Not Technically a Philosopher, But

Not Technically a Philosopher, But


Philosophers seem pretty territorial about their discipline. Whether that’s owed to high standards, insecurity, or something else, I don’t know. But we tend to be on guard when non-philosophers take up philosophical questions, cautious about assigning work in our classes that is by non-philosophers, and seemingly comfortable with deploying the phrase “not technically a philosopher.”

Let’s stipulate that someone is “technically” a philosopher when they have a PhD in philosophy or when they have a regular appointment in a philosophy department (“regular” as opposed to “affiliated” and the like). (UPDATE: see “addendum 2,” below)

My question: who is not technically a philosopher, but in your opinion does good philosophy?

A few things:
– If you want to explain why you’re naming the folks you’re naming, that would be great.
– Positive suggestions only, please. Feel free to disagree with others’ suggestions, in your head.
– What is “good philosophy”? You know it when you don’t see it.

ADDENDUM: Let’s keep things post-1900. Otherwise many canonical figures (Socrates,  etc.,) would not “technically” be philosophers.

ADDENDUM 2: As a correspondent pointed out, my definition quite stupidly excludes current philosophy graduate students from counting as philosophers in the “technical” sense. So let’s amend the stipulative definition of “technically a philosopher” to “having a PhD in philosophy, or working on a graduate degree in philosophy, or having a regular appointment in a philosophy department (“regular” as opposed to “affiliated” and the like).”

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anon
anon
5 years ago

I fully agree with this. I’ve noticed the related tendency, in published philosophical work, to add the caveat that so-and-so is “an intellectual historian” or “a literary critic” or whatever, when such a description is never added for a philosopher being cited or discussed, always with the thinly veiled meaning, “Take this view with a grain of salt; it doesn’t belong to a *real philosopher*.” This sort of practice frankly grosses me out.Report

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  anon
5 years ago

Why do you think that is the veiled meaning? I use such modifiers because I assume that most readers assume most named people are philosophers unless stated otherwise, and I want to correct that tacit assumption. Is it wrong to assume this, or wrong to correct it?Report

Conny Rhode
Conny Rhode
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
5 years ago

On the presumption of some form of deference to science, stating a non-philosopher’s area of research/disciplinary affiliation may also amount to an implied appeal to authority.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  anon
5 years ago

Hi, Anon. I think there are sometimes good reasons for clarifying that certain people are not philosophers.

By way of comparison, think of the consensus among scientists that human-caused climate change is a serious problem and needs our immediate attention. There is no such consensus among the population at large, for the most part because of disinformation campaigns. It would seem quite irresponsible for a journalist to say “The scientists working with the International Panel on Climate Change agree that so-and-so, but Joe Blow and millions of other people disagree” without indicating somehow that Joe Blow is not a scientist. The reason is that scientists are expected to conform to certain standards, including testing their claims, subjecting their work and conclusions to peer review, retracting their conclusions if they have been clearly refuted by others, etc. If we understand that Joe Blow is a truck driver or PR person, and not held to account by any standards or colleagues in the field, etc., then we recognize that we should put much less confidence in his or her conclusions than in the IPCC scientists’.

I think the same goes for philosophy. Part of the justification for our being supported by public (and private) funding in the ways that we are is that we can share the benefits of our research with interested laypeople. If those of us who have spent years learning and keeping up to date with developments in some issue, and training ourselves in the discipline, have come to agree that commonly accepted view X is untenable, then that seems to be a fair reason for laypeople to have much less credence in X. If some philosophers have managed to maintain position Y against considerable criticism, to the point where there still is not consensus on the issue, then that’s reason to believe that Y should not be dismissed so hastily. But if people reading an article can’t tell if the person cited as maintaining Z is a philosopher or just some completely uninformed person who happens to like Z, they are in a much worse epistemic position.Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  Justin Kalef
5 years ago

I agree with Justin but would like to add another consideration: what people mean by what they say.

In a simple case, the relativism/contextualism debate in philosophy of language for instance, you might have a certain accepted definition of ‘relativism’ (or cluster of definitions, or rough understanding, or whatever) that is wildly different to what Joe Soap would mean by relativism. It might sometimes be useful – if one is making an argument of the ‘this position might seem prima facie nuts but actually loads of people say stuff sort of like this!’ variety perhaps – to quote Soap’s saying something that sounds a bit like your position; but if one is doing so, one should mention that Soap isn’t technically a philosopher, as otherwise he will be misinterpreted, as meaning by ‘relativism’ what Cappelen or whoever means by it.

