Who is a philosopher: as in what attributes (not necessarily innate) does it take to be an academic philosopher?

I think the question is a good and legitimate for this site variant on "who is a philosopher". And I think it makes sense, that philosophy can be done and isn't just a reasonably intelligent person who has read a lot of books. In the same way that physicists can have practical knowledge:

I mean something more than possess a description or a map of it; anybody who has a quantum mechanics textbook on their shelf has that. I mean know your way around it in the way you know your way around the city in which you live. This is a practical kind of knowledge that comes in degrees and it is best acquired by learning to solve problems of the form: How do I get from A to B? Can I get there without passing through C? And what is the shortest route? Graduate students in physics spend long years gaining familiarity with the nooks and crannies of Hilbert space, locating familiar landmarks, treading its beaten paths, learning where secret passages and dead ends lie, and developing a sense of the overall lay of the land. They learn how to navigate Hilbert space in the way a cab driver learns to navigate his city.

All I know is that I could never be a philosopher due to impatience with trivia, and a reasonably poor memory. I'm asking because there's so much talk about "not doing philosophy" here and I wondered if I even could, aside from the reasons just stated I mean.

  • 2
    I would remove the first part of the title as misleading and having trivial dictionary answers. Besides, one need not be an academic philosopher, Popper, Chalmers, Harris, etc., took their case directly "to the people", as it were, exactly because they were dissatisfied with academic philosophy. This is particularly easy today when publishing is cheap and anybody can start a blog. The tricky part is to have something to write that other people will be willing to read.
    – Conifold
    Nov 26, 2017 at 22:20
  • Marcuse's essay "Repressive Tolerance" is available on the net, PDF, "to preserve historical possibilities" is key in it. Just the idea of real possibilities might surprise some people. Brand Blanshard, "Reason and Analysis" Internet Archive, may spawn some ideas. There is an overemphasis on epistemology today IMO. On the other hand, not all "Continental" stuff is good, some of it is depressing garbage.
    – Gordon
    Nov 26, 2017 at 22:49
  • As far as the "academy" many of them are teaching a ridiculously easy and very stale Introduction to Philosophy course, made easy to attract numbers; and I think this is a mistake.
    – Gordon
    Nov 26, 2017 at 22:58
  • I should have put this as my first comment, because I had this article in mind as I wrote my comments. Leiter Reports, job market. leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2017/10/…
    – Gordon
    Nov 26, 2017 at 23:57
  • @Conifold they worked as academics didn't they? "Sir Karl Raimund Popper CH FBA FRS (28 July 1902 – 17 September 1994) was an Austrian and British philosopher and professor." the fact that he wrote books with popular appeal doesn't change that. i appreciate i've overlooked autodidacts etc. in the question, but it's not like that is in any way a lesser task
    – user29495
    Nov 27, 2017 at 6:44

3 Answers 3


I have wondered this too. One general definition of philosophy is "the act of questioning what we think we know." Your question is certainly philosophical. If you engage in philosophical discussion and add to the body of philosophical thought, then you are a philosopher.

To be an "academic" philosopher you need to get your material recognized by the academic community. This usually requires a degree, but so long as you publish in a peer reviewed journal, then it is reasonable to say that you are an academic philosopher. Also, if you make money off of what you discuss (peer reviewed or not) then it is reasonable to call yourself a professional philosopher.

I do not generally like these titles however, as being a professional or even an academic philosopher does not mean that you are a good one. Likewise, if you have not been published in a peer reviewed journal and are not making a living off of your discourses, that does not mean that you are a bad philosopher.

  • I liked the answer, because it bulks up the question. Thanks.
    – user29495
    Nov 26, 2017 at 15:06
  • If you think it answers your question, you can mark it as accepted. If not, you can ask for more clarification. What part of the answer is insufficient? Nov 26, 2017 at 15:14
  • not sure. i just don't want to put anyone off from adding to it :)
    – user29495
    Nov 26, 2017 at 15:16
  • 1
    Sure thing. We'll see who else answers, but if you can think of any other clarifying questions, feel free to let me know. Nov 26, 2017 at 15:38

There are no particular attributes needed to be a philosopher, academic or other. In this sense there is nothing special about philosophy.

Some philosophers are keen mathematicians, others can't solve the simplest equation. Some are quick and articulate, others slow and obscure. Some have a fine ear for nuances of language; others have linguistic tin ears. Descartes did some of his most important work alone in a room with a stove; Socrates did philosophy by talking to all and sundry in the Athenian market-place. Some are sharp observers of life; others are barely aware of their surroundings. I think these attributes are common in any type of inquiry or discipline - except for mathematicians and equations, I presume.

Being a philosopher isn't a matter of having any special attributes but rather of a capacity for a certain kind of puzzlement. AJ Ayer put this not at all badly when he said that philosophical problems and the work of the philosopher begin when 'all the facts are in'. This is not to be taken literally but his meaning is clear from examples such as the following.

Set scepticism aside for a moment. Queen Victoria died in 1901; this is as reliable a historical fact as any we have. But how can we have any knowledge of the past since in some sense it quite plainly doesn't exist? Can you have knowledge of the non-existent ? The past doesn't exist yet there are facts about it ? How can this be ? Whatever the answer (and I have stated the question crudely) it does not involve acquiring more facts about the past since the entire issue is whether there are or can be any facts about the past at all. This is the sort of question that puzzles a philosopher. Being a philosopher entails having the capacity for a certain kind of puzzlement of which I have just given an example. It needs a certain mindset, not a set of attributes.

Or take a question such as immortality. Some believe in this, others don't and yet others don't know. Everyone has wondered what if anything happens after death. A philosopher might ask : Would immortality be endless bodily life ? Is my soul, supposing myself to have one, distinct from my body and is it the soul that is immmortal ? If it is, what would it be like to survive as a non-corporeal person ? I don't think I can even imagine this last possibility but that may just be my problem. Whatever the answer to the question of immortality, what it needs are hardly more facts. The Society for Psychical Research might have evidence of life after death; it can hardly have evidence for immortality.

These are just two examples out of indefinitely many - knowledge of the past, and immortality. If we look at the issues with a certain mindset, a certain capacity for puzzlement and (I'll add) curiosity, we are philosophers. If there is more to being a philosopher than that, I don't know what it is. But I am pretty sure it has nothing to do with personal attributes peculiar to or specially valuable in philosophy.


To be an academic philosopher, you need to socialize with other academic philosophers (which is quite a skill), you need writing skills to write essays and books, and you need presenting skills to give talks at conferences. Furthermore, you need some source from which the ideas come which you write about and talk about. That may be creativity or something else.

  • You do need writing skills. I'm not quite so sure about the presenting skills based on my experience at philosophy conferences.
    – virmaior
    Dec 26, 2017 at 22:19
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    Maybe you can also get away with bad writing if your talks are superb (or no writing, if your Kripke). So let me make my point differently. As an academic philosopher, you have to present your ideas verbally, whatever skills you associate with that (speaking in front of a group might be one too).
    – Lukas
    Dec 26, 2017 at 22:33

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