There are a lot of kinds of kinds of philosophers. Most obviously, we can break down philosophers by AOS. We can also divide philosophers by method: ‘empirically oriented’ or ‘arm chair’ (each year at the SPP a psychologist asks me which kind of those I am!) or something else. What I want to suggest is that there is another kind of kinds of philosophers, which perhaps depends more on one’s dispositions or personality than the content of what one argues in papers. I don’t mean to suggest that any of these are ‘bad’ kinds of philosophers, and I want to suggest that we all benefit by having the different kinds around. Here is a list (by no means comprehensive, feel free to recommend others):
- The systematic philosopher: Most of the greats belong here. These are folks who operate within most (or all) areas of philosophy offering a systematic view of everything.
- The expert in just that area: Folks who focused on one area (sometimes one problem!) for their whole career. Sometimes to the exclusion of almost anything else. I think this is less common in philosophy, but in other disciplines (such as history) often folks will become the world expert on a very narrow topic and are able to conduct all their research in that very narrow topic.
- The non-believer: This is the philosopher who is not interested in being pinned down. Perhaps lots of their papers are conditional (“here is how to solve the overdetermination problem, if you want to be a non-reductive physicalist”).
- The desultory philosophers: Some philosophers make a career out of disagreeing with themselves. (I consider this kind of philosopher distinct from the non-believer because they sincerely argue and endorse positions that they later sincerely argue against and reject).
- The formalizer: Sentential logic is too damn simple! Let’s break it all down to see what the hell is going on!
My point is not to prize one of these kinds of philosophers over the others. I think they all need each other—just as there is a division of labor among the disciplines within academia (and perhaps between the sub-disciplines of philosophy), I think we need to acknowledge a division of labor within the field of philosophy. The benefits of the systematic philosopher and the expert in just one area are, I think, pretty obvious, but we need the other folks too. I appreciate the honesty of the desultory philosopher, and it’s fun talking to them since they are totally willing to change their minds! The non-believer helps move debates along, even if they’re not sure about the starting points. I’m no formal philosopher, but there are plenty of times when a debate needs some ‘house cleaning’ (as a formal philosopher put it to me once).
I think adding this taxonomy is helpful because, while we might admire the content of what some philosopher says, we might not be the same kind of philosopher that they are. So attempting to emulate their overall approach might not be right for you. Maybe your supervisor is an ‘expert in one area’ type, but you would prefer to spend time thinking about the implication of your views in that area across sub-disciplines. Maybe you find a certain debate really interesting, even though you disagree with the starting premises. Maybe you’re not even a theist, but have something to say something about the trinity!
I have found myself thinking that all philosophers should be of either the first type or the second type. Or, in the case of early stage career philosophers, one must be the second type. However, after I finished writing my dissertation (on dual-process theory), I decided I wanted work on some of the tangents in the dissertation that I didn’t get to pursue then. It seems that realizing that there are other kinds of philosophers to be is healthy individually (I can do stuff I want to do!), and for us as a profession (we all benefit from these different kinds of philosophers being themselves).