Emmaculatha asked:

How would you distinguish between a person who is being philosophical in the popular sense of the word and the one who might justifiably qualify for the title philosopher?

Answer by Shaun Williamson

Very easy really. Anybody can be philosophical but the philosopher is the one who has studied philosophy and read all the books. If you can’t be bothered to read the books you are not a philosopher. Reading all the books will not make you a great philosopher, it may not even make you a good philosopher but at least you are justified in calling yourself a philosopher.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

What is it to ‘qualify for a title’? Consider the circumstances in which this question arises. You want to know if someone qualifies for the title of ‘medical doctor’. You are putting your life in someone’s hands, and most countries have laws which state the appropriate criteria for calling oneself a ‘doctor’ and practising medicine.

Or consider what is required to be a ‘teacher’. In the UK, state schools will only employ people who have a teaching qualification, i.e. someone who has taken a teaching degree or postgraduate certificate. Non-state schools, like the great public schools of Harrow or Eton, don’t always have this requirement. They set other criteria, but don’t consider a teaching qualification to be necessary. For example, to teach French, or History, you have to have a degree in that subject. If you really know your subject, then the assumption is you can teach it.

By contrast with these two cases, there are no criteria for qualifying for the title ‘philosopher’. It implies that the holder is worthy in some way, but how? It is important to be doctored by a ‘real doctor’ or taught by a ‘real teacher’. No country has a law stating who can or cannot be called a ‘philosopher’.

It’s a label, originally self-applied, devised at a time – in Ancient Greece – when thinking about general questions such as the nature of the universe was considered suspect or even dangerous. If you were against ‘philosophers’, the lovers of wisdom, then you were ‘against wisdom’, i.e. ignorant or stupid.

Is everyone who is philosophical a philosopher? It is good to be philosophical, to ponder the great questions or think about things more deeply. A philosopher is something that one aspires to be, which implies that considerable effort is involved. To be a philosopher is a vocation. If you are prepared to dedicate a significant portion of your life to the study of philosophy, even if you don’t earn a living as a teacher of philosophy, then you have every right to call yourself a philosopher.