PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogPhilosophy has an aura of pretentiousness. Philosophers seem to make such ambitious claims about the essence of everything. About morality, about mind, about language… usually without doing any empirical research!

From where do they derive their claims? Are they sitting in armchairs just awaiting “truths” from out of nowhere? Is philosophy a form of “easy science” where one goes straight to the results without doing the research work needed to substantiate them?

But there are certain peculiarities in the claims, and in the style of address, which disappear in this image of philosophy as “easy science.”

Researchers can write didactically, informing the reader about results of their research. Science writers thus typically adopt a “von oben” attitude that is perfectly legitimate, since research sheds light on states of things that are unknown to the reader.

If philosophers adopt the didactic style of a science writer, the result is comical: “My thought processes during the past ten years demonstrate that morality basically is…,” and then follows information about the essence of morality!

The image of philosophers as pretentious “armchair researchers” expresses this comedy.

Philosophers certainly make claims, but these are claims that can be questioned by a reader who thinks further than the author. Philosophical writers expect readers to make objections that possibly are as powerful as the writer’s own. This “detail” is overlooked in the image of the pretentious armchair philosopher.

Philosophical writers expose their entire thought processes, so that the reader can think with – and against – the author. Philosophical writers address readers as peers in thinking. Together, we think for ourselves.

Perhaps the claim of scientific expertise has become so dominant that we no longer hear the claim of thoughtfulness.

Pär Segerdahl

The Ethics Blog - Thinking about thinking