A Rant on “Philosophers”

When I first heard the word “Philosopher”, I thought it meant someone with a profound or interesting insight about reality or the “human condition”. However, when I studied philosophy, it eventually became apparent to me that philosophers don’t merely have profound insights; they also engage in a rational inquiry about foundational issues. In other words, philosophers think critically about fundamental issues via reason and argumentation. It’s much easier to have a profound insight than arguing for it. In fact, it’s not very hard to have an epiphany, but it’s much harder to critically examine one’s intuitions, assumptions, and beliefs.

After I learned what philosophers actually do, I took it for granted until I come across a common phenomenon that I use to be a part of. People start calling notable figures “philosophers” simply because they made some insightful remarks. For example, I remember someone calling the comedian Louis C.K. a philosopher, because he said something insightful about a young generation’s obsession with selfie and social media. I also remember the speaker of my graduation commencement regarding Dr. Seuss as a philosopher for writing insightful books dedicated to children.

I want to emphasize that I’m not claiming that Dr. Seuss and Louis C.K. lack profound insights; i’m not claiming that they aren’t important figures who had an important impact on contemporary culture. Remember, the term “philosopher”, as I understand it, doesn’t merely mean someone with profound insights about the human condition. The term “philosopher” means someone who engages in a rational inquiry by applying reason to fundamental issues like “consciousness”, “intentionality”, “knowledge”, “morality”, “justice”, “truth”, etc. This means that a philosophers does more than have an interesting insight: he or she systematically develops or critiques arguments. A philosopher also poses hard questions that usually begin with a “why” or “what”.

Someone could reply that as long as people like Louis C.K. and Dr. Seuss make a philosophical claim through literature or comedy, then we should at least consider them to be philosophers. However, my problem with that reply is that it’s very easy to make a philosophical claim. Claims like “All people are equal”, “Capital Punishment is unjust (or just)”, “God exists”, “The scientific method works”, “I know myself better than you!”, “I know what that person is thinking”, and such are all philosophical claims that we find to be relatively common in every day conversation from the most controversial political issue to ordinary conversations. They all make some kind of basic assumption worth examining. However, what makes someone a philosopher is that he or she critically thinks about these claims.

A philosopher would usually ask the following kind of questions about those claims: “What does that claim really mean?”, “The claim uses a key term (i.e. God, Equality, Unjust, Scientific Method, Know, etc.)  but what does that term mean exactly”, “What is the justification for the claim (or why is that claim true)?”, and more. After a philosopher poses those kind of questions, he or she would proceed to develop some arguments. If another person makes an argument, a philosopher would examine it to consider if it’s a good or bad argument. If the argument is good, but has some flaws, then a philosopher would consider what would improve that argument.

Someone could just shrug and dismiss my concern as a semantic issue. After all, what a “philosopher” means would vary among people. However, I think this more than just a “semantic” issue. Suppose a large segment of our population believes that a scientist is someone who invents new technology to improve our lives. Consequently, people who believe that scientists are inventors would believe that Thomas Edison is a scientist. An actual scientist would be somewhat annoyed, since he or she rightfully thinks that a scientist is more than just an inventor. Generally, a scientist is someone who makes an observation, considers a hypothesis, and then test it through rigorous experimentation. Afterward, a scientist should record an experimental result and then submit it for peer review. In other words, a scientist is someone who tries to understand the world and engages with a scientific community to facilitate that understanding.

We normally would agree that people who think that scientists are technological inventors are not entirely being accurate. Likewise, I think we should agree that people are misguided into thinking that philosophers are simply people with profound insights. Someone might object that “philosopher” and “scientists” aren’t analogous, because the former strictly isn’t a profession whereas the latter is. Again, I’m afraid that I have to disagree. Most philosophers nowadays are professional philosophers who are academically trained to do philosophy. There are some people who I call “lay philosophers” who are familiar with various philosophical topics, but pursued alternative careers. What professional and lay philosophers have in common is that both of them do think about the same problems.

Someone could point out that in the past great philosophers like Hume, Plato, Leibniz, Descartes, Stuart Mill, and others weren’t philosophers in the professional sense given that a “philosopher” wasn’t a profession back then. This is true, but I think one could make a similar argument about scientists. A long time ago, during Galileo’s time, science wasn’t as professionalized like today. A scientist back then would just be any educated person who wants to advance knowledge. Over a hundred years ago, there use to be independent scientists who could easily do science outside the confines of academia. Nowadays, it’s virtually impossible to do science outside of academic research institutions.

A more sophisticated critic would point out that my definition of the term “philosopher” seems to exclude some people like Nietzsche who is widely acknowledged to be a philosopher. After all, someone could argue that Nietzsche reads more like a poet than an average professional philosopher who systematically develops arguments. There are two possible replies. First, Nietzsche might not be a typical philosopher who makes clear arguments, but one could argue that he has implicit arguments that could be reconstructed by a Nietzschean scholar. Second, Nietzsche is familiar with the philosophical literature and he does criticize (though somewhat dismissively) some well known philosophers like Kant and John Stuart Mill.

In the end, I think this common yet benign misunderstanding could be resolved through education. I take it somewhat personally because I don’t like it when people misunderstand a discipline that I care so much about. I don’t entirely blame them for misunderstanding philosophy. After all, philosophers are not great at Public Relations. That’s part of the reason why I developed this blog in the first place.


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