What is a Philosopher?

What is a Philosopher?

Or rather, what is philosopher not?

The question is one that has been bothering me recently. In the realm of science, a scientist is one who applies the scientific method (usually in the study of some particular sub-field). The definition is falsifiable: if you do not apply the scientific method, then you are not a scientist.

The same is true in the world of writing. If you do not write every day, then you are not a writer. Each writer’s metric varies; according to Stephen King, the serious writer reads four hours a day and writes four hours a day. Some others are more relaxed — perhaps 3-4 times a week. But the point is the same. If you do not write, regularly, then you are not a writer.

If you do not design things, then you are not an engineer. If you do not put wood together, then you are not a carpenter (if the wood you put together is not flush, plumb, square, flat, straight, and level, then you are probably not a very good carpenter).

These understandings help us clarify not only who the experts are (and by extension, what is considered “quality” within a field), but more fundamentally, what it is that we mean by our terms. For instance, a scientist is not merely someone who has a degree and works with statistics to come to opinions… at least, not if they don’t utilize the scientific method. Without an operational definition of the word “scientist,” we might very well be duped, and thus, dilute the meaning of the label.

(Indeed, even with the label, the concepts of science and the scientist are still being diluted over these sorts of colloquial misunderstandings).

But philosophy has a problem: it has no equivalent operational definition.

It is tempting to say “a philosopher is one who practices philosophy, problem solved,” but there is no falsifiable definition of philosophy as an activity. Is appreciating and pontificating upon art philosophy? It appears that sometimes it is… although not all the time. Generally speaking, it sometimes feels as if who is doing the pontificating is the relevant question: if a random person is stating their opinion, then it is not philosophy. If it is someone deemed to be a philosopher, then it is philosophy.


Writing and science are both fairly binary. It is easy to categorize whether a particular activity qualifies as writing or not, and determining whether or not a particular activity is science or not is not merely doable, but is becoming a refined process (peer-review).

Engineering is a little bit more hazy as an activity, but is in a way even more binary in terms of its results. Did the car drive? Did the plane fly? Did the bridge stay up? The difference between good and bad engineering is undeniable, even to non-engineers, in a way that quality writing is not, and quality science even less so.

Philosophy has all the haziness of engineering as an activity, with none of the verifiability of engineering in its results. How, for example, do you know that philosophizing is being done correctly? And how might you gauge the “effects” of successful philosophy, in contradistinction with unsuccessful philosophy?

It seems as if the primary metric most people — even in the field — use to make such determinations is how well-versed a particular person is in the philosophers of the past. Admittedly, this is not a bad starting place, as someone who is a “lover of wisdom” is likely to have investigated possible sources of wisdom from the past, can only be a rough heuristic, not a true gauge. Otherwise, classical philosophers such as Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and Socrates could not be considered philosophers — having not studied Descartes, Hume, Locke, Hobbes, etc… and then where would we be!

I do not have an answer to this question of who is and is not a philosopher. I do know, however, that the current model of credentialism cuts against the heart of classical philosophy, and is less useful as a gauge of good philosophy than it is a gauge of the person’s knowledge of the history of philosophy. This is, in my opinion, equivalent to mistaking an art-historian for a painter. The two are not exclusive, but neither are they the same, and the confusion is leading to the appearance of wisdom — or at least the label — without the reality.

It is possible that this is too scientific of an approach to philosophy; a criticism I’m sure that not only comes from, but describes phenomenologists of all kinds (a school I am not merely sympathetic to, but have been highly influenced by). But phenomenology in general is usually only practiced by those who know the term — in other words, maybe five or six people, and I am being only slightly facetious — and in such small circles, deception and reputation free-riding is not usually a problem. When we are discussing “philosophy” more generally, it is.

And while the fruits of philosophy may be their own reward to the practitioner, the fruits for the general public may be quite different indeed — as with the poor engineer who justifies his lethal collapsing bridge by saying “engineering is its own reward.”

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