WHAT DOES A PHILOSOPHER DO?
Anyone who has used social media often enough and for long enough has doubtlessly seen the “What People Think I Do / What I Really Do” memes. The typical format includes a header stating the occupation (be it a profession, vocation, or hobby), along with six captioned photos, usually along the lines of 1) what my friends think I do, 2) what my mom thinks I do, 3) what society thinks I do, 4) what [insert random relevant person] thinks I do, 5) what I think I do, and 6) what I really do. They seem to have been made for just about every occupation under the sun or moon, from “science student” (the apparent origin) to “stay at home mom” and, of course, “philosopher”. Like most memes, they are stupid.
Why do I mention this? Well, about a month ago, someone—who will remain nameless—offered as an explanation of philosophy that it is “the soft stuff between the hard stuff.” I looked at him and said nothing. What was I going to say to that? It’s a very cute answer; he jumped to defend it, as, in a paraphrase of his words, it is necessary to have the soft stuff to keep the hard things from damaging each other.
It did get me thinking, however, as to how to explain to someone who is not a philosopher what philosophy really is; or, since “philosophy” is always going to remain a concept somewhat too large to explain to someone who is not a philosopher without using highfalutin flowery language which amounts to nothing more than a pretty abstraction, what it is that a philosopher really does. The best way I could think to do this is by contrast with what the professor of philosophy does. Now, while this is technically my job title—okay, well, at the moment, “adjunct professor of philosophy” is my job title (and the “adjunct” part is important; that’s Latin for “wage slave”)—I do not consider myself a professor of philosophy. A professor is one who professes. He takes something as given and then communicates it to others. The professor of philosophy reports on the philosophical thought of philosophers.
Doing this is not philosophy. Neither, for that matter, is teaching students to be “critical thinkers”. Being a critical thinker, in the sense of one who is capable of solving problems without needing to follow predetermined or prepackaged solutions, is certainly a common consequence of being philosophically educated. But “critical thinking” is not what philosophy teaches. Courses in “critical thinking” are an abomination born of what Josef Pieper calls the “world of total work”, i.e., that attitude towards our daily occupations that everything we do or learn or practice is subordinated to productivity and efficiency; the attitude that everything we encounter in the world is a problem to be solved, so as to move on to the next thing; the attitude that mystery is an obstacle we’d rather not face.
When I asked my students what they thought a philosopher does, the answers centered around “studying”, “pondering”, “contemplating”, “philosophizing”, and, naturally, “sitting in a comfortable chair reading and thinking all day” (obviously none of my students have ever sat in the chair provided in my office). All of these answers are at least true, but none of them get to the heart of the matter—aside from “philosophizing”, all of those things could be said about literary theorist, theologians, historians, theoretical physicists, biologists, and people in pretty much any academic discipline. What is it that belongs singularly to philosophers? [This is the part where I get to the point, for those of you who are too lazy to read the whole thing.]
The philosopher considers that which is encountered in human experience, and what can be inferred from that experience, according to the first and the highest principles of natural human reason. Thus, the philosopher is not confined to the consideration of this or that particular subject matter; his subject of study is “everything”. He may have an expertise within the realm of “everything”—ethics, for instance, which is right reason concerning human action; or philosophical physics (more commonly called “natural philosophy”), which considers the natures of and relations between beings which exist in the corporeal realm and therefore act and interact through motion—but the exercise of his office begins and ends with “being”. Here we appear to toe the line of abstract language; but it seems this way only because “being” is an object that is mysterious. The philosopher does not avoid the mystery. Indeed, his task is to make the mystery intelligible, a task which never ends, which is not a problem that is “solved”, but which is nevertheless not a futile endeavor. The task is endless not because it produces no result, but because the object considered, “being”, is infinite, and can therefore be unfolded for us infinitely.
So what do I do? To put it in somewhat more concrete terms: as a professor, I philosophize with my students, meaning that we ask what things are, why they are, why they are what they are, how they ought to be, why they ought to be how they ought to be. I might ask a student a question seemingly as simple as, “What do we mean by the word ‘one’ when we say that ‘this is one thing’?”—and you might be surprised how long and complicated that discussion can become. I can ask, “Do we mean the same thing when we say that something is ‘good’ for a human being and something is ‘good’ for a dog?” and see that students, while they take it for granted that something is good for them and not for a dog, have never actually stopped to think about what the term “good” really means. We get into these questions by reading texts—some as old as the mid 4th century B.C., some published just a couple years ago—written by very smart men and women who have also engaged in questioning the mystery of being; and in so doing, we see that the answers to these questions aren’t really answers if they are treated as facts to be memorized. I, along with my students, enter into the mystery again, anew, and discover something new.
As a philosopher outside of my role as a professor, I try to push deeper into the mystery, both as discussed by other philosophers and from my own experience of the world; both as it appeared to them and as it appears to me. Mostly, this means thinking; a tiny portion of it involves writing down those things that I have thought; an even tinier portion results in sharing those things written with others. My own speciality is nuanced, pedantic, and is probably boring as hell to most people (“metaphysics” and “philosophy of knowledge” might sound really exciting, but if I start talking about things like “the principle of sufficient reason” as it applies to an understanding of the via resolutionis, the difference between Umwelt and the In-der-Welt-Sein specific to humanity, or the difference between species impressae intellectus as a “mere” quo and species expressae intellectus as an in quo… you’re bored already, aren’t you? Plus, what jerk uses all these foreign languages? This jerk, apparently).
At any rate, there you have it. That’s what I do. Oh, and I write things like this, instead of working on my dissertation.