Who can be a philosopher?
UPDATE 2022-08-07 21:05 +0300: Better watch the new video on this topic: https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-08-07-who-can-be-philosopher/.
Unlike most entries in the present section of my website, this is not a reply to a particular message. It rather captures the spirit of remarks that I have noticed and want to hereby address.
The impression I get from exchanging views with lay people is that they consider philosophy something obscure and totally alien to their everyday life. The philosopher is, in their mind, some unique brand of misunderstood intellectual whom ordinary folk cannot communicate with. Maybe there are good reasons for this biased view, though I shall explain why it is inaccurate and ultimately works to your detriment.
Let’s start with the problématique of the titular question. The sole prerequisite to becoming a philosopher is patience. One must have the attitude of not expecting immediate results. This is true for everything that involves a degree of sophistication. You must work for it over an extended period of time. There is no magic trick to develop expertise over the weekend.
The person who is patient is naturally inclined to persist on their cause. As you are already in the mindset of not seeking instant gratification, you are prepared to stick to the task and see it through.
Patience allows the person to grow their skills organically. You start small and through incremental refinements learn how to be more effective at what you do.
Patience also predisposes the person to think and behave wisely. Thinking and acting often are two sides of the same coin, but I mention them as distinct magnitudes for the sake of clarity. When you think patiently, you are not troubled by the fact that you have more questions than answers. As you explore the world and understand yourself better, you realise that each answer begets ten more questions (“ten” is a figure of speech). Patience is what keeps you on the path. You do not grow desperate to find an answer right away. Such answers may not exist or be attainable under the prevailing conditions.
In contradistinction, the impatient fellow tends to behave in a manner that is imprudent. Not because they are inherently foolish. It simply is due to their impulsive reaction, which makes them opt for wrong choices.
As with everything we do, patience is a skill unto itself. We learn to get better at it. As such, the beginner and the advanced philosopher may exhibit different degrees in their capacity to be patient. That is okay. What matters for our purposes is the disposition: be patient as much as you can. Do not worry about how patient you will become in six months or six years: worries of that sort come from a place of impatience—you do not need them.
Notice how I mention the term “disposition”. This is the attitude you have. When you are patient, you do not set impossible goals for yourself. You are, in a manner of speaking, content with learning from how a turtle behaves: one slow and steady step at a time. We live in a world that conditions us to do things hard and fast. It is over-the-top and “it works”. Though the subtlety is lost. Consider doing things slowly and deliberately. Put your heart and soul into it, as we say. Give it as much time as it deserves and you will notice how much stronger the resulting connection is.
The flip-side of this disposition is how you allow others the space they need to nurture their own talents. When you are patient, you let the other person speak their mind. You do not rush to interrupt them every few seconds. Your silence does not bother you—you will get your turn. The other person must, however, respect your time and show the requisite patience while you do the talking. Otherwise you need to explain how things stand and ask them to either leave or learn to be patient.
Once your exchanges are grounded in mutual patience, which is another way of describing respect, you have what it needs for a fruitful conversation. You no longer talk without listening. You are actually paying attention—quite the novelty for a lot of folks! When you pay attention, you practice the skill of focusing on the moment. Your mind does not drift away: your patience keeps it concentrated on what lies before you. If anything, this skill will give you more meaningful interactions with people, be they family, friends, lovers, colleagues.
From your day-to-day experience, you will realise how patience helps you tell apart the superficial from the profound. Why? Because you always give it the attention it deserves. You do not draw baseless assumptions or reach early conclusions. More generally, you do not act from a position of prejudice or whimsy. You wait. Your review is more informed.
Patience, then, contributes to your sagacity. You become wiser. This is not to say that every philosopher is a sage. The former is a friend of wisdom (that’s the literal meaning of the word), the latter is wise. By befriending wisdom, we start learning how to be wise ourselves.
Do you have patience? Do you want to not act out of impulse? Do you wish to have fulfilling relationships? If yes, then you too can be a philosopher. Philosophy is not some club reserved for a select few. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
“But,” I hear your naysaying voice, “don’t I need to be a genius or something?” No, you do not. Who taught you to belittle yourself like that? I have explained what is the prerequisite to become a philosopher, i.e. a friend of wisdom. It will help you in your everyday life. Patience can be cultivated. Whereas a genius is not a matter of choice. Our society celebrates genius and idolises it, though you must not forget that the genius is all-too-often a tragic figure. Brilliant at a certain task, but irregular and a misfit at others. If most of us could choose between our life, with all of its accoutrements, and that of a genius, with all of its untold grievances, we would likely opt for what we already have. My point is this: no, it is not a prerequisite to becoming a friend of wisdom. Don’t worry about it.
With those granted, I feel you can already anticipate the answer to the follow-up question of “who is philosophy for?” Everyone. Every person, no matter their field of endeavour has something to gain by befriending wisdom. Not all can become sages, just like not every person can be a nurse, an engineer, an elite athlete, a painter, et cetera. What we want is to have a disposition of patience that underpins values such as tolerance and open-mindedness.
Nowadays, “tolerance and open-mindedness” are inane buzzwords. Everyone purports to be open-minded. Everyone engages in virtue-signalling about how tolerant they are. What we learn by practising philosophy, is to go beyond the superficialities. We are patient, persistent, and necessarily honest in what we do. Everything has to be genuine. Openness as an attitude, not empty words on social media. Tolerance as a mode of living, not political correctness to attract voters in the current election cycle. And so on.
Philosophy is for everyone who wants authenticity in their life. Whether it is conceptual clarity or interpersonal relations, it must be authentic.
Do not belittle yourself. You do not need to be “special”, whatever that means, to be a philosopher. Remember that it all starts with patience. Basic stuff! Not by reading tomes that contain millions of unknown words and are impossible to decipher. Not by memorising all the “-isms” and typologies that books write about. Philosophy can come from the little things, those which you consider mundane and currently pay no attention to.
Finally, note that what I write here is my opinion and how I do philosophy. Other philosophers may hold different views. That’s fine. To me, philosophy is a modus vivendi that is open to everyone. It is not an academic exercise in intellectuality reserved for a certain elite.
Good luck on the long road ahead!