A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Philosophical scholarship defuses new ways of thinking

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogWhat is called “philosophy” is pursued today mostly by scholars who study philosophical authors and texts, and who learn to produce certain types of comments on philosophical ideas and concepts. Such study is interesting and important, and can be compared with literary scholarship.

A problem that I highlighted in my latest post, however, is a tendency to conflate the scholarly study of philosophy with… philosophy. Today, I want to exemplify three consequences of such conflation.

A first consequence is a taboo against thinking for oneself, like the canonized philosophers of the past, who legitimize the study of philosophy, once did. Only “great” philosophers, whose names can be found as entries in philosophical encyclopedias, can be excused for having philosophized for themselves, and without proper citation methods.

A related consequence is a sense of scandalous arrogance when philosophy is carried out as once upon a time. Since only great and already canonized philosophers are allowed to think for themselves, people who tenaciously pursue thinking will appear like pretentious bastards who believe they already have a name in the history of philosophy and, worst of all, claim to be studied!

A third and more serious consequence is that philosophical scholarship, if it is conflated with philosophy, defuses new ways of thinking. New ways of thinking are primarily meant to be adopted, or to provoke people to think better. Learned commentaries on new and original ways of thinking are interesting and important. However, if the scholarly comments are developed as if they brought out the real philosophical content of the proposed thoughts, the new thinking will be reduced to just another occasion to develop the study of philosophy… as if one did the thoughts a favor by bringing them safely home to “the history of philosophy.”

You don’t have to be great, canonized or dead to think. That is fortunate, since thinking is needed right now, in the midst of life. It just appears essentially homeless, or at home wherever it is.

Pär Segerdahl

We transgress disciplinary borders - the Ethics Blog


  1. Simon Whitney

    Very nice piece.


  2. msharmila2013

    I went to a philosophy blog once and it said (heavily paraphrased) “the worst thing about being an academic in philosophy is that ordinary people think that they can ‘do philosophy’ because they mistake their musings on the meaning of life, the universe, religion etc are the same thing as philosophy – which of course we the elite know is not true, what we do is write 8000 word tracts on whether or not September 11 was ‘an event’ which is both more difficult (thus we deserve status for it) and less sexy (which means those stupid proles who *think* they can do philosophy don’t find it interesting once we educated them on what philosophy really is)”.

    I decided then that I was not interested in philosophy, though I love to think about all sorts of things that I used to think could be described as “philosophy”.

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