Philosophical Professionalism

Robin Hanson recently suggested that we need more generalist thinkers, and that they can be found among the ranks of polymaths, public intellectuals, and professional philosophers. Although I might post again on the topic of generalists vs. specialists, today I’d like to focus instead on the concept of philosophical professionalism.

In most fields, a professional is one who gets paid to perform a task or offer a service; thus we speak of professional musicians or athletes as opposed to amateurs. We also say that certain lines of work are professions because they are preceded by long years of training or require certification or licensure: doctoring, nursing, lawyering, and the like. By extension, persons and activities are said to be professional if they meet certain standards of skill or expertise. Thus by “professional philosopher” Hanson likely means someone who has completed a PhD in philosophy, who teaches philosophy in a college or university, who publishes in academic philosophy journals, and so on (I doubt that he includes philosophical counselors).

How well do these notions of professionalism apply to philosophy in its deepest sense as the love and practice of wisdom? Here things get murky. For instance, Socrates, the archetypical philosopher in the Western tradition, wasn’t a professional because he didn’t seek or accept payment (as the Sophists did), nor did he receive training from recognized experts (which at that time I suppose would have been the selfsame Sophists). Furthermore, it’s unclear how or whether today’s standard academic training in philosophy – consisting as it does in the study of theoretical arguments, suitably analyzed and footnoted – leads to wisdom.

Indeed, what would it mean to practice wisdom professionally? Practicing wisdom itself seems quite different from practicing, say, law or medicine: there’s no recognized body of knowledge and skills in which one can be trained and tested, there’s no specific venue (such as a law court or hospital) in which one applies one’s knowledge and skills, etc. An analogy with psychology might be more appropriate than that of academic philosophy, since there are theoretical psychologists, experimental psychologists, applied psychologists (e.g., in the workplace), and clinical psychologists (the closest thing to philosophical practitioners), etc.

And we won’t even ask the provocative question of what it means to be a professional lover, of wisdom or anything else!

In the first chapter of Walden, Henry David Thoreau observed:

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

You don’t need a PhD or a university position or a long list of academic publications to “solve some of the problems of life” and to “live according to the dictates of wisdom”. Although professor Martha Nussbaum once said that a philosopher is a professional human being, I would hope that being human is not the kind of thing that can or should be professionalized: it’s the birthright of every person on the planet to exercise their highest potential by loving and practicing wisdom in their own life to the greatest extent possible.

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