The phrase “professional philosopher” sounds vaguely oxymoronic, like “genuine homeopathist” or “freelance priest”. Yet there clearly is such a thing as a professional philosopher: someone who makes his or her living from working on philosophical problems.
The vast majority of these pros are academics, and even the handful of people outside the universities who manage to work on philosophy full-time usually aren’t strictly speaking professionals because the philosophy does not earn them their living.
This last fact perhaps explains the oddness of talking about professional philosophers. Surely it is not important whether a thinker gets paid for what they write or not. It is the quality of the arguments that count, not their market value.
This is certainly true and it’s why many people are sometimes suspicious of any attempt to distinguish between professional, academic philosophers and their so-called “amateur” counterparts.
To strengthen their case, these sceptics will point out that almost all the great works of philosophy were not produced by academics, not least because most of them pre-date the professionalisation of the discipline that only occurred during the twentieth century. So if you want to find the next Socrates, for example, you’ll have more chance heading for Oxford market than Oxford University.
But this last move is a step too far. As the argument itself concedes, most of philosophy’s classics were written before the modern university became the home of humanistic studies. So the fact that most philosophy used to come from outside the universities is no surprise: it could hardly have come from institutions that didn’t exist.
Furthermore, as anyone who has spent time in both markets and universities will know, there is just a greater concentration of philosophers in the latter than the former. I
may stumble across a philosophy seminar in a university but I have yet to be accosted in a market by someone trying to sell me their latest thoughts on transcendental idealism.
The fact that academia is now the main, and perhaps only major, centre for philosophical enquiry, means that it is only to be expected that most of our contributors come from it. Academia also has the virtue of quality control. The constant input and criticism of other sharp minds is always a spur to greater excellence in argument, and you can’t even get started in the profession unless you’re at least half-decent at it.
Outside academia, however, the story is more complex. Quality of work is more uneven and the good philosophers are harder to find among all the cranks and egotists who think they have solved the mysteries of life, the universe and everything. Even the good philosophers do not usually benefit from the continual close analysis of their work by their peers, which means they are more likely to head down intellectual blind allies or float off on flights of fancy.
At TPM we are interested in good philosophy wherever it comes from. We are also interested in the different cultures of academic and “amateur” philosophy and our new survey (p38) sheds some interesting light on this. Tim LeBon regularly reports on philosophy outside of academia (p18). And we also frequently publish articles by people who are not “professional philosophers”. Our main interview in this issue, for example, is with Kenan Malik, a public intellectual who is not and never has been an academic philosopher. We do not, however, apologise for the fact that we remain, on the whole, reliant upon academia for the bulk of our content. We shop there because it remains the major wholesaler of quality philosophy. But rest assured we keep our eyes open for good deals found elsewhere.
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Contributors Alison Ainley, Nick Alchin, Joseph Chandler, Stephen Clark, David Cowan, Steve Deery, Jonathan Derbyshire, Simon Eassom, Peter S Fosl, Raimond Gaita, James Garvey, Simon Glendinning, Wendy Grossman, Robert Halliday, Mathew Iredale, Sue Johnson, Michael LaBossiere, Tim LeBon, Tibor Machan, Jeff Mason, Christopher Norris, Heidi Ravven, Richard Ryder, Mark Vernon, Jonathan Walmsley.
With Thanks to Ophelia Benson, Lori Fells, The Rainnies, Pam Swope.
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© 2003, The Philosophers’ Magazine
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The Philosophers' Magazine/3rd quarter 2003