Monday, January 27, 2020

What is philosophy, what is a philosopher, and what does it mean to do philosophy?

Traditionally, the history of philosophy is argued to have begun with Thales, sometime between 624 and 545 BCE. Of course, the start date of philosophy may differ depending on how one defines “philosophy,” a “philosopher,” and “doing philosophy,” but the majority consensus is that it began with him, a key reason being for having predicted a solar eclipse based on his own reasoning and not what was traditionally used at the time of mythological explanation. This means that philosophy has, at least, a 2,500+years-history. Yet, many faculty departments across the United States concentrate significantly (not entirely, of course) on the philosophy of the last century through today (i.e., analytic philosophy). This division, in fact, began in the world of English-speaking academics of the analytic tradition—this term was created in the 1950s to distinguish this new focus in philosophy (arguably it was primarily a reaction against existentialism and phenomenology).

But shouldn’t we consider more often how this emphasis does not give students of philosophy more options in the classroom to choose their own philosophical persuasions? Would all students that emerge with degrees from departments heavier in analytic philosophy always choose to read more analytic philosophy if given more opportunity to explore other philosophers? Certainly, a student might react to the discipline differently if Nietzsche is their first encounter with philosophy instead of a textbook on introductory logic (I am, of course, not stating it would go in a specific direction, just that they might react differently). Yet, the analytic tradition is sometimes emphasized as the primary way to do philosophy, and in some places the door is only open, at best, ajar to the rest. Shouldn’t there be more of how Bertrand Russell’s visceral reaction to William James’s pragmatism not only makes the dialogue more comprehensive, but also leads to a better understanding of where Russell’s philosophy continued to develop from, in part, as a reaction? It is believed that the only book of philosophy that Russell’s student Wittgenstein always had around was James’s Varieties of Religious Experience.

Perhaps we need to return to the most fundamental questions in all of this: what is philosophy, what is a philosopher, and what does it mean to do philosophy? In its etymological roots, philosophy means “love of wisdom,” so doing philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom, as a philosopher is a “lover of wisdom.” Does wisdom come primarily from the last century? The history of philosophy can read at times like a long conversation that I imagine several philosophers, of several persuasions, would agree has not ended. In that dialogue, sometimes we find developments of previous views (or sometimes an extreme case is proposed, like Alfred Whitehead who said that all philosophy since Plato is but a footnote to him). Sometimes we find reactions against other philosophers, but as such, this is still part of the conversation. In fact, it is especially hard to find entirely novel ideas that are not in any way even just slightly touched by a voice(s) of the past, whether as at times a development of (such as the Left Hegelians from Hegel) or as at times a reaction against (such as Aristotle versus Plato). We know that some times it is the questions sparked that make a difference in the history of philosophy, not necessarily the answers proposed. Very flawed arguments can still dramatically change history, so we must still study them for that reason, among others.

Philosophy can serve many different purposes—we need only look at the branches of the discipline; it can be used to study knowledge, to study the difference between right and wrong, etcetera. Academic philosophers tend to choose one branch of preference to specialize in (or not), not so unlike how we have specific philosophers we may gravitate toward (or away from). It is also enriching to mix it all up—my research focuses on extracting the pragmatist elements in the philosophy of José Ortega y Gasset, who argued that pragmatism was a philosophy for philosophers who are incapable of having a philosophy.

The student of philosophy who is first exploring the discipline should have the opportunity to explore as much of it as possible. What if one never has the chance to discover that it could be Simone de Beauvoir, not A.J. Ayer, that he or she really finds most intriguing? We need to be inclusive, in every way, as in the content of the material covered in philosophy courses.

Marnie Binder
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State


  1. Marnie, I worry about this statement: “many faculty departments across the United States concentrate significantly (not entirely, of course) on the philosophy of the last century through today (i.e., analytic philosophy).”

    This is an empirical claim that requires empirical evidence and I’m doubtful that there is such evidence or that the claim is true. The claim also does not make clear whether you’re talking about research or teaching, but the rest of your post seems to focus on the teaching of philosophy. I suspect both philosophical research and teaching often have as subject matter both philosophers or debates that go back over a 100 years.

    Setting aside this specific worry, I think your intention is to point out something more general and these general points may have merit. Your points may include:

    (1) American philosophy is too analytic (and not diverse with regard to schools of thought).

