Saturday, November 29, 2008

Brief Musing on Philosophy and Professionalism

A few days ago, a former student of mine sent me a link to a conversation she'd been having over a Facebook message board.  The topic had to do with whether or not philosophers are born or made (through education, not in labs), but it had devolved into a disagreement about the role lay-people should take in philosophical discourse--my former student was basically arguing that anyone with a good mind can be a philosopher, and others were attacking her by claiming that being a philosopher requires specialized training (i.e. a doctorate), and non-professionals can't lay claim to the title.  I think that's crap, so I posted a quick response, which I have reproduced here for those that might be interested.  It's relatively self-contained, except for one reference to my student by name ("Katelin").  Enjoy.

There's a popular confusion, I think, between 'professional philosopher' and 'person who thinks in logical and rigorous ways.' It's certainly true that any individual cannot simply decide to declare himself a philosopher in the Leiterrific sense of the term--that takes years of specialized training and a good measure of talent to achieve. However, this should not be taken to imply that only those who have been anointed by the right people can honestly call themselves philosophers, or claim to be engaged in a philosophical project. In this respect, I think Katelin is absolutely right, and I think that the pernicious elitism is doing damage to the intellectual discourse that is essentially at the heart of the profession.

Remember that the idea of a 'professional philosopher' is a relatively new one (at least on a wide scale)--The Academy didn't really start to flourish as the center for philosophical discourse until the 19th century. Before that, philosophy was primarily done by people who likely wouldn't have considered themselves 'professional philosophers;' clergy, scientists, mathematicians, and intelligent lay-people were all part of the philosophical discourse. The shift away from philosophy as a matter of public interest and concern and toward an insular and increasingly obscure clique of professionals has not been hailed by all as a positive change; many of us who consider ourselves part of the profession still hold to Russell's maxim that philosophy essentially concerns matters of interest to the general public, and much value is lost when only a few professionals can understand what is said. Excluding people from the discourse because they lack the proper credentials or pedigree is not going to make philosophy better, but only cut it off from what should be its essential grounding: the every day reality in which we all live. Remember that even Peirce--widely regarded as a giant of American Pragmatism--couldn't hold down an academic job; his contribution to the field of philosophy is not lessened by this fact.

There are still people today who are doing substantive (and interesting) philosophical work, but who are not tenure track philosophers at research universities--Quee Nelson comes to mind immediately as an exemplar, but there are certainly others as well. If philosophy consists just in a dance wherein the participants throw obscure technical terms back and forth at each other, then only professionals can be philosophers. If, however, it consists in careful, reasoned, methodical thinking about the nature of reality, then anyone with the drive and intelligence can be a philosopher.

Who, then, should claim the title? I'm inclined to think that like 'hacker,' 'philosopher' is not a title that one should bestow upon oneself, but rather something that should represent some degree of recognition by the others in the field--if you show yourself able to think carefully and analytically about conceptual questions, then you're a philosopher in my book. That doesn't mean I think your answers to those questions are correct, though.


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