Confessions of an Amateur Philosopher

by Scott F. Parker

After reading Daniel Kaufman’s essay “The Decline and Rebirth of Philosophy,” I found myself wondering what exactly philosophy offers those of us who are not professional philosophers and, specifically, what it has given me.

Responding to these questions has entailed reflecting on my views and my case as one example of what philosophy can be for an amateur. I offer my example not as representative or as an ideal for amateurism but as a demonstration of what it can be like to take philosophy personally. Consistent with that notion, I intend what follows as a story. Even when I advance certain arguments, I mean for those arguments to be understood as part of the story of how things look from a certain perspective; namely, the perspective of someone on the outer edge of the philosophy world who got up early to sit as his desk and take in the view.

So. Here’s what I see.

What Counts as Philosophy?

I think of myself as having been reading philosophy for twenty years now. But many of the books that come to mind when I recall this period are not to be found on any university syllabus, nor are they likely to be. They weren’t written for philosophers, they were written for me, the layperson. And whether such books are seen as instances of philosophy or merely dumbed-down treatments of philosophy meant to flatter the average reader depends entirely on what we take philosophy to be in the first place. The advantage of restricting it to what “is written by professional philosophers for professional philosophers” (Kaufman) is the clear borders this draws. Until you have a Ph.D. in philosophy (as I do not), you are excluded from the community that decides what philosophy is and is for. The problem, of course, is that philosophy, as it’s normally understood, comes so naturally (if amateurishly) to all of us: Who am I? How should I conduct myself? What is the nature of reality? What can I know? Philosophy doesn’t begin at commencement and live in the seminar room or in the academic journal. It begins somewhere between curiosity and crisis, and it lives in people’s lives.

A person takes an interest in philosophy only because he can’t not take an interest in philosophy. There can be no other reason. Once he is exposed to it, it seizes his attention. (Or, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.) For those who do take an interest, reading or otherwise doing philosophy is its own reward, because it speaks to a deeply felt need for meaning or insight. (Note: it doesn’t necessarily provide meaning or insight, but it speaks to the need for them.) Even if you start out seeking answers to profound questions, you stick around for the method of engaging those questions. Maybe someone reads Plato in their first semester of college and says, “Finally, someone is seriously addressing what is important in life.” Maybe someone else reads Emerson and is intoxicated by the drive to become a richer version of himself. Maybe someone else encounters Marxism or Existentialism or Buddhism, and suddenly the world looks completely different and they are thrilled by this. It manifests in myriad ways. But however it manifests, it is an end in itself. Or if it is a means, it is only insofar as reflecting on meaning or pursuing insight satisfy something fundamental in us. No one puts energy into philosophy because it will help them improve their reputation, buy a bigger house, attract sex partners, make their parents proud, or any of the usual things that can be counted on to motivate us.

Still, what is philosophy? And what are philosophical texts? If philosophy is an itch, a philosophical text is one that scratches it; one, that is, that satisfactorily addresses the philosophical needs of its readers, whatever those needs may be. In making this claim I am passing no judgment on the texts themselves, only on the experiences readers have with the texts. If a text written for the layperson can be criticized for making bad arguments, it should be. If it can be criticized for telling a story badly, it should be. However, the fact that it is written for the layperson or the fact that it is not as technical as some other writing on the same subject is not in itself a reason for dismissal. The point isn’t to be exclusive. The point of a text is to be useful. I hope this isn’t controversial. Plato and Descartes are regularly read by non-philosophers. No one takes this as a knock against them.

Similarly, it should be no knock against Sam Harris that he’s as popular as he is. The author and podcaster dedicates himself seriously to questions like What constitutes a good life? What is the nature of consciousness? Can faith be justified? Harris makes for a good example of what I’m calling a philosopher precisely because he’s so polarizing. Defining philosophy by its concerns, its methods, and its value to its audience says nothing about any kind of “objective value” of the work. It is quite possible to hold that Harris is a bad philosopher and to try to demonstrate why without dismissing him out of hand with slurs, whether they be veiled like “public intellectual” or explicit like “gateway to the alt-right.” He writes and speaks, among other topics, to the concerns that people turn to philosophy to have addressed. And he does so to the great satisfaction of many people.

Someone wishing to protect the borders of professional philosophy might object that treating a text as an instance of philosophy if it addresses one or more of the traditional concerns of philosophy admits not only someone like Harris but almost anyone at all, as long as readers find in it the kind of meaning they’re looking for. I don’t see this as a problem, at least not for the laypeople I have in mind. Qualitative judgments about philosophy must meet readers where they are. And philosophy’s critical method ensures that pursuing it sincerely will deliver such judgments in due course.

And What Doesn’t

If we define philosophy loosely as a response to a handful of Big Questions people tend to ask (questions such as What is the nature of reality? What can I know with certainty? What should I value, and why? and so on), we must make sure the definition is loose enough to also include reflexive and methodological questions such as Does it make sense to speak of reality as something that has a nature? Is there any perspective from which we might know what it means to know? These kinds of questions are subsequent to what motivates philosophy, but they are inseparable from what motivates it. If I am having a crisis of meaning in my life, it is extremely relevant to me whether I think meaning is possible.

One implication of treating philosophy this way is that popular philosophers like Harris or Matthew Crawford or John Kaag or Alain de Botton might have more in common with the great philosophers of the past than do the leading scholars of the day.

Consider the number of books that have been written about Plato and how much less rewarding it is to read them than it is to read Plato himself. The same point can be made for almost any canonical philosopher. And what, after all, is the canon but those texts that stay useful to lots of readers over a long period of time?

If professional philosophers aren’t willing to address the most profound concerns we hold, it is to their shame. At least that’s how it looks from my perspective on the margins. Doing scholarship is a lot easier and a lot less valuable than speaking to the ache and confusion that sit at the depths of us.

But one might object, if a philosophical text is valuable insofar as it addresses profound human concerns, how has it done so far in its addresses? Is it actually helpful? The concerns, after all, date back to Plato. Why haven’t we made more progress? Seen another way, though, the fact that Plato’s concerns are largely still ours is evidence of their profundity. The challenge is to say something meaningful (and therefore useful) about them, not to solve them. That only a handful of thinkers have contributed significantly to these questions that arise for all of us speaks to their centrality in the human experience. The point of philosophy, as I’m treating it here, is not to achieve assured positions in response to the Big Questions but to confront their mystery. For someone who isn’t troubled by Big Questions in the first place, philosophy never gets off the ground. But for those who are so troubled, philosophy offers at least the assurances that such troubles are not ours alone and that we might face them more clearly.

