Monday, October 26, 2015

What makes people good at philosophy?

This week we asked faculty of the Sacramento State Philosophy Department the following question:

Is there such a thing as philosophical aptitude, intelligence or ability? If so, what is it? If not, what accounts for one person being a better philosopher than another?

Here's what they said.

Thomas Pyne

I’m not sure whether the ‘aptitude, intelligence, or ability’ that characterize many of the philosophers I most admire is not in fact a disability – at least in other social situations.

The philosophers I most admire seem immune to intellectual fashion and common sense.

Common sense serves no purpose in philosophy, at least in metaphysics. After all, common sense is a metaphysics – and a dubious one, given its origins in meeting our survival needs rather than truth-tracking. Or it is the superseded metaphysics of 500 years ago.

It is very difficult to swim against the tide of intellectual fashion: What All the Top Men (Top Men!) Think. But if you’re going to be a philosopher, and not just a philosophicalizing careerist, you must. (While many philosophers think that they’re Bucking Received Wisdom, they’re often just aligning with a more ‘inner circle’ thread of it.)

What I find difficult to fathom is how it is that those philosophers who, while they understand the intellectual fashions of their time (all too well!), just don’t seem to feel the pressure at all: the Leibnizes, Wittgensteins, Roderick Chisolms, David Lewises, and Elizabeth Anscombes.

This inability to ‘get’ what other people intuitively get is why philosophers are so frequently torn apart by mobs or executed by the authorities.

It’s why no one will have sex with us.

Kevin Vandergriff

At a minimum, the goals of philosophy are conceptual clarification, the disentangling of complex questions, and the careful examination of alternative approaches. Rational argumentation is the major tool used to accomplish these goals. So, the better someone is at rational argumentation, the better a philosopher they will be.

 Now, if we wanted to measure whether someone is ‘better’ than someone else at rational argumentation, then I suppose we would have to try to identify what it is about our brains; our primary tool for rational argumentation; that best explains why someone is as skilled at rational argumentation as they are. No doubt intelligence, or aptitude is in the explanatory pool of competing explanations.

 Assuming intelligence is the best explanation for what makes someone as skilled at rational argumentation as they are, we still need a measuring apparatus for determining intelligence in the domain of rational argumentation. Here we can look to IQ tests, but it is controversial whether intelligence is one thing or many things. I tend to favor the view that intelligence is many things and I favor the following list of different intelligences:
Linguistic Intelligence
Logical and Mathematical Ability
Spatial Intelligence
Musical Intelligence
Bodily Kinesthetic Intelligence
Interpersonal Intelligence
Intrapersonal Intelligence
Naturalist Intelligence
Emotional Intelligence
I neither know how exactly philosophical intelligence as filtered through ones talent for rational argumentation fits into these categories, nor what different scores in each of these areas indicates about one’s own philosophical intelligence.

Daniel Gluch

I don’t believe in philosophical intelligence. However, I also don’t believe that intelligence and ability are the same thing. Often times what we consider intelligence is a mix of confidence and talkativeness, but that has little to do with one's ability to seek after truth.

There are a number of traits that make people able to do philosophy well. Everyone holds these traits in varying degrees and can get better or worse at them over time, which explains varying ability to do philosophy, both between different people and different time-slices of ourselves at one time or another.
  • Representing the argument/perspective of another in its best light, and that the truth may be found there. 
  • Acknowledging that your perspective may not be where the truth is.
  • Clearly presenting your argument in a manner that promotes its understanding, 
  • Looking at problems from new perspectives or paradigms.
While this is far from an exhaustive list, doing these well will undeniably make someone a good philosopher whether they practice analytic, continental, or unorthodox philosophy.

Vadim Keyser

Philosophers tussle with information. I don’t think this “intelligence” or “ability” is unique to philosophy. In fact, I’d argue that any discipline is about organizing and reorganizing information.

Philosophy places strong emphasis on the methods behind this “information process”. In fact, when you put away all of the philosophical perspectives, you still have the philosophical methodology, which is applicable to any discipline. When we do philosophy we re-create, re-structure, criticize, and generate information. These are all analytical skills. The methodological processes can go deeper (e.g., deductive and inductive systems). But these general skills make philosophy a careful, methodological discipline. I think that evaluating the quality of philosophical intelligence reduces to evaluating the level of analytical care taken in the methodological process.

A relevant question: When you have two philosophers side by side, how can you tell which one is a better philosopher? Simple: Have them argue and then ask a third philosopher; and then argue with that third philosopher. Continue ad infinitum.

