STOP! You Are Not a Philosopher! (An editorial)


You, in academia, and you, studying in academia! Just stop. We need you to stop now. We’re closing the bar, we’re shutting things down, we’re turning the dial, we’re changing the channel, and for the love of all we hold sacred, you need to stop talking!

You are not a philosopher. You read philosophy. Very good. Everyone should read the works of thought that have formed culture. Everyone should be aware of logic and reason. Everyone should ask these important questions. But, you are not a philosopher. You aren’t asking the questions. You’re reiterating them. You teach or study philosophy. You’re like a literature professor for nonfiction intellectual works. The literature professor over there, the one who memorizes Shakespeare, he’s not a playwright, either. And that English student! She’s not Jane Austen. She just reads Jane Austen.

You’re not a philosopher just because you read philosophy. The same is true of the art majors who just read art history. You’re not Picasso, but you SAW a Picasso once. The film theory student has watched a lot of movies, but until she directs one she’s just a theorist or a critic. But, and it’s one big but that doesn’t lie, art historians are historians, film critics are film critics. These are legitimate jobs and disciplines. What are you? You’re a teacher or someone studying to be a teacher. You’re not Socrates. You’re the guy who reads Socrates.

So, with that in mind, you may start to understand why you’re so insufferable when you go around calling yourselves philosophers whilst only restating things that Aquinas or Nietzsche said. But… worse. You restate it and make it worse. But, that’s just to be expected. I mean, the guy who teaches Shakespeare isn’t supposed to sound better than Shakespeare. It’s not like he’s going around saying, “My job is the hardest in the world!”

The trouble is… that’s what a lot of you do.

Philosophy students and teachers like to say that their jobs are the hardest in the entire world, so very, very hard, just about as hard as this brick, or maybe a spork –if the spork were titanium! Yes, it’s as hard as a titanium spork, but made of knowledge! Wootles! You have the knowledge, and this is why it’s okay if you’re rude to everyone else! Your mind is just THAT HUGE!

That. That right there. That’s why you’re ass.

Do you see that girl in the corner? The quantum mechanics major? Or, how about that guy? Yeah, he’s a rocket scientist. The neurosurgeon, or, hell, all the surgeons? The biochemist and the microbiologist and the nuclear physicist and the mathematician…? Do you see all these people? Do you have any idea what they do? They’re using math to discover the very fabric of reality, they’re measuring new star systems light years from us, they can do complex procedures INSIDE the human body, they can create formulas, put different genes inside microscopic viruses, hypothesize on grand scales and test these questions with material evidence or complex calculations… Are you telling me they can’t understand philosophy? Are you telling me the guy who just mapped the genome can’t read a damn book? You’re saying that a person who can understand a wall-sized equation can’t understand logic? What do you think math is? You’re saying people who come up with proofs about life, the universe, and everything can’t understand Hegel? You’re saying that the ability to read a complicated subject is too hard for the guy who can tinker around in your brain? What, that mathy sort of person over there isn’t smart enough to handle you? She’s working on a space program for future Mars missions. I think a space pioneer can MAYBE understand the concept of reading a book.

Come on!

The fact is, philosophy is at a crisis point at this time, and self-proclaimed, elitist philosophers are not helping the problem. Science is giving us answers, and they’re fantastic, beautiful answers. They’re answers like Yes, we think we can make it to Mars. Yes, we can map the human genome. Yes, we can find new star systems and measure black holes. Yes, we do understand how your mind works. Yes, we can heal this sickness or injury. Philosophy these days has just been Cartesian-ostrich and asked a lot of naval-gazing questions. Philosophers are still puttering about saying, “Does this exist?” Meanwhile, we’re working on launching privatized space exploration. The existence of the rocket on a philosophical scale will not come into place when we measure how COOL that is.

So, what, do I hate philosophy? Do I think that science has replaced philosophy? Do I say with Stephen Hawking that philosophy is dead?

No. Actually, I love philosophy. But, I also love great literature, which I think is extremely important in the same way philosophy is important. Literature, art, philosophy, these tell us why we should do things, they deal with non-science subjects, like love and justice. They govern how we think about politics, law, morality, ethics, beauty, goodness, happiness, purpose, religion, faith, doubt, and so on. However, I do not think that studying philosophy, art, and literature is all that difficult. You need literacy skills, a vocabulary, and some guidance into the context and background of the study, as well as the tools of discipline. That’s it. It’s not some ivory tower elite and sacred thing that only a high priest may touch. It’s something anyone can do!

And THAT, not it’s supposed difficulty, is what makes philosophy (and art and literature!) so important.

Philosophy is a populist study. It’s something that deals with issues we all deal with. We won’t all go to space. We won’t all need to know a complicated formula. I doubt most of us even know anything about cell division or calculus. How many times have I needed that in my daily life? About never. But, we all have philosophical questions. We all deal with social issues, the human condition, questions about life and it’s purpose, doubts and beliefs, justice, and politics.

The trouble with philosophy, and why people tend to ignore it when looking for answers, is that despite the fact that most of the self-proclaimed philosophers are not philosophers of any kind (unless you’re, say, Slavoj Žižek), they don’t try to make philosophy relevant to other people. They themselves are non-philosophers who study philosophy, but they can’t imagine that other non-philosophers might find their studies important or interesting. They don’t even try to get people involved in the discussion. It’s as if the excuse that their work is “hard” is just masking a hidden doubt that it might actually be really boring.

Science doesn’t do this. Sure, basically no non-scientist will truly understand everything they’re talking about, but even the best of our scientists have shown a great interest in writing for lay readers. Popularizing scientific discovery so that non-scientists can understand makes up for a big chunk of published scientific books these days. Scientists even write for children. Furthermore, their discoveries are things that we can see and that matter to us. Philosophy? Most people have no idea of what we can use philosophy. The fact that the departments are filled with hair-splitting sophists, who spend a lot of energy debating not-very-important things, doesn’t help. Also, using “qua” doesn’t make you a better philosopher. It just makes you sound like you’re hiding a great well of ignorance under a few piles of vocab lessons. It just means “as”, and unless you need to very specifically make sure that people know you mean a philosophical “as”, then you may not not want use it.

Look, we humanities people aren’t building spaceships, and we won’t fix anyone’s brain, and we never mapped the human genome. But, we did choose humanities for a reason, and that is because we think it’s important and beautiful. So, let’s stop hiding away in academics and pretending to be just too advanced for the lowly people, and start talking about our disciplines as if they matter. Stop using jargon to bully. Stop being rude and pretending it’s a offshoot of your enormous brain. Stop trying to subjugate science under some old-time philosophy that was around before we had electric lights. The good part of the philosophy will remain, even if we drop the dated bits. Smugly denying the light spectrum, how the eye works, gravity, evolution, and basic human biology doesn’t make you look intelligent. It makes you look stupid. And, for pity’s sake, stop making it about being a stiff-upper-lip boy’s club for predominantly white guys to rub their own egos. If anything makes your department look irrelevant, it’s that.

Because, at the end of the day, the scientists are taking us to the stars, the ocean floor, under the earth, the wilds, into the human body, to the mountains, and into a future of new technology, health, and exploration –and it’s for all of us, no matter the race, gender, or background.

The question now is, where do YOU want to go?

Over and out,
Outlit C