Literature as Philosophy

By defining philosophy as writing that addresses the profoundest concerns of human beings, I left all the room in the world for the various other kinds of writing that we don’t normally call “philosophy” but that do address the profoundest concerns of human beings to be brought into philosophy’s fold. I want to enter that room and imagine all literature as potential philosophy.

For example, while a philosopher might be an essayist, an essayist might be a philosopher. Indeed, in our time the essay (to take only the clearest case) could probably be said to address our profoundest concerns more often and more fruitfully than most of what gets published as philosophy.

In an earlier draft of this essay I started a list here of the kind of writers I have in mind when I think of literature as philosophy, but it quickly grew so long it included nearly every contemporary writer I read, all of whom teach me how to live not by telling me how to live but by demonstrating, performing, depicting, imagining various ways of being. These writers tend to ask questions, they invite reflection, they do what philosophers have always done most fundamentally, which is not to produce arguments but to provoke thought.

One might reasonably object that if everything is philosophy, nothing is philosophy. I agree there is something distinct about the method philosophy employs. Its directness makes it formally distinct (generally speaking) from other genres of writing, but its interest in what it’s like to be a human being is one with literature’s. Or, if that’s putting it too strongly, what I’m saying is this is the kind of philosophy I like to read and how I like to read it.

I have that privilege as a layperson. The amateur philosopher is free of the responsibility to keep up professionally and therefore has the luxury to follow his nose. Philosophy’s role in my life is purely intrinsic. Any route I take that does not seem likely to reward my efforts, I abandon without regret. One cost, of course, is that my education (if that’s the right word) is scattershot and likely superficial in certain regards. These would be devastating shortcomings for a scholar. For an amateur, they are natural and neutral outcomes of the fact that he is able to be, in Emerson’s phrase, his own measure. I defer to nothing but my own whims.

Philosophy as Literature

At the core of my approach, as it has evolved, and going hand in hand with reading literature as philosophy, is the notion of reading philosophy as literature. This move frees philosophy from any burden to offer a final word or even to give much comment at all on the way things are. Instead, it can ask, simply, what happens if we think or see this way? Having been at this casual practice for years now, I know not to read philosophy as trying and failing to provide definitive answers (if that were philosophy’s job, I might see some merit in the criticism that it hasn’t made much progress over the millennia) but as not actually trying to provide such answers in the first place. I read it as a genre of literature, much as I read essays and novels and poems. Once we scrap the naive notion that philosophy aims to produce or identify true belief and replace it with a conception of philosophy as a practice of suspending and challenging one’s habitual orientation to things that is inherently enriching, we can accept its lack of “progress” as a necessary feature of its radical reflexivity: any possible “advance” is subject to displacement of the kind that produced it.

Consider that we don’t read Plato by extracting his ideas from the narrative and dialogical form in which he writes. (And if we do read this way, we read badly.) How something is said is inseparable from what is being said. My method as a reader is to approach all of philosophy as Kierkegaard did Hegel: “If Hegel had written the whole of his logic and then said, in the preface or some other place, that it was merely an experiment in thought in which he had even begged the question in many places, then he would certainly have been the greatest thinker who had ever lived. As it is, he is merely comic.”

All philosophy, I assume, is a thought experiment. As is all literature. This is why Jorge Luis Borges and Ursula K. Le Guin say that all prose is fiction. A writer asks readers to give life to thought. As we do, we imagine worlds (literally or figuratively) of possibility. These possibilities are mental constructs, hypothetical, fictional. The only thing they attest to is the provocation “What if?” Keeping this in mind helps us to be critical, ironic, better readers.

To read philosophy is to try on thoughts that you might not otherwise have found. What happens, I say to myself, if I think this way? And what about that way? There is a richness to reading this way that doesn’t attend to reading for the sake of conclusions. It asks for participation in the construction of the philosophy. I bring an author’s writing to life as I give it voice in my mind. It’s like reading novels. Just as I don’t read a novel and say, Ah, now that one was right and the others were wrong, I don’t read philosophy to determine who gets it right. I read both novels and philosophy — as with all forms of literature — for the pleasures of reading them.

Indeed, what I’m trying to do in this essay is to tell a certain story about what philosophy could be. And I’m asking the reader to think along with me. I don’t hope at the end to have convinced you that I’m right. I hope, at the end, to ask you, “What happens if we look at things this way?”

I take literature to be about what it means to be human. Philosophy is one mode of exploring this interest. And as Kaufman writes in his essay, “philosophy is at its best when asking questions and at its worst when purporting to answer them.” When it is written well, philosophy is generative, expansive, and exciting as well as clarifying.

One likely consequence of reading philosophy as literature is to privilege philosophers who write well, which can’t but influence how the reader thinks. When we give voice enough to someone’s thoughts, we become accustomed to holding their perspective in mind, the ultimate result of which is sometimes for their perspective to become ours. Do I, for example, follow so much of Emerson and Nietzsche because I find their arguments, such as they are, compelling or because I am amenable to their sensibilities or because I find their styles winning and so adopt their views consequently? It may seem like I’m shirking responsibility for my views when I say I don’t care much about this distinction. Matters of philosophy versus rhetoric or substance versus style aren’t the kind I’m inclined to raise out of a sense of responsibility. If the discrepancy between what is said and how it’s said is egregious enough to draw attention, it has already demanded objection. Short of that, I’m with Joan Didion when she says that style is character.

Generally speaking, I see no great need to separate the aesthetic from the intellectual. And I’m not sure any of us should. Ideas are their articulation. Form is content. Summaries of Plato do not substitute for the experience of reading Plato any more than a description of a Bob Dylan song substitutes for hearing one or an explanation of sex substitutes for having it.

What do I like so much about the genre, then? I like that it gets right to the point. At its best, it gives us authors trying their best to think insightfully about what concerns them most. Descartes retiring to his chamber is more exciting than any plot I’ve ever encountered in a novel. It is consciousness rendered. Yes! It is the mind loosed upon the page. Yes! It is our most human project. Yes! It is our deepest questions. Yes! It is our willingness not to settle for easy answers. Yes! It is doubt. It is curiosity. It is humility. It is not blinking when the abyss stares back. Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! I have no affinity for Descartes’s conclusions, but I think to be preoccupied with them is to miss the power of reading him.

