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What Is a Philosopher?

Plato was a well-known Greek philosopher.
Philosophers may attempt to understand the origins of thought.
A statue of Confucius, an ancient Chinese philosopher.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 09 December 2014
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A philosopher is a person who studies and often writes and/or teaches about the issues underpinning many different areas of inquiry. These thinkers attempt to evaluate and understand the foundations of thought from a variety of perspectives, and they may contribute to one or more branches of philosophy that include studies on language, ethics, aesthetics, logic, religion or morals, metaphysics (studies on essential being and existence), politics, or epistemology (studies on knowledge). There are other possible areas of inquiry, and it could be said that most fields of thinking, whether scientific, artistic, or otherwise, are governed by at least one, and often a number of underlying philosophies.

The diversity makes it difficult to pin down or describe what the individual philosopher does or how that person gets training for his or her field. Some people interested in philosophical inquiry of the traditional kind go to school and get bachelor’s or higher degrees in philosophy. There they may study the history of philosophy, the different branches of it and eventually prepare to teach or apply it in some manner, typically by writing about it. Often, philosophers don’t study philosophy in school and instead study some other subject, then make new contributions in writing or thinking about that subject on a philosophical level. This may change the way the subject is perceived.

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The philosophy of any topic is marked by different movements in thought. For example, in literature, fundamental ideas about how to critique a work have gone through numerous shifts. Plato argued that written work was problematic because it would fall into the hands of people who didn’t know how to interpret it properly. Much later, a critic and philosopher like Stanley Fish developed reader response criticism, which in part served to make text much more accessible to all readers, in direct opposition to Plato. Other schools of criticism have come and gone, but they can all be said to be the product of philosophic inquiry, or the attempt in some systematic way to create a new method of looking at things.

In more traditional philosophy such as the study of metaphysics, there have been numerous ideas that have influenced human thinking. Today’s philosopher who wants to contribute in that field must have a very strong sense of this history. Sometimes in writing, a philosopher doesn’t develop his own ideas but goes back and discusses the work of other philosophers who may have been principally ignored, but had ideas relevant to the present.

Ultimately, the philosopher is concerned with fundamental questions that underlie basic knowledge systems or basic existence. He or she may develop theories that explain how things work or how they should work, based on serious scrutiny of past and present. Philosophers may teach and/or write and they don’t just come from backgrounds where they’ve principally studied philosophy. Numerous people from multiple disciplines have contributed to the field of philosophy because of their ability to contribute new thought to different areas of study.

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