Is philosophy a profession? (Yes, it’s a serious question)

You would think that the one that gives the title to this essay is one of those silly questions that only a philosopher would pose. And yet, a few months ago I unwittingly caused a Twitterstorm when I suggested that philosophy is, indeed, a profession, and that it comes with credentials (in the form of an awarded PhD, job titles and so forth) and even (gasp!) expertise.

I will start by presenting my arguments for why philosophy is indeed a profession that marks a certain kind of expertise; then we’ll talk about why this matters; and finally we’ll explore why, I think, so many people got positively upset at the mere suggestion that there can be professional philosophers, and even more so that they deserve a bit of respect when they talk about their own subject matter. I will also address some common objections to the idea of professional philosophy, as they were put to me during said Twitterstorm.

Is philosophy a profession?

Modern philosophy, meaning — approximately — philosophy has it has been practiced since the 20th century, is a profession in the same sense that, say, psychology or dentistry are professions. If you want to become a psychologist, or a dentist, you go to specialized schools, you take specific courses, you demonstrate your ability as a practitioner, and you get awarded a certificate that says that yup, you are indeed a psychologist, dentist, or philosopher. You then look for a job in your chosen profession, and if you are capable and lucky you land one. You then practice said profession, drawing a salary or other form of income. And eventually you cease practicing in order to enjoy a more or less well deserved retirement.

Typically, in order to become a professional philosopher one needs an undergraduate degree in that field (in the United States, four years) and a PhD from an accredited university (4-6 years on average, but it can be more). The PhD requires taking advanced courses (in my case, for instance, on Plato, ethics, Descartes, Kant, and a number of others), and the writing of a dissertation that must be of publication quality and advance the field by way of proposing original ideas (here is mine). After this, a young philosopher may find temporary employment as a postdoctoral associate, or as a lecturer, and eventually, maybe, land a tenure track position (though the whole institution of tenure has been under relentless attack by conservative political forces, but that’s another discussion). If you do get such a position, you then have six years to prove to your colleagues that you are worth retaining and being promoted from assistant to associate professor, a promotion that comes with some benefits (beginning with tenure itself) and usually a very modest increase in salary. If you are good, a number of years later (usually around five) you get another promotion, to full professor, which comes with little additional benefits (except that now you can serve on more university committees!) and with an equally modest increase in salary.

What I have just described, of course, is the academic path. It used to be pretty much the only game in town, but now the American Philosophical Association has a whole booklet on career paths beyond academia, if you are so inclined. Nevertheless, the academy is still where you will find most professional philosophers, these days.

So, since becoming a philosopher requires studying and getting a degree, and is often associated with belonging to a professional society and getting a regular salary from an employer (usually a university) it seems pretty obvious that philosophy is, indeed, a profession as succinctly defined by the Merriam-Webster: a type of job that requires special education, training, or skill.

Why does this matter?

Why did I bother engaging in the above elucidation of the obvious? Because ever since I switched my own career from that of a scientist (evolutionary biology) to that of a philosopher, I noticed an incredible amount of hostility and dismissal toward philosophy, including — unbelievably — by some philosophers!

I think it is important to correct public misperceptions of philosophy in particular, and of the humanities in general, not because these disciplines are difficult to practice and therefore deserving of respect, but because they are vital to the functioning of an open society. Far too often these days we hear administrators and politicians (usually, but not only, conservatives) saying that a college degree should prepare students to find well paying jobs. That is simply not the case. That definition applies to trade schools, not universities. Yes, of course you want to find a well paying job, especially given the insane amount of money you will have to shell for the privilege of a higher education in the increasingly unequal United States of America (and elsewhere). But the point of a liberal arts education (as it used to be called before “liberal” somehow became a dirty word) is first and foremost to help create mature adults and responsible citizens. You know, the sort of people who can think for themselves about what to do with their lives, instead of being brainwashed by corporate ads. Or the sort of people who believe that voting is both a right and a privilege, and who exercise such right/privilege by doing their homework on different candidates, instead of falling for blatant propaganda and conspiracy theories. That, and not to create an obedient army of drones for the corporate world and an increasingly illiberal government, is what education is for. No wonder so many in power have tried so hard to undermine that mission.

