How do you become a philosopher?



It’s customary for people in my profession to answer this question in the following way: you become a philosopher by earning usually three degrees in philosophy from the best universities you can get into and for which you can afford the tuition; when you complete your Ph.D., you’re a philosopher and you have a license to “do” philosophy. This answer is a mistake. There are many people with doctorates in philosophy whom I would hesitate to call philosophers, and there are also philosophers who don’t have doctorates. I’m going to answer this question in a relatively institution-neutral way. When I look back on my own experience and compare it to what I often read in the biographies of other philosophers, the institutional answer rings hollow. Something else is involved.

What that something else is has to do with a philosopher’s education, most of which probably takes place outside of the university. What is that education and who or what are a philosopher’s educators? In my own case it has always seemed to me that my true educators were not teachers or professors but writers of various kinds, and not only philosophers. Before I knew what philosophy was it was songwriters I was learning from. Writers have influences, usually from a young age. In my school years reading books was a joyless school activity. Music was my passion, and I was listening to whatever albums my brothers and sisters brought home and whatever was playing on FM radio. The musicians I was listening to in those years were free spirits—blazing trails, following and defying conventions as they pleased, taking chances. They seemed fearless. It was in the lyrics too. They were talking about things that mattered—how to live, how to think and to feel about things, what things meant and how to find your way in the world. Supertramp was writing “If you know what the meaning is.” I was wondering that too, or I was now. Mr. Dylan was writing “Gotta serve somebody,” and it got me thinking about that too. I’m still asking, who or what am I serving? I could list a thousand examples like this. This bunch of eccentrics knew something I didn’t, something about themselves and about life, and I needed to find it out. Like so many in those days, I’d memorize lyric sheets and stare at album covers for unseemly lengths of time. Some of those records I must have listened to hundreds of times. They were lighting a fire in me, teaching me what I needed to learn, and more by asking questions than answering them.

My first encounter with philosophy happened in tenth grade. I hadn’t known what the word meant, and my teachers weren’t talking about it. My high school library had no books on it, but my home town had one bookstore with a small section on philosophy, another on psychology, and a bigger one on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature. You could special order books too, so if they had one book by an author I liked I could order their other books too. At 16 a world was being opened up to me. My habit of buying every record by any recording artist I liked now carried over to authors. Through the high school years I was reading Sigmund Freud, Karen Horney, Carl Jung, Karl Menninger, Victor Hugo, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, W. Somerset Maugham, D. H. Lawrence, Iris Murdoch, Ayn Rand, Bertrand Russell. I revered these writers. They weren’t talking about the stuff I was supposed to be learning in school and often wasn’t. They were talking about life. Big questions I hadn’t thought about before and didn’t have an opinion about, but I needed to get one. They were talking about what was happening in the world beneath the surface and showing me a bigger picture. Whether I agreed with them or not seemed to matter less than what they were attempting. Big themes, bold questions, thinking on a large scale.

From the day I first heard the word “philosopher”—I was 16 and I remember it like it was yesterday—that’s what I was, or had to become, and with some urgency. To become it, one needs a certain reverence for the written word, and if my high school teachers were not instilling it my extracurricular reading was: Les MisérablesThe Hunchback of Notre Dame, Crime and PunishmentThe Brothers KaramazovAnna KareninaWar and PeaceDead Souls. These books and many others changed my life. Years later I’d venture a few things of my own, having seen it done so many times before by so many writers, each so distinctive yet somehow contributing to a single conversation. A philosopher—anyone who does creative work—becomes what they are by finding their voice in a conversation and trying in some way or other to take it further. This has always seemed to me a very natural thing to do. A philosopher is a writer (maybe a professor too, but maybe not) who tries to take some things on their shoulders, who knows their tradition without getting trapped in it, always taking it forward, making a new beginning, and taking risks. Heidegger said a philosopher is only ever a beginner, and he was right.

A philosopher stands in a tradition and on the shoulders of one’s teachers, as scientists and artists also do. Folk singer Pete Seeger put it this way: “The moment I became acquainted with old songs I realized people were always changing them. Think of it as an age-old process, it’s been going on for thousands of years. People take old songs and change them a little, add to them, adopt them for new people. It happens in every other field. Lawyers change old laws to fit new citizens. So I’m one in this long chain and so are millions of other musicians.” It’s no different for philosophers. If what we think and write works at all, it’s because we’re extending a chain, appropriating and varying a conversation that has been going on for millennia. A writer writes nothing in a vacuum. They breathe a particular air, and there’s always some deep but intangible connection between what they take in and what they breathe out. The metaphors are apt. Links in a chain is what we are.

One writes from experience, tries to make sense of it, think one’s way through it, including the stuff that doesn’t seem to make any sense at all. The questions that become vital questions, one’s own questions, don’t come out of thin air but emerge from our experience. How or why one goes from having experiences or ideas to writing about them in a certain form is difficult to say. Mr. Dylan says he almost didn’t have a choice, and I imagine any writer who knows what they’re doing would say the same. There is necessity here. One follows one’s instincts and done what one must. One needs influences, imagination, a big palette, and a certain amount of drive. The passionless and the cowardly do not put pen to paper, or not for long. To be a writer of philosophy or of anything one must unlearn both laziness and fear.

There’s no formula for how one becomes a philosopher. It’s more like a long and circuitous road and every philosopher must find their own. A university department of philosophy, no matter how reputable it is, won’t do it for you. At most they can offer a kind of menu from which you can choose to study this or that thinker or field of study, and provide some information and coaching along the way, but the real work you do for yourself.


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