Scott Merlino

Philosophically intelligent (PI) persons seek knowledge and are above average at acquiring it. Such people do this well by analyzing concepts and reasoning about specific issues in light of evidence and logical argument. PI is measurable, we could assess a person’s ability to frame and test arguments about specific issues by their correct use of inductive and deductive logic. The ability to make good judgments using logic, in my opinion, would be diagnostic of PI. By ‘diagnostic’ I mean whatever distinguishes PI from other forms of intelligence. PI is the above average ability and willingness in people who have it to apply deductive and inductive logic to problem-solving.

PI, like wisdom, is an effect not a cause. Factors contributing to PI are having an inquisitive personality, a disposition to seek truth, question authority and the status quo. Such people seek clarity in language and use evidence and argument rather than insight or revelation to resolve conceptual and practical issues. Is one born with PI or is it learned? Yes.

This account fails to include all and only philosophers. We should not seek to exclude the non-philosophically inclined among us who nevertheless have high PI. My description is biased towards analytical philosophy, one weakness is that some beloved philosophers won’t score well on the PI scale whom many of us would nevertheless want to call high PI individuals. Nietzsche and Sartre might come out much less philosophically intelligent than would Hume or Quine. The quality of their logical arguments distinguishes them.

Christina Bellon

Ability – that one is able to do x, entails one has the capacity or power to do x.

Aptitude – when doing x, one does x more or less proficiently, competently, effectively.

Inclination – willingness or disposition to do x.

I think there is something we might call philosophical ability for which humans demonstrate a range of aptitudes. I think this philosophical ability is the ability to think about thinking. More specifically, to think about others’ and one’s own thinking – to ask oneself, consider possible answers for, and evaluate these answers against the evidence in the world (inner and outer), “What do I believe and why do I believe it?” In other words, philosophical ability is a meta-ability. As cognition, it’s meta-cognitive. In this sense, logic is a system for thinking about thinking.

As with other capacities, the degree to which one is inclined to think philosophically, the comfort one has doing so, and the skill level one displays, are the result of several factors, not least of which include opportunity, encouragement, and practice. As with other capacities (perceptive, experiential, imaginative, linguistic, rhythmic, etc.), individuals display a range of inclination to cultivate it. Those who succeed in philosophy, just as those who succeed in dance or design, are likely those who have the right combination of aptitude and inclination to cultivate their respective ability.

Not everyone will match Kant or De Beauvoir, but everyone would benefit from a little more opportunity, encouragement, and practice doing philosophy… beginning in kindergarten.

Matthew Howery

Philosophy is the practice of humility in the face of our very existence and experiences. To the extent that we are willing to be wrong, willing to look at and carefully judge opposing viewpoints, and willing to follow where reason leads us, we are acting and living philosophically.

This love of wisdom is an active love. It is the active pursuit of wisdom and truth, often in direct opposition to some of our most strongly held beliefs. The humility of the philosopher allows us to never be too certain that we are correct in our assessment and understanding of the world. This same humility is that which allows us to approach others not like ourselves and listen to their stories, their values, and their experiences of the world.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, philosophy is the sharing of knowledge. The love of wisdom solely for oneself is indistinguishable from greed. The better philosopher is the individual who is willing to pass on what he or she has learned, to give the gift of Eudaimonia as well as the passion to pursue it to others. The extent to which we accomplish this humility and sharing is our philosophical ability.

Jonathan Chen

I have to disagree with Matthew that philosophy is a humbling experience.

First, I should say that philosophy is not for everyone (pity), and should be reserved for a superior class of individuals. It is quite obvious to me that the elite philosophers, including myself, are those holding esteemed positions at prestigious universities and who have published countless papers that only our fandom follows. As a half-human half-bologna race, we are enhanced only by our ability to forget the origin of philosophical inquiry (I can’t quite remember what this is because I have transcended such nonsense, but a layman once told me that philosophy begins with awe. She believed that philosophical ability should be a faculty of the heart, and that an eagerness to learn about the nature of our world was sufficient to becoming a philosopher. Ha! What a fool!).

We philosophers extend our research into fields so disconnected from humanity and its needs that our knowledge is no longer accessible to anyone besides other half-human half-bologna elitists. My sole purpose as a philosopher is to perpetuate this trend, and my contribution to humanity is no different. For my efforts, some of the laymen refer to me as the “armchair philosopher.” I’m not quite sure why they decided on this name for me, but given my superiority over them, I can only imagine it means, “Sovereign, beautiful sovereign!!”

