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How To Be A Philosopher

Ian Ravenscroft philosophizes about philosophizing.

1. What to Wear

Philosophers rarely get worked up about clothing. Clothes can be a source of aesthetic pleasure, and few philosophers are adamantly opposed to pleasure. (They may object to pleasures too dearly bought, and they might object to the elevation of pleasure above other values such as justice, but they rarely find fault with pleasure properly bought and valued.) However, there are clothing choices which are at odds with the philosophical spirit. Philosophy is essentially an anti-authoritarian business, or at least, philosophy acknowledges only the authorities of reason, argument and evidence. The dubious authorities of crowd, religion, and state, with their tendencies to demand blind obedience, are at odds with the philosophical endeavour. It is striking how many philosophers, from Socrates to Abelard to Russell, had trouble with – and troubled – the worldly authorities.

One of the intriguing things about authorities and authoritarian regimes is their fascination with uniforms and playing dress-up. From the fascist’s brown shirt to the bishop’s purple cassock, authorities have a fetishistic attraction to the tailor and milliner. Some uniforms, for example the footballer’s jersey, serve the practical function of making it easier to adopt certain roles. These cases aside, if you find yourself tempted to don a uniform, or worse, impose one on others, you might like to reconsider your philosophical credentials.

2. What to Eat

Philosophers eat all sorts of things, just like everyone else. But there is a strong tendency towards vegetarianism, at least in contemporary English-speaking philosophy. This is largely through the influence of Peter Singer. Singer has convinced many philosophers that consuming meat is morally wrong, by and large. He doesn’t deny that eating meat is a source of both protein and pleasure, but he insists that the benefits we obtain from eating meat are entirely outweighed by the cost to the animals. Our benefits are paid for in their pain, and that’s unacceptable.

3. What to Drink

Anything you like. But to be frank, there’s an overwhelming preference amongst philosophers for red wine and coffee. There’s a famous Latin phrase ‘in vino veritas’, attributed to the Roman writer Pliny the Elder. It means ‘in wine is truth’. He meant that someone deep in their cups is likely to reveal their true nature. The Australian philosopher John Bigelow once quipped ‘in caffeina veritas’ – in caffeine is truth. Certainly, I find that good coffee gets my cognitive juices flowing.

4. What to Read

To be a good philosopher you need to read a lot of good philosophy. Anders Eriksson, an expert on becoming an expert, has estimated that you need around 10,000 hours of practice to become a genuine expert in most fields. In philosophy, practicing includes (but isn’t exhausted by) interacting with great philosophical minds. And the best way to do that – for many philosophers the only way – is by reading their books.

Sometimes what you need to know is buried in an especially dull book, in which case you just have to grit your teeth and plough through. Much of the time, though, it’s more useful to be a bit of a magpie. Read the things that capture your attention. If a philosophy book turns out to be dull or irrelevant, or just not very good, put it down and find something better to read.

Over the last twenty years a large number of philosophical dictionaries, handbooks and companions/study guides have sprang up. These can be both incredibly useful and very entertaining. Three of my favourites are the Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Mind edited by Samuel Guttenplan; the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy by Simon Blackburn; and the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward Zalta. Indulge yourself.

5. What to Think About

When I was an undergraduate I was told that philosophy was concerned with Truth, Beauty and the Good. This now strikes me as absurdly unhelpful. It’s too constricting. There are very few intellectual endeavours into which the philosopher cannot productively stick her nose. All the natural and social sciences provide fertile ground for philosophy; as do the arts, literature, politics, history and current affairs. Here is a somewhat eclectic list drawn from my own somewhat eclectic recent reading: Kim Sterelny interacts fruitfully with evolutionary biology and cognitive science in his Thought in a Hostile World; Susan Hurley says some important things about the origins of violent behaviour in her paper ‘Imitation, Media Violence, and Freedom of Speech’; Martha Nussbaum draws attention to the normative function of literature in her Poetic Justice; and Jonathan Glover has written Humanity, a remarkable moral history of the twentieth century.

