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A lot going on here. But, as is always my thought when I think about this distinction. Boy do I feel bad for those who are good at academic philosophy but not good at philosophy. Simply learning the skill of how to churn out a publishable article by responding to some tiny niche in the literature, or by solving or creating some mostly irrelevant puzzle, is not impressive. It's too bad more good philosophers aren't rewarded for their goodness. In fact, when I think of the good philosophers as opposed to the good academic philosophers that I know, it is the former who are almost always the better teachers, and the ones with whom I engage in genuine philosophical conversation.

Ian James Kidd

Thanks, SM. I, too, want to emphasise that there are excellent philosophers who are outside the academic system. Publishing in journals, working in a university, etc., is only one way to philosophise; it has many advantages, most obviously that of providing a social and material infrastructure for enquiry. But there are other ways to philosophise, too!

Alan  White

SM refers to something that I think is indispensable to being a good philosopher in academia--being a good teacher. Because for the overwhelming number of employed philosophers, that is the core of their professional lives.


Hi Ian,

I wasn't really referring to good philosophers outside the academia. I was referring to good philosophers in the academia who can play the publishing game, but can do a whole lot more. There are many good academic philosophers who I doubt can do much more than write articles. Unfortunately, they seem to get the jobs. But I think that might be changing somewhat. I think good teaching is being prized now.

As a later-stage graduate student, I am working on and thinking about my teaching as much as I can.

Alan  White

I like Ian!

Former Grad Student

If being a good academic philosopher is a distinct skillset from being a good philosopher, then doesn't that say something kind of damning about academic philosophy and the position philosophy occupies within greater academia? If so, then why should one try to be a good academic philosopher in the first place? Why not depend on something else for money (...I hear programming's more in demand than lens grinding these days) and work on philosophy when one has the time?

I highly doubt that the independent philosophers who we now regard as "historical figures" would have benefitted from working within the confines of the current academic system. Additionally, many of the specific ills of that system in America (i.e. tuition creep for students, poor working conditions and criminally insufficient pay for non-tenure-track instructors, reliance on grant funding institutions like Templeton, and so on) seem not terribly great to implicitly support by participating in that particular system.

So yeah, I guess my question is: why bother learning the skills to prosper (relatively speaking) in a miserable, abusive professional environment if one's goal is *really* just to do philosophy?


I have a print disability and this distinction is something I use to console myself, though a decent job would be an even better consolation. In conversations, seminars, and talks, it often seems people find me to be pretty insightful, knowledgeable, and lucid. But polishing written work for academic publication is so slow and exhausting for me that I fear I may never actually be able to do it. One aspect of the academic game is that written arguments count for far more than any spoken arguments do. Overall, this may be a good thing since it may make it easier to assess merit, but also entails that I will be less good at this particular game than others.

Ian James Kidd

Smith&Jones: thanks - yes, many of the academic skills are highly ableist, such as the reliance on written documents coupled to the typical lack of easily accessible support for those with a range of disabilities. One could imagine alternative ways of sharing our arguments: for instance, instead of writing up our articles, why not try a central repository of recorded talks - a sort of journal vlog (jlog?) More universities have the necessary technology, and the Royal Institute of Philosophy blogs its talks for the London Lecture series as well as publishes them in its journal: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCEQRhXQwUe-1ZKIJmnBvHsw.

Ian James Kidd

Former Grad Student: thanks - I think there *is* an important difference between the academic virtues and the philosophical virtues - namely, that philosophy does not have to talk the familiar academic forms (degrees, journals, conferences, etc.). Academic philosophy is the currently entrenched way of doing philosophy, and does have some advantages, even if many disadvantages (eg the working culture of overactivity, systemic underfunding, etc.) But then I prefer to try and reform it from within, with the provisos that those who stay inside the academic system recognise - and, where appropriate, engage and support - the philosophising that goes on outside. We don't do that very well, it seems: the attitude very often seems to be, "once you're out, you're out!"


"It is a good thing if one can do the elevator-pitch, grant-writing, ‘crafting a paper’ things, but only because they allow one to do the really important thing – doing good philosophy."

