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Are You a Philosopher or a Popularizer?

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Must I choose?

08052013-tumblr_mqzif3nYDT1r31mkdo1_500In recent conversation with a local philosopher and food writer, we got to talking about the work of a philosopher in the world today. There’s teaching, which employs academic rigor to help students understand where philosophy has been and what it has been up to. There’s research, typically a subset of teaching, that sorts truth from fiction and sometimes swaps the two. And then there’s, well…that’s it. That’s what a philosopher does in our culture.


Teaches rarified stuff only a few understand and even fewer care about.

Which is not to say philosophy is not happening all over the place.

I’ve begun to argue we’re all philosophizing all the time. We’re not all at the highly abstracted levels represented by academic philosophy. But we’re all in the business of making meaning. Most of us don’t much think about it: once we’ve figured out the basics of family and job and faith and community, the business of meaning-making largely runs on auto-pilot. Until we get cancer. Or age. Or lose a spouse.

Or see a sunrise.

The more questions we ask in everyday life—the less we take as a given—the more life we experience. This is the wonder of being amazed at the small connections that occupy those making meaning every day. Which should be all of us.

My recent conversation turned to the author Alain de Botton, who I described as a philosopher but then back pedaled. We allowed he was certainly a popularizer. I’m a fan of de Botton. I like the places his books send me and the meaning-making tasks he introduces. I also like to read Damon Young, the Australian who is a bona fide philosopher and card-carrying popularizer (meaning only that he regularly publishes philosophy columns in Australian newspapers).

I’m not sure so a philosopher cannot also be a popularizer.

I’ll argue my friend’s food writing displays a philosophical bent even as he courageously walks into the smallest, diviest joints in the metro. I’ll also argue that the ordinary conversations we have with each other, the ones where we try to sort out the details of life together, are themselves often instances of practicing a sort of popular philosophy.

Ordinary conversation is the very stuff of thinking together.

I hope it becomes more popular.


Image credit: Via 2headedsnake

Written by kirkistan

August 5, 2013 at 10:02 am

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