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Why Study Philosophers?

Updated Thursday, 27th July 2017
Derek Matravers considers what makes someone a philosopher and what makes a philosopher representative.

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Graffiti depicting Hannah Ardent Portrait of the German-Jewish historian and political philosopher Hannah Arendt in the courtyard of her birthplace, in Linden-Mitte

The OU's series Journeys In Thought explored philosophy through six programmes about six philosophers: Arendt, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Marx, and Rousseau. But how representative of philosophy are these six? This is a more controversial question than it sounds. According to some philosophers they are representative, according to others they are hardly representative at all.

Let’s clear one issue out of the way immediately. All of these people had general thoughts at a reflective level and, to that extent, they were philosophers.

One might think that if that is all it takes to be a philosopher then we are all philosophers. This seems to me an altogether happy conclusion: we all do philosophy at least some of the time. To put things another way, philosophy is an activity, rather than a body of knowledge. What kind of activity? Thinking. What kind of thinking? Here there does not seem to be any hard-and-fast answer. I said above ‘abstract thinking at a general level’, but that could cover any number of things.

Of course, some people’s thoughts are 'better' than others in that they are more interesting, or more original, or more defensible, closer to the truth or whatever. In as much as all of our six figures had interesting, original, defensible, true abstract thoughts at a general level, so all of our six figures were good philosophers.

The question posed, though, was not whether they were philosophers, or even if they were good philosophers (we have answered ‘yes’ to both), but whether they were representative of philosophy. That is, representative of the academic subject as it is studied in the universities. This is controversial because there is no widespread agreement on which philosophers it is best to study. In Britain and America (and a number of other places) many philosophers see themselves as working within what they call ‘the analytic tradition’. This is, unsurprisingly, a tradition that has used the techniques of analysis. Quite what counts as analysis is controversial, but one central method that has been used is the breaking down of complex concepts into simpler components.

To take a typical philosophical example, one might start to wonder what ‘knowledge’ is. That is, what would the world have to be like for it to be true that I know that Tony Blair is Prime Minister? After a great deal of cogitation, philosophers returned the answer that three different things would have to be the case. First, it would have to be true that Tony Blair is Prime Minister. Second, I would have to believe Tony Blair to be Prime Minster. Third, the connection between the first and the second is not coincidence (roughly, I believe it because it is true). Only if all three of these hold can I be said to know that Tony Blair is Prime Minister. Knowledge, then, has been analysed into three simpler concepts: truth, belief and (roughly) justification. This helps in as much as it throws light on the concept of knowledge: if we were puzzled by what knowledge might be, the thought is that doing this kind of analysis helps.

Self-conscious, analytic philosophers like their philosophy to conform to this: a detailed, clear, rigorous approach, based in logic and generally sympathetic to the sciences. From this perspective certain individuals in the history of philosophy are going to receive favour over others. Hume's clear prose style, scientific outlook and rigorous logic will be preferred to Rousseau, with his appeals to the emotions and grand rhetorical flourishes. From this perspective the six philosophers on our Journeys are not representative of the subject (although Wittgenstein, as always, is a special case).

Having said all that, philosophy has been undergoing a transformation in recent years. The technique of analysis, although a powerful philosophical tool, is now only one of many that philosophers, even analytical philosophers, use. There is growing attention to the empirical sciences, and also what we can broadly call ‘the facts of experience’. With this wider approach comes an interest in the work of past philosophers who have, perhaps, not been given their due. This series of programmes exemplifies this in, at least, two ways. First, in the range of philosophers Jonathan considers; and second, in the breadth of the approach he takes. He not only explores whether the philosophy stands up in itself (that is, whether or not it is true) but the way it was influenced by the intellectual and physical surroundings in which it was produced. There is no doubt that our six thinkers touch upon profound issues in human life, from the nature of evil with Arendt and Kierkegaard on personality, to the very basics of language and life with Wittgenstein.

All of our six philosophers had problematic relations with academic philosophy. The conclusions Arendt drew from her observations of the Eichmann trial lead to her being treated with suspicion and hostility by her colleagues. Wittgenstein resigned his academic post, and would recommend his students to take jobs in factories rather than work in philosophy. Both Rousseau and Marx were suspicious of, even hostile to, the professional philosophers of their day. Kierkegaard never held an academic post, and, especially in his final years, was given to denunciation. Nietzsche is perhaps the paradigm of the philosophical outsider. His image is perhaps too influenced by the insanity that marred the end of his life, but his works contain vociferous attacks on almost everything academic philosophy considered sacred. In their lives (and, of course, their journeys in thought) they remind us that philosophy is not, and never was, the preserve of professional philosophers. As a subject it is very exacting – intellectual sloppiness will not do – but the springs of interest that feed its concerns are those that should nurture any reflective life.

Does this mean, then, that university departments are not needed for the health of philosophy? I would argue that they are needed for at least two reasons. First, eliminating sloppiness from thought requires training and practice. It is a hard-won skill, and like most hard-won skills, it does, in general, need to be taught. Second, unless (like Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard) you have the means to give yourself time to spend in the exacting business of refining your thoughts, the universities provide a space in which one can debate the kinds of concerns that interested our six philosophers. It might be that you would not end up studying exactly our six (at The Open University you would read Wittgenstein, Marx and Rousseau, but not Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Arendt). However, the concerns are recognisably the same, and the motive to reflect on what we find important has not changed much.


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