“What sort of philosopher do I want to be?” Let’s begin with the sort of philosopher I do not want to be.

It seems part of many folk traditions to criticize the establishment, or the so-called “sages,” or even the local culture. The Akan of Sierra Leone say, “If you become too wise, you say ‘Good Morning’ to a sheep” (Appiah, Proverbs of the Akans, 2007). There’s another Akan proverb: “If you were able to able to know all wisdom, a fool’s wisdom you would not be able to know anything about” (Appiah, 2007). Doesn’t folly have its place?


Consider “The Hermit Philosopher” from the Republic of Georgia. It criticizes the sage, not by defending folly as the above Akan proverb does, but by foisting folly on the shoulders of the sage.

There was once a wise man who loved solitude, and dwelt far away from other men, meditating on the vanities of the world. One day as he wandered among the greenery of his garden, the sage stopped before a large walnut tree covered with ripening nuts, and said, “Why is there such disharmony in nature? Here, for instance, is a walnut tree a hundred years old, and yet how small is its fruit: indeed it grows from year to year, but its fruit is always of the same size! On the other hand, there grow great pumpkins and melons on very small creeping plants. It would be much more fitting if the pumpkins grew on the walnut trees and the walnuts on the pumpkin beds. Why this lack of orderliness?” The sage thought deeply on the subject, and walked in the garden for a long time, till at last he felt sleepy. He lay down under the shady walnut tree, and was soon sleeping peacefully. In a short time, he felt a slight blow on the face, then a second, and then a third. As he opened his eyes, a ripe walnut fell on his nose. The sage leaped to his feet, and said: “Now I understand the secret of nature. If this tree had borne melons or pumpkins, my head would have been broken. From this moment forward let no one presume to find fault with Providence!” (Wardrop, 172f)

Many, especially philosophers, will easily recognize what is behind this tale—the so-called argument from design, probably the oldest and most famous of the numerous arguments for God’s existence. Roughly, it goes something like this:

(1) Nature everywhere exhibits orderly structures and processes.
(2) Orderly structures and processes are always the work of an intelligent personality.
(3) Nature is the work of an intelligent personality, that is, of God.

At first, this tale seems contrived and its moral obvious: it is intended as support for the argument from design. But is this right? Let’s look a bit deeper. The sage in the story assumes that nature is made for humans. The sage would most likely agree with the medieval scientist Paracelsus, who wrote: “It is God’s will that nothing remain unknown to man as he walks in the light of nature, for all things belonging to nature exist for the sake of man” (Quoted in Cottingham, 62).

However, is it not the height of absurdity to infer from the fact that the fruit of the walnut tree is small enough so as not to injure a human that the secret of nature is understood? Or, perhaps the height of arrogance since the “sage” assumes that nature is made for humans? I believe that this tale is a parody of the argument of design and the sage the object of ridicule. As such, there is nothing contrived or obvious about this folktale. Of course, a number of philosophical texts as well vigorously challenge the anthropocentric view of Paracelsus. For an excellent example, see Baruch Spinoza’s Appendix to Part I of his radical Ethics. And for a famous critique of the argument from design, see David Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion. It’s highly improbable that Spinoza and Hume were inspired by folktales, but the Georgian folktale reproduced above provides such a memorable way of dealing with these issues.

Spinoza drawing

I take it that one of the points of the tale is that the “sage” lacked patience, for he seemed impatient, perhaps even desperate, to find an answer to the deep questions about life. Impatience is problematic in itself, but the sage was also looking for a particular kind of answer, or as I like to put it, thinking under a banner. There are other legitimate possibilities that he didn’t even consider. For instance, the weight of a pumpkin can be much more easily supported on the ground than it can suspended in a tree. For those of you previously exposed to the history of philosophy, think about the philosophers you’ve encountered. Do any of them remind you of this hermit sage? Have you heard of “armchair” philosophy? Residing in his round tower overlooking his estate, Montaigne seems to have lamented his detachment from the world around him. On the other side of the coin, consider the case of Socrates, who philosophized day in and day out with others on the streets of Athens. Or Aristotle (the teacher of Alexander the Great) who thought of knowledge as a collective achievement? Descartes’ dreams and habit of sleeping-in are well-known, but he was also a famous mathematician and scientist, on the cutting edge of these disciplines, in contact with other mathematicians and scientists. Were these philosophers hermit sages? Surely not.