Randy Mayes

Philosophers are people who are made uncomfortable by comfortableness. Their value to society is their ability to notice when we have become too satisfied with our beliefs and practices, and to provide us with a perspective from which they may be reasonably called into question. This is why Socrates remains- even for those who have little use for his views- the beau ideal of philosophical ability and intelligence.

What sort of person is this?

First, a good philosopher is more self-aware than the average human. This is what is required to be able to notice when his belief is comforting, when it feels familiar, when it satisfies his biases, when it makes it easier to get along with people he loves.

Second, a result of the first, a good philosopher is habitually skeptical of her own reasoning. She is constantly haunted by the sense that "this is too easy." Skill in reasoning is important in philosophy, but no moreso than in any other intellectual endeavor. Rationality is something else. It's the tendency to scrutinize the outputs of easy and comfortable modes of thinking. It's what Frederick Shane's Cognitive Reflection Test was designed to measure.

Third, as Tom Pyne observes, there is a kind of social and emotional retardation typical of philosophical intelligence: we are unembarrassed by the stupidity of our questions and the apparent impracticality of our concerns. In general, to be a good philosopher you can't care very much what people think about you at all, good or ill.


  1. I enjoy playing many sports and doing different kinds of workouts. One thing I have notice is that doing light gymnastic drills has made me a better athlete overall. Gymnastics requires muscles to be used in the most four extreme functions at one time: flexibility, endurance, exerting power, and stability. It is the base you would want in order to do well in other sports. However, other kinds of athletes lacks some of these characteristics or a heavy degree of it. If you would to put a gymnast against four other kinds of athletes (basketball, mix martial arts, soccer, etc.) and see who performs the overall best from each sport, the gymnast would have the advantage.

    Philosophy is a lot like this and is the reason why I pursued it. If a philosopher was to be put in other disciplines, they would have the advantage in doing well compare to others. I would argue that we are all philosophers just as how the average physically able person can do basics of gymnastics. However, a good philosopher is one who is aware to consistently being aware of information presented to them. This includes what many of my instructors have already stated; being open minded, thinking about one’s own thinking to comparing it with others, reorganizing information, repeating information, etc. Those who can easily adapt to different circumstances of knowledge (like the gymnast) are the better philosophers. I see this in all my philosophy instructors and have realize philosophy has given me this. I have a deeper understanding and appreciation of different materials (new or old) when presented to me. I feel confident and have an interest to learn other disciplines.

    Philosophy reaches down to the root of things to attempting to climb higher than the tree can provide. Sounds absurd, but it is one of the most valuable thing. Good philosophers have that mindset as a tool to be ready to live well and successfully. (Yeah...philosophy is about living well).

    1. Shannon Paige FleenerOctober 29, 2015 at 10:17 PM

      Cheng, I really like your take on this! Philosophy is to intellectual pursuit as gymnastics is to physical pursuit. Each serves as a stable base for other endeavors. In either case, you can pursue it (philosophy or gymnastics) on its own, but you can also use it as a starting-off point for progress in other areas.

      According to Heidegger, "what philosophy essentially can and must be is this: a thinking that breaks the paths and opens the perspectives of the knowledge that sets the norms and hierarchies, of the knowledge in which and by which a people fulfills itself historically and culturally, the knowledge that kindles and necessitates all inquiries and thereby threatens all values" (The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics). Philosophy is a valid pursuit in its own right, but it can also be the foundation for progress in countless other areas. Studying philosophy forces us to stretch our minds and consider things in a different light; that skill can be applied to any discipline.

      Curiosity leads us to philosophy, and philosophy makes us more curious. It's an interdependent relationship. Doing the mental gymnastics that philosophy requires prepares us for a myriad of other intellectual exercises. It's a concept that can be hard to define, but I think your gymnastic analogy has hit the nail on the head! 10/10, you stuck the landing!

  2. Cheng,
    Your analogy with gymnastics is very acute, I think.

    We prize a kind of mental nimbleness: to cultivate this in our students - and in ourselves as well.

    I'd never thought of it that way before!

  3. Cheng, that's an interesting thesis and Shannon, a nice elaboration of it. It's a thesis that has the advantage of being testable, and if it turned out to be true, it would run counter to the preponderance of evidence that most brain training does not generalize to domains outside the training set, e.g., getting really good at chess doesn't appear to give you a leg up in mahjong. I hope somebody proves you right!