Skipping ahead to our era, Kaufman is right, from my perspective, that too many philosophers operate with a “by us for us” mentality. This is especially disappointing because so much philosophy that has survived is so well written. For every Kant or Hegel or Aristotle, there is a Schopenhauer or Nietzsche or Plato. I could go on to name Augustine, Berkeley, Hume, and others. More recently, Rorty, Nagel, and Singer—surely, some of their influence is due to the quality of their prose.

Kierkegaard criticized Hegel for not framing his logic as an experiment in thought. I’m asking to read all philosophy as such an experiment; all of it, that is, as Borgesian fiction. Philosophy, like all literature, invites us to participate in a way of seeing and thinking. Whether we are affected by it enough to build something of our worldviews there depends everything on literary qualities that don’t reduce to abstract argumentation. We are not computers. We are not always rational. We live in stories, through stories, and as stories. Philosophy has advantages and disadvantages against other modes of storytelling, but it is a mode like any other. If it brings us truth, it does so in the way of all literature: by resonating with human experience. We have no other appeal.

Philosophy and Autobiography

Nietzsche tells us that all philosophy is a confession, an “involuntary and unconscious autobiography.” It may not surprise you to know that I think he’s right.

If you will entertain the possibility that philosophy begins somewhere between crisis and curiosity, a philosopher’s concerns and his responses to them reveal him more than his biography ever could.

But there is a strain of voluntary and conscious autobiographical writing in philosophy, too. Augustine invented the memoir, and the form has never been far from the field. Rousseau, Mill, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Hazel E. Barnes, Russell, Thoreau, and Cavell have all published memoirs. Nietzsche wrote one of the best.

It follows, doesn’t it, that if philosophy is a matter of personal concerns, responses to those concerns will lend themselves to the form of the memoir: the story of how the self changed over time. Here is what I struggled with, the philosopher writes or implies, and here is how I found my bearings. The line of an argument shares with the arc of a memoir this story: here is the way from A to B.

One recommendation for making the autobiographical explicit is that, as literary writers have long recognized, the particular is often the best way to the universal. Descartes’s arguments make as much sense as they do in part because of how apparent the stakes of the argument are for him. Descartes, the rationalist, advances by his appeal to our narrative curiosity and emotional engagement with his struggle. 

My Confessions

As undergraduates, my peers and I were told with a wink to reassure our parents that philosophy majors had the highest LSAT scores. The joke flattered us not only because it confirmed we were more intelligent than other students but also because few of us were considering anything as pedestrian as the Law. Philosophy was concerned with the highest things, and we, therefore, were above just about all of it. Anyone who was choosing their major for instrumental reasons would have already chosen business or maybe political science if they really did want to be lawyers.

But back on the ground, where I eventually discovered much of life is lived, my philosophy degree got me exactly nowhere, career-wise. Perhaps I should have taken the LSAT or joined the business school. Except, of course not. I didn’t study philosophy for the job it would eventually earn me, so I can hardly begrudge it for not leading me to it. To treat the study of philosophy as a vocational endeavor is to have already devalued it. Of course, writing this way I am invoking privilege and leisure. I don’t deny it. To have the opportunity to study philosophy has always seemed to me one of the fruits of a good life. It is necessarily its own reward.

My undergraduate philosophy advisor, John Lysaker, once wrote that no one goes into philosophy because they want to write journal articles. They go into it because they want to write like Nietzsche. How’s that for philosophizing with a hammer! It has always struck me, similarly, that no one goes into philosophy hoping to make a small contribution to a subfield that matters to almost no one in the world. They go into it because they’re wild for meaning and ideas. Philosophy suggests that everything you know could be wrong; everything you believe can be challenged; everything you value could be unworthy. It is a radical pursuit. Far from being academic, obscure, and impersonal, the philosophy that draws people is human, vital, and deeply personal.

This, anyway, is how I thought about philosophy for myself after graduation. I figured if I were going to try writing something, I at least wanted to hold on to the possibility that what I wrote could matter to someone in the way that the writing that had touched me had done so. This led me to associate more closely with the kinds of literary texts discussed above than those from philosophy proper. Works of memoir, essay, and fiction more reliably helped me understand myself and the world.

Yet I kept an eye on, and often a foot in, philosophy. Its critical nature; its commitment to getting to the core of things; its childlike refusal to cease asking “Why?” Its systematic method and the clarifications that often followed were rewards that other forms of literature weren’t always interested in. Yet, so often it lacked the stakes of other forms. The author rarely put him- or herself on the line (only their ideas about certain topics). While technically difficult, the bulk of philosophy read as artistically and emotionally disengaged. And it struck me as an unfortunate practice on the part of philosophers to take the easy way out by neglecting the opportunity to write about what matters most.

It’s an easy charge to level. And it’s easy to understand why someone wouldn’t want to take the challenge. When the stakes are real, the bullshit detector gets set to high. Yet an author who doesn’t risk himself in his work, it is plain to see on the page, has very little of value to offer his reader. Ideas and ideas about ideas, and never a sense of who or what those ideas are for. But those writers who, instead of seeking to impress the reader, invite the reader, as if a friend, to join him where he is, in whatever struggle—these are the writers whose work might affect you. Join me in this line of thought. I don’t know whether it will be fruitful. But let us find out together. What happens if we think this way?

As I have fumbled my way toward this kind of approach, whether in philosophical or creative works, I have had to confront, time and again, my limitations as a writer, as a thinker, and as a human being. If almost no writing of any genre is of lasting value to readers, how does one produce it? Significant contributions to the big questions of philosophy are exceedingly rare, as are works of literature that are read beyond their era. If one is unlikely to produce such work, why would he try?

What I’ve decided is that the practice of writing about what is important is valuable for the author no matter the writing’s impact on the world. In a book I have coming out later this year, I apply myself to the big questions of philosophy in an effort to perform for the reader how one person might approach them. I am not deceived that I have something significant to add to the big questions themselves. Indeed, everything I say comes one way or another from another source. What is potentially unique about it is how I synthesize the ideas and how I present them. It might be valuable to readers. It might prompt them to take up similar projects of reflection. It might land for them in novel ways. It might provoke interesting responses. There’s no way to know except to offer it in the hope it is useful and then find out.