There are philosophers who refuse to engage with scientific research which bears on their field of interest. The outcome of such singularity of focus (or blinkered thinking) is sometimes comic, and occasionally tragic, but it’s rarely profound. There are also philosophers so overwhelmed by the power of science that they deride their own discipline. This can lead to comedy or tragedy too. It rarely leads to anything more valuable than the science which it apes.

I am often surprised what a really good philosopher can do with a topic which has not previously been seen as a suitable object of philosophical reflection. Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit is a beautiful example. One way to think of this essay is as a penetrating discussion of a topic not found in Plato, Mill or Nietzsche. But in another way, On Bullshit shows that someone of Frankfurt’s calibre can distil a philosophical tradition into a few thousand words – after all, the history of philosophy is a history of opposition to bullshit. Socrates, for example, had a keen nose for bullshit, and little patience with bullshitters: that is to say, he relentlessly exposed fools who presented themselves as knowledgeable authorities (that word again). According to one story, Socrates accepted the Delphic Oracle’s pronouncement that he was the wisest of men only after he realized that his wisdom consisted in appreciating the depth of his ignorance.

6. How to Think About It

In philosophy you can hold any position you like – so long as you can back it up with a good argument. In On The Plurality of Worlds (1986), David Lewis brilliantly defended the apparently outrageous view that this world is only one of an infinitude of worlds. And Paul Churchland ably supported the view that, contrary to common sense, no one believes or desires anything because there are no such things as beliefs and desires (see Journal of Philosophy 78).

In contrast to the common image, philosophers don’t sit around shooting the breeze. It’s hard work finding a good argument. It takes practise to become skilled at judging the degree of support the premises and steps of an argument provide for the conclusion. Familiarizing yourself with the arguments of the great philosophers of the past is an excellent way to get the requisite practise.

7. Talk About It

The wonderful British musician Tjinder Singh from the group Cornershop advises us to drink to our friends and to our foes because “they both keep the young heart moving.” Talking philosophy with your friends and enemies is a great way to stay young. Plato spent his whole life doing it. (Apparently he also liked to wrestle.)

Arguments – rational derivations of conclusions from premises – are central to philosophy. But arguments in another sense – vigorous interchanges of ideas, either verbally or in writing – are also very common in philosophy. Vigorous exchange is central to gaining the truth; and those who are shy of the truth tend to shy away from argument. It’s intriguing how often Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and other advocates of the New Atheism are accused of being aggressive. It would be more accurate to say that they’re not afraid of the rough-and-tumble of intellectual life. Those who accuse them of aggression are, I suspect, anxious to avoid strenuous public examination of their beliefs.

So be prepared for a bit of hard talking. It won’t kill you, and it may advance your understanding.

8. Lighten Up

Enjoy yourself. The great American philosopher Jerry Fodor [see reviews], who likes to joke around in print, was once accused of not taking philosophy seriously. He replied that he took philosophy seriously, he just didn’t take himself seriously. Exactly.

9. Living and Dying

Philosophy would be of little interest if it did not help us live without betraying our values and die without fear. One way it does this is by example. Diogenes, Socrates and Voltaire, for examples, spectacularly refused to compromise their values. Alexander the Great, drunkard, murderer and warmonger, is said to have asked Diogenes the Cynic if there was any favour he could do him. Diogenes, who was sunbathing at the time, replied “Please get out of my sun.”

Many philosophers have died without fear. The ancient paradigm is Socrates calmly drinking the hemlock after an evening of philosophical conversation. Amongst the moderns, David Hume’s equanimity in the face of death frustrated and shamed his ecclesiastical detractors.

Every day I struggle against compromise, and I do not always pass the test. (I have yet to face death in any serious way.) Both by practice and by example, philosophy puts a degree of stiffness in my backbone it would not otherwise possess. Give it a try.

© Ian Ravenscroft 2010

Ian Ravenscroft is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Flinders University, South Australia. His publications include Recreative Minds (OUP, 2002) with Gregory Currie, and Philosophy of Mind: A Beginner’s Guide (OUP, 2005). He is also editor of Minds, Ethics, and Conditionals (OUP, 2009), a collections of papers on the eminent Australian philosopher Frank Jackson.

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