Who is a philosopher?

“Wonder is the feeling of the philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.” Plato

“…A philosopher… has…[a] structure of thought unified by a purpose for his own life and for mankind.” Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, p. 141

Philosophers are commonly called “thinkers,” but really, that is not an adequate definition of a philosopher. A philosopher looks at the world in wonder. He seeks the underlying meaning of things; he wants to understand it and codify it into a system of thought. If he succeeds in this task, he often feels compelled to share his system with the world, even knowing it is likely futile. This is because he loves the world, despite the difficulty it has given him.

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need anything besides this burning desire to understand things and to connect them. You don’t need to get a PhD, to have taken any philosophy classes, or to have read a single philosophy book. Of course all these things can help you to sharpen your thinking and to avoid “reinventing the wheel,” but they do not in themselves make you more or less of a philosopher.

Beyond the basic definition, no two philosophers are exactly alike. Some are comets: long lived and brilliant like Socrates; others are streaking meteors like Nietzsche, consumed by their romanticism and brilliance. Some create systems haphazardly, and other are meticulous beyond belief (compare Nietzsche to Spinoza). Some are cynical, and others are hopeful. It seems to be a function of your personality and how you react to your environment.

Here are examples of two very different modern day philosophers: Alain de Botton and Jason Silva. Neither is a “professional philosopher” in the traditional sense (academia), and they have their critics. However, each has striven to take philosophy out of the ivory tower and to make it accessible and relevant to a wider audience. Personally, I find this very commendable.

Knowing what it means to be a philosopher, I’m sure not many people would choose such a fate for themselves or their kids, yet I believe it’s as unavoidable as fate. I suspect that some people may be genetically predisposed to be order seekers, and certain external circumstances simply activate these tendencies. Sheltering yourself or your kids from such stimuli may work temporary, but it is highly impractical in our increasingly connected world. Perhaps it is better to embrace who you are so that you can forge a path through life with true conviction and purpose.

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