The book follows a simple story: I went for a walk and thought about some things. It combines philosophy and autobiography, setting my ideas in a lived context, and thereby making explicit the relationship that Nietzsche says is inherent to all thinking. It is the most I have concentrated my thinking about philosophical concerns, yet it is fundamentally a narrative work. It will succeed or fail by its literary style and sensibility. As philosophy, it is amateur work by design. That is one of its realities and, I hope, one of its virtues. It tries to make room for readers to become their own amateur philosophers (whether in the margins or in their minds or even on another page).

But what does it mean to be an amateur philosopher? Or in my case, what has it meant, practically? I have written about philosophy in popular books and magazines. I have reviewed philosophical works in literary venues. I have allowed philosophy to be an explicit influence on my other writing. But as much as I have found writing philosophy and writing about philosophy useful in shaping my own thinking and ways of relating to the world, reading has been more fundamental.

Since finishing my formal studies in philosophy as an undergraduate, I have followed my reading nose more deeply into Nietzsche and spent good time with Rorty and West and their pragmatist precursors. I’ve kept up with Buddhism and the debates about consciousness, among other pet interests. I’ve circled back from time to time to old favorites like existentialism and Aristotle’s ethics. I’ve poked around in Wittgenstein and maintain my ambition to poke around some more. I’ve read the new books that are well received, and I’ve reread old favorites. I go back to Plato regularly and not just when I’m teaching him in writing classes. I could go on, but the point is that so much in philosophy can be read profitably by the average reader, and doing so is one way to contribute to a rich life. I think it’s natural to want to give back when one feels grateful, but it’s possible to gain plenty from philosophy without ever trying to return the favor.

I suppose I’m typical of the amateur philosopher. I started reading philosophy out of curiosity and was quickly enamored of the way profound concerns were taken up and treated seriously, the way lines of thought progressed, the way conversations played out over centuries and remained ongoing. I have kept with it not because I think I’m getting closer to answering the big questions (once and for all, or even to my own lasting satisfaction). Rather, I have kept with it because I enjoy the experience of having my thinking change over periods of years, enjoy the occasional insights that strike a deep chord in me, enjoy having previous opinions upended. I’m in it for the long haul with no hope of getting anywhere other than on the path I’m already on, wherever it leads.

A Final Note on Genre

This essay speaks the language of self-help, does it not? There is a crisis (mysteries and doubts attendant to being human), and there is an easily identifiable treatment (philosophy, as I’m defining it).

But what about a pure philosophy that isn’t tainted by the need to address everyday realities? What about that noblest thing: the purely intellectual life?

It has long struck me as odd how the intellect is seen as a kind of purity, while life and the world are seen as impure. I’m with Nietzsche. The gods are dead. Instead of trying to resuscitate them, let’s work with the messy world we live in and the messy realities we know.

If an idea — or, better, a story — helps us live, let’s hear it. What but flourishing has any purchase on our aims? (And, by all means, let us debate till the end what flourishing entails.) The problem with the self-help genre isn’t what it tries to do, it’s that it usually does it badly. Stoicism, Epicureanism, Taoism, Buddhism, all of these are guides for how to live. So are literature and philosophy as I’m advocating for them. But they help us not by advising a program of rehabilitation. They help us continue to think and grow—that process being the closest thing we have to a path leading to a meaningful life. It is philosophy’s method of not offering answers (or at least not having these answers widely accepted) that is its best response to our situation. If we keep reading and keep thinking and keep questioning, eventually we will find that our lives have been made richer thereby. Ignorance isn’t bliss but reaching the limits of knowledge or wisdom or insight and continuing into the unknown is pretty close.

Scott F. Parker is the author or editor of several books, including The Joy of Running qua Running, Coffee—Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate (with Mike W. Austin), and Being on the Oregon Coast (forthcoming in September). His essays, reviews, and interviews appear regularly in Philosophy Now, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other publications. He teaches writing at Montana State University.


32 responses to “Confessions of an Amateur Philosopher”

  1. Deidre Parry

    I love this. Thank you!

  2. I will have some comments — and disagreements — later, but for now, let me just say that this is really excellent. Thanks so much for publishing it with us.

  3. I like that you draw the connection of philosophy as literature to the lived experience. I would make that connection even deeper. Philosophy is literature only when written down. But philosophy is not merely an appendage to life, it IS life. You come close to saying this when remarking on the confessional nature of philosophy, and in disparaging the airy ideas about ideas that disconnect from our human lived concerns. As you say, philosophy is born between curiosity and crisis and lives in people’s lives. It simply often gets manifest most publicly by being written down or spoken out loud.

    I would go so far to say that at some point for some people philosophy is how we live. It isn’t a commentary about our lives as much as it is the living itself. It isn’t found in books. It isn’t even the activity pursued for intrinsic value, as if some separable thing, but the life itself, a life that requires no external justification, nary a word spoken on its behalf. One simply is, and what one is is thoughtful. Disengaging philosophy from that life is how it becomes an object for study, but it needs to be ingested and digested and then also tested in more than merely the arena of thought. Something only matters to the extent that it takes on a life. The way that more academic philosophy matters (that is, specialized to the point of alienation) too often seems dead to the world, or a caged beast confined in either the untended basements of ivory towers or its more accommodating luxury suites.

    But you are right that the externalization of philosophy in its literary form is a necessary way it becomes an option for us. That is, by conceiving the possibilities it presents we are given the map where paths unforeseen have been plotted out. Our own imaginations are too limited to see around corners and much further down the paths we are already on. We require signposts and clues for how to read them. To get to live these things and not merely entertain them, that is, making them real possibilities and not merely travel guides to alien lands with incomprehensible people, is what good literature in any form does best. It makes us known to ourselves, because we get to BE those things. Or could be them.

    One of the clever things that Wittgenstein did in his thought experiments and which Barry Stroud pointed out is that some of the examples were not merely insights into how we DO live, but were insights into how impossible it would be to live that way and maintain any semblance of the identity we have or whether it would even be possible for people to actually live that way at all. So philosophy, when practiced honestly, can both show us who we are, lead us to who we can be, and remind us of what is beyond our grasp. To live a life philosophically is to embrace each of these things as they present themselves.

