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September 13, 2012 10:44 AM   Subscribe

What exactly is an "arm chair philosopher", and how is that different from a 'philosopher'?
posted by SarcasticSeraph to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
From what I gather, it's kind of a pejorative to mean 'pseudo-philosophy,' like you just took Phil 101 and now suddenly you have all the answers.
I literally imagine some guy in his armchair on his laptop getting into internet arguments about metaphysics.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 10:46 AM on September 13, 2012


"Armchair" is a catchall disparaging adjective implying amateurism although it's kind of funny in this context, since Real Philosophers are presumably doing it from armchairs as well and not running around the Philosophy Fields waving a giant net
posted by theodolite at 10:48 AM on September 13, 2012 [53 favorites]


"One who conclusively states an opinion that is neither researched nor supported."

Is what I've always taken it to mean. Maybe I'm way off base. One would assume the key difference between that and actual philosophy would largely come down to time invested.
posted by French Fry at 10:49 AM on September 13, 2012


It's a pejorative used to refer to researchers producing analyses by "mere" introspection in cases when the speaker thinks the researchers in question should be getting off their duffs and doing more data-gathering. It's often (perhaps originally? I don't know) used in heaping scorn upon certain schools of linguistics.
posted by redfoxtail at 10:51 AM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


In other words, it's not usually about one kind of philosophizing vs. another but about the notion that the person in question is sitting in an armchair and philosophizing when he or she should be doing something else.
posted by redfoxtail at 10:52 AM on September 13, 2012


"Armchair" is a catchall disparaging adjective implying amateurism

Agree with this. I actually usually interpret it to mean "fan, not participant." Like I would say I am an "armchair mountaineer" since I enjoy books on the subject but have never climbed a real mountain. So maybe a philosophy "fan" who is not actually part of academia?
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:54 AM on September 13, 2012 [7 favorites]


See wikipedia.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:55 AM on September 13, 2012


An armchair philosopher is someone who states opinions about philosophical questions without having much if any familiarity with the relevant philosophical literature or the terminology that's generally accepted in that particular area of philosophy, and without necessarily having any real-world evidence to support their views.

This is in contrast with a professional philosopher, who states opinions about philosophical questions based on a thorough familiarity with the relevant philosophical literature and the terminology that's generally accepted in that particular area of philosophy, and without necessarily having any real-world evidence to support their views.
posted by John Cohen at 10:57 AM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Cool. Cool, cool, cool. Thanks for the answers. Another question: why does somebody need to be familiar with certain literature? Can one not ask philosophical questions, and have a conversation with people, wherein they discuss said question using not some other person's thoughts on the subject, rather critical thinking, logic, and reason?
posted by SarcasticSeraph at 11:01 AM on September 13, 2012


Within academic philosophy, this is also a term that I've seen attached to certain real, big name philosophers, particularly Descartes. "Armchair" philosophy can be the kind of philosophy one does purely a priori, by sitting around and trying to figure out what must be true or must be false on the basis of reason alone. Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, and others of roughly that era are the names that immediately come to mind, as contrasted with major empiricists like Locke, Berkeley, etc.

So, depending on the context, one could conceivably be a professional, real philosopher whose method is "armchair" philosophy.
posted by Rallon at 11:01 AM on September 13, 2012


Armchair, a pejorative modifier to refer to a person who experiences something vicariously rather than first-hand, or to a casual critic who lacks practical experience, in phrases such as armchair revolutionary, armchair general, armchair lawyer, armchair meteorologist, armchair quarterback, armchair architect, armchair warrior, and so on.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:03 AM on September 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


why does somebody need to be familiar with certain literature

I think the assumption is that you wouldn't ask the right questions etc. without knowing the literature. You can get really off track if you start inadvertently following a line of thought that had actually been refuted long ago.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 11:06 AM on September 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Another question: why does somebody need to be familiar with certain literature? Can one not ask philosophical questions, and have a conversation with people, wherein they discuss said question using not some other person's thoughts on the subject, rather critical thinking, logic, and reason?

It's helpful to know what ideas other people have come up with on a topic as part of one's own thought or discussion of the topic. Knowing that a philosopher has already been down a given path, how they got there, what they thought, and where it led them is very helpful in moving discourse forward and avoiding just repeating all the same stuff without knowing it's already been thought and said.

Think of it this way: It is certainly possible to reinvent the wheel. But someone with a genuine interest in transportation technology should probably be familiar enough with the subject to know that wheels already exist.
posted by The World Famous at 11:08 AM on September 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


I always thought the term referred to being folksy rather than academic. Down-home, common sense back-porch philosophy as opposed to book learnin' and fancy big words. At least that is one way to look at it.
posted by mermayd at 11:09 AM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


True enough I suppose. I was actually thinking of myself, just using the internet to do research prior to thinking about certain questions, propositions, et cetera. As for asking the right questions, One only needs to think about the linguistics of a question. For example: "where do you get your morals?" is a poorly worded question; "by what method are your morals determined?" would be a much better way to phrase such an inquiry.
posted by SarcasticSeraph at 11:10 AM on September 13, 2012


Of course it is possible to have philosophical discussions with people without having read any of the major philosophical canon about life, the universe, and everything.