This of course is a tiny example meant to illustrate differences in meaning and implicature between philosophers’ and non-philosophers’ utterances. Every philosophical concept – from ‘truth’ and ‘love’ to ‘philosophy’ and ‘show’ – will mean differently in the mouths of philosophers and non-philosophers, and these differences can be significant.Report

Peter Alward
Peter Alward
Reply to  anon
5 years ago

But isn’t the implication (or thinly veiled meaning) sometimes not that the view on offer is second rate, but rather that since the author is not a philosopher we should not expect the same kind of articulation and argumentative defense of the view that a philosopher (in the technical sense) would ideally offer. And, hence, criticizing the author for failing to meet these standards is inappropriate.Report

NN
NN
Reply to  Peter Alward
5 years ago

But many people who aren’t ‘technically’ philosophers can demonstrate the same style of argumentation that you seem to expect from trained philosophers, so the assumption that a ‘layperson’ ought to be held to lower rhetorical standards strikes me as condescending…Report

Peter Alward
Peter Alward
Reply to  NN
5 years ago

Replying here is clearly a reflection of my deep character flaws but …

1. Although many non-TP’s have the ability to engage in TP argumentation, not all can

2. To say that a non-TP has the ability to engage in TP argumentation does not mean that s/he should be expected to do so

3. There is no claim that the standards to which non-TP’s can be expected to satisfy are lower than the standards we expect of TP’s, only that they may be different (and a technical TP might not be expected to meet the relevant non-TP standards either). A non-TP may, for example, be a historian or chemist and as such should be expected to meet the standards of technical historians or chemists rather than those of TP’s.

4. Since I’m not the one whose saying whose giving the caveat that so and so is a literary critic (or what have you) and not a TP, I’m not the one doing the condescending. All I’m doing is giving an alternate interpretation of what someone who makes such a caveat might be getting at. But, of course, I don’t think someone who intends the caveat in my way need be being condescending either, although they could (again, of course) be.

Report

Michael Shepanski
5 years ago

Euclid: he followed norms of deduction without laying them out as a logician would.

Einstein: he could follow norms of a sophisticated, modern empiricism without laying them out as an epistemologist would.Report

MindForgedManacle
Reply to  Michael Shepanski
5 years ago

Well, did Einstein? I’m only vaguely familiar with the history, but didn’t Einstein initially make use of thought experiments regarding the speed of light and related topics in his first published work regarding Relativity? The empirical evidence (in terms of experimentation anyway) didn’t come until that experiment with atomic clocks, right? I’m not discounting his work of course, I’m just not quite sure Einstein followed the norms of modern empiricism. Rather (if I’m correct), empiricism was applied later to give real credence for his work applying to the real world.Report

Dennis Lehmkuhl
Reply to  MindForgedManacle
5 years ago

It actually was the other way around: empiricists tried to give credence to their philosophical position by claiming that special relativity was doing science as they believed it should be done. And Einstein had indeed carefully studied Mach and Hume, and stated that their writings had a direct influence on his work. He lead extensive correspondences with Schlick and Reichenbach and other philosophers over decades, and argued with them not just as a physicist but as you would expect it of a (natural) philosopher. The relationship between Einstein and Schlick, and Einstein and Reichenbach, cooled off in the late 1920s / early 1930s, partly because it turned out that Einstein had come to believe in a subtler form of empiricism than they; indeed in a mixture of empiricism, rationalism, and holism. He may have been opportunistic there, but he was very aware of philosophical distinctions and ranges of philosophical positions one could adopt especially when interpreting scientific theories.

Another example of someone who was not “technically a philosopher” but does very good philosophy was Hermann Weyl.Report

Brian Weatherson
5 years ago

There are lots of developmental psychologists who are doing work that at the very least tells us a lot about philosophically important questions about the nature of mind. I’m particularly impressed by the work of Susan Gelman, Susan Carey, Alison Gopnik and Renee Baillargeon, but there are plenty of others you could easily list. (And I’m sure some I’m forgetting.) I don’t know where one draws the line between being stuff that philosophers can learn a lot from, and simply being good philosophy; in every case I think at least some of their works are straight up philosophy.

And there are game theorists who are working on exactly the same questions as formal epistemologists, and often drawing important lessons about the nature of rationality, or of cooperation. I’ve learned a lot from In-Koo Cho, David Kreps, Robert Aumann and Adam Brandenburger, though I often disagree with their conclusions.

There are a lot of people in computer science (e.g. Matt Stone), linguistics (e.g. Kai von Fintel) and political theory (which I don’t know as well) who publish regularly in philosophy, or philosophy-heavy, journals. I don’t know if it is even right to call them not “technically” philosophers. But I think many of these folks fit the stipulated criteria.Report

Matt
5 years ago

Stephen Morse of Penn Law. His training is in law and psychology, but his work on free will (including the science of it) and related issues in responsibility is excellent and very philosophically sophisticated. (I especially like his work on what he calls “Brain over-claim syndrome”. You can find it on his web page.) His work in criminal law theory more generally is also very good, but it’s the stuff on free will and responsibility that I think is the best philosophically, and good for philosophers.

Kim Ferzan At UVA Law is also a good example. I think her BA might have been in philosophy, but she doesn’t have a Ph.D., and is primarily in a law school, but was an editor of Law and Philosophy and does important and influential work in the philosophy of criminal law. A perhaps slightly less clear case (on the “technical” side, not the merits side) is Debbie Hellman, also at UVA Law. She has an MA in philosophy, so maybe that moves her from the “not technically…” bit too much, but no Ph.D., and isn’t in a philosophy department. Her work on discrimination is some of the most philosophically sophisticated and important around, though.

