Reader mail.

In my inbox today:

I'm curious, what credentials (academic or otherwise) does one need to become a philosopher?

For the purposes of employment in a university philosophy department, a graduate degree in philosophy (usually a Ph.D. but sometimes an M.A.) is standard. Kind of like a chemist can be expected to have a degree in chemistry, or a biologist to have a degree in biology.

If you're an off-the-books philosopher, I imagine this requirement might be relaxed.

Now, whether there are good reasons to accept the degree-linked-credentialist status quo (for philosophy or any other academic field) is a separate question. Commenters are welcome to take a swing at that if they so choose.

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Doc Freeride - I'd love to hear about how you made the switch from training in the natural sciences into a post in the social sciences/humanities.

I am in a department with many disciplinary 'hoppers' (refugees?) and I find their perspectives on paradigmatic science, training, disciplines, etc. all very interesting.

Care to share?

I thought one's choice of seating arrangement was the key, i.e., an armchair philosopher is different from a barstool philosopher....

> If you're an off-the-books philosopher, I imagine
> this requirement might be relaxed.

Shall we propose minimal characteristics? Is an understanding of syllogistic logic necessary? The ability to recognize the difference between an axiom and a proposition?

I would assume that anyone who claims an interest calling oneself a philosopher has at least dabbled in reading the outstanding literature. You can't properly claim title to "philosopher" if you haven't read at least some philosophy. You don't necessarily have to have read even the standard range that is common in Phil 101 classes, but sometime, somewhere, you had to be seized with the desire to fully explore someone's philosophy other than your own, yes? Otherwise you're just some dude(tte) with opinions built inside your own experience, which is usually not interesting.

I caught so much "You're getting a PhD in what? Why?" during my graduate career that I described going to my dissertation defense thus: In two hours I will go before a jury of my peers who will determine whether or not I am guilty of philosophy...

Guilty as charged. The punishment, apparently, is a life of enlightened poverty. huzzah.

My job prospects being what they are at the moment (even more forlorn than most recent graduates' prospects), I'm especially amused by the idea of being an off-the-books philosopher: "Well, my primary job is academic advising - but I do a little under-the-table thinking job on the side here and there."

This may be completely made up in my deteriorating mind. In 1964 I took an informal seminar in philospohy of science. One of the speakers was the then chair of the Department of Philosophy, whose name I do not recall. My recollection is that he had no degree and had not finished high school, having left home at age 17 to study with Bertrand Russel. Makes a good story, anyway. And yes a PHD is usualy needed.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 23 Aug 2009 #permalink

Dr. Free-Ride: "Now, whether there are good reasons to accept the degree-linked-credentialist status quo (for philosophy or any other academic field) is a separate question. Commenters are welcome to take a swing at that if they so choose."

My view has long been that a degree should - except in very special circumstances - be considered a "necessary but not sufficient" criterion.

I don't see it as a matter of paying dues, but rather a minimal quality control mechanism. Attaining an advanced degree requires a significant investment in time because there is a large body of background work that needs to be absorbed and understood in order to take the field further. The degree, therefore, signifies that they have at minimum had the time and access to that material.

Of course, having a degree itself does not mean one cannot hold ideas that contradict the very information they spent years learning. The mere existence of Young-Earth Creationists with biology degrees shows that to be true. That is where the "... but not sufficient" aspect comes into play. If they aren't making meaningful contributions to the field, then the degree (at least in their hands) is just a piece of paper. That's why things like tenure require a certain amount of time and a review of your accomplishments.

I also look at the difference between different degree levels as being important. The difference between a PhD and a lower degree is the difference between adding to the body of scientific knowledge and simply learning that knowledge which was already established.

@ Mystyk

> Of course, having a degree itself does not mean
> one cannot hold ideas that contradict the very
> information they spent years learning.

Similarly, not having a degree does not mean that one has not spent years learning the process of philosophy (or is not a gifted informal learner, for that matter).

Of course, a degree-linked credentialist status is not an unreasonable minimum for academic employment, but there is a difference between someone who wishes to *teach* philosophy (where you have an obligation to expose your students to schools of thought with which you personally disagree), as opposed to someone who wishes to be regarded as a philosopher.