But that sort of discussion at 3 am on a dorm room floor (for example) is going to be a very different sort of discussion than the kind people have (either in person or through writing articles) when they have been reading and studying the works of earlier philosophers for years, and when they have also been learning how to think about arguments and logic in very specific ways. The latter group of people are philosophers in a very strict sense of the word, and they like to distinguish themselves from the former group of people, therefore: armchair philosophers.
posted by colfax at 11:11 AM on September 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Another question: why does somebody need to be familiar with certain literature? Can one not ask philosophical questions, and have a conversation with people, wherein they discuss said question using not some other person's thoughts on the subject, rather critical thinking, logic, and reason?

The problem is that if you want to do interesting philosophy, you have to know what came before or you will have no way of knowing if what you want to say is original or not. Otherwise you'll be all, "I have great idea X" and someone will say, "Really? Plato said the exact same thing!"

If your overlap is more recent, e.g. if you were working on epistemology, there may be an established body of work you need to differentiate and account for. If you come in with a foundationalist epistemology, you need to be able to explain why it doesn't have all the problems we know that there are with foundationalist epistemologies or a theory as to why they aren't actually problems.

I once heard a talk by a professional philosopher in which he "solved" various problems in the metaphysics of composition by denying the principle of noncontradiction. Had he not realized that he was doing the latter, he would have come across as insane (rather than merely crazy).
posted by Jahaza at 11:14 AM on September 13, 2012


Also, reading the works of other people is helpful because it helps you avoid the trap of thinking, 'Oh, actually this problem that has been bugging people for thousands of years is really Quite Simple if you just do such-and-such' because you will find that someone else has generally already thought of that and several other people have already thought of why that won't work.
posted by colfax at 11:14 AM on September 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Can one not ask philosophical questions, and have a conversation with people, wherein they discuss said question using not some other person's thoughts on the subject, rather critical thinking, logic, and reason?

You can. If you happen to succeed at this, that's just fine.

But you have a better chance of doing a good job of using "critical thinking, logic, and reason" if you've taken the time to understand how someone else has address it in a formal, written context. Why? A couple reasons:

(1) That person has probably thought about the problem longer and from more different angles than you have. If so, then, needless to say, you stand to benefit from seeing what they have to say.

Now, maybe that happens not to be the case. Maybe what they've written is surprisingly cursory, confused, vague, logically flawed, etc. This does happen with professional philosophers and even with some of the "great" philosophers. But even when that is the case, how would you know that? Well, by carefully reading the flawed philosophical text in question. Before you do that, you have no basis for jumping to the conclusion that philosophers don't have anything to add to your understanding of a subject. And yes, you have to do the hard work of reading the original text yourself. It isn't good enough to rely on a commentator who says a certain philosopher made a "bad argument." This commentator might have gone wrong -- either in evaluating the argument, or in understanding what the philosopher actually meant.

(2) Even if you are pretty good at thinking/speaking clearly, and you have an opinion about a philosphical question that you want to express, it's often helpful to first see how someone has dealt with the issue in writing. The very process of trying to write down a clear, persuasive philosophical argument can have a revelatory effect. You might be overestimating how clear the idea in your head is. Someone who has written a whole article or book on the subject has had to deal with standard philosophical hurdles like: "But what exactly do you mean by this word?" or "But what about people who don't share your intuition about this?" You might have become carried away with the rightness of your views and overlooked the necessity of dealing with those hurdles.

(Notice: this very thread is an example of what we're talking about. You could say that this thread is engaging in "metaphilosophy," i.e. philosophy about philosophy. You started out with certain notions of how philosophy should work. Those ideas were understandable, but perhaps a bit simplistic. Other people have come along to make new insights that might help you refine your views about how philosophy is done.)
posted by John Cohen at 11:33 AM on September 13, 2012


Philosophers ask questions. Armchair philosophers are content to merely answer them.
posted by hermitosis at 12:15 PM on September 13, 2012 [7 favorites]


I realize the conversation has taken a different turn, but to return to the original question:
The consensus above seems to be that "armchair philosophy" is like "armchair quarterback", and means roughly "amateur". But there is actually a different use of "armchair philosophy" among professional philosophers (i.e., philosophy professors at colleges and universities). They use it to denote philosophy that is entirely a priori -- i.e., that involves reason and conceptual analysis rather than empirical research.

The contrast is "experimental philosophy" or "x-phi". As you can imagine, the x-phis use "armchair philosopher" as an insult. The whole issue is controversial, including whether there is anything really worth fighting about. I can't vouch for this wikipedia entry, but here you go:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experimental_philosophy
posted by kestrel251 at 12:20 PM on September 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


Honestly, this question is totally unanswerable chatfilter as posed. There is no universally accepted definition of "philosophy" or "philosopher" in the first place — in fact a large part of the history of philosophy has consisted of arguments over the meaning of those two words — so it's not like a completely open-ended "whaddayathink?" AskMe thread is going to solve the problem. However, it seems like there's a fairly basic terminological distinction that might help in thinking about it further, between two senses of the word "philosopher": the one referring to a scholar who is paid to study philosophy (sometimes, as above, this person is called a "professional philosopher" or an "academic philosopher") and the other referring to a person who philosophizes, who performs or has notably performed the activity of philosophy, as a sage or thinker or writer of a philosophical text. There's obviously a possible overlap here — many philosophy professors like to think that they are philosophers in the second sense as well and sometimes people talk as though you could only achieve the second sense by being the first one first — but it's not a necessary one.