There are lots of others, of course, but these are people whose work I know well personally.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
5 years ago

Great topic, Justin.

Your stipulated definition of a philosopher (having a PhD in philosophy or a regular appointment in a philosophy department) has some unusual results in many cases. On that definition, Soclrates, Plato, and Aristotle are not philosophers. And here are some people who never earned a PhD or had a regular appointment: Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Bentham, Mill… and what about the PhD students today who get published in leading journals? It seems odd to say that they’re not philosophers. Etc.

My approach is to start with what it means to do philosophy. I think this saves more of the phenomena. By ‘doing philosophy’, I mean something like the following: approaching one or more questions that are not the exclusive domain of mathematics or the special sciences, and doing so in a way that a) sincerely attempts to resolve or clarify the question; b) centrally involves the presentation of clear arguments for any controversial claim being made; c) involves being self-critical and genuinely open to changing one’s mind in the face of better arguments, and in particular d) includes a serious and ongoing attempt to find and solicit the strongest opposing arguments and objections, to consider them using the principle of charity, and to react by downgrading one’s confidence or abandoning one’s view if one cannot find a rationally adequate response to these opposing arguments and objections.

By ‘philosopher’, I think many of us tend to mean one of four things, from least exclusive to most exclusive: 1. someone who habitually philosophizes; someone who earns a living as someone who philosophizes; 3. someone who earns a living by philozophizing in a philosophy department; or 4. someone whose philosophizings have had a profound influence on the course of philosophy.

The rough definition I gave of ‘doing philosophy’ isn’t meant to filter out mediocre or even terrible philosophy. If someone who has never seen the inside of a university tries every day to reason things through self-critically, etc., but always does a horrible job, I would be in favor of calling him or her a _bad_ philosopher, but not discounting him or her as a philosopher.

But there are still many people who, I think, clearly do not count as philosophers even though the public tends not to understand this. Derrida, as far as I can see, does not present clear arguments for his views, and often even his conclusions are unclear. So he’s not a philosopher. Neither are the people who present unargued-for aphorisms that many laypersons collect and quote at the start of their articles. Ayn Rand is not a philosopher because, among other things, she was famous for never being self-critical or genuinely interested in the objections others raised against her work. Etc.Report

David Shatz
David Shatz
5 years ago

One person who comes to mind is Shelly Goldstein (Math–Rutgers, but really does physics), who in a small percentage of his work does philosophy of physics (especially QM) and has published in philosophical venues. There are some interesting general remarks on “who is doing philosophy and well)?” in an article by Mark Steiner (emeritus, Hebrew University, known for his work in philosophy of mathematics, philo sci, and Wittgenstein), in the context of discussing a 19th century Jewish figure who would have fiercely resisted the label philosopher because he opposed the study of philosophy on religious grounds. Steiner believes he contributes to philosophy and is a (Jewish) philosopher. See the first 2-3 pages of http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/703954/Dr_Mark_Steiner/04_Rabbi_Israel_Salanter_as_a_Jewish_Philosopher.Report

Joe
Joe
5 years ago

Victor Frankl springs to mind, for some reason.Report

K.I.
K.I.
5 years ago

Noam ChomskyReport

Beau Madison Mount
Beau Madison Mount
5 years ago

Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, L.E.J. Brouwer, Alfred Tarski, Kurt Gödel, Gerhard Gentzen, Arend Heyting, Alonzo Church, Georg Kreisel, Dana Scott … who spent most or all of their careers in mathematics departments.Report

Grad Sockpuppet
Grad Sockpuppet
5 years ago

Michael BaxandallReport

Alex
Alex
5 years ago

Jean-Paul Sartre didn’t do a PhD and never worked in a Philosophy department.Report

anon
anon
5 years ago

I’ve heard Chomsky has a PhD in philosophy.Report

Ryan
Ryan
5 years ago

I do not understand the question. Who would want to be territorial about being a philosopher? Does someone pretend to own philosophy and seeks to guard it? This seems quite haughty. Doesn’t philosophy engage issues, questions, and problems that are potentially significant to everyone?Report

Komal
Komal
5 years ago

Sri Aurobindo is one person who immediately comes to mind, though I’m sure there are many others. Why are we limiting examples to post-1900 though? Counterexamples from earlier still challenge the definition.

