In a recent exchange with Paul Moser in the Christ-Shaped Philosophy project, the distinguished Christian philosopher, William Hasker, suggests (at least implicitly) that he regards neither Jesus nor Paul as philosophers. He asks, for example, why we don’t say that Jesus and Paul were “chemists, and composers, and attorneys, and stone-masons?” The answer, he thinks, is obvious:
We don’t say such things about Jesus and Paul because neither of them performed the activities characteristic of those occupations. They did not, so far as we know, perform chemical experiments, or create new pieces of music, or represent clients in a court of law, or building structures out of cut stones.2
Well, with that it is certainly hard to disagree. Hasker goes on to add, however, that
Neither did [Jesus and Paul] perform the sorts of activities characteristic of philosophers, then or now. They did not give public lectures on philosophical topics, nor did they accept pupils for instruction in philosophy, or compose treatises on philosophical subjects. They did not discuss the writings and opinions of earlier philosophers, nor did they propound novel views on the philosophical topics of their day. They did, to be sure, make assertions concerning some of the matters philosophers often discuss, such as right conduct and the cultivation of virtue. But that no more makes them philosophers, than Jesus’ remark about building on foundations of sand or stone makes him an architectural engineer. So why, I ask again, should we call them philosophers?3
What are we to make of this argument? It seems to me that it is defective along several lines. First, what it would show, at best, is that we have no good reasons for thinking that Jesus and Paul were philosophers. But that scarcely shows that Jesus and Paul were not philosophers. Do you see the difference? The absence of evidence that they were isn’t positive evidence they were not. That would simply be an appeal to ignorance.
Secondly, I take it that these “activities characteristic of philosophers” are supposed to pick out what is essential to being a philosopher—that without which you can’t be a philosopher. These activities aren’t supposed to be merely contingent or accidental. They’re not optional accessories for philosophers who want to be at their best. Indeed, it’s not even strong enough to say they’re common to all the philosophers of our acquaintance. For as Tom Morris once quipped: no doubt every human being we know of has the property of having been born on the surface of the earth; it don’t follow at all that this is essential to being human.
But now consider those activities alleged by Hasker to be “characteristic” (i.e., essential) to being a philosopher: (1) Giving public philosophy lectures, (2) accepting pupils for instruction, (3) composing philosophical treatises, (4) discussing the opinions of earlier philosophers, and (5) propounding novel philosophical views. It is easy to see that none of these five conditions is necessary for being a philosopher. All of them suffer from the same basic defect: they are functionalist criteria. The idea, in brief, is this: you aren’t a philosopher until you’ve functioned as a philosopher—and not just any kind of philosopher; you have to function like a present day philosophy professor (e.g., like Prof. Hasker). Otherwise, you’re not a philosopher at all.
But why should we think a thing like that? As Prof. Hasker well knows, there are perfectly respectable philosophers who fail to meet all of these conditions. Socrates, for example, never wrote a stitch. There is no philosophical work we know of bearing his name. He’s no less of a philosopher for that. To the best of my knowledge, Spinoza wasn’t in the habit of giving public lectures, or taking on students to pay the bills. He was a lens grinder. Is he to be demoted to the ranks of non-philosophers as well? Further, it is surely going too far to suggest that a proper philosopher must propound novel philosophical views. If that were true, then most philosophy professors you’re ever going to meet won’t be philosophers at all. And then, of course, to insist that one can’t be a philosopher without first discussing the opinions of prior philosophers raises the question of how (in that case) there could have been a first philosopher. Poor Thales!
The upshot is that what Hasker has confused, so it seems to me, is the notion of a common property with that of an essential one. More to the point, he has conflated being a philosopher with being a philosophy professor (nay, an employed, research intensive, cutting-edge philosophy professor!). Coupled with the fact that his argument is, at its core, essentially an appeal to ignorance, I think we must say that Hasker hasn’t given us anything like an overwhelming reason to think that Jesus and Paul were not philosophers. And thus we are left wondering why (following Paul Moser4) we can’t properly refer to them in that fashion.
1. Paul Moser, “Jesus and Philosophy: On the Questions We Ask” Faith and Philosophy 22 (2005): 281.
2. William Hasker, “Paul Moser’s Christian Philosophy” [link].
4. See Paul Moser’s important “Christ-Shaped Philosophy: Wisdom and Spirit United” [article; video].
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