    Thanks for writing your essay! In many ways I found myself reflected back in what you said, was given things to better aspire to, and was reminded where my own life draws its boundaries. Keep up the good work!

  4. davidlduffy

    Hi Scott. You don’t mention ethics at all, though you imply them in some of your interests. Ethics and political philosophy etc are eminently practical things for societies rather than atomized individuals to think about.

  5. s. wallerstein

    Like you, I’m not a professional philosopher nor was I even a philosophy major. Like you, I’ve read a fair amount of philosophy, especially those philosophers who, as you mention, are great writers like Plato and Nietzsche.

    However, I wouldn’t call myself “an amateur philosopher” nor would I call myself a “philosopher” at all. My knowledge of philosophy is just not on the same level as that of anyone who has a doctorate in a normal philosophy program. Nor do I imagine that I am an unrecognized philosophical genius, a latter day Nietzsche whose genius has gone unrecognized by an unthinking and superficial society. I do not deny that latter day Nietzsche may exist, although I have yet to run into one and I have frequented philosophy blogs for maybe 15 years now.

    I also spend a lot of time trying to figure out what makes people tick yet I would not call myself an “amateur psychologist”.
    Psychologists are people who have the appropriate degrees in psychology and work in the field, unless for some reason, they’re unemployed or retired.

    Why not reserve the title of “philosopher” for those who have comply with the normal standards used in the field? That doesn’t mean that your and my opinion are not worthwhile, but in general, we don’t have the normal expertise.

    In any case, your essay is interesting and very well-written.

  6. Paul Taborsky

    I have to say that I respectfully disagree with much of the perspective of this essay. I think we should recognize that philosophy is an academic discipline, much like other academic disciplines such as math or anthropology, for example. Who would turn to a mathematician or an anthropologist for advice about deep or life questions (not involving math or anthropology)? Math and anthropology have their own deep questions, but just because they don’t respond to personal life questions or ordinary profound concerns doesn’t make them, or their questions, any less valuable. And I would speculate that the questions asked by ancient thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle were not so much big or deep questions as scientific questions. They appear to us to be big questions because science has moved on, but this is at it should be, for as Hegel said somewhere, there can be no Platonism or Aristotelianism for us today, because the thought of the past must always be rethought and mediated through present concerns and experiences, which may or may not match those of the past.

    I’ve done some work myself in philosophy, but I have no idea about the nature of reality or how one’s life should be lived, and certainly don’t consider myself to be wise in any way, at least, very little of the wisdom that I might have has come through the academic study of philosophy. Philosophy has perhaps given me knowledge and a certain ability to write and think. But not all knowledge is equally valuable at all times and in all contexts, so it is true that, as the author points out, much academic philosophy appears to have very little marginal utility, but that is likely true of most academic disciplines, all the more so for an amorphous discipline such as modern academic philosophy – only posterity can decide what is valuable in the long run.

    And none of this implies that amateurs can’t do philosophy, just as none of this implies that amateurs can’t make important contributions to science. Many of the great philosophers and scientists of the past, even the recent past, were amateurs by present standards, but as both have grown more specialized and technical, it has become more and more difficult to make meaningful contributions without some specialized training. But that, I would argue, is the way for any organized body of knowledge. Philosophy incorporates a tradition and unless one wants to keep reinventing the wheel that tradition needs to be acknowledged, because philosophy (and philosophers) are, like all humanistic traditions, part of communal enterprises, so much, I would venture, that even supposedly solitary thinkers such as Nietzsche and the Daoist Yang Zhu are as much indebted to their place and time as any other. Thus, philosophy doesn’t really come naturally to anyone – what does come to one is mediated by culture and tradition; as Kant said (again somewhere!) common sense is little more than a public rumour (i.e. there is a lot of conditioning in what is taken to be natural).

    Thus, I would say that philosophy is the engagement with and examination of this tradition (or traditions), and that in this sense amateurs and professionals have comparable jobs.

  7. ombhurbhuva

    A good essay. Personally I like to think of myself as an amateur of philosophy or one who has a penchant for it. Perhaps I am wrong but I would ‘suspect’ that most teachers of philosophy might fear the hubris of claiming to be a philosopher as if their daimon might depart to stay with someone who knew nothing. In the same way claiming to be a poet is a dangerous challenge to your muse. She does not like to be taken for granted. No, on the one hand you may claim to think things through, get to the bottom of things or on the other write verse. Then it becomes a life and you shake off the weight of the identity. To be free in yourself is the goal. Then you might do good work.

  8. The situation in philosophy today reminds me of when I used to have two cats, and whenever the neighbor cat picked on one of mine, the picked-on one would take it out on my other cat. Thus physicists think that they can do without philosophers (who just don’t get it), and so professional philosophers think that they can do without those who merely like ideas.

    But the situation is larger still because the physicists feel themselves under stack from engineers who think that physics has lost its way from hard practical science, and for that matter, chemists and biologists are finding the tenets of philosophy of physics increasingly irrelevant to what they do.

    What philosophy needs today is to come up with an idea that is so good that the physicists cannot ignore it. But that is increasingly unlikely to happen when the professional philosophers—those most tasked with promoting an interest in ideas—are instead putting up restrictions on new thinking, apparently (from your post) even to those who graduate with undergraduate degrees in their field.

    Amazing. If physics did that, Einstein would never have been published. And the same is true of most of the early development in computer science.

    The unspoken question is: Why should scientists out of politeness include academic philosophers in their conversations when the latter cannot do the same for the generally intellectually curious?

  9. As you obviously know — as you refer often to my recent essay for Philosophy Now — I agree with much of this. However, I do think you have overshot a bit. First, there are any number of highly technical areas in philosophy that may not deal with “life’s big questions,” but which are essential to other disciplines — no computer science without Frege’s logic, for example — and interesting in their own right and which require a high degree of formal education and dedication to research to master and thus, largely precludes amateurs (with the exception perhaps, of a handful of natural geniuses). Second, the philosophical tradition — including that which *is* devoted to “life’s big questions” — includes many extremely difficult, intricate, complex texts, which require a great amount of education and research to fully grasp and understand. Again, with the exception, perhaps, of a handful of natural geniuses — and I may even doubt that — the average person cannot simply pick up Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, or Aristotle’s Metaphysics and get much of any use out of them.

