If a person has access to all the readings but lack (peer/mentor)-interaction under formal setting (e.g: university, cutting-edge seminar...), is this auto-didactic study likely to fail (e.g: lead to an incomplete, warped understanding) ? Do autodidacts stand a chance at grasping philosophy?

Reddit has a question roughly along these lines, but I find the answers there unsatisfactory. Answers here usually have more quality.

  • 1
    I'm not sure if you're going to get much more than opinion-based answers here, but I'll leave it up to others to make that call...
    – virmaior
    May 17, 2015 at 13:48
  • I wouldn't quite go so far as "doomed to fail" but I would say it's highly unlikely that a person could understand philosophy well working by them self in a room. The material is difficult to grasp and without someone challenging your understanding at crucial points, it's easy to skip over those points. / Part of the key would be learning to change how you read and think about what you're reading.
    – virmaior
    May 17, 2015 at 13:50
  • Separately, I'm sorry to hear "the answers were dissatisfied." I'm assuming that was a typo, but it creates a really interesting image in my head.
    – virmaior
    May 17, 2015 at 13:51
  • I'm still waiting for some happy ones. Btw, what about the advent of MOOC, or some sort of online course?
    – onion
    May 17, 2015 at 15:31
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    Why do you have the word «truly» in quotation marks in the title. Is it, that it's «truly» but not really «truly»? Then what is the word meant to mean, and why not write that meaning instead, i.e. just directly the meaning, clarity, not obscuration elements like those quotes? May 18, 2015 at 13:37

3 Answers 3


As a person who has pursued philosophy both within and outside academic environments, I feel well equipped to address this question:

  • It is probably best to have a good guide when entering the world of philosophy --but this does not need to be an academic.

  • Once introduced to philosophy, one can study it perfectly well on one's own --and in fact, the academic world arguably even hinders this task.

  • If, however, you want to write philosophy, and be read and taken seriously by other philosophers, an academic grounding is essential. If you want access to the community that is passionate about philosophy, and well-versed in it, and able to assess it on its merits and deficiencies, you need to have studied contemporary academic philosophy, and you need to be able to write in a manner (and in publications) that academics will respect.

  • Anecdotally, it seems that even works aimed at a general audience of non-philosophers are more successfully written by those with an academic background --there's a certain level of rigor and currency that attends academic philosophy that it is difficult to obtain independently.

  • This all sounds good to me except «If, however, you want to write philosophy, and be read and taken seriously», which appears to presuppose that one wants to be taken seriously by philosophers. But really, who would? Here's Lawrence Krauss: «Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, "those that can't do, teach, and those that can't teach, teach gym." And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science.» (in the Atlantic). May 18, 2015 at 13:31
  • @cheersandhth.-Alf: there's a lot of tribalism in academic communities; I'm not sure quoting physicists who don't like philosophy is valuable, except in an anecdotal way; how about the physicist Smolin who collaborated with the political philosopher Unger? Or Freeman Dyson who was a big enough physicist to call Feynman half clown (and half genius)? Or the Russian mathematician Kovlaskeya who wrote an auto-biography which works well as real literature? May 18, 2015 at 13:42
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    The answer supposed an if; this isn't a presupposition but a contingent statement; if you want to play football for a premier league team then find yourself a good coach.. May 18, 2015 at 13:47
  • @MoziburUllah: I am sure if you think about, you'll realize that the phrase "physicists who don't like" confers an idea of an emotional conflict, which is incorrect, not it at all, and also an idea of a small subset of physicists, instead of most scientists, i.e. very misleading. Re the rest, the politics of some physicist hardly seems relevant to anything, Freeman Dyson is a theoretical physicist and mathematician, not a philosopher, and well, writing an auto-biography might be an activity aiming at philosophers, I don't know, but if so then that point should have been clarified, I think. May 18, 2015 at 13:48
  • @Cheersandhth.-Alf: I can't point to many examples of people whose works of philosophy are widely read who don't have an academic background (even in the case those books are aimed at a general audience, and read mostly by non-philosophers). Do you have a good counterexample? Maybe Chuck Klosterman or Malcolm Gladwell, but it's arguable whether either of them are primarily doing philosophy. People like Zizek, Kuhn, Singer, Cornel West, those guys --may be read by non-academics, but they all have their advanced degrees... May 18, 2015 at 14:53

The essence of learning philosophy is dialogue; and this just doesn't mean a sympathetic ear or an encouraging friend; but someone who can challenge your own readings, to go 'through them, and over them' as Wittgenstein said in the Tractatus.

It's one reason why Plato's philosophy took the form of the dialogue - to show the dialectic of philosophical thought in action; one sees a similar vision of philosophical pedagogy in the Analects of Confucius; it's why when one looks at the etymology of the Upanishads that one finds it means to sit down (nishad) close (upa) - and that not to each other, but to someone who knows - a master or guru; in a sense one has to be initiated into knowing, into a tradition.

Perhaps a comparison would be useful; would you advise a friend who decides he wants to be a doctor to avoid medical school? Or a would-be sculptor from working in the studio of a master sculptor? One learns a trade from those plying said trade; and philosophy in this way is no different; except of course there is far fewer plying philosophy.

I wouldn't say that auto-didacticism is doomed to failure; but it may be taking a very long and winding route; that could be made shorter if not easier; generally self-pedagogical problems tend to be lack of breadth skewed and unjustified readings and irrelevant minutiae.

Philosophy is not an 'I-It' relationship but an 'I-Thou' relationship: throughout the Tractatus, Wittgenstein retains the objective tone proper to his discourse - the discourse of logic; at the end though, he reveals himself when he remarks when the reader has understood him; and that could be taken to be another end of philosophy: know thy-self and not by introspection or rather by introspection through reflection and refraction through the substance of another.

  • "Perhaps a comparison would be useful; would you advise a friend who decides he wants to be a doctor to avoid medical school?" This might an inappropriate analogy. I know several excellent programmers and db admins who are autodidacts. If I recall correctly, there are also some contemporary mathematicians who are autodidacts. Medicine is a special case because of a) the practical aspect of learning medicine can't be done in an auto-didactic setting and b) there are legal ramifications which make it impossible for someone to just declare themselves an M.D without some form of peer review. May 18, 2015 at 1:17
  • @king: sure; I was outlining an ideal; and of course the world is less than ideal and circumstances are varied; there is a strong element of auto-didactism in many if not most or all subjects. May 18, 2015 at 11:42

You can study anything without a teacher. However, you might end up not working very efficiently, if you don't have reliable to ask questions of. It's also helpful to be able to recognise bullshit, which is kinda an intuitive aesthetic judgment. Again, without an authority (at least an imaginary one, e.g. the authority of Kant) you might end up confused.

Suppose people kept telling you that bad art/etc. was good. Eventually, you'd just accept it, if you had no authority to refer to.

  • alternatively, just go with the authority of the somewhat random voting system of a pretty bad anonymous q&a site! if that works for you haha
    – user64448
    Feb 1, 2023 at 22:28

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