I count anyone as a philosopher who does good philosophy that has an impact on the world. I count as good philosophy any work that illuminates on questions that are considered philosophical, such as the nature of the self, moral realism, free will, etc.Report

Stephen Clark
Stephen Clark
5 years ago

By the criteria you offer Derek Parfit is “not technically a philosopher”! He has no PhD, and he was a Fellow of All Souls College (OK, obviously also attached to the Sub-Faculty of Philosophy in Oxford, but with no necessary undergraduate or postgraduate teaching responsibilities). This suggests that the criteria are inappropriate!Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
Reply to  Stephen Clark
5 years ago

John McDowell doesn’t have an advanced degree in philosophy either.Report

Anon
Anon
5 years ago

Stephen Clark is exactly right. Think about the “star wars” at Oxford before Jerry Cohen joined them: Derek Parfit, Ronald Dworkin, and Amartya Sen. Not a philosophy PhD between them…Report

Anon
Anon
Reply to  Anon
5 years ago

But unlike Stephen Clark, I don’t think this shows the criteria are inappropriate. Instead, it should make us wonder, would we be so welcoming of a Parfit, a Dworkin, or a Sen today? I very much doubt it…Report

Matt
Reply to  Anon
5 years ago

it should make us wonder, would we be so welcoming of a Parfit, a Dworkin, or a Sen today? I very much doubt it…,

Well, things change over time, but it’s worth noting that these folks were in the “star wars” because, by that time, they were “stars” due to their publishing, not due to a fundamental difference in the “welcomingness” of philosophy. And, I’m not sure that claim holds up in any case. It’s not as common now, I think, but several very well known philosophers did something at Harvard similar to what Parfit did at Oxford, (including not finishing a PhD), by taking a spot at the Society of Fellows (Kripke, Burton Dreben, Tony Martin, maybe others I don’t know about.) A.J. Julius, at UCLA, has a degree in economics but not in philosophy. I understand he’s got an offer at Harvard, though I’m not 100% sure about that. Marc Fleurbaey could likely get a job in nearly any philosophy department in the US if he wanted, despite not having Ph.D. in philosophy. In addition to the people I’d mentioned above, there are some other law professors w/ only JDs who are regularly read and cited by philosophers (Larry Alexander, Fred Shauer at UVA, etc.) I don’t think they’d claim that the _only_ difference between their careers and Dworkin’s is that philosophy is “less welcoming” now. (Dworkin _never_ had a “primary” permanent appointment in a philosophy department, for what that’s worth.) Now, the thing about exceptional people like those noted is that they are exceptions. They are not the rule. That’s obvious. But, citing exceptional cases from the past doesn’t show much about today, especially given that exceptional cases are around now, too.Report

JCM
JCM
5 years ago

I would rather abandon the locution ‘technically a philosopher’ altogether. As I said in the response to Justin Kalef above, it is of course important to indicate the context of utterances in order to understand them properly, and informing one’s readers that the utterer is not a professional philosopher may well often be the clearest way to do this. But the phrase I use there – ‘professional philosopher’ – seems to me less problematic than ‘technically a philosopher.’ This is partly because I think that what we take ourselves to be doing qua philosophers is done by many people outside the academy, and so we should include them fully as fellows. More importantly, though, it’s because I don’t know what philosophy is, really, and I don’t think anyone else does either. For instance, I deeply disagree with Justin Kalef’s definition of philosophy, first with condition (2) and second with the binarity of it – and here I am far from alone! There are whole traditions of, e.g., Continental philosophers, Hegelians, etc., who would consider Kalef’s definition deeply parochial. I don’t care to argue over what philosophy is here, though: I’m concerned rather to make the meta-point that what philosophy is is incredibly controversial. This means that we should be very cautious about arrogating to ourselves the appellation ‘philosopher’ just because we alone have it in our job titles. I mean it’s not like we trust neo-liberalism in any other respect. But ‘professional philosophers’ – well, I suppose we’re that right enough. We get paid to do philosophy, even if we don’t actually do any of it. Also, ‘non-professional philosopher’ doesn’t indicate ‘not a philosopher.’

To answer the OP’s question thus amended: (1) all good artists do philosophy, roughly to the extent to which they’re good; (2) groups that are systemically excluded from the academy do a lot of philosophy through the media of blogs, tumbrs, Twitters, etc. It’s not really my area so I can’t cite anything off the top of my head, but I’ve encountered a lot of really wonderful philosophy on such fora over the years.Report

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
5 years ago

Eugene Wigner. His writing is deeply philosophical and also a pleasure to read. Paul Dirac as well, but especially Wigner.Report

Amy Olberding
Amy Olberding
5 years ago

My suspicion is that one need only look to the journals in marginalized subfields to find plenty of philosophers who don’t fulfill the criteria. E.g., since there are vanishingly few places where one can study Chinese philosophy at the Ph.D. level in Philosophy, there are lots of people with degrees and appointments from non-philosophy programs who in fact publish in Chinese philosophy. I’d expect you’d find the same in almost any non-western area, in philosophy of race, and philosophy on gender. Long story short, my guess is that fewer philosophers in the marginalized areas have this “not a philosopher” reflex since that reflex would exclude lots and lots of the worthwhile literature and peers in their fields. When Philosophy departments don’t teach or hire in an area, the work will come (if it does) from elsewhere. And when that’s the case, it’s especially annoying to have the “not a philosopher” issue arise.Report

anony
anony
5 years ago

“Let’s stipulate that someone is “technically” a philosopher when they have a PhD in philosophy or when they have a regular appointment in a philosophy department (“regular” as opposed to “affiliated” and the like). (UPDATE: see “addendum 2,” below)

ADDENDUM 2: As a friend pointed out, my definition quite stupidly excludes current philosophy graduate students from counting as philosophers in the “technical” sense. So let’s amend the stipulative definition of “technically a philosopher” to “having a PhD in philosophy, or working on a graduate degree in philosophy, or having a regular appointment in a philosophy department (“regular” as opposed to “affiliated” and the like).””