    In short, while I am very much for the expansion of what is considered within the province of philosophy — philosophical literature, for example — there still is very much a need for philosophical expertise and this can only come from within disciplinary philosophy.

  10. Scott Parker

    I don’t disagree with what you write here or what Paul Taborsky writes above. The technical areas of philosophy might not be hospitable to someone like me, and I’m fine leaving them to the experts. This is where I think Taborsky’s analogy with math and anthropology is most apt. Where the analogy breaks down for me is that I see philosophy as being not only a technical/academic field but also something natural to human beings. When we think about meaning in our lives and reflect on our conduct, we’re doing a kind of philosophy, as I understand. I don’t have a personal stake in math or anthropology in the way I do in the philosophical questions that penetrate to my core. What I want to do is carve out or maybe defend a space for amateurs in philosophy. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that everyone should be an amateur.

    Taborsky might want to say here that we should call the academic stuff philosophy and call the amateur stuff something else. I could see the case for that, but philosophy is a good durable word that I don’t think we need to cede to the professionals.

    As for difficult texts, I’m grateful to my professors who taught the three books you mentioned (parts of the Kant and Hegel, anyway), pillars of western philosophical tradition that, it’s true, I probably wouldn’t have been motivated (or able) to read on my own. I still draw on those books from time to time even as I do not rush to revisit them. My understanding of the history of philosophy would be less than it is without having spent a certain amount of time scratching my head, grimacing, and giving my brain the workouts of its life. But could I have gotten by with secondary texts? With Kant and Hegel that’s still mostly what I do. And given my philosophical interests, that seems okay to me. I guess I’m invoking the professional/amateur divide once again. I think I can live with that.

  11. scottfparker

    I don’t disagree with what you write here or what Paul Taborsky writes above. The technical areas of philosophy might not be hospitable to someone like me, and I’m fine leaving them to the experts. This is where I think Taborsky’s analogy with math and anthropology is most apt. Where the analogy breaks down for me is that I see philosophy as being not only a technical/academic field but also something natural to human beings. When we think about meaning in our lives and reflect on our conduct, we’re doing a kind of philosophy, as I understand. I don’t have a personal stake in math or anthropology in the way I do in the philosophical questions that penetrate to my core. What I want to do is carve out or maybe defend a space for amateurs in philosophy. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that everyone should be an amateur.

    Taborsky might want to say here that we should call the academic stuff philosophy and call the amateur stuff something else. I could see the case for that, but philosophy is a good durable word that I don’t think we need to cede to the professionals.

    As for difficult texts, I’m grateful to my professors who taught the three books you mentioned (parts of the Kant and Hegel, anyway), pillars of western philosophical tradition that, it’s true, I probably wouldn’t have been motivated (or able) to read on my own. I still draw on those books from time to time even as I do not rush to revisit them. My understanding of the history of philosophy would be less than it is without having spent a certain amount of time scratching my head, grimacing, and giving my brain the workouts of its life. But could I have gotten by with secondary texts? With Kant and Hegel that’s still mostly what I do. And given my philosophical interests, that seems okay to me. I guess I’m invoking the professional/amateur divide once again. I think I can live with that.

  12. scottfparker

    I kind of address this in my response to Dan, but “philosophy” and “philosopher” are old words, good words. Why wouldn’t I use them? I’m never going to qualify for the Olympics—that doesn’t stop me from calling myself a runner.

  13. I don’t think we disagree, then.

  14. s. wallerstein

    I really have no problem with you calling yourself a philosopher or a runner if you like.

    As you can imagine, we’ll run into a problem of where to draw the line. Almost everyone at some time in their life wonders about the meaning of life; most or at least many teenagers question conventional values. Are they philosophers for that reason? Or do you have to have read a few basic texts? You answer Dan above that you have read the Critique of Pure Reason. I tried to read it (on my own) and failed, although I did make it through Heidegger’s Being and Time (also on my own).

    Or here’s another example. A while ago a friend of mine claimed that there is no truth. Would you call that a “philosophical statement” and one who asserts it a “philosopher”? I replied, as anyone would who has studied a minimum of philosophy, that that statement refutes itself because if there is no truth, that statement isn’t true and hence, there is truth. It seems that there is a certain basic level of philosophical knowledge that we expect of a philosopher just as we expect a certain expertise in running of a runner. If I jogged across the street the other day because I saw the light was changing, I’m not a runner.

    However, you may be one of the few amateurs who qualifies as a philosopher. I guess we’d have to spell out the basic prerequisites for being a philosopher in terms of texts read and mastered and expertise in philosophical reasoning.

  15. scottfparker

    I guess I’d draw the line this way: your friend and the proverbial teenager are both doing philosophy in the way that running across the street is running. Now, should they keep it up and make it a regular practice (whether by reading from the tradition or engaging in serious dialogues or thinking deliberately on their own) at some point they would become philosophers (still no comment on how good of philosophers they are). Then, what is “some point”? I think it’s when doing philosophy becomes inseparable from who they take themselves to be—when it becomes part of their identities.

  16. Paul Taborsky

    Having read some comments, I’d like to say that I don’t mean that there should be no role for amateurs in philosophy, or what they do shouldn’t be called philosophy. After all, I’m an amateur philosopher myself. I’d just like to say that I don’t think that amateurs need be confined to a particular set of questions, such as the four questions mentioned by Parker at the beginning of his piece. Nor do I think there is anything wrong with writing the sort of philosophy that addresses those questions at all. Indeed, some (both within and without the academy) do this kind of thing very well, and I’m sure that Parker is among those (and I must say that Parker’s book on Oregon looks very intersting, having lived for long periods in more than one place myself).

    But one has to work with the materials one has and is most comfortable with, whether they be personal experience or the ideas and thoughts of others in written texts. Both can be the vehicles for philosophical expression.

  17. s. wallerstein

    Ok. Thanks.

    Here’s one I liked: “The philosopher is not a citizen of any community of ideas. That’s what makes him a philosopher”.

    Yes, it’s sexist by today’s standards, but it gets you thinking.

  18. Bunsen Burner

    What in the world could it mean for ‘philosophy’ to be part of your identity? Does it only apply to philosophy, or can you also become a physicist or a historian? This strikes me as complete nonsense. You are either a member of a particular community and take part in the processes and discussions of that community, or you are not. The comparison with running is a complete disanalogy. The correct analogy would be between running and thinking, so I guess you could call yourself a thinker for what that’s worth.