And make no mistake about it, that mission requires a substantial involvement in the humanities, not just the STEM fields. Everyone these days claims to be teaching “critical thinking,” but trust me, you ain’t gonna learn that in a biology class, or in chemistry, or in engineering. You will learn all sorts of interesting things in those classes, some of which may even be useful for getting you a job. But you won’t acquire the sort of ability at critical analysis and writing that philosophy will give you. You will also not be able to familiarize yourself with art, literature and music, some of the main reasons why human life is so interesting and varied. And you will not learn about the stupid things we have repeatedly done in the course of history — which is just as well from the point of view of politicians who prefer to keep selling you propaganda according to which you live (of course!) in the best nation that has ever blessed planet earth, handpicked by God himself to be a shining light for the rest of the world. You see, if you read Plato and Shakespeare and Haruki Murakami, or learn about the American bombing of Dresden at the end of WWII, or appreciate just how and why inequality, racism, and sexism are still pervasive in the 21st century, you will might start questioning what the hell is going on and how to change it. As one of my favorite comedians, George Carlin, once put it: “it’s called the American dream because you must be asleep to believe it.” Philosophy, and the rest of the humanities, are a major way for you to wake up.

Why do people have a problem?

Once more, I would not have thought that any of the above were controversial. But it was! I got a surprising amount of pushback on social media. Okay, fine, it’s social media, where one gets pushback and worse for saying the most mundane things. But still. Studying those responses, it seems to me they fall in the following broad categories:

(i) People who believe that I’m telling them that only professional philosophers can think. What? No, and if you believe that’s the implicature of the above position, you may benefit to taking a philosophy class or two! Snarky comments aside (sorry, this sort of exercise is exhausting!), of course philosophers aren’t the only people who can think, or even think well. Nor does thinking require a license or accreditation of any sort. But the job description of the philosopher is not “thinker,” but rather thinker of a particular kind, using particular tools, applying them to particular subject matters. Similarly, a psychotherapist, say, isn’t just someone who talk to you about your problems. Your friend can do that over a beer at the local pub. But your friend is not professionally trained, is not aware of psychological theories of human behavior, and is not familiar with psychotherapeutic techniques. That’s why so many people pay professional therapists to talk about their problems, instead (or on top) of having a beer with their friends.

That is why it is bizarre that when someone disagrees with me on Twitter or Facebook they often say something along the lines of “you should be aware of logical fallacies,” or “you should study philosophy of science” (actual phrases, and please notice that I teach a course on — among other things — logical fallacies, have written technical papers on the topic, and my specialty is, you guessed it, philosophy of science). This isn’t to say that a professional is always right and an amateur always wrong. Sometimes your intuitions about what’s wrong with your car may trump those of your mechanic. But, as a general rule, is far more likely the expert got it right and that you have a superficial or incomplete understanding of the matter. There is no shame in this, of course. We can’t all be experts on everything.

(ii) Which brings me to the second cause of irritation among some commenters: a good number of people seem not to recognize that philosophy is a field of expertise. On the one hand, this is understandable, but on the other hand it is downright bizarre. It’s understandable because philosophy is, indeed, a rather peculiar field, even within the academy. While biologists study the living world, physicists study the fundamentals of matter and energy, psychologists study human behavior, and historian study human history, what do philosophers study, exactly? The answer is: everything.

Which doesn’t mean they are experts on everything. Here is how it works. First off, the very comparison between philosophy and, say, biology, is misleading. “Philosophy,” if anything, is comparable to “science,” not to a sub-discipline of science. Second, philosophers are interested in broad vistas and the connections among fields, hence the various “philosophies of” (mind, biology, physics, social science, language, history, and so forth). This doesn’t make it easier, but more difficult to be a philosopher. Take my own case: I am a philosopher of science, and in particular a philosopher of evolutionary biology. This means that I need to be very familiar with not one, but two areas of scholarship: evolutionary biology and philosophy of science. I need to understand both the biology and epistemology, for instance, in order to apply a philosophical lense to the science and ask questions like what is the logic and structure of a particular scientific theory, how do unstated assumptions and unrecognized biases interfere with scientific research, what exactly is the relationship between a scientific theory and the evidence that is invoked to back it up (i.e., what’s the “epistemic warrant” of the theory).