So am I not a philosopher, even though my PhD is in Philosophy, I’m TT, though teaching and researching in a Humanities department?Report

MindForgedManacle
5 years ago

My favorite “not-technically-a-philosopher” would be Richard Dawki-…. 😉

More seriously – and while she rejected the title herself – I quite enjoy some of Hannah Arendt’s work. Does she count? xDReport

Scu
Scu
5 years ago

I wonder if the “not technically a philosopher,” is as common of core analytic philosophy? In particular I am trained in continental philosophy, and I have seldom heard this phrase. Of course, our lesser territoriality about philosophy and philosophers might be connected about all the moves to push us outside of philosophy (see the above attack on Derrida). Anyway, there is a very long list I could make about not technically a philosopher: Spivak, Haraway, Ronell, Ahmed, Glissant, Anzuldua, etc.Report

michaela
michaela
5 years ago

I’m the “correspondent” who pointed out that Justin’s post made philosophy grad students not count as philosophers. I wanted to say that I actually think this is a harmful and unproductive post. If it is true that philosophers like to talk about people not “technically” being philosophers, then they ought to stop doing so, because it is harmful (for reasons that Amy Olberding points out, as well as related reasons), and in particular it is going to have the effect of reinforcing ridiculous boundaries that serve to marginalize people who do certain kinds of philosophy, as well as people considering entering the field who are interested in those areas of philosophy. (And many of those people are women and people of color.) I realize the “point” is to applaud people at the margins/boundaries here, but I don’t think that much matters–by singling them out as falling outside of some kind of weird “technical” definition of being a philosopher, and even by talking about it as a meaningful way of dividing people up, you’re reinforcing the boundary policing.

I also think that there is no obvious line between undergrad philosophy students and graduate students. I consider all my students to be philosophers–they are philosophizing, they are asking hard questions, they are spending many, many hours (the dedicated ones) thinking about philosophical issues and problems and getting creative and thoughtful about answering them. They *do* all the things that “philosophers” do–figuring out what questions they want to answer, figuring out what the options in logical space are, figuring out what view they have and how they are going to argue for it, thinking creatively and imaginatively, and so on. Sometimes they say things that are more interesting and more thoughtful and more creative than the people you’ve categorized as “technically philosophers”. I don’t see the point of not calling them philosophers, just like I don’t see the point of calling someone who doesn’t have a PhD in philosophy a philosopher, except to reinforce a kind of boundary policing that has had, as far as I can tell, an almost purely negative effect on philosophy as an academic discipline.

I just don’t see the point in talking like this, or at least, I don’t see any positive consequences of it and can only really see negative ones. And given that the boundary policing has a disproportionately bad effect on women and people of color, I think one ought to be especially careful. (I thought about raising some thought experiments here about analogous cases, but I don’t want to stir the pot too much. I do think, though, that thinking through this oneself is likely to demonstrate what’s wrong with the question, no matter how many caveats you attach to it.)Report

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  michaela
5 years ago

I know of at least one good reason to think about this kind of boundary drawing, and it’s one that affects me a bit.

For a lot of the stuff I teach, it’s pretty easy for me to make my syllabi gender-balanced and racially diverse. Need more women? Easy, just drift the focus towards psychology, and start adding readings by psychologists. Need the syllabus to be less white? Easy, just drift towards economics, and start adding readings by economists. (Or political science, or math, or physics, or just about anything except philosophy.)

Does this help? Well, it does diversify the syllabus. And it doesn’t dilute the philosophical quality of the readings; as I noted above, I think a lot of these folks do great philosophical work.

But the students are going to notice after a while if all the readings by folks with tight connections to philosophy departments are white males. So it really isn’t good enough. To be better I have to consciously think about whether the syllabus will still make it look like *Philosophy* is a place for white males. And that requires thinking about what kinds of messages the syllabus sends about disciplines, and I don’t know how to do that without thinking about the kinds of technical classifications Justin is using.

