This article was last modified on December 11, 2003.

Who or What is a Philosopher?

A philosopher by his very etymology (with the Greek root “philo sophos”) is a “lover of wisdom.” But what does this mean? Does it mean anything? I wish to propose a new definition of what philosophy is and who philosophers are, while first discarding a popular past definition.

Many people think that the philosopher is someone who searches for truth and for beauty. While much can be learned about these topics from philosophers, this is not their primary action. Allow me to present a crude analogy: the philosopher as cow. The cow’s primary concern is to chew his cud, while periodically dropping bits of excrement around the pasture. People, always looking to make a quick buck, scoop up this excrement and recycle it as fertilizer or as a pollution-free alternative to charcoal. In the case of philosophers, their excrement is the collection of their thoughts on truth and beauty (among other things). But if these things are excrement, what is the cud?

The cud they chew are the very definitions of words – language itself. A philosopher is someone who verifies or denies the truth of a set definition within a set language. Notice how this varies from the search for truth in that this definition of philosopher focuses more on the method rather than the goal. The philosopher strives towards one universal understanding of what a given concept is. It could be as profound as “justice” or as simple as “dog” – the qualifier is in the action, i.e. the search for what “dogness” is. One might ask how this differs from the writers of a dictionary. In fact ,these two concepts are very similar – although the philosopher does the defining on a higher level with the use of critical and abstract thinking, working within the previously defined system, but willing to start from scratch if the search should lead there.

In a sense, two of the greatest branches of philosophy are history and politics. While historians and politicians themselves are not philosophers, there are certain individuals within these groups who are. These people are the ones who change our ideas about a concept. For example, historians re-write history all the time by changing a word here or there and giving things a new perspective. American historians tone down the “rebellious” and “anarchic” nature of the Founding Fathers in favor of men seeking “freedom” and “liberty.” But the difference was in the winning and losing – had Washington lost the Revolutionary War, he’d just be another footnote in a history book full of anti-government radicals.

Politicians do a similar sort of wordplay. The concept of “terror”, “terrorism”, and “terrorist” has been redefined by the politicians to mean (more or less) “Arab suicide bombers”, when all the terms really mean is coercion through fear. As many liberal political thinkers have pointed out, we (America) are just as guilty of terrorism as any Middle Eastern country. But apparently terrorism is always the other guy’s game. The point here is that once the philosophers (and their politician lackeys) debate this one out, we will come to better understand what terrorism is.

In such works as Beyond Good and Evil, the author takes the very concepts of “good”, “bad”, “evil”, and “truth” to task. Redefining what we think of as an ongoing debate of “good and evil” (which both Bushes would gladly assent to), and making it a less ominous “good versus bad” dichotomy, he changes (or at least attempts to) the very framework of morality. He is a philosopher is the very best sense – forcing us to reconsider our strongest values. Even the opening line – “truth is a woman” – is such an interesting concept to wrap our minds around. Does this mean that the truth is fickle? He goes on to explain himself, but as always keeps the discussion very open-ended.

But perhaps the greatest philosopher ever was mathematician Lewis Carroll, speaking through the voice of Humpty Dumpty in the classic work of literature, Through the Looking-Glass. Humpty Dumpty makes English his prominently abused language, redefining words at his very whim. He takes “glory” to mean “a nice knock-down argument”, and even entends “impenetrability” into “we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.” (He assures us that he pays words extra when he does this.)

Humpty Dumpty comes to the same conclusion that I have come to with regards to philosophers – that they must be masters of words. “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” If we are not to be the master of words, the words shall become the master of us. A good philosophy redefines language within the previously set structure, but great philosophy finds a a way to step outside the system (as Dumpty has) and expand our very ideas about basic concepts. No abstract concept exists before it is given a name, essentially.

In the sense that naming and redefining terms is philosophy, we could say that Adam was the first philosopher – well before the time of Plato. But I do not wish to dwell on this in the hopes of avoiding any theological difficulties that might arise.

So, who is a philosopher? One who quests for the truth? While this definition might work for some adjunct philosophy professors, it does not sit well with me. A philosopher must be the master of his world, and only through language can this mastery be achieved. The focus might be placed less on finding the truth and more on making the truth. Ultimately, if truth is dependent on language, then truth is even more dependent on those who make the language – the philosophers.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

One Response to “Who or What is a Philosopher?”

  1. The Framing Business » Selling Nietzsche Short Says:

    […] So, now Nietzsche was being ignored by his own people (philosophers), further putting him in the category of people you quote for impressing 12-year old girls (as some great man once said, whose name I forget). I once took a class (”19th Century Philosophy”) where Nietzsche was covered and we were asked not so much about his theories, but simply “Is Nietzsche a Philosopher?” as if putting him in the class was a controversial move in the first place. Even liberal journalist Daniel Lazare weighed in recently with a derogatory dismissal, summing the man up as “Nietzsche, the favorite philosopher of overwrought 16-year-olds.” […]

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