Philosophy vs. Philosophology

One question that philosophers have sought to answer since the beginning of time is: “What is philosophy, and how can I make a living doing it?”

Philosophy is a Greek word, which means “love of wisdom”. But philosophers, ever argumentative as they are, can’t agree what loving wisdom actually means, so they can only give tentative answers. But it is understood that it is Supremely Important Work. Some of the reasons for this can be found in Wikipedia’s definition of Philosophy:

Philosophy is the discipline concerned with the questions of how one should live (ethics); what sorts of things exist and what are their essential natures (metaphysics); what counts as genuine knowledge (epistemology); and what are the correct principles of reasoning (logic).

In short, philosophy is the on-going quest for meaning and understanding. Originally, philosophy was a popular pastime among the leisure class of the city states of ancient Greece. Indeed, it seems that it was primarily because they didn’t have to worry about making a living (having lots of slaves really help at that) that led them to philosophy. Since then, people generally have had to earn money in order to sustain themselves, and most philosophers do so by teaching and writing books on philosophy. And most of them do so in a university setting, since universities are the only places which offer full-time employment for dedicated philosophers, thereby professionalizing their “love of wisdom”.

But how do you teach philosophy? Is it the same as understanding what other philosophers have thought and said before you, or is it being able to do your own philosophizing? Or is it something in between? Some time ago, I read Robert Pirsig’s book Lila, in which he introduces the distinction between philosophy on the one hand, and what he calls ‘philosophology’ on the other:

He liked the word ‘philosophology.’ It was just right. It had a nice dull, cumbersome, superfluous, appearance that exactly fitted its subject matter, and he had been using it for some time now. Philosophology is to philosophy as musicology is to music, or as art history and art appreciation are to art, or as literary criticism is to creative writing. It’s a derivative, secondary field, a sometimes parasitic growth that likes to think it controls its host by analyzing and intellectualizing its host’s behaviour.

Literature people are sometimes puzzled by the hatred many creatice writers have for them. Art historians can’t understand the venom either. He supposed the same was true with musicologists but he didn’t know enough about them. But philosophologists don’t have this problem at all because the philosophers who would normally condemn them are a null-class. They don’t exist.

Philosophologists, calling themselves philosophers, are just about all there are.

You can imagine the ridiculousness if an art historian taking his students to museums, having them write a thesis on some historical or technical aspect of what they see there, and after a few years of this giving them degrees that say they are accomplished artists. They’ve never held a brush or a mallet and chisel in their hands. All they know is art history.

Yet, ridiculous as it sounds, this is exactly what happens in the philosophology that calls itself philosophy. Students aren’t expected to philosophize. Their instructors would hardly know what to say if they did. They’d probably compare the student’s writing to Mill or Kant or somebody like that, find the student’s work grossly inferior, and tell him to abandon it. As a student Phædrus [Pirsig’s alter ego in the book] had been warned that he would ‘come a cropper’ if he got too attached to any philosophical ideas of his own.

Literature, musicology, art history, and philosophology thrive in academic institutions because they are easy to teach. You just Xerox something some philosopher has said and make the students discuss it, make them memorize it, and then flunk them at the end of the quarter if they forget it.

Actual painting, music composition and creative writing are almost impossible to teach and so they barely get in the academic door. True philosophy doesn’t get in at all. Philosophologists often have an interest in creating philosophy but, as philosophologists, they subordinate it, much as a literary scholar might subordinate his own interest in creative writing. Unless they are exceptional they don’t consider the creation of philosophy their real line of work.

As an author, Phædrus had been putting off the philosophology, partly because he didn’t like it, and partly to avoid putting a philosophological cart before the philosophical horse. Philosophologists not only start by putting the cart first; they usually forget the horse entirely. They say first you should read what all the great philosophers of history have said and then you should decide what you want to say.

The catch here is that by the time you’ve read all what the great philosophers of history have said you’ll be two hundred years old. A second catch is that these great philosophers are very persuasive people and if you read them innocently you may be carried away by what they say and never see what they missed.