Why isn't this in conflict with the rest of the piece? Isn't the point that one can be a good philosopher without any competence in the trappings of academia?

Ian James Kidd

Hi, C.W. I think one can philosophise outside of academia; this piece was more directed at those striving to pursue philosophising within the academic system. In that system, one needs both sets of competences.

Stephen John

Hi Ian, this is super interesting and thought provoking. Two quick thoughts:
1. Is there a similar difference in other subjects? I mean, can one be a good biologist but not a good academic biologist or good historian but not a good academic historian? I can imagine versions of both cases but they both seem quite different from your philosophy examples - so, I can see that someone might be brilliant at historical research but so horribly shy that they never get a job, but can’t quite think what it is to be brilliant at historical research but bad at writing history. Maybe that’s just my lack of imagination or knowledge, though. But it does seem interesting to ask whether and how this distinction works elsewhere
2. I can see that some of the skills of being a good academic philosopher are very historically specific - writing good research grant applications, say. But is there a huge amount of variation in the skills required to be an academic philosopher (at least in contexts where such a job admits). I mean, I may be wrong but I kind of feel that being personable is probably important in lots of otherwise very different academic settings. Is it possible that there’s less variation in the skills needed to be a good academic philosopher than in the skills needed to be a good philosopher? Does that imply something interesting? Again, I’m not certain. But interesting stuff

Martin Lenz

What a great post! Now I'd just like to make two points: (1) Philosophers often act as competitors. But competition is not a feature of what you call philosophy; rather it's a feature of what you call *academic* philosophy.
(2) It might be better to stop seeing "good quality" as a feature of individual philosophers. Rather good quality is a property of a discussion, because whether or not something counts as good is determined by all the interlocutors involved.

Here's a brief post explaining these points in a bit more detail: https://handlingideas.blog/2019/03/02/the-competition-fallacy/

Ian James Kidd

Hi Stephen! Thanks -

(1) I suspect similar forms of the distinction play out in different subjects, yes - eg the difference between subject skills/academic skills will apply widely. There are excellent historians and botanists, even if they'd make poor academic historians and academic botanists. They can trawl archives, collective specimens, classify, confirm details, make sense of puzzling findings, write up their findings, etc., and do whatever botanists do ... they just don't do the academic things like writing journal articles or monographs etc. Maybe one common difference IS writing up one's work in the formats of journals and monographs is a specific skill for academic forms of history/botany, that aren't necessary for non-academic' history and botany?

(2) I agree a lot of the skills are contingent to the particular, evolving forms of late modern academic philosophy (eg managing things like TEF and REF). Others will be generic to any institutionally organised enquiry, or to collectivised epistemic agency (eg being able to initiate and sustain working relationships). Moreover, the borders between philosophy and other disciplines are often fuzzy, hence people sometimes worrying about whether what they do is "really philosophy". We could distinguish between (a) exclusively philosophical abilities and (b) abilities that are given a higher premium within philosophy than in other subjects, perhaps? Close conceptual analysis, charting logical spaces, generating novel counterexamples ... people offer all sorts of candidates.

Ian James Kidd

Hi Martin! Thanks -

(1) I agree that competition is incentivised and facilitated by many of the structures and norms of academic philosophy, although I think there can be competition outside of those structures (eg competition between rival schools for prestige, students, influence, of the sort described in, eg, G.E.R. Lloyd's 'Adversaries and Authorities').

(2) I like your critique of the concept of 'quality'! It'd be very interesting, then, to see how the ideas in this post would play out if we think of *our* being good philosophers. Some of the abilities for being a good philosopher are, as you say, even better when exercised collectively - eg I can only be *so* creative when I'm working all by my lonesome.

Martin Lenz

Many thanks for your reply, Ian!
(Ad 1) Right, I had not thought of schools, but such competitions seem to be in line with "academic" structures, rather than the philosophies defended. In such cases, the claim to pursue the truth seems to be instrumental to gaining credibility over rivals. But I'll check out Lloyd.

(Ad 2) Yes, I wonder whether the collective is tied only to certain forms of philosophy or necessary across the board. (I thought of *public* reason as necessary as a source of normativity)

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