Were Jesus and Paul Philosophers?

jandpIn 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.

Note: This article has been reposted by the ‘The Poached Egg‘ (April 3, 2013) here.

Works Cited

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].
3. Ibid.
4. See Paul Moser’s important “Christ-Shaped Philosophy: Wisdom and Spirit United” [articlevideo].
•  Visit Dr. Davis’ personal website: www.richbdavis.com

6 comments on “Were Jesus and Paul Philosophers?

  1. […] Jesus and Paul philosophers? Rich Davis says Hasker hasn’t proven his conclusion. What say […]

  2. Chase Braud says:

    Rich the absence of evidence is the evidence of absence in the case that we should expect some certain evidence in the case a certain claim is true and it is not their. Anyways, I wonder what exactly you would set as the grounds for someone being a philosopher. Are we to say that every other person who offers some musings on a subject is then a philosopher? Would this mean the child who plays with a science kit is a scientist?

  3. Since I was not attempting to “disqualify Jesus and Paul as philosophers,” it is hard to see how your remark applies to my paper.

    • Rich Davis says:

      Interesting. So you actually *agree* with my point, namely, that from

      (a) Jesus and Paul did not perform “the activities characteristic of philosophers” [i.e., my previous (1)-(5)]

      we may not infer

      (b) Jesus and Paul were *not* philosophers.

      That’s a misconstrual of your view, you say. Fair enough. Still, you do apparently want to say that we *can* infer

      (b*) We (rightly) don’t say that Jesus and Paul were philosophers.

      [Or is it, perhaps, that your para. 2 on p. 5 is just a sociological description of how people do in fact reason–even if badly?] In any event, I doubt that (a) is a sufficient reason for even (b*). For you also agree with me that none of (1)-(5) is essential to being a philosopher. That means, at best, giving public lectures, accepting students for instruction, and the like are merely accidental or contingent activities of those who really are philosophers. But then how could Jesus’ and Paul’s failures to perform *those* activities go any way toward showing that we’re justified in *not* saying — i.e., that we *rightly* or *properly* don’t say — that Jesus and Paul were philosophers. That (a) is true wouldn’t show, for example, that there aren’t good reasons for thinking Jesus and Paul are philosophers. To claim otherwise, one thinks, would be to assume that these “characteristic” reasons are the only decent reasons in town. I’m afraid I don’t see that.

      It’s also unclear to me – both in your original paper and rejoinder – whether (at the end of the day) you just want to say that you’re agnostic about the whole question. To be sure, you note that on a broad definition of ‘philosophy’ (= love of wisdom), we have a reason for thinking that Paul and Jesus count as philosophers. But clearly, you don’t think this is a *good* reason. So what I’m wondering is whether you also think that there is no good reason *not* to call Jesus and Paul philosophers. If you do think that, I have to say it doesn’t come through at all in your two papers. My guess is – and here I’m conjecturing a bit, perhaps in much the same way you do in your attempts to get clear about Paul Moser’s views (cf. pp. 5-6) – is that you don’t think this. That is, you’re not actually agnostic about the matter. I might be wrong of course; that’s happened before. 🙂 But the tone of your writing and the degree of resistance you pose to the idea that Jesus and Paul *were* philosophers do seem to hint in that direction.

  4. Our mutual friend Tedla has called my attention to your comments on my comment on Moser. Unfortunately, you have misconstrued my remarks in some important ways. First of all, I do not say, in my paper, that Jesus and Paul are not philosophers. Rather, I was questioning what Moser’s reasons might be for so describing them. I never even suggest that the topics I mention (giving public lectures on philosophy, etc.) are logically necessary conditions for a person’s being a philosopher — so your remarks on that are completely beside the point.

    It might have helped if you had consulted my rejoinder to Moser, entitled “Two Wisdoms, Two ‘Philosophies’,” also posted on the EPS web site. There I explain how I was understanding Moser’s reference to Jesus and Paul as philosophers, and my reasons for understanding him in this way. I acknowledge, however, that in so describing them what he meant was simply that both Jesus and Paul loved and pursued wisdom, and I agreed that if this is what one means by “philosophy” then Jesus and Paul are philosophers. However, Moser muddies the waters by also using “philosopher” to refer to those who practice the professional discipline of philosophy, without calling attention to the shift of meaning.

    If you have something to say about the points I was actually making in my comments on Moser, I should be glad to hear it. But it is better not to criticize my papers by attributing to me things I never said or intented to say.

    William Hasker

    • Rich Davis says:

      Thanks, Prof. Hasker, for taking the time to comment on our department blog. Without having read your rejoinder, it seemed quite natural to take your “characteristic activities” as “activities essential to”. For if these were simply incidental to being a philosopher, then it was hard to see how they might disqualify Jesus and Paul as philosophers.

      But thanks for the clarification of your views on the matter. Hopefully, I’ll be able to revisit this topic again after assessing your full exchange with Paul Moser.


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