A Society of Philosophers

Dialog discussing the idea that everybody should be a philosopher.

Bob (B): Hi.

Adam (A): Hi.

B: In a previous discussion, we had this exchange:

A: Does this mean that the most important thing in life is to pursue philosophy?
B: As a general statement, that might seem to imply that everyone should be philosophers.
A: Hmm. Well maybe they should be?
B: Maybe! I don’t think we should dismiss the possibility out of hand.
A: At the very least, it seems like you need a bunch of knowledge of philosophy in order to be able to think effectively about a bunch of issues
B: Yes, I agree. If you pursue a field besides philosophy as your primary vocation, you will need field-specific knowledge as well - in law or medicine or programming or whatever. But you will still need philosophical knowledge for guiding your actions effectively, being moral, being productive, learning effectively.

A: Yep.

B: In this podcast, Elliot answers a question about what the world would be like if everyone suddenly became good at philosophy.

A: Oh I vaguely remember that one. What did he say again?

B: Well, he indicates that there would be less fighting and misery, and that people would learn way faster, and we’d have way more programmers, and the economy and political situation would improve because people would learn and understand ideas related to politics and economics, and we’ve have a better/clearer/more principled foreign policy, and so on. He says there would be still be differences in people’s interests, and some people would focus on philosophy as a primary career and be advanced philosophers, and others would not. But the situation right now is that most people are really bad at philosophy, and it’s a really core and fundamental skill, and that basically everyone can stand to improve their skill at philosophy. In a world with lots of good philosophers, there wouldn’t be a critical shortage of them, and people could specialize in other fields like law, medicine, physics, or farming, without there being an issue there.

A: Interesting. So that sounds like Elliot thinks that in a world of good philosophers, you would have programmers or physicists or whatever, but there would be more high-quality philosophers and lots of people bringing philosophy to bear, in a useful, productive way, in their work and life.

B: Right. And even people specializing in philosophy might do other things sometimes btw - like Socrates was a soldier, he didn’t just do philosophy.

A: Right.

B: Peikoff talks about the issue of having some knowledge of philosophy versus being an expert/master of philosophy in this podcast (in the frame of discussing philosophy for an industrialist like Rearden vs. philosophy for a philosophy professional like Akston). Peikoff says it took him about 40 years of full time professional work to reach what he himself considers mastery of Objectivism.

A: Wow!

B: Yeah. He says it should be faster for people now because there’s a bunch of Objectivist writing (from him and Rand) that didn’t exist when he was learning.

A: Still!

B: So anyways, Objectivism also seems to recognize a distinction between the philosophical knowledge needed by an expert versus the philosophical knowledge needed by a “regular” person.

A: But I’m thinking that Objectivism would agree with Elliot that the philosophical knowledge that most people actually have is woefully inadequate and that there is much need for improvement.

B: Yeah. Recognizing a distinction between a basic tier of philosophical knowledge and an advanced tier does not imply anything about whether the current widespread knowledge of philosophy is sufficient or reaches even the basic tier.

A: Right.

B: It’s like, there are various superfine points of grammar that you can get into, if you are into that sort of thing and find it fun, and one can distinguish that kind of thing from more basic grammatical knowledge. But lots of people lack even the basic level of knowledge, and struggle with things like subject-verb agreement.

A: Right.

B: If you took someone from our society and put them into a society where people had a bunch of grammatical knowledge, it might seem like you had a society of grammarians.

A: Right. But the grammatical knowledge would really just be a widespread level of background knowledge that pretty much everyone would have, and that they would use in their everyday life while pursuing their various professions and communicating with people personally.

B: Right. Or, to get a different perspective on things - to use a point where our society is actually pretty advanced - imagine you were an illiterate peasant in a society where very few people knew how to read - maybe a town lawyer, a priest, that kind of thing. So illiteracy is the default, people don’t read books, etc. Being able to read at all is seen as advanced and scholarly, or maybe associated with the rich people who can spend time teaching their kids that kind of advanced, impractical stuff. And then you’re transported to our society somehow, and even poor people have widespread access to books, and middle class people might have huge bookshelves with tons of books, and even little kids are reading books.

A: We have a society of scholars!

B: Right, that’s what you might think. But really, being a scholar is still a specialized thing, and most people are just using background reading knowledge that most of them gained when they were very young, and often not using it for very good purposes (e.g. they might be uncritically reading trashy romance novels or low quality political books).

A: Right. So the standard of what marks one out as scholarly changed due to widespread literacy.

B: Exactly. And getting to the stage that people used to consider notable - being literate - requires focus and concentrated effort, but often goes relatively quickly for people. It doesn’t take 40 years or anything like that.