April 30

Academic vs social philosophy

I received my first real blog comment this afternoon. Someone who wished to remain anonymous (who called him/herself ‘Anon’ and left his/her email address as anon@anon.com) from a University of Sydney IP address sent through the following comment for moderation on my About page:

By ‘social philosopher’, I’m assuming that you mean ‘dabbler in observing human behaviour and trying to explain it’, rather than ‘career academic who specialises in analysing the works of Mill, Plato and Kant’*. Sorry to sound petty and childish, but I have a MAJOR issue with people calling themselves ‘philosophers’ when, well, they’re not.

I didn’t publish it because, well, it kind of looks stupid to have a slightly barbed comment on your own About page, but I thought it would make an all right topic to post on. So let’s do a line-by-line breakdown:

SocratesBy ‘social philosopher’, I’m assuming that you mean ‘dabbler in observing human behaviour and trying to explain it’

Well yes, I did mean ‘dabbler’ in the same sense that someone who occasionally plays soccer on a Sunday afternoon is not a footballer. I philosophise for recreation, which is why I used the term ‘social philosopher’: I was going for something akin to ‘social drinker’.

The second part of that segment made me realise that ‘social’ can be taken to mean ‘of society’, which is an adjectival failing on my part. In fact, this limits the kind of philosophy I practise because I don’t just observe human behaviour and try to explain it, which is more like behavioural studies, sociology, cultural studies or psychology (or a confluence of all of those areas).

I like to think I try to find answers for broader questions about the nature of existence, not just human behaviour or just humans or just behaviour. I like to think, full stop.

rather than ‘career academic who specialises in analysing the works of Mill, Plato and Kant’

Hmm. I take issue with the idea that only a career academic can be called a philosopher. It’s kind of like saying only a career academic who specialises in analysing the works of Keynes can be called an economist. Is there room for practitioners?

Case in point: is Alain de Botton a philosopher? He has a Master’s in Philosophy but he is not a career academic. He’s best known as a writer (of philosophical books) and founder of The School of Life, which actively challenges traditional universities. I consider him a philosopher, as do many others.

I also take issue, as I think many academics would, with the idea that all career academics do is analyse the work of published philosophers. Research is nice, but where’s the value in it without turning that analysis into more questions, and more possible answers? I don’t pretend to know what the outcomes are for career academics, but I suspect they’re related to writing and presenting papers, or publishing books. At some point a philosopher becomes a Mill, Plato or Kant.

Sorry to sound petty and childish, but I have a MAJOR issue with people calling themselves ‘philosophers’ when, well, they’re not.

You know, that’s okay. I used to hate when people called themselves a ‘writer’ just because they learnt the alphabet and can string a sentence together. I think I’ve gotten over it, though. I figured if writing was so important to someone that they identified as one, then even if they never wrote a word, or never earnt a cent from their writing, they could identify as a writer. It didn’t take away from the fact that I identify as a writer too.

I do a lot of work with project managers and the discipline is at a point where anyone who manages a project considers themselves a project manager. You don’t have to meet any pre-requisites before you can call yourself project manager, unlike being an engineer for example, although knowledgeable employers and recruiters are now looking for qualifications, certifications and marks of competency. In many ways project management is in the process of becoming a recognised (read: with a legal, educational and licensing status) profession. It is not there yet.

Where does this leave someone who calls him/herself a philosopher? A philosopher is not a profession in the true sense of having a legal status and licensing requirements, although it is interesting to note the inclusion of philosophers on Wikipedia’s List of professions. I grant that there are educational pre-requisites to become a philosophy academic, but I think that’s the ‘academic’ part rather than the ‘philosophy’ part.

I’m not even sure ‘philosopher’ is a listed occupation, at least I can’t find the census data that states how many people identify as philosophers. Do you put ‘academic’ or ‘philosopher’ on your census form, Anon? Can you be a philosopher without being an academic? (Refer to my point about Alain de Botton above.)

So what do I mean when I use the word ‘philosopher’? I mean someone who questions the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence**, and studies these areas internally (ie through thinking) or externally (ie reading, listening, debating, experiencing). For that you don’t need to go to university or become an academic.

I’m kind of sad that you didn’t leave your contact details, Anon, because I would like to find out what you mean when you use the word ‘philosopher’. Maybe it’s to do with a certain analytical process that a philosopher practises when s/he philosophises?

