Modes of Philosophizing

[Cogito 06, Athens 2007, p. 38]


Barry Stroud



I think the primary goal of philosophy is understanding of the world or life or whatever might be of interest to a thinking person. If non-philosophers could have access to a particular philosopher’s way of understanding things it could perhaps be illluminating and helpful and so relevant to the way they think about things. Philosophers should try to make their work as accessible to everyone as they can. But I do not think it is desirable for philosophers to try to “apply” their philosophical understanding and to issue recipes or directives about how to live or how to understand things.


I think of philosophy as a difficult intellectual endeavour. You have to learn how to do it, and it takes a lot of practice. Only those who know how to do it are really engaged in philosophy. It is possible to do serious philosophy outside an academic institution (many of the great philosophers of the past did it). But nowadays it is virtually impossible to earn a living and support oneself outside an academic institution while doing philosophy. It is a very good thing that there are universities where philosophy can be done.


Whether an academic teacher of philosophy should be thought of as a philosopher or not depends on whether he or she actually engages in the subject and tries to get somewhere in it rather than just telling others about it. A very good tennis coach or teacher of algebra need not be a tennis player or a mathematician. But I see no reason to deny that anyone who engages in philosophy with serious philosophical interests counts as a philosopher. It does not mean that their efforts bear comparison with the works of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, et al, any more than the products of the weekend watercolourist should be placed next to those of Raphael, Titian, or Picasso.


Yes, I agree. I don’t think you can understand and give an account of the history of certain ways of thinking without understanding very well what those ways of thinking are and how they were understood at the time. The history of philosophy should not be understood as a description of a succession of doctrines.


I believe philosophy is so difficult that one needs all the help one can get.  Understanding the sources of one’s problems and their history can contribute greatly to one’s understanding. Many philosophers would disagree and say they just want to solve certain problems or give an account of a certain aspect of the world. But they do not thereby sufficiently appreciate that their problems have the shape they have because of what has gone before. Even philosophers who dismiss or denigrate history are in history, just as their problems and their ways of thinking about them are.


My answer here is roughly the same as my answer to question 3, but not for reason of history. The way problems are posed, and what is thought necessary to solve them, is influenced by many factors, including what has been said and perhaps widely accepted in other areas or on other problems. Exclusive compartmentalization leaves philosophers unaware of this or insufficiently impressed by it, to the detriment of the subject.


There are many ways of thinking about and writing philosophy. There is no point in legislating what counts and what doesn’t. This does not mean that everything that a person who is a philosopher writes should be regarded as philosophy. What matters are the philosophical consequences.


Poems and aphorisms do not seem to me appropriate forms for carrying out philosophical work, even if they might be used to express or summarize certain philosophical conceptions developed by other means. Dialogue is a very good way to write philosophy, but it is difficult to do convincingly. I don’t see much loss in trying to write philosophy in clear, connected, sharply-focussed prose. I wish more philosophers would try it.