Is it inherently arrogant to be a philosopher? I think maybe so. I think arrogance is a tendency philosophers should push back against in themselves, but I suspect it is inherent in the activity of philosophy anyway.
Maybe it’s inherently arrogant to think you can say something true, new, and useful about topics which have confounded humans and remained mysterious for all of recorded history.
Let’s analyze more carefully. For starters, what do I mean by “philosopher,” and what do I mean by “arrogant?”
In the past, people (e.g. Isaac Newton) did not draw clear distinctions between philosophy, science, and magic; these concepts were somewhat rolled together into one.
Historically, “philosophy” encompassed any body of knowledge.
In the 19th century, the growth of modern research universities led academic philosophy and other disciplines to professionalize and specialize.
With the rise of the modern university system, there was a shift in the meaning of “philosophy.” The term went from referring to intellectual studies in general, to referring to a specific area of study, the area studied by philosophy departments in universities.
Basically, it seems to me that the department of philosophy in a university is the department which studies all the questions which aren’t the kind of question addressed by any other department.
Academic philosophers don’t answer questions of physics, biology, history, etc. Academic philosophers study a “miscellaneous” category of questions, which includes most of humanity’s deepest and most intractable intellectual mysteries. The category includes many questions which people have asked for all of recorded history without arriving at any agreed upon answers.
For this post I’ll assume that philosophers are people who ask and try to answer big questions, which can’t be answered by any established methodology in academia, and which relate to perennial intellectual mysteries. Is it inherently arrogant to engage in such activity?
What do I mean by “arrogant?” Here are some dictionary definitions I looked up:
- “having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.” (Google)
- “exaggerating or disposed to exaggerate one’s own worth or importance often by an overbearing manner” (Merriam-Webster)
- “Someone who is arrogant behaves in a proud, unpleasant way toward other people because they believe that they are more important than others.” (Collins Dictionary)
Do philosophers necessarily meet any of these definitions?
I’ll set up a case which tries to maximize the likelihood of not meeting these definitions. Let’s consider a philosopher who says something like this:
I am interested in big questions which have confounded humans as long as we can remember. I don’t believe that I myself can answer these questions definitively, but I believe that humanity as a whole can deepen our understanding around these questions. I believe that I can build on the work of past philosophers, and perhaps help out future philosophers, towards furthering humanity’s progress around these questions.
This philosopher’s assumptions could be questioned. Maybe philosophy does not progress in the way the philosopher says it does. Maybe philosophers across history wander from opinion to opinion in an overall aimless way, always arrogantly viewing the opinions of the day as the pinnacle of human understanding.
Though the premise can be doubted, I would say it’s not arrogant to believe that humanity deepens its philosophical understanding over time, because this is a belief about humanity, not about oneself in particular.
Is it arrogant to believe that one can potentially help with humanity’s philosophical progress? If you accept the premise that many people have already done so, I would say not. It may be arrogant to think you can help with humanity’s philosophical progress if you’ve put no effort into training yourself as a philosopher (such as by studying what philosophers have said in the past). But somebody who has trained as a philosopher is not necessarily arrogant to suppose they may be in a position to contribute to humanity’s philosophical progress.
It might seem, then, that the statements above could be the statements of a non-arrogant philosopher. Of course a philosopher could say these things and still be arrogant. Yet there seems to be nothing inherently arrogant about this philosopher’s expressed attitude towards philosophy.
Let’s examine further, though. Maybe philosophers are necessarily arrogant whenever they stake claims. The complexities in philosophy are such that it is fundamentally hard to tell when a claim is justified. Perhaps, then, making any kind of general statement in philosophy is always hazarding a guess, and always implies the arrogance of jumping to a conclusion. Yet a philosopher who never staked any claims would arguably not be much of a philosopher. Perhaps for this reason doing philosophy is inherently arrogant.
It would be arrogant of me to assert positively that there can never exist a non-arrogant philosopher. I believe it would be arrogant of me to deny that I myself am an arrogant philosopher. I am not familiar with any philosophers who I am satisfied to call non-arrogant. I am inclined to accept the generalization, “philosophers are arrogant.”
I believe that arrogance is an important tendency for philosophers to push back against in ourselves. Jumping to conclusions is a good way to be wrong. Much of the challenge and reward of philosophy is found in unpacking the subtle moving pieces of our thoughts, teasing apart distinctions, and uncovering fallacies which we have unconsciously passed over.
The principal antidote for intellectual arrogance is intellectual humility. Intellectual humility, in my opinion, requires acknowledging that my perspective has deficiencies I’m not yet aware of, and others’ perspectives basically always have at least some merit.
For me, intellectual humility entails that if I am going to make positive assertions, then first I must take apart my thoughts and rigorously look for defects, and I must hear others’ points of view on the questions I’m asking. These steps are important counter-measures against the negative consequences of intellectual arrogance.
Yet, even if I take these counter-measures, it doesn’t obviate my worry that I am arrogant or can be viewed as arrogant in virtue of doing philosophy. I do still suspect that arrogance is the perennial condition of a human philosopher. Maybe the time we have in life is too limited to think issues through to the extent that our philosophical statements can be considered so cautious that it is not arrogant to hazard making them.
I see great value in doing philosophy. I think it is very important for the future of humanity. Because I love philosophy more than I love having a squeaky clean public image, I am willing to expose myself to ridicule by publicly exhibiting arrogance for the sake of philosophy. Those who don’t like what I’m doing are entitled to ridicule me for it. I’m writing, with the hazard of attracting ridicule, for the sake of people who may find what I’m doing helps them with their projects and problems.
Still, you might ask, if doing philosophy is arrogant, and arrogance is wrong, then how can it be a good idea to do philosophy? As far as I can see, this question only arises if you assume a perfectionist attitude about morals. A perfectionist attitude about morals would say that behavior must be free of moral flaws in order to be moral. This is not a realistic perspective on morals.
So, maybe the activity of philosophy has embedded in it an inherent moral flaw, arrogance. If so, that does not mean that philosophy is not a morally good activity to engage in. It means that philosophy is a morally imperfect activity. In a world where moral imperfection is ubiquitous, if not universal, this is hardly much of an argument against philosophy, at least if you think that philosophy has enough positive value to counter-balance its moral imperfections.