August 8, 2009

On Pop Philosophers

What exactly is a pop philosopher, and what distinguishes a pop philosopher from a philosopher simpliciter? This question has been on my mind due to trying to explain to people why certain very good pop philosophers, such as C.S. Lewis, are nevertheless not very good philosophers. I will try here to explain what I take the difference to be.

It should first be noted that both 'philosopher' and 'pop philosopher' are agency nouns. As such, they are attributed accidentally (inessentially) to a person in virtue of her involvement in certain activities: one person is called a 'butcher' in virtue of his butchering, and another is called a baker in virtue of her baking. Now, there are many varieties of 'involvement' that can lead to the application of an agency noun. For instance, a person can be called a baker because she (1) is minimally competent at baking, (2) is good at baking, (3) bakes occasionally (4) bakes often, (5) is a baking enthusiast, (6) makes her living by baking, (7) has been trained in baking, (8) has some sort of license or credential related to baking. There are surely other sorts of involvement with baking I haven't though of.

Additionally, it should be noted that a single individual can be involved in many activities, so that a person's being a baker does not prevent him from also being a butcher.

Now, the difference between a philosopher and a pop philosopher is not a difference in the sort of involvement. While it is probably true that most good pop philosophers (certainly including C.S. Lewis) have also been amateur philosophers, being an amateur philosopher is no part of what it is to be a pop philosopher. To say that someone is an amateur philosopher is to say that that person is involved in the same activity as the professional philosopher but in a different way. (There is an ambiguity: a 'professional' at an activity either (a) makes his living at that activity, or (b) engages in that activity at the highest level of skill.)

The pop philosopher, on the other hand, is called a pop philosopher in virtue of his involvement in a different activity than the philosopher. One thing that this means is that there is in principle no impediment to being both a pop philosopher and a philosopher (Harry Frankfurt, Daniel Dennet, and William Lane Craig come to mind), just as there is in principle no impediment to being both a butcher and a baker.

So what is the activity of the philosopher, and what is the activity of the pop philosopher? The philosopher is engaged in a certain sort of inquiry. The exact nature of this inquiry is notoriously difficult to define, but it makes use of logic, asks the so-called 'big questions', and strives for consistency and even systematicity in its answers. Writing, and communication generally, is incidental to this activity: writing to or otherwise communicating with other philosophers is helpful in the course of the inquiry. But the writing is not the point for the philosopher.

The pop philosopher is just the opposite: he is a writer (or, generally, a communicator) whose subject matter is philosophical in nature (whatever that means). As the modifier 'pop' indicates, he communicates to popular audiences. As such, actually engaging in philosophy - that is, doing his own inquiry - is incidental to the pop philosopher's activities. Clearly he needs to do some of that, at least to try to understand philosophers and their positions and decide which figures or positions to communicate about.

Similarly, at least in our current academic system, nearly all professional philosophers are constrained also to be pop philosophers: everyone has to take their turn teaching intro to undergrads. Nevertheless, the two activities are distinct and excellence in one is not excellence in the other.

Now, the identification of C.S. Lewis, and also Ayn Rand, as a pop philosopher under this definition should be uncontroversial, because Lewis and Rand are both primarily writers. Perhaps the same might be said about most of the famous existentialists. However, as I have said, being a pop philosopher, in whatever sense, does not preclude one from being a philosopher. In fact, it requires one to be a philosopher at least in the senses of being minimally competent at philosophy and occasionally engaging in philosophy. Furthermore, it is extremely common for an individual to be a professional philosopher and a professional pop philosopher, in the sense of making one's living from a combination of those two activities (philosophy professors are generally expected both to do research and to teach intro classes to undergraduate non-majors). However, I hold that it is, and always has been, extremely rare for one and the same individual to be a professional philosopher and a professional pop philosopher in the sense of engaging in both activities at the highest level.

To sum up the above in the simplest terms (that is, to try my hand at pop philosophy): a philosopher asks difficult questions and does her best to answer them; a pop philosopher tries to explain the difficult questions and possible answers to popular audiences. Most people who do philosophy also sometimes do pop philosophy, and vice versa, but very few people do both well.

Posted by Kenny at August 8, 2009 11:21 PM
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