A particular sort of sage is critiqued in this folktale—a solitary, impatient, dogmatic, and anthropocentric one. Precisely the sort of sage I don’t want to be.

Ok, so what sort of sage do I want to be? I want to work with others (so far I’ve co-written two published philosophical articles), be patient (the deepest questions are not quickly answered and many will remain unanswered for the foreseeable future), be non-dogmatic (proceeds with a healthy dose of skepticism), and not unduly focused on human problems (there are many other sentient beings in the universe, including many of the animals we eat in hordes). There’s something else, too. I want to be a philosopher that’s engaged with others and plays an active role in public life. Tania Lombrozo writes clearly about this in a recent NPR blog, providing several excellent examples, and I very much sympathize with her thesis.

Lombrozo could have expressed her point in a different way entirely: that philosophy should go back to its roots. Ancient philosophers were, for the most part, not only regularly engaged in public life themselves, but also they championed such an approach to philosophy. Aristotle believed that humans were rational, social animals. To fulfill our function well (that is, to be virtuous) then humans must live rationally with others. Anyone who acts otherwise will not flourish, analogous to a tree whose roots have no access to water. The Stoics, including Epictetus and Seneca, were cosmopolitan (like it or not, we are citizens of the universe) and argued that to be a virtuous citizen meant to live harmoniously with all others.

Diogenes quote

To be clear, however, Aristotle and the Stoics also addressed thorny philosophical disputes that had little obvious connection or meaning to the public at large, disputes that were metaphysical or epistemological in character rather than ethical or political. They were systematic philosophers. But this doesn’t mitigate the fact that for them the philosopher is a social, political creature who should be concerned with living harmoniously together and in the world. (I would be amiss not to point out that while Leibniz never was a teacher, as suggested by the title of this blog, he was highly motivated to improve the public good. See my online article titled “The Optimistic Science of Leibniz.“) 

Though explained in an exaggerated manner, David Hume makes a helpful distinction.

In his Enquiry on Human Understanding, Hume speaks of two kinds of philosophy (and therefore of philosopher): the “easy and obvious” and the “abstruse.” Whereas the former is practical, memorable, and action-guiding, the latter is impractical, forgettable, and purely speculative. Hume writes that “the abstruse philosophy, being founded on a turn of mind which cannot enter into business and action, vanishes when the philosopher leaves the shade and comes into open day, nor can its principles easily retain any influence over our conduct and behavior. The feelings of our heart, the agitation of our passions, the vehemence of our affections, dissipate all its conclusions and reduce even the profound philosopher to a mere plebeian.” (Recall the above folktale about the “sage” under the walnut tree.)

Hume is confident not only that the abstruse will be overshadowed by the easy and obvious, but also that this is a good thing. He writes:

[It] must be confessed that the most durable as well as most just fame has been acquired by the easy philosophy and that abstract reasoners seem up to now to have enjoyed only a momentary reputation from the caprice or ignorance of their own age…. The fame of Cicero flourishes at present, but that of Aristotle is utterly decayed. La Bruyère passes the seas and still maintains his reputation. But the glory of Malebranche is confined to his own nation and to his own age. And Addison, perhaps, will be read with pleasure when Locke shall be entirely forgotten.

Now, Hume couldn’t have picked worse examples! Who today reads La Bruyére and Addison, much less studies them? Whereas Aristotle and Locke are ubiquitous. At any rate, Hume insists:

The mere philosopher is a character which is commonly but little acceptable in the world, as being supposed to contribute nothing either to the advantage or pleasure of society, while he lives remote from communication with mankind and is wrapped up in principles and notions equally remote from their comprehension.

I tend to agree. It is clear that Hume presents himself as not a “mere” philosopher, for by means of his own writings, he says, that “virtue becomes amiable, science agreeable, company instructive, and retirement entertaining.” What’s Hume’s point? “Be a philosopher, but, amid all your philosophy, be still a man.”

Back Camera
Hume in a toga(?!) in Edinburgh.

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