Tl;dr version: even if you or I think these boundary drawings are inappropriate, as long as other people are using them, we need to be conscious of them.Report

Bryan Frances
5 years ago

I think the contemporary novelist R. Scott Bakker has some excellent applied epistemology and philosophy of mind in his novels. He also writes straight-up philosophy, especially philosophy of mind, but I think the material in his novels is far superior.Report

JDRox
JDRox
5 years ago

First, it is hard for me to see how a post like this could reinforce boundary drawing/policing. Isn’t the point of all of these comments that boundary policing deprives us of reading good philosophy?
Second, Tyler Cowen does good philosophical work but is not technically a philosopher: https://www.gmu.edu/centers/publicchoice/faculty%20pages/Tyler/Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

I read the last paragraph as a response to my comment. I’m afraid I don’t see that ‘technically’ and ‘really’ can so easily be separated. If something is not ‘technically’ true, then it’s not ‘really’ true. If an act is ‘technically’ murder then it’s really murder. Right? Am I missing something?Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

No. Uh-uh. I refuse to do two Very Special Episodes in a row.Report

IndependentScholar
IndependentScholar
5 years ago

Apparently, I am not a philosopher anymore since I lost my job last year. That strikes me as odd.
You are, I believe, right in your impression that there is some prejudice against those outside academic philosophy. But is that specific to Philosophy? It seems to me, it’s typically academic.
Then again, I have the impression that it is much simpler to write some stuff, call it philosophy and expect everyone to take it seriously than it is to write some stuff, call it physics and expect anyone to take it seriously. When I was working in a Philosophy department (back in the good old days in 2014), two people who were not technically philosophers send me their books for reviewing. And the books were … really bad. Of course, we must allow that there is bad philosophy. But this was just ramblings. Would anyone do that in [enter academic dicipline of choice]?
Who knows what philosophy is? And as long as that isn’t so very clear, there are great opportunities for contributing something not really worthwhile.
As are the opportunities for contributing something worthwhile. I like the fact that we are an open bordered crazy stuff subject.Report

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
5 years ago

This harkens back to my days in grad school (70’s), when the philosophy department offered a course on “What is philosophy?”, open to the public, meeting on Fridays from 3-5:30, prior to happy hour. Each week a member of the philosophy department would present their definition of philosophy and who qualified as a philosopher was hotly debated. I remember, especially, the week Kierkegaard was debated and most of the members of the department did not consider him a philosopher per se. I argued that he was and that any definition of ‘philosophy’ and ‘philosopher’ was entirely subjective.

To address the idea that having a PhD makes one a philosopher is fine, unless that is taken to be the only criterion. There go Socrates, Aristotle, etc… Yes, there was no PhD until fairly recently, but does the PhD introduce new criteria for being a philosopher, or simply recognize what the centuries before set up to be a philosopher?

Who is a philosopher but not recognized as such? Jesus, Buddha, Dalai Lama, any number of novelists (Camus, Durrell, others), E.O. Wilson, just to start the discussion.Report

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
5 years ago

To lighten things a bit, I quote a former colleague, an English Lit professor, who said, “Philosophers are people who care about things no one else in their right minds would care about.”Report

BLS Nelson
5 years ago

Since I don’t accept that having a doctorate in philosophy is either necessary or sufficient for being counted a philosopher, it seems that I don’t meet the minimum requirements to ride this thread. That is, I deny that many professional scholars of philosophy are philosophers, and I regard some non-doctoral-holders as philosophers. The title is only worthy of being kept around as a cultural honorific, not to describe a career or a vocation.

I also don’t think it is right to talk about who is or is not “technically” a philosopher. It is better to talk about whether one is more or less philosophical. You can identify a whole bunch of philosophical hangers-on who aren’t especially philosophical (e.g., dogmatists, contrarians, sycophants, logic-choppers, etc.)Report

harry b
5 years ago

Best philosophical paper about justice in education, which is, in fact, in a philosophy journal (Ethics, no less) is by Sandy Jencks who, as far as I know, has not written anything else that would count as philosophy. His highest degree is a Masters in Education, and as far as I know has never taken a course in philosophy. (But…he is bloody clever).Report

Donald E. Stahl
Donald E. Stahl
5 years ago

I do not have a Ph.D. but have published five articles in: Apeiron, Analysis, Philosophia, Phronesis, and The Philosophical Quarterly. One has been cited 14 times. I am a member of the APA. Do I qualify?Report

Michael Shepanski
5 years ago

On one hand, there’s the question “What is philosophy?”. Answer that how you will. Now we come to “What is a philosopher?”. Surely the answer will be “Anyone who is doing philosophy.”

That leaves a lot of fuzzy boundaries but one thing is clear: it has nothing to do with having a PhD.Report

Yan
Yan
5 years ago

“Philosopher” is a much more meaningful, informative, and interesting term when not used as an honorific. It doesn’t haven’t to mean “good” anymore than “art” does. There can be lousy artists and crappy philosophers. There can be wise, brilliant, insightful, and profound non-philosophers. To say someone’s not a philosopher needn’t be a slight and might very well be a compliment.Report

BLS Nelson
Reply to  Yan
5 years ago

I like the analogy to art. Let me see if I can think around it.