    (2) Philosophical teaching doesn’t reflect enough on historical figures and the context of their writing.

    (2) is another empirical claim that may be false (or depends on what we mean by “enough”). Philosophical instruction often involves examining philosophers, their critics, and the context of their writing. I don’t think continental philosophers have a monopoly on good textual interpretation.

    There is some truth to (1) (few departments identify as having specialization in continental philosophy), but it also depends on what we mean by “analytic”? My favorite discussion on this comes from one of my former professors Bill Blattner here:

    According to Prof. Blattner (with whom I read the Critique of Pure Reason for the third time), the analytic/continental divide is more sociological and the result of a historical accident. It does not differentiate some philosophers as historical and others as systematic (or ahistorical), rather, if anything, it may have to do with which historical philosophers get more game time in philosophy classes today. I think Prof. Blattner is right that which philosophers we teach is the result of historical accident—e.g., who were our teachers and which philosophers they preferred. Many these days prefer Rawls and Kant, and not Habermas and Hegel.

    I also want to mention that there’s a tension between diversity in terms of schools of thought and diversity in terms of gender or other dimensions of culture. The trend to diversify syllabus usually involves moving away from teaching dead white men and teaching philosophers who have written in the last few decades (because, with the exception of Simone de Beauvoir, Mary Wollstonecraft, and a few others mostly white women, women generally weren’t allowed to learn and teach philosophy in the past)). It would be interesting to explore diversity in different ways.

    In short, I agree that we should study philosophers in their historical context—but I think we’re doing this—and I agree that we should present our students with diverse perspectives, but maybe not necessarily other dead white men.

  2. Thanks so much for your reply, Chong.

    Indeed, I would like to better research the empirical data, as much of what I find simply says something along the lines like that which is noted in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy within easy reach online: “The school of analytic philosophy has dominated academic philosophy in various regions, most notably Great Britain and the United States, since the early twentieth century” without providing specific numbers, nor always stating as you note whether this refers to teaching, research, or what. I can say for now that I did spend about four months perusing department after department in the United States online looking for potential speakers for the conference I organized last year on Jaspers and Ortega at the Central APA meeting. Understandably, it was hard enough to find specialists on those two philosophers, so I tried to expand my search to “continental philosophers” (I really find that term to be a misnomer, however), and it was not easy. But of course, what I have said just means that perhaps “continental philosophers” are not easy to find in the United States. Another way to research this is of course to see if and then how often certain courses are offered across the country.

    In regard to defining “analytic philosophy,” I think these distinctions perhaps also relate to whether or not philosophy is closer to science or the arts. If it is closer to science, then being more current would generally be the right leaning. But if it is closer to the arts, then being current is not as important. Is philosophy more one than the other? It is not wholly one of the two, yes?

    I mean to refer mostly to teaching and what we expose our students to. I took a course in introductory logic my freshman year in college—it was the first philosophy class I ever took. While I enjoyed it, I did not contemplate changing my major to philosophy. When I got to graduate school and read Nietzsche, Foucault, Adorno, etc., I wondered, where have you been all my life, “philosophy”!? My point with this singular anecdotal example is that I suspect there could possibly be others like me? That first exposure can have an important impact.

    I could not agree more with Prof. Blattner’s position you mention about the historical circumstance of which philosophers become more prevalent, thank you for sharing that. And I most certainly agree that there is another meaning of the notion to diversify syllabus that is more important—I most definitely do not want to only resuscitate dead white men. This also means that there are likely more, for example, women, minority women, for example, philosophers over the past decades, or at least that have become published professionals because of historical circumstances/opportunities. Yet women still, today, are a minority in philosophy (as we know there is empirical data on this: and other demographic data). Female students, for example, also make up a minority as philosophy majors ( Thus, my next question: would not just diversifying teaching content in terms of gender and other dimensions, as you say, but also in general content, possibly draw in more and impact those numbers in a “significant” way? In other words, as you note in reference to Prof. Blattner’s position that “which philosophers we teach is the result of historical accident—e.g., who were our teachers and which philosophers they preferred,” if just getting more women, etc., for example, interested in philosophy, which might occur at times by making sure diverse teaching content is supplied, that could continue to change the landscape of that demographic data in many different ways, right?