention to you.

Most readers are aware of the fact that during the 20th century there was a distinction between analytic philosophy and continental metaphysics. This distinction was based on innumerable factors, including substantive disagreements over particular viewpoints, and wide disagreement over who counted as an authority in philosophy. And that’s fine. But whatever the initial causes of the divide, it persisted in part because each side was able to caricature the other side as unphilosophical in one of the above ways. For analytic philosophers, continental metaphysicians were seen as romantic malcontents. (Recall Russell on existentialism: “It is from a mood of feeling oppressed that existentialism stages its rebellion against rationalism… The rationalist sees his freedom in a knowledge of how nature works; the existentialist finds it in an indulgence of his moods.”) Meanwhile, continental philosophers thought of analytic philosophers as methodology-obsessed and science-craven. (My use of the past tense is strategic but fanciful.)

Some people (let’s call them romantics) talk about philosophy as if it described the expression of deep and serious thoughts on some profound issue. The romantic approach to philosophy likes to think that the primary point of philosophy is to play with ideas, to enjoy the freedom to think. Arguments are not conceived as tools, but as a canvas, and the fruit of the argument comes from weaving out authentic interconnections. The artisan delights in the avant garde, and enjoys seeing what an experimental attitude towards philosophy might bring about.

But no matter how deep you think your beliefs are, no matter how humble you are in adopting them, and no matter how sincere you are in expressing them, you owe it to your readers to show how you could be wrong. As interesting as your deep thoughts may be, if your philosophy of life can’t be assessed in public, and if you take no part in that ongoing assessment, then it is not a part of your work as a philosopher and you’re not acting like much of a philosopher when you do it. Good intentions and deep insights are not enough to acquit a writer of using obscure jargon and dubious inferences. Anthony Kenny knew and collaborated with Jacques Derrida as a young man, but his final judgment on Derrida’s work is both fair and decisive: Derrida’s M.O. was to “introduce new terms whose effect is to confuse ideas that are perfectly distinct”.

Sometimes, people are unfairly targeted as romantics when in retrospect they ought to have been given a fair shake. Marshall McLuhan is one of the most famous Canadian intellectuals from the 20th century, and his work has undeniable insight and natural modesty. He is owed due credit as a futurist and media theorist, and I am sure philosophers could learn quite a lot from his work. But while I leave it to others to determine whether or not he was a proper philosopher, I expect few would. Certainly, today’s professional philosophers do not. Max Black (anticipating Harry Frankfurt) referred to McLuhan as one of his generation’s humbuggers. All the same, I cannot help but point out that McLuhan seems to have been philosophizing, at least in the generous historical sense that I am working with. While there is no attempt at rigor, there was usually a reasonable chain of inferences and engagement in a wider Humanities-wide conversation. Of course, his dictum “The medium is the message” was obtuse — but even so, the point he was trying to make was comparably interesting.

As methodological fetishists

What holds for one extreme also holds for the other. If you say that philosophy is all about method — if, in other words, you are a scholastic intellectual technician— then it is hard to see how you could make any but the most perfunctory gestures to truth or understanding. When you ask someone who is obsessed with methodology why they do philosophy, they will explain to you the importance of trading of reasons for reasons, and how the rules of the philosophical game work. They will not answer a direct question, like “What consequence does this intellectual puzzle have to our lives?”. Instead, the inquiry will be treated as intrinsically valuable in the worst possible sense of the phrase. The technician is interested in getting to the heart of the ‘rules of chmess‘ thing once and for all, and we are unaffected by the effort.

Don’t be too hard on the technician. In all likelihood, the methods-obsessed soul has been appropriately traumatized by the most odious aspects of the philosophical culture, by pointless dogmatists and contrarians. You can hardly blame them for retreating to the safety and surety of intellectual Sudoku, any more than you can blame hobbits for keeping to the Shire.

The approach from method faces an additional burden, in that it does its part in stamping out philosophy as a distinctive and productive part of the Humanities. So, critics of modern analytic philosophy can ask the philosopher to show that reasoning from the armchair is both intellectually productive and distinctively non-scientific. Of course, it is now well-known that armchair methods are not always as productive as they seem. But it is also not obvious that armchair methods are distinctively philosophical. For, contrary to empiricist prejudices, quite a lot of good science could not be done unless we used some kind of aprioristic methods — be that in the form of mathematics, metaphysics, or modelling. Hence, in order to say something distinctive about philosophy, we have to talk about a productive and interesting part of the philosophical tradition that would be tough to sell as science. At least in the broader historical picture, intentional virtues are part of the philosopher’s real estate.

It is much more difficult to mention an example of a technician, in part because they are seldom remembered or celebrated after passing on. People bother to remember McLuhan, even if he was not even wrong, because it turns out that he had a thing to say and it was important that he said it. In contrast, empty refinements of method and their application to irrelevant and inconsequential subjects is not even ‘not even wrong’ — it is not even bullshit.


Philosophy is a big tent kind of thing. There is a world of difference between being philosophical, being 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.

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