(Who) is a philosopher?

Trinity asked:

Can we consider Joseph Campbell to be a philosopher? I’ve read on your website that you have to study philosophy to be a philosopher, but does the fact that he taught philosophy make him a philosopher even if he didn’t formally study the topic. He did spend 5 years in the woods reading.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I don’t know a lot about Joseph Campbell but I’m going to attempt an answer to your question anyway. That’s one of the things philosophers do. We’re not interested in investigating facts (the historical origins of myths, for example) but rather what can be reasoned out and proved without appeal to empirical data.

Philosophy is the ‘art of reason’ (according to Jonathan Barnes, author of The Presocratic Philosophers Routledge 1982). This is a nice definition because it combines two ideas that one doesn’t normally put together: art and reason.

Consider the art of drawing. To be master of this art, it is not enough to be able to draw a good likeness. You need to have mastered the different techniques and media (charcoal, pencil, conte, graphite stick etc.), know how to create different effects (e.g. shading or cross hatching), understand the laws of perspective, and have a good knowledge of human anatomy. To master the art of reason, it is not enough to be able to argue logically. Most persons can do that. Reason is much more than logic. The Presocratic philosophers invented new principles of reasoning that no-one had even considered before. The pushed forward our understanding of the nature of reason and the reasoning process.

Take the two (arguably) most fundamental problems of philosophy: the nature of Being and the nature of Consciousness. These questions can be found in Eastern and Western Philosophy. These are questions that move me, even though — despite all that i have learned — I doubt that I will ever solve them. However, it’s what you do in response to questions like these that defines the kind of thinker that you are. What I’ve tried to do, over the years, is reason these questions out. Maybe they are simply immune to reasoning, recalcitrant. insoluble.

Joseph Campbell had a different approach, as I understand it. Recognizing the limits of reason, he looked to the experience of the transcendent or numinous — the way of mysticism. Does that mean he is not a philosopher?

Let’s consider other great thinkers: Is Richard Feynmann a philosopher? Is Samuel Beckett a philosopher? is Mahatma Gandhi a philosopher? Put any of these men in a room with a philosophy professor and odds on the professor will look intellectually puny by comparison. All three produced ideas that changed the way we look at the world. The philosophical implications of their work are immense. No doubt there are many who would say the same about Joseph Campbell.

Speaking personally, philosophy has taken me to the point where I wonder whether, in fact, I am a philosopher. I am too keenly aware of the limits of reason (although it could just be my limits that are in question, not reason as such). So now I’ve taken to calling myself a philosophizer. It’s just a word. You can be a philosophizer — someone who takes a keen interest in the questions of philosophy — without undertaking the stringent commitment to rely on the art of reason alone.

In these terms, Campbell was undoubtedly a philosophizer. The case I’ve sought to make here is that it is not really interesting or relevant to ask whether, in addition, he was a ‘philosopher’.


One thought on “(Who) is a philosopher?

  1. My answer to Trinity. Trinity asked: Can we consider Joseph Campbell to be a philosopher?

    Try to find out what a philosopher is doing. He puts questions and looks for answers. But what sort of questions and answers are philosophical ? There are technical questions to the engineer or to the normal houswife : “How to do this or that ?” This is not philosophy. Then there are logical and methodological questions as in math. Those are not philosophical questions either. There are questions of the artist : “What colour to put here ?” This too is not a philosophical question. There are more examples.

    But when you ask “What is art ?”, “What are the dangers of technical thinking?” or “Are there questions that have no definite answers?” you are in the philosophical realm. There are many such questions.

    The question of Campbell was : “Why do humans of all times and places honour a certain type of humans as ‘heroes’ in their mythical stories ? Since there is no need to do so, there must be something in the nature of human thinking that causes us to find these heroes of importance to our self-understanding.” Thus in the end Campbell was asking for our human self-understanding. By this he was a philosopher, since what other expert should have asked this question? The engineer? No! The mathematician and logician? No! The artist? No!

    The philosopher seen thus is an expert on questions that are important, but of a very unspecific nature, so that they are in nobody elses responsibility.

    Whether somebody has studied philosophy is of no importance. Wittgenstein and Nietzsche, both among the most acclaimed philosophers, have never studied philosophy formally. They both would have failed any normal philosophical test. And they wouldn’t have cared.

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