  19. In light of Bunsen Burner’s comment, I want to be clear on something, which may represent a disagreement with Scott. I do think there is such a thing as philosophical expertise — though it is different from the sort of expertise one might ascribe to a biologist or mechanical engineer — and that it is acquired, overwhelmingly, by way of formal education and research. I also believe that such expertise is required if people more generally are to be fully educated in the philosophical tradition and in its distinctive methods and tools. Put another way, there couldn’t *just* be amateurs and still be philosophy, in the sense that we mean.

  20. Bunsen Burner

    Exactly. It’s not clear to me what it means to be an amateur in X without engaging with the community of experts of X. I mean, you do get that in certain subjects. For example, I know of amateur astronomers who invest a lot of time into exploring the skies. But they don’t define themselves as people who just read astronomy books. They actually try to contribute to astronomical ideas in ways that are complementary to what professional astronomers are doing.

    I don’t know why anyone would even care about being an amateur X if they have no interest in dealing with the professional side of X. Who cares then? Professional philosophers care about the topics they do for all matter of cultural or technical reasons. As a community they are driving philosophy in a particular direction. If you are not willing to be part of that then why bother with labeling yourself as if you are?

  21. scottfparker

    As this part of the conversation develops, it seems more and more to me that the issue is the ambiguity of the two uses of philosophy. On the one hand, technical/professional philosophy that matters to very few people outside the field. (I count myself among these few, as I have a hobby interest in keeping an eye on what the pros are doing.) On the other hand, there’s the kind of philosophy that matters profoundly to lots of people. When people reflect seriously about how to live I think it’s appropriate to call that project philosophy. What else would we call it?

    And that’s why I prefer “philosophy” to “thinking” in the running analogy. Thinking doesn’t apply an object, whereas philosophy does. The reason, then, that philosophy can constitute part of an identity is that it can matter enough to a person that doing it becomes part of who they are. This is true of some people and not true of others.

  22. Scott, I guess the only thing I would say is that a number of philosophers have made important contributions to the sorts of questions you are interested in, but their work really is not accessible to a “lay” audience, regardless of how smart they may be, and that this is one of the reasons why professional expertise cannot be dispensed with, even for the amateur.

  23. scottfparker

    I keep trying to dodge this question of quality, but I absolutely recognize that one can do philosophy well (which would almost necessitate engaging the experts) or badly. My point here is only that judgments of good and bad come in only after we’ve agreed that we’re talking about philosophy.

    If an amateur wants to do philosophy that will be of use to others, yes, s/he will engage the community. But isn’t there also doing philosophy to one’s own satisfaction, to make one’s own meaning? Indeed, isn’t that awfully important? Not important for philosophy, but important for a person who is going to die and is surrounded by mysteries and is full of wonder.

  24. There is an historical elephant in the room here that has not been remarked: Almost all modern arts, sciences, and philosophies were initially developed by ‘amateurs,’ simply because initially there were no ‘professionals. They were men who were either well-to-do or well connected (able to attract strong, supportive patronage) who were passionate about ideas and about how things worked, and about the history and about possible futures. They slowly came to form communities or latched, almost parasitically, onto communities that, while receptive to their new ideas, were not primarily about those ideas. Eventually, state supported academies of discovery invested in already established universities, and with the popularization of education the professional was born – part teacher, part researcher, part iconoclast, part defender of tradition. Professionalization led – inevitably – to specialization, and to new technical languages and usages. Some of these have indeed been ‘jargon’ – a complaint against academic ‘professionalese” since the 18th Century – but some have been necessary to the development and transmittal of new ideas and discoveries.

    Recognition of this history does not resolve Bunsen Burner’s complaints; nor does it weaken the cogency of many of Scott Parker’s remarks. But it reminds us, first, that with enough passion and effort – and the right kind of effort – the autodidact – the free-lance scholar – or physicist or mathematician – might hope to make some small contribution to the field of one’s passion. But also that, thanks to that history, there are now some contributions that can only be made by those with the proper training, in the proper environment, with the proper resources available.

    The question obviously becomes one of a kind of division of labor – what may the amateur properly do to make any contribution to his or her chosen field? at what point must he or she admit that the professional is better qualified to purse a question or set of questions? (I actually think the dividing line is fairly clear; but noting it is all I need do here.)

  25. s. wallerstein

    I don’t think that Scott is so concerned about the amateur philosopher making a contribution to the field of philosophy as with the amateur philosopher making a contribution to his or her own life, his or her own awareness and perhaps to his or her own immediate circle of family and friends.

    I don’t consider myself a philosopher, but insofar as I read philosophy (and I often do), I have zero interest in contributing to the field of philosophy, but lots of interest in becoming a wiser and more self-aware person and maybe
    making those whom I come in daily contact with, family and friends, a bit wiser and more self-aware.

    I believe that while Scott has a broader interest in philosophy than I do, he and I coincide in a lot of what we expect out of philosophy.

  26. s. wallerstein,
    You’re right, that is the main claim of the article; however, while Parker has not published texts *in* philosophy, he has had texts *about* philosophy published; and that is indeed one kind of contribution a non-professional can make to the field.

  27. Goethe reportedly called himself an ingenious dilettante. I’m a dilettante; ingenious, well, we shall see. But I’ve been reading Kant (Critique of Pure Reason) on my own. And Leibniz, and Frege, and… and so on. And I don’t think I’m a genius, nor that genius would be of much use. Reading a difficult technical text whether in philosophy, mathematics, theoretical physics, or any other field is of course in a very clear sense hard work, and feeling lost and in over your head is part of the deal. But work is what it is. And knowing how to read, and how to study, seems to me to matter more than some innate ability. In any case no one reads in pristine isolation. There are resources available to us, like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
    I’m not suggesting everyone should go and read these kinds of text, but I’m fairly certain I got something out of it, and even at some level, perhaps perversely, enjoying it.
    No one of course could start out with Kant, just as no one would start out in mathematics by studying cohomology, say. But just like mathematics is one subject all the way from basic arithmetic to the most abstruse field, I believe that philosophy is one continuous subject rendered at various depths and levels of abstraction.
    Some people enjoy good literary philosophy, and so do I. But there are times when it is refreshing to have not a yarn, but simply an idea, or an idea complex, laid out in text as plain as it will admit. And then to set yourself the task, as difficult as it may be, to come to terms with what is going on, and why it may matter.