Phædrus, in contrast, sometimes forgot the cart but was fascinated by the horse. He thought the best way to examine the contents of various philosophological carts is to first figure out what you believe and then to see what great philosophers agree with you. There will always be a few somewhere. These will be much more interesting to read since you can cheer what they say and boo their enemies, and when you see how their enemies attack them you can kibitz a little a take a real interest in whehter they were right or wrong.

With this technique you can approach someone like William James in a much different way than an ordinary philosophologist would. Since you’ve already done your creative thinking before you read James, you don’t just go along with him. You get all kinds of fresh new ideas by contrasting what he’s saying with what you already believe. You’re not limited by any dead-ends of his thought and can often see ways of going around him.

I find this distinction quite interesting, because I expect that a lot of people begin at university thinking that they want to learn to do something, rather than just learn about something. Philosophy being one example. Anthropology, it can be argued, is another – though at least there is some practical exercises involved.

By separating the act of philosophy from the academic comparative contemplation of acts of philosophy, Pirsig underlines that what most philosophers earn their money doing is the latter, and that the former is something that – if done at all – is still done at leisure, as a pastime. While reading William James, Pirsig is surprised to find that James himself does both:

James and a group of friends were on an outing somewhere and one of them chased a squirrel around a tree. The squirrel instinctively clung to the opposite side of the tree and moved so that at as the man circled the tree the squirrel also circled it on the opposite side.

After observing this, James and his friends engaged in a philosophical discussion of the question: did the man go around the squirrel or didn’t he? The group broke into two philosophical camps and Phædrus didn’t remember how the argument was resolved. What impressed him was James’ interest in the question. It showed that although James was no doubt an expert philosophologist (certainly he had to be to teach stuff at Harvard) he was also a philosopher in the creative sense.

A philosophologist would have been mildly contemptuous of such a discussion because it had no ‘importance,’ that is, no body of philosophical writings existed about it. But to a creative philosopher like James the question was like catnip.

It had the smell of what it is that draws real philosophers into philosophy. Did the man go around the squirrel or didn’t he? He was north, south, east and west of the squirrel, so he must have gone around it. Yet at no time had he ever gone to the back or to the side of the squirrel. That squirrel could say with absolute scientific certitude, “That man never got around me.”

Who is right? Is there more than one meaning of the word ‘around’? That’s a surprise! That’s like discovering more than one true system of geometry. How many meanings are there and which one is right?

It seems as though the squirrel is using the term ‘around’ in a way that is relative to itself but the man is using it in a way that is relative to an absolute point in space outside of the squirrel and himself.

But if we drop the squirrel’s relative point of view and we take the absolute fixed point of view, what are we letting ourselves in for? From a fixed point in space every human being on this planet goes around every other human being to the east or west of him once a day. The whole East river does a half-cartwheel over the Hudson each morning and another one under it each evening. Is this what we want to mean by ‘around’? If so, how useful is it? And if the squirrel’s relative point of view is false, how useless is it?

What emerges is that the word ‘around’, which seems like one of the most clear and absolute and fixed terms in the universe suddenly turns out to be relative and subjective. What is ‘around’ depends on who you are and what you’re thinking about at the time you use it. The more you tug at it the more things start to unravel. One such philosophic tugger was Albert Einstein, who concluded that all time and space are relative to the observer.

We are always in a position of that squirrel. Man is always the measure of all things, even in matters of space and dimension. Persons like James and Einstein, immersed in the spirit of philosophy, do not see things like squirrels circling trees as necessarily trivial, because solving puzzles like that are what they’re in philosophy and science for. Real science and real philosophy are not guided by preconceptions of what subjects are important to consider.

When I read this, I didn’t realize that there are professional philosophers seeking to teach ‘philosophy’ rather than ‘philosophology.’ They argue that it is only once you have found your own philosophical standpoint, rooted in your own personal experiences that you’ll be able to read and argue with the philosophy of others. And they seek to help their students find their own philosophical standpoints encouraging the students’ curiosity and facilitating their philosophical inquiry to allow them to find their own way to love wisdom.

The first philosopher to do so was Socrates, and it is his method which forms the basis of the practical philosophical exercises which these professional philosophers use. This modern form of the Socratic Dialogue was (re)invented by the German philosopher Leonard Nelson, who – much like Pirsig – found that there is a central distinction between what is traditionally meant with the word “philosophy” and the actual activity of philosophizing. It is not a matter of talking about philosophy, it is a matter of doing (performing?) philosophy. You need to experience philosophy in order to be able to understand it.