Surely this sort of work requires expertise. Equally surely, someone without background in both science and philosophy of science is unlikely to just waltz in and come up with a novel idea that will stun the pros. It’s possible, of course, but very, very unlikely.

(iii) A third group of responses threw back at me that apparent incongruity that I have spent years encouraging people to practice philosophy (Stoicism, specifically) in their everyday life, and yet I’m now telling them that they don’t understand it. But there is a big difference between philosophy as an academic field of scholarship and philosophy understood as a daily practice in life. The first one is the province of professionals, the second one can (and, I think, should) be accessible by anyone willing to spend a modicum of time reading about it.

Again, the difference that I’m drawing here should not be surprising, as it finds lots of parallels. Everyone should exercise to maintain good health. That doesn’t mean everyone suddenly is a professional trainer or athlete. Anyone is capable of driving a car. But we are not a planet of car mechanics. Every Christian is able to read the Gospels, but few are theologians of the level of Thomas Aquinas. And so on, the examples are endless.

So, no, there is no contradiction at all between the notion that philosophy is a specialized academic profession requiring a lot of training and the idea that anyone can read up enough about Stoicism, or Buddhism, or any other philosophical or religious practice and incorporate them in their lives.

Possible objections

Finally, let me do some pre-emptive addressing of likely criticisms (another useful habit that I picked up as a professional philosopher!):

(1) But dentists (say) produce something, what do philosophers produce?

The outcome of the profession of dentistry is that your teeth will be in better order and more healthy than they would have been had you not gone to the dentist. The outcome of the profession of philosophy is twofold: (a) our students develop a better sense for complex ideas and how to evaluate them; and (b) we publish papers and books that contain new insights into the problems we are interested in. (The latter is, of course, what every scholar does, both in the humanities and in the sciences.)

(2) But Socrates did not have a PhD!


True. Neither did Darwin. Or Galileo. But today it’s really, really hard to become a professional biologist or physicist without proper, standardized, and rigorous training, usually certified by the award of a PhD. Philosophy has changed exactly in the same way in which all other fields of inquiry have, and for similar reasons (increased specialization, consequent division of labor, institutionalization, etc.).

(3) But someone can make novel contributions to philosophy even without a degree.


Yes. Just like someone can make a novel contribution to biology, or physics, and so forth. Such cases exist, but they are rare. Indeed, they are increasingly hard to find, across fields, precisely because both humanistic and scientific knowledge are getting more and more sophisticated and specialized, thus requiring extensive professional training.

(4) But plenty of professional philosophers don’t make interesting contributions to the field.


True. And the same goes for plenty of professional biologists (believe me, I’ve seen it) and, I assume, professional physicists, mathematicians, and so forth. Even so, your average philosopher (or biologist, or physicist) will still have a far more sophisticated command of her field than someone who has never studied it systematically.

(5) But there are serious problems with academia. Indeed there are.


This is something often pointed out, among others, by my friend Nigel Warburton. That said, Nigel himself has a PhD in philosophy and was an academic before going freelance. And for his spectacularly successful podcast, Philosophy Bites, he tends to interview… you guessed it! Professional philosophers! (Including yours truly.) Because they have knowledge of their field, and interesting things to say about it.

The bottom line

So, can we please get over this strange combination of defensiveness and disdain, and admit that philosophy is — among other things — a serious profession carried out by people with expertise? As I argued above, there is far more at stake here than a petty turf war or wounded egos. Taking philosophy (and the humanities) seriously may be what ultimately will save us from the forces of obscurantism and tyranny.