Is everyone a philosopher?

Is everyone a philosopher? For me the answer is clearly 'No'. Some may think we can define 'philosopher' so loosely that anyone who thinks about how to live and answers the question --- who thereby has her own 'philosophy of life' --- is a philosopher. But the fact is, not everyone thinks about how to live. Some people are incurably unreflective; they should not be considered philosophers even on the above extremely loose definition of the term.

There are, however, people who think that even if they are not philosophers, they will understand philosophy if they try to. They believe that if they pick up a philosophy book and read it, they will understand it; they also believe that if two philosophers are discussing a philosophical problem, they can easily chime in and contribute to the discussion. They have no idea that some philosophical ideas/problems/arguments/theories are impossible to understand without some training and background knowledge.

How do I know there are such people? From the following experience: I was reading a rather difficult philosophy book; a friend saw that and asked me what I was reading. I told him the title, and he went on to ask me what the book was about. I tried my best to explain the problem discussed in the book in terms that he might understand. His response was, "How interesting! That will be the next book on my reading list." And I said, certainly unwisely, "I think this book is a bit too advanced for you." He seemed offended.

It is hard to imagine that this would have happened if I were a physicist and the book I read were on quantum mechanics.


  1. You should have handed him Being and Time.

  2. Well, then he might think philosophy is just nonsense.

  3. I think that the underlying view about philosophy is something that is both a source of irritation and also a virtue. It's a source of irritation in that typically people think that philosophy doesn't require careful study and skill. You can see this not just in the lay public but also among scholars: it's not uncommon to find someone in English, Comparative Literature, Art, etc. talking about philosophy and making philosophical claims, without having had any formal training in philosophy. But you don't find this happen with, say, physics or high level mathematics to the same degree and to the same extent (though it does happen). But it's also a virtue in the sense that it shows how philosophy is something that others are drawn to and how the issues and ideas discussed in philosophy do strike the interests of others, even non-philosophers.