For sure, there’s more content to the idea of ‘philosopher’ than just the fact that it’s an honorific. So, in the contents of that thread (after being a victim of some epic trolling) I end up unpacking things a little more by saying that philosophers are those who are:
(a) engaged in philosophically productive activity (clarification/exploration/activism/managing expectations),
(b) have the methods and discipline of the philosopher (critical thinking/dialectic and intuitive sensitivity/doubt resilience),
(c) who somebody or other considers to be worthy of attention as philosopher.

(a-b) are substantial constraints. The constraint (c) is an honorific, but the person designating the honor is left as an unfilled variable. And I think art is an honorific in that sense, too. Art is craft that is in fact (or intended to be) socially presented as art. When all is said and done it can still be bad art, but somebody has to think it’s fitting enough to qualify as art. Similarly, I agree, there can be bad philosophers, but even being a bad philosopher is a noble achievement.

But there is a difference. I do think designation by the salons could be a sufficient but non-necessary condition for something to qualify as art (assuming the other constraints, like ‘craft’ and ‘presentation’, are also satisfied). But it also seems to me that philosophy is much more important than just art. And it is the earnest cultural importance of philosophy that makes me reluctant to think that the title of ‘philosopher’ belongs to the credential mill.Report

Hello
Hello
5 years ago

I guess the field of legal philosophy is an unusual case here. As alluded to by some of the commentators above, many legal philosophers either do not have a phd in philosophy or are attached to a law department rather than a philosophy deptReport

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
5 years ago

I think Janet Malcolm has a lot of philosophically interesting stuff to say about how we construct complex truths through narratives, in The Silent Woman (the Sylvia Plath book) especially. Though of course some of her methods have been rather controversial.Report

recent grad
recent grad
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

For what it’s worth, your intended meaning has been clear to me this whole time. I think it likely has been clear to some others also.Report

Anon
Anon
5 years ago

I recently made a toast to the late Sir Terry Pratchett in which I described him as one of the greatest moral philosophers of the past fifty years. I think he far more fairly meets the description of ‘not really a philosopher’ – but I would argue that he presented philosophical issues and explored ways to resolve them through his novels and – what’s more – made them widely understandable.Report

Simon Evnine
Simon Evnine
5 years ago

Andrea Dworkin
Ernst Gombrich
R.D. Laing
Jonathan Miller
Oliver Sacks
Susan SontagReport

Simon Evnine
Simon Evnine
5 years ago

Joan DidionReport

Technically_a_Commenter
5 years ago

James Gleick: In his book “Chaos” he opens up the ways of the formerly invisible world of chaos, how it manifests itself and manifests itself everywhere in the physical world.
Malcolm Gladwell: In “Outliers” and “Blink” he does for the notions of success and intuition what Gleick did for chaos.
Jim B. Tucker: In “Life Before Life” walks the reader into a topic which the all-too-rational among us would reject out of hand. If this work has one failing, it’s that it dwells so much on method so as to gingerly appeal to the Rationals that the more profound is left unsaid.
Jean Gebser: In “Ever-present Origin” and his handful of other works he’s done what these others have done, but on a grander scale and more profoundly.

Caveat: Having written or otherwise created one or even more works of philosophical significance may not necessarily mean the author “is” a philosopher.Report

Mike Otsuka
5 years ago

Think about the “star wars” at Oxford before Jerry Cohen joined them: Derek Parfit, Ronald Dworkin, and Amartya Sen. Not a philosophy PhD between them…

Cohen didn’t have a doctorate in Philosophy either. So, during his 23 years as the Chichele Professor at All Souls College, he was “not technically a philosopher” either, since his primary appointment was in Politics.Report

Nonymous
Nonymous
5 years ago

I like how most of the responses to the original question take issue with the definition of “technically a philosopher” rather than picking out some people who wouldn’t ordinarily be thought of as philosophers but do philosophically valuable work. Maybe we should think of philosophers as people who would rather quibble about the terms of the question than actually try to answer it? Or who prefer to prevent substantive discussion by focusing on terminological preliminaries?

More seriously, here’s a suggestion: we don’t need a definition in order to begin answering the question, so instead of operating on the mistaken assumption that we do, why not think begin by thinking of people who do philosophically valuable work even though they wouldn’t ordinarily be identified as philosophers, whether because they don’t have formal, advanced academic training in philosophy or because they work in departments outside of philosophy, or because they are thought of and think of themselves primarily as practitioners of some other area — economics, psychology, history, biology, physics, anthropology, computer science, dog training, palm reading, whatever — or simply aren’t usually discussed in the literature that is paradigmatically ‘philosophical’? The boundaries of philosophy are vague on virtually any conception of it, and part of the point of this exercise is (it seems to me) to illustrate that vagueness by pointing to people who wouldn’t ordinarily be identified as philosophers yet do work that is not merely of interest to philosophers, but done in a philosophically illuminating way. I, for one, would find it more interesting to hear about interesting and valuable work that people in “other fields” are doing than to read yet another trivial and fruitless criticism of the question on the grounds that it does not adequately delimit the necessary and sufficient conditions for being “technically a philosopher.” It’s a bit like refusing to study animal behavior before being given a flawless conceptual analysis of ‘animal’ and ‘behavior’; we may or may not need a rigorous definition of those things, but we shouldn’t demand to have one before we bother to go out and look at what some animals are doing — hell, we might even be better able to arrive at an adequate definition if we go check out some animals behaving.

