QOTD: The Difference Between Philosophy and Academics

Also for the bite-sized philosophy page, today’s question: What is the difference between an academic and a philosopher? 

Despite what some of the material on this site might suggest, I am not a philosopher. I have more in common with the potboiler writers of Astounding Fiction! (Inasmuch as I do an ungodly amount of work for wages a foreign landscaper would scoff at.) I feel I must point this out, as there is a — I think — a different between an academic and a scholar, or just someone who sits somewhere and looks at the sun and thinks … whatever it is the brightest among us think when they look at nature and unravel it. I am an academic, and I use the term to mean, “someone who is [reasonably] learned in institutions of learning.” That’s not a philosopher, and those words, philosopher and scholar, are only sometimes synonymous. The thoughts of a philosopher lead to new thoughts and even new academic institutions. Newton invented calculus, or stole it from Leibniz, who invented fucking calculus; it was a new way to measure things that had precedent in the world of academics, Euclid’s geometry, for example. Descartes would develop analytic algebra, Einstein would develop relativity, and Richard Feynmann would develop shit so far beyond genius that a modest volume (on light and its interaction with matter) could blow your mind with just a bunch of fucking arrows. 

A philosopher is a scholar who creates what future scholars will study; nothing I ever create will be studied by scholars. A philosopher is a present-tense scholar, an academic that studies the world and the people in it; as opposed to past-tense scholars, academics that study the words of the wise and contribute only to the criticism culture in art and literary circles. Anyone can learn about something that has happened, or a new language, calculus – the fucking central limit theorem if they so desired. (Give it up, you guy.) All of those subjects involve memory and its application. Philosophy draws on memory to imagine the future, to take events to their logical conclusions, to know what is happening as it happens. Thinkers do not always know what is happening presently, despite impeccable memory and clarity and wit.

A scholar, of literature or history or mathematics, can be dynamic, nuanced, and subtle, and even creative. A thinker strives to be thoughtful and understanding, and through this a thinker attempts to contribute something unique to the world of academics, a new element, like relativity or quantum electrodynamics. A philosopher is at the burden of his craft, at the mercy of the world, compelled to put each aspect of the competing dramas of a world at war into words the rest of us can understand, to help make peace with the people at war with themselves. The philosopher’s alibi is ‘Why?’ — this is a different alibi than, say, the engineer’s alibi, ‘How?’ It may me on more fertile and productive ground, but ‘How?’ to get a glass of milk is not as interesting a question as why any humans ever discovered milk was okay to drink.

The mirage, for the philosopher, is the oasis: the mystery is not the matter of simply answering it. A philosopher is not concerned with such magic, such subjective experiences: they want confusion and they will have it for, as bravery is not the absence of fear but the mastery of it, confusion is not the absence of knowing, but the struggle that must take place to allow for the possibility of understanding. An intellectual looks at the philosopher and the thinker and says, someday I’ll be like Newton, or Edison, and change the world by stealing ideas from smarter people, those suffering, miserable, desperate men and women that must know, and waste away with books and puzzles. All people of genius are similarly burdened with the madenning need to know more, to test the limits of the imagination, to push it beyond the capabilities of the rest of us, we average and unfortunate  masses, born without that spark, if only we spent our lives looking for patterns in nature, testing un-answerable questions against reason, if only we had the time to dedicate our lives to the pursuit of a new wisdom. Being a philosopher means learning the difference between knowledge and wisdom. And as I am not a philosopher, I have no answers for you. The best advice, I think, would be: think about it.

Bite Sized Philosophy started as a way for me to address broad, classically philosophical issues in shorter articles. This was to get some of my more time pressed friends into the outer realms of academia that obsess me and attempt to supply discussion or at least a conversation. One you can read on the subway, the toilet, and then forget about as easily as the last big scandal, the last plane crash or disaster, and for a moment, you can forget: the wise taste no better to worms.