The three faces of philosophy

[Adapted from a post initially published at Talking Philosophy Magazine blog in 2014.]

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. The first is an action; the second, a kind of vocation; and the third, a description of an academic job.

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 engage in the rational study of some characteristically general subjects (e.g., morality, existence, art, reasoning), 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.

It is possible to do philosophy without being a proper philosopher or a professional philosopher. This is unusual, as these things go; to see that, compare with engineering. The requirements for doing actual philosophy are quite a bit lower than the requirements for doing actual engineering. To do philosophy you have to approach some of the general questions while behaving philosophically; to do engineering, you have to be a proper engineer. So, it is seldom claimed that Meno was a proper philosopher, but we won’t hesitate to say that Meno was seriously doing philosophy with Socrates. In contrast, professional engineers would probably not say that a child playing with Lego has really seriously done some engineering. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Lego. If it came to that, I’d be more inclined to say there’s something wrong with engineers.)

And yet, in the vocation of philosophy, there are unusually high barriers to success. A person who does philosophy in a middling way is not a proper philosopher; if you can describe her philosophizing in a cheap metaphor, it is a sign that things may have fallen short of the mark. Proper philosophers do productive work that is worthy of attention, however you would like to cash that out.

Moreover, I would argue that the merits of a work in professional philosophy are only obliquely defined in terms of their vocational traits. Professional philosophers are judged according to various things, including their scholarly competence, their intelligence, their papers, peers, prudence, and pedigree. By and large, professional philosophers are not directly tested on whether or not they have philosophical acumen. Indeed, it is rarely stated outright what ‘being philosophical’ amounts to, uneasily marked by opaque approbative terms (which, following Amy Olberding, we might dub ‘top-notchitude’). When you ask professional philosophers to articulate their conceptions of good philosophy, it is sometimes asserted that the professional desiderata overlap substantially with the philosophical traits. And I think there is something to that. But at their worst, professionals will float blissfully along from one encounter to the next operating on the assumption that whatever they are up to is all aces, and good riddance to the rest of the profession. (Consider that in certain areas, professional citation practices are remarkably ad hoc; and consider that most articles are cited only once or less even when published). Beneath the wandering skies of top-notchitude, we have the shifting sands of the documentary record which ostensibly makes up the bulk of this field’s productive output. So there is at least some room for someone who is committed to philosophy as a vocation to look at the profession with a skeptical eye.

But despite the fact that philosophy can be discussed in any of these modes – as proper (the vocation), as professional (the job description), and as philosophizing (the act) – it is instructive to notice that they share certain commonalities. At one end of the spectrum, proper philosophers should be seen to hold the four virtues; and at the other end, the worst professional philosophy is evaluated in terms of tropes that imply some one or more of these virtues are out of sync. Whatever else we think about philosophy and its fate, we should not be lulled into an identity crisis. I say, again, that philosophy is best understood as the kind of projects and habits it encourages and cultivates in us, and which makes us better directed towards making sense of things. This is something to hold onto, something worth protecting, come what may.

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