What is a Philosopher?

imageIt’s simple to say that to some degree everyone is a philosopher. On some level this is true, for the easiest thing a philosopher can do is ask a question–Socrates loved asking questions. Yet the mere act of posing questions is insufficient to warrant somebody the title of philosopher–but it’s a great start. It might by more accurate to state that most people are philosophical.

When asking, “What is a philosopher?” it’s reasonable to begin with identifying what a philosopher does. In a previous post, I meagerly define philosophy as the art of forming opinion based on fact. Therefore a philosopher is one who forms opinions based on on fact; the philosopher needs facts and so in this way they are beholden to fact finders such as scientists and researchers. Although the philosopher is subservient to facts, the very first step in the scientific method is also philosophical, namely, asking a question. Yet holding fact-based opinions hardly earns someone the title of philosopher.

A philosopher is often defined as someone who loves wisdom. Bear in mind this does not mean philosophers are wise! By definition, sages are wise; philosophers merely love wisdom. Loving your cat does not make you a cat.

A philosophy professor once described how in phenomenology the key is to strip oneself of all assumptions and previous knowledge about the world in order to view something in its pure essence, an activity called “bracketing.” She then posed the question, “Are philosophers really able to bracket their assumptions and view something in its pure essence?” There were many responses in the negative to this statement, and I never got to defend philosophers by stating my position. I would have said, the philosopher is not one who simply brackets assumptions and previous knowledge in order to philosophize, but a philosopher is one who brackets his philosophic tendencies in order to live a normal life.

A philosopher cannot help but philosophize–questioning, postulating answers to bold questions, responding to everyday encounters and conversations with (sometimes unnecessarily) thoughtful responses–these the philosopher cannot help but do. These form the core, the center, the default of his character. The philosopher probes without and peers within searching for facts and conjuring opinion or else brackets this in order to engage in other activities.

So we come to realize that the label philosopher is primarily concerned with those of a certain state of being: an innate inescapable propensity for reflection, questioning, and opinion forming. Not all those with the necessary mixture of creative thought, intellectual courage, and productivity for philosophic engagement will earn the title of philosopher, however. Methinks philosophers are born and they need the will and dedication to cultivate their philosophic propensities by actually producing their own original thoughts in this field. Furthermore, it is not the case that all philosophy professors are philosophers; teaching and philosophizing are separate enterprises.

There is a common issue regarding to what extent we may be defined by what we do. Yet it’s one thing to define oneself and another to identify it. To that end, this assessment can be applied to other types of people too–the poet, the artist, the scientist. Defining a person is not simply a matter of identifying those who perform certain deeds, but rather by identifying those whose default state of being consists of the very characteristics required for such a label.