Nelson argued that the central aspect of philosophy is regressive abstraction – the thinking act of working upwards from your own personal experiences to a general philosophical knowledge – much like William James’ squirrel anecdote above. Thereby relating personal and concrete experiences to the overall ideas and concepts being discussed, without referring to outside authorities – academic or otherwise.

And like Socrates, Nelson argued that the best circumstances under which to perform such regressive abstraction was in the open discussion with other interested people. He founded the Philosophisch-Politische Akademie in 1922 as a forum to host such Socratic discussion. Banned by the Nazis, the PPA was re-founded by Nelson’s pupil Gustav Heckmann in 1949. It has since inspired philosophers in Germany, England, the Netherlands and Denmark where I have come across it in the form of Danish philosopher Finn Thorbjørn Hansen‘s book “Den sokratiske dialoggruppe”.

Along the way, it has matured from Nelson’s neo-Kantian influence, to contain both phenomenological and therapeutic qualities. As Dutch philosopher Dries Boele puts it:

Wisdom is impossible without consulting one’s experience. If philosophy can be considered as an effort to make us feel at home in life, then the socratic dialogue looks for an understanding that is needed for that – not in the construction of an all-embracing metaphysical order in which man has his task (such as Hegel’s system), but in the investigation of experiences by which we sharpen our power of discernment and are able to live attentively in the present.

A good description of the creative and maturing experience of a Socratic dialogue is offered by the leader of a Danish folk high school, who took part in one of Finn Thorbjørn Hansen’s first dialogue groups in Denmark:

Participation in a Socratic dialogue group can best be described as a piece of music. Slowly, through the telling of personal examples relating to the main question, the participants tune in their instruments for a shared investigation. They become a single organism – like the orchestra: a flowing collaboration. A Socratic dialogue contains more music and painting than analytical ability and politics. It is a shared process of creation. And just as you don’t have to be a professional musician to enjoy and experience the world of music – similarly you do not have to have a degree in philosophy to enjoy and experience the world of philosophy. You don’t have to play a perfect tune in order to experience the “eros”, the wonder, which characterizes the good Socratic dialogue.

Hansen supports this characterization of the dialogue and of the philosophical inquiry in general by quoting Wittgenstein, who said: “I believe that I have summed up my approach to philosophy when I said: philosophy is something one should only compose – like poetry.”
To this Hansen solely adds, “philosophy, then, is – at its best – a poetic effort.”

Perhaps that is true of all good intellectual endeavours?


  1. aha!

    Det filosofferne siger om virkeligheden er tit lige så skuffende, som når man hos marskandiseren ser et skilt: Her vaskes. Hvis man afleverer sit tøj for at få det vasket, bliver man skuffet, for det er kun skiltet, som er til salg.

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  4. Christopher

    Pretty darn good. I’ve been looking for a word like “philosophologist.” A thoroughly enjoyable discussion all around. I also like the use of the squirrel to discuss the difference between absolute and relative. I’ll be quoting you: “Philosophy can be considered as an effort to make us feel at home in life.” I consider myself a dot-connecter by occupation as well. Tally-Ho!

  5. Ben Sharp

    “The question that philosophers have pondered since the beginning of time is: “What is philosophy, and how do I make money off it?”

    Really? That was a horrible way to start this piece. I don’t think any philosophers uttered or even thought of that phrase.

  6. Andreas

    Hi Ben,
    it’s a fair point! Thanks! I didn’t mean it literally, though. It was meant to be a cheeky way of saying that throughout time, philosophers have been interested in figuring out how they can make a living off their passion for philosophy. But I agree it came out in a rather crude way. I’ve changed the wording to:

    “One question that philosophers have sought to answer since the beginning of time is: “What is philosophy, and how can I make a living doing it?””

    The whole post could do with a rewrite, but I’ll leave the rest as it is. 🙂

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  8. DRVRao

    Philosophy is just not only the rational investigation of questions about existence and knowledge and ethics but also a guide to keep the society wrapped in the influence of moral conduct..

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