This is the distinction Thoreau had in mind when he claimed that "There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live."

This isn't a unique problem to philosophy, you get the same terminological problem in other fields of study as well: for instance a "Modernist" can be an academic who studies Modernism or one of the artists who did it. (And yes, "armchair" can also, in other contexts, be opposed to "empirical" or "experimental" as well as to "professional" or "scholarly.")
posted by RogerB at 12:43 PM on September 13, 2012


Who have you heard using this term?

1. "armchair" as opposed to "experimental", if your person is trying to point out the contrast with the recent hot trend of "experimental philosophy" -- which tests philosophical intuitions basically using social science methods (i.e., they do surveys to see if people in general have the same intuitions about philosophical thought experiments that professional philosophers do). In this case, an "armchair" philosopher would be someone who describes a thought experiment and says what they think the outcome/correct intuition is, without then doing a survey to see how widely that intuition is shared. If the person saying this is a philosopher, this is probably the likeliest thing they have in mind.

2. If the person seems to intend a contrast with "philosopher", they may mean "armchair" in the sense of "armchair quarterback" - where someone who does not actually "play the game" (ie someone who hasn't spent a lot of time doing/studying philosophy) comments dismissively about what the quarterback should be doing (ie, how easy it is to solve certain philosophical problems). Here, your person might mean that real philosophy is difficulty and worthy, but armchair philosophers are glib and superficial about it?

3. If your person is not sympathetic to philosophy, it might just be a redundant critical phrase - ie, if they think "philosopher" is already sort of dismissive because philosophers do not do anything practical. "Armchair" suggests the same thing, someone who doesn't accomplish anything in the real world - so put the two together and you have a double criticism of inaction, impracticality, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:45 PM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Cool. Cool, cool, cool. Thanks for the answers. Another question: why does somebody need to be familiar with certain literature? Can one not ask philosophical questions, and have a conversation with people, wherein they discuss said question using not some other person's thoughts on the subject, rather critical thinking, logic, and reason?

Philosophy isn't just "thinking about things" - it's a specific academic discipline. To be a practitioner generally means that you a) know what has come before and b) have mastered the skills of the discipline such that the original work you produce is at a certain level.

I could do chemistry in my kitchen. But it's going to be chemistry at a very simple level, given that I haven't studied either since high school. No one would say that I was "a chemist", and it is highly unlikely that any of my findings (baking soda fizzes in vinegar!) will set the chemistry world on fire. I'm not saying it would never happen, just that it's highly unlikely, and its much, much more likely that a trained chemist has already done that research.

and in philosophy, the skills are as real as in mathematics or physics or any other academic discipline (and much more specialized than they are in History, for example). Never argue with a trained philosopher.
posted by jb at 12:49 PM on September 13, 2012 [9 favorites]


There are certain disciplines which everyone and their brother assumes that they can do because they learned the basic skills of those disciplines in elementary school. Philosophy is one, because most people got some basic comparative religion and critical thinking skills back in their CCD days.

But calling anyone who has a "conversation with people, wherein they discuss said question using not some other person's thoughts on the subject, rather critical thinking, logic, and reason" a "philosopher" is actually fairly insulting to people who have made a real, earnest study of it. We're talking college plus six years or so of graduate school.

The truth is, within most philosophical disciplines, arguments don't happen in a vacuum; philosophers will bounce their arguments off the arguments of other philosophers and clarify, winnow, and refine their own arguments through a discussion of the current literature. It's not really "using some other person's thoughts on the subject." Thomas Nagel didn't just argue via Kripke in "What is it like to be a bat?" but rather used Kripke's arguments as a springboard for his own thoughts. A knowledge of the broader literature forces you to be specific and precise, to explain not only your position but how your position differs from the positions of others.

And it's also fascinating. Most philosophers--real philosophers--I know are idea junkies, who want to come all the yummy thoughts they can so that they can be informed and well-read and informed about all the little nuances of the broader world and their specific sub-discipline. Honestly, I'd be a bit skeptical of anyone who says they love wisdom (a literal translation of "philosophy") but who disregards the wisdom of what's come before them.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:59 PM on September 13, 2012


I know you've asked a followup sort of question, but getting back to connotation for a moment: the link provided to the "armchair" page of wiki led to "armchair architect" which had this:
"Generically, the term armchair can refer to a dabbler in a particular field. Depending on the context, it can have positive connotations implying an enthusiastic amateur or negative connotations implying a critic who disparages the work of others but who lacks the skill necessary to actually do the work in question."

As others have mentioned, I usually see it pejoratively.
posted by jorlyfish at 8:44 AM on September 14, 2012


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