And another thing…

I would’ve thought of all the disciplines, philosophy would be one of the most inclusive about people identifying as philosophers. At least I thought philosophers might be more open-minded about what makes someone a philosopher.

I went to Macquarie University from 1999-2002 and completed a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Media and Cultural Studies. In first and second year I also took some philosophy classes and did well enough for the philosophy department to send me an invitation to switch majors. I chose Cultural Studies for reasons I won’t go into here.

I currently facilitate for the social (as in recreational, interactive) philosophy group Sydney Socrates Cafe. The organisers Tim Dean (philosophy PhD student) and Katherine Lustig have a more inclusive view of who is a philosopher.

My favourite philosopher is Michel Foucault.

* I closed the single quotation mark here. You can take the girl out of editing…
** That’s from the Oxford Dictionary, thanks dictionary widget.


Copyright 2017. All rights reserved.

Posted April 30, 2013 by Adeline Teoh in category "Play

About the Author

Writer, environmentalist, traveller, taiko enthusiast and social philosopher. Drinks tea, walks long distances and collects postcards. (Find out why this blog is called Unfinished writing by Adeline.)


  1. By Anon on

    It’s Anon here again. How delightful to receive a reply!

    I find the idea of dabbling to be quite interesting. Dabble away, I say! But I dabble in maths, in that I use it to add up my bills at the end of the month. And I’m not propounding to be a mathematician. And in the same way that dabbling in philosophy doesn’t entail that you are a philosopher.

    What do I mean when I use the word “philosopher”? I don’t. To be honest, most academics in philosophy would choose not to describe themselves as “philosophers.” Rather, they would tend to say that they “study philosophy.” Even Socrates was reluctant to describe himself as a “philosopher”. He deemed himself a “gadfly”, who buzzed around, looking for answers and questioning the accepted wisdom. So by declaring yourself to be “a philosopher”, you’re really showing that it’s very likely that you aren’t one.

    Is Alain de Botton a philosopher? He is a “pop philosopher”, certainly. But is his work taken seriously in an academic context? I think we’ll leave that unanswered…..

    I’m all for events such as the Socrates Cafe, encouraging people to think deeper about things. But I think it’s inaccurate that any form of deeper thinking is described as “philosophy.” Can’t it just be called “thought”? It seems that the title “philosophy” is commonly used in an attempt to lend legitimacy and gravitas to things which may already have value in their own right, without calling them “philosophy.”

    I went to the University of Sydney (hey, good detective work! I’ve now worked out how to hide my IP address!). I completed a PhD. I’ll leave you to work out what subject it’s in. It’s not hard to guess.

    My favourite “philosopher” is John Stuart Mill.

    1. By Adeline Teoh (Post author) on

      In my example I mentioned that I wouldn’t call someone who kicks around a ball on a Sunday afternoon a ‘footballer’. But I wouldn’t begrudge them the self-identifying ‘social footballer’. So dabbling is not an eliminating factor for what someone purports to be.

      We are thus discussing fundamentally different things. I use ‘philosopher’ not in terms of what I do (as I do not formally study philosophy) but who I am, and that is entirely subjective. I could start going into communication and vectors here but I won’t, it’s about half a media degree. Self-identifying as a ‘social philosopher’ is therefore unlikely to have people mistaking me for someone who studies philosophy. By your own words, “by declaring yourself to be “a philosopher”, you’re really showing that it’s very likely that you aren’t one” according to the manner in which those who ‘study philosophy’ define philosophers. Everyone else will be okay with it.

      I do not call myself a ‘social philosopher’ to identify with academics. I don’t think Alain de Botton calls himself a ‘philosopher’ to do so either. (Does he even call himself one? Or is it a role people ascribe to him?) If it turns out that we’re not philosophers at all according those those who ‘study philosophy’ (because no one is a philosopher, although they may be gadflies) I’m not going to feel any less of one according to what I believe makes someone a philosopher.

      Lastly, I do believe there needs to be a term that differentiates ‘thinker’ from ‘philosopher’. ‘Thinker’ is more or less ‘one who thinks’ but philosopher is more akin to ‘lover of wisdom’.

      In sum: Adeline believes a ‘philosopher’ is definition A, therefore calls herself a philosopher. Anon believes a ‘philosopher’ is definition B, therefore does not see Adeline as a philosopher and actually no one is a philosopher.


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