Non-academic philosophers

Lets just take the view, for matters of assumption, that proper philosophy is the kind done within the university setting, with the rigour of possessing a PhD, or higher doctorate, around similar peers who are able to keep track on them, and criticise and correct their mistakes; or encourage certain ‘familial values’.

So, what contrasts from this notion of a philosopher as academic; well, two kinds of people.

1. Academic non-analytic ‘philosophers’

2. Non-academic ‘philosophers’

The first species refers to those that people would call a philosopher, but would not belong to a philosophy department, these people might be otherwise called social theorists, theologians, political scientists, art or cultural theorists/historians, physicists, or charlatans. For some of these figures, the label of ‘philosopher’ is innocuous, perhaps even endearing, or, perhaps, true. Is Noam Chomsky a philosopher, for instance? Dawkins? Max Weber? There is no doubt that these people are talked of in philosophical circles for very good reason; Chomsky on his psychological-linguistics, Dawkins for his zoology (I mean, that’s the actual stuff he is a professor for!) and his views on religion and culture; and Weber for his substantive and methodological contributions to social science.

There are, however, cases where philosophy can be a label of offence; the Continentals are a case in point. Some aren’t too bad, while others, are being pluralised and bastardised by their readers; I’m sure the authors themselves do not propagate their own nonsense; like, how, for instance, people put the strawman argument about the ‘there is no metanarrative’ metanarrative in postmodern theory. Fuck! Has anyone actually read any postmodern literature? It’s hard to characterise all of them in a single label; Lyotard and Baurdillard may be tarred with a similar brush, but what of Foucault, Derrida, Bataille? It’s not so clear with all of them together.

Of course I seem to be presupposing the answer to something, namely what is philosophy? Perhaps I should state it in the negative

  1. Philosophy must state things that are as clear and rigorously put as possible
  2. Philosophy must express its platitudes in as clear a language as possible; any difficulty in reading is done so only as a matter of favoring rigour and parsimony over simplicity.
  3. Just because something is clear, doesn’t mean its easy to read, or understand.
  4. Philosophy must appreciate the arguments of past masters, and current enemies in the most charitable and most erudite manner possible
  5. Philosophy is a waste of time iff it is seen predominantly as a means towards winning an argument; it is an exploration of our understanding, sharing intuitions and insights, and engaging with others; it must never talk past another.
  6. Knock down arguments are few and far between.

Let us now consider non-academic philosophers. I’m a bit mixed about this issue. What I mean by a non-academic philosopher is an individual who publishes books and the like to the end of popularising past philosophers, but not putting forward new ideas of their own. People like Julian Baggini; Stephen Law are the most obvious examples of this. But there are also popularised books which, are not written for the journal reading student or academic audience, but the common folk. I think this can be very good; and on occaision, original. Grayling, Blackburn, Scruton and possibly Dennett, are good examples of these.

A non-academic philosopher can also be an academic philosopher; it is just that they also write for a very simple audience and non-philosophically literate crowd on occaision to express something that may not directly impact on some current issue, but to express a platitude of our time. On the one hand, I think both of these non-university, and non-academic philosophers can be quite bad; but on the other hand, I think of two of their greatest exemplaries. David Hume and Immanuel Kant respectively; Hume did not take up a chair in philosophy, but wrote the greatest works. Conversely, Kant wrote for the more technical and literate academic scenes, but when he did, he wrote some very lucid and non-specialist writings as well; consider for instance, his work On Perpetual Peace or his infamous essay An answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? (1884).

It is not my place, really, to say what is or is not philosophy. Some of the greatest philosophers are quite oddball, and quite exile from the normal dry academic scene. Consider Wittgenstein for that matter.


One thought on “Non-academic philosophers

  1. Can a self-educated philosopher contribute to the field? Granted, most ideas from this avenue are not useful for numerous reasons, but is it possible, and how could the rare coherent original idea find recognition?

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