I don’t like it one bit when people take the essence of a thing, blend it with other things, complicate it, and put it on a pedestal so that the small ones—children, amateurs, and outsiders—cannot take hold of it.
This is what intellectuals have done with philosophy.
I share Eric Hoffer’s distrust of intellectuals. Eric Hoffer is called the “longshoreman philosopher” because he writes philosophy during breaks when he isn’t lifting heavy boxes to make a living as a longshoreman (a person employed in a port to load and unload ships). Despite not being schooled, Eric’s mind was sharp and his thinking was recognized by many authors during his time.
He has this to say about intellectuals:
What the intellectual craves in his innermost being is to turn the whole globe into a classroom and the world’s population into a class of docile pupils hanging onto the words of the chosen teacher.
He defined an intellectual as:
one who saw himself as born to teach, lead and command
a literate person who feels himself a member of … an intellectual elite.
On his book The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Hoffer famously said:
Scratch an intellectual, and you find a would-be aristocrat who loathes the sight, the sound and the smell of common folk.
What Hoffer did was philosophy. But he didn’t have to be an intellectual—an academic, someone with a degree—to do philosophy. Philosophy was as accessible as the air he breathe. At its essence, philosophy is simply “engaging with knowledge.” You know something by means of your bodily functions. You engage with the knowledge in whatever means—sometimes you use it as a form of consolation, sometimes as a form of entertainment, inspiration, or practical know-how. The motivations to engage with knowledge can vary but it is what it is_—engaging with knowledge_.
Now, intellectuals see philosophy differently. They can’t be satisfied with seeing philosophy as something as simple as this. Rather, they see it as a sacred relic in need of protection. And to protect it, they divided it into individual disciplines, expanded each, and appointed guardians to these disciplines. But they weren’t satisfied. They caged the disciplines into the institutions of universities, created expensive programs that people could only access by paying, and appointed experts to lead these programs.
If someone comes along wanting to engage with knowledge but chooses to do so outside these caged programs, he is looked down upon by these experts. Even if he produces good work, he won’t be recognized for it. Instead, he will be judged based on whether or not he has a Ph.D. If he doesn’t, he is not a “professional philosopher.” If he is not recognized by his peers, he is a quack.
Eric Hoffer was an outlier and working with knowledge has become a tribal ritual and a competitive sport.
The “professional philosopher,” having lived inside the cage for so long will brand any work happening outside the academe as subpar, mediocre, hoax, and “not philosophy.”
An ordinary fisherman is unlettered, uneducated, and incapable of doing philosophy. To even think that he could engage with knowledge is ludicrous. To call him a philosopher is blasphemy.
And yet, knowledge is so powerful a force to be confined within the stalwart walls of academia. The more you protect knowledge—by hiding it inside jargon—the more it leaks out. When knowledge leaks out, it becomes potent and lethal. Put it on the hands of the wrong people and you’ve started a wildfire.
Why can’t we work from a place of truth that knowledge is more democratic than intellectuals assume? Knowledge permeates in the crevices of the societal stonewall. It creeps inside the heads of the unlettered, the disabled, the poor, the inarticulate, the ordinary folk.
I refuse to use the word philosophy in such a narrow sense—because it has been very clear to me that what we do when we are philosophizing is not at all narrow. To call oneself a “professional philosopher” is to not understand one’s discipline.
You can cage medicine, nursing, engineering, or computer science into disciplines—but never philosophy. It’s a vibrant animated force that escapes every attempt to capture it.
Probably, the most accurate description of how we should think of philosophy was captured by Thoreau in his journal entry dated December 15, 1859:
Philosophy is a Greek word by good rights, and it stands almost for a Greek thing. Yet some rumor of it has reached the commonest mind. M. Miles, who came to collect his wood bill today, said, when I objected to the small size of his wood, that it was necessary to split wood fine in order to cure it well, that he had found that wood that was more than four inches in diameter would not dry, and moreover a good deal depended on the manner in which it was corded up in the woods. He piled his high and tightly. If this were not well done the stakes would spread and the wood lie loosely, and so the rain and snow find their way into it. And he added, “I have handled a good deal of wood, and I think that I understand the philosophy of it.