Or is the problem that very few philosophers today actually read anything other than the work of people who are “technically” philosophers?Report

gard student
gard student
Reply to  Nonymous
5 years ago

Rather, the problem may be that very few philosophers actually read work other than the work of people who are “technically” philosophers AND consider it an example of good philosophy.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
5 years ago

Proust, Robert Trivers, Scott Atran, Jon Haidt, Christopher Boehm, David Sloan Wilson, Richard D. Alexander, Cosmides & Tooby, Robin Hanson,Report

MyJam(NPR)
MyJam(NPR)
5 years ago

Terry Gross’s probing approach to an incredibly wide breadth of topics, and the way she sensitively manages to challenge the people she interviews, are pretty philisophical.Report

John Protevi
John Protevi
5 years ago

Among anthropologists concerned with what is being called “The Ontological Turn” in that discipline, I’d mention Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (_Cannibal Metaphysics_: https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/cannibal-metaphysics) and Philippe Descola (_Beyond Nature and Culture_: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/B/bo9826233.html).Report

John McCumber
John McCumber
5 years ago

Oh me. I guess I’m not technically a philosopher because my Ph.D. is not in “Philosophy” but in “Philosophy and Greek,” and I am presently employed in a German Department.

I think I’ll live…Report

Nancy J. Matchett
5 years ago

I think Justin Kalef and Ryan (above) are on the right track. I could name several dozen folks, but few who are famous or generally recognizable (many of them are undergraduate students who chose to pursue non-academic careers for highly philosophical reasons, several others are folks I know outside of academe who are more reflective about themselves and the world than some of the academic philosophers I know). I could also name several people who are technically philosophers but to my mind not philosophers in the important sense. So for me, a more useful categorization is between professional philosophers and others. This seems to capture all the folks Justin had in mind when starting this discussion. And if we refer to someone by saying “though not a professional philosopher, so and so has made this argument/highlighted this consideration/etc. …” we avoid defensiveness, snobbery, and the like and just highlight good philosophy when we see it.Report

Jasper Q. Pedant.
Jasper Q. Pedant.
5 years ago

Please, people, stop pretending that the fact that certain (older) British academics don’t have PhDs means anything other than, in the British system, for a long time, one didn’t have to have a PhD to be an academic. In fact, in the Oxbridge world, having a PhD was often considered a little declassé, as if one had gone to trade school. Simply getting a first would suffice. This world is no longer with us.Report

Cathy Legg
Cathy Legg
5 years ago

Why not try to go a bit further outside academia? Matthew Crawford currently works as a motorcycle mechanic, but his popular book “The World Beyond Your Head” to my mind offers one of the most effective critiques of modern (i.e. Cartesian-Kantian) philosophy that I have ever read. He does have a PhD in Philosophy, though (University of Chicago)Report

Troy
Troy
5 years ago

Some of the best work on probability theory is, unsurprisingly, done by non-philosophers. Physicists R.T. Cox and E.T. Jaynes have done extremely important work on the logical foundations of probability theory, and Judea Pearl’s work on Bayesian networks and causality ought, IMO, to be required reading for philosophers of probability and philosophers of social science.Report

Cornelius Kanduth
5 years ago

Female logicians are often exposed to the comment, usually made by members of the older generation of male philosopher, that women are too wise to waste their time on the mind-numbing rigours of technical philosophy. As a female logician, I wonder, what conclusion I am supposed to draw on being told this?Report

PeterJ
5 years ago

Asking who is not technically a philosopher (as stipulated) but does good work is like asking for a list of non-elephant animals. My bookshelf is groaning with brilliant philosophy books by authors who are ‘not-technically’ philosophers, so the question in the OP seems more than a little weird from here. Does it not suggest a rather narrow reading list?Report

Sean Work
Sean Work
5 years ago

The essayist Chuck Klosterman wrote an interesting piece about Theodore Kaczynski’s manifesto in one of his books. If you’re willing to engage with the ideas honestly and look past the fact the Kaczynski is a murderer, he has a lot to say about man’s relationship to technology.Report

Alex
Alex
5 years ago

While I am rather late to this party, it seems to me that much discussion here has conflated the activity of philosophy with a title afforded by a degree. Personally, I think that there is nothing wrong with clarifying a scholar’s discipline where relevant, but we should also be aware that saying so-and-so has a degree in a social science can be interpreted in a number of ways, so it is best to elaborate on why this is relevant.

This is at least how I would prefer to be introduced in a formal philosophy paper or whatever.

For what it is worth, my not-technically-a-philosopher, but does great philosophy nomination is Walter Mignolo.Report

Owen Flanagan
Owen Flanagan
5 years ago

Psychologists: Alison Gopnik, Berkeley and Paul Bloom, YaleReport