  28. I feel that Scott Parker has been a bit outnumbered here, so I want to add a few words. What has been mostly left out of this conversation is science. Yes, philosophy can show up in literature and the arts, but it is also in science. In science today, new ides show up routinely—it is not just about the rare genius—so everyone is an amateur philosopher at least in the sense of having to answer, “How does this new idea fit with our old ones?” To answer takes some inventiveness. It is an ongoing living adventure. Philosophers ought ro, and do, find interest in that.

    So consider that in physics there is a saying, “Whoever can do the physics” talks with (or writes for) whoever else can do the physics, and whoever can’t quite pull that off takes recourse in credentialism. And in philosophy, it used to be the same way. (I know from two friends, now lawyers, who were philosophy undergrad majors). If you read introductions to philosophy journals, they used to say—but no longer—something like, “If you can make a clean, well-argued point, then other people who do the same would like to hear from you.” There was no lack of confidence about hearing other voices.

    But now, the issue really does seem to be credentialism. It is not about amateurs/professionals but about non-credentialed/credentialed. And I’m wondering if the pros are realizing how they come off to scientists who are routinely wrestling with new ideas as amateur philosophers. That is what Hawking is talking about when he argues that philosophy is really done by scientists in any case, without needing philosophers. (If you want an example, look at the introduction to most science textbooks and see how they tell what approach is being taken, with what emphasis, and with what starting assumptions as other phenomena are understood in terms of them).

    When scientists such as Hawking warn students not to go into philosophy, I used to instinctively pull for the philosophers (for the reason of valuing a broad approach to problem-solving). But not anymore. Who wants to pull for credentialism?

    And for that matter, wasn’t it Socrates himself who warned against letting experts take over the education of the young?

  29. I think the comments have been very civil and that Scott has been treated well. A number of people agree with him and others — myself included — partially agree with him.

    As for your characterization of philosophy, I have been doing it professionally now since 1993, and I’m afraid I really don’t recognize your characterization. I don’t see the credentialism you are talking about. Certainly I see many other problems — many of which I’ve written about and discussed on BHTV, including my latest dialogue with Jesse Singal ( — but naked credentialism isn’t one of them.

  30. scottfparker

    I agree. I was just saying to Dan privately that I’ve been really pleased with how thoughtful as well as respectful this exchange has been. So different from so many online comment sections. Thanks, everyone.

  31. Thanks to Scott for such a thoughtful and thought provoking piece, and to the respondents as well. I think it is more difficult to avoid philosophy than it is to pursue it, whether as an amateur or a “pro” — which I take to be short for professor in this case. When people begin to consider basic commitments about the true, the good, the real, justice, etc., they often describe those discussions as philosophical. And it is not uncommon to hear someone talk about their “philosophy of X,” e.g.. business, which means, their basic orientating concepts and commitments. Ordinary language seems on point here. Moreover, having pursued multiple philosophical conversations outside formal classrooms (from bars to churches to prisons), I find that most people wonder about things like the nature of friendship, human identity and flourishing, even the basic metaphysics of continuity in the midst of change. I agree with Dan Kaufman that one can be an expert in such matters, by which I mean, one has a know-that and a know-how regarding a set of issues that most others lack. But unlike most disciplines, philosophical know-how and know-that don’t guarantee insight, and so even the pros need to be on their toes around amateurs, and listen with open ears. (My relation with Scott attests to that. And I don’t take Dan to be denying this.) But amateurs, committed to the project of philosophy (as Scott is) also need to be willing to get into the weeds and to bear up as once settled thoughts unsettle. Impatience is a particular vice in philosophy, which requires negative capability all the way down the line, particularly because philosophical insight doesn’t principally derive from data or experiments. And then, awash in uncertainty, philosophy also requires vulnerability — one sticks one’s neck out and commits to a particular position and that rarely goes well, even for the most justly famous philosophers. And that brings me back to Scott’s essay. When philosophy engages non-expert audiences, should it still labor to demonstrate the relative superiority of certain views, and should it show one’s work along the way? (I call the latter ‘earning one’s therefore’s’.) I can’t help but feel we’ve lost a beautiful mean between expert and popular prose.

  32. Thanks to Scott for a thoughtful and thought provoking piece. I confess, I think it is more difficult to avoid philosophy than to be an amateur or “pro,” which I take to be short for “professor,” recalling Thoreau’s barbed remark on the shortcomings of those who profess but do not enact. When basic questions, concepts, and commitments arise, people often term the discussion “philosophical.” And almost every line of inquiry or trade as its own “philosophy,” by which people mean basic orientations, as when someone speaks of their “business philosophy.” To my mind, ordinary language is on point in these contexts. Having had philosophical discussions both in and outside formal classrooms, I have found that most everyone is interested in questions like the nature of friendship, human identity or, more generally, continuity in the context of change, and truth as well as the nature of a “fact” and what distinguishes “knowledge” from “opinion.” To my mind and in my experience, almost everyone is incipiently philosophical. The question is how much leash they give to those questions and concerns. Looking at it this way, one moves from budding philosopher to amateur to expert, and I do think there is a continuum here, even though, as Dan Kaufman notes, rightly I think, there are experts, by which I mean, people with extensive know-how and knowledge-that, which gives them a broader and richer view of issues, their histories, and the strengths and weaknesses of various positions. But if this is right, why are so many adults so impatient with philosophy? No doubt many find academic prose inhospitable, to put it mildly, but few complain when other lines of inquiry get technical, even in other fields in the humanities. I thus find the impatience to mark a kind of protest: “I should have a stake and some standing in this conversation,” the complaint runs. “If the issue is basic orientations, I need this too.” But that’s just part of it. Philosophy also unsettles, and many adults don’t want to experience how wobbly some of their basic commitments actually are. Moreover, philosophy asks one to commit, and in an articulate fashion, which renders one very vulnerable. (Even the greatest philosophers have their critics, some of whom thereby also became great philosophers.) Public or popular philosophizing is thus a tricky business, unless it reduces to thesis slinging, or, which I prefer, essays in exemplification. (Walden excels at the latter.) But I still dream of prose where the amateur catches the attention of the pro and the pro returns to the amateur without believing s/he/they are returning to the cave.