What things need to be licensed, what can but needn’t be, and what shouldn’t be?

Doctors, engineers, pilots, certainly. But some people have argued, though mostly tongue-in-cheek, that if anyone needs to be pre-qualified it’s parents. Requiring a license to drive doesn’t seem unreasonable, but there are plenty of jurisdictions, especially in the so-called Third World, in which if you’re driving it’s assumed you can. But requiring a license to own or carry a firearm has arguably less to do with safety than with maintaining the state’s monopoly on the means of lethal force.

All of these issues can be and have been put on the table. But none of them are on mine. In an earlier blog I did talk about licensing journalists. My position was, and is, not that they should be licensed. That way there be dragons. Rather it’s that we should feel free to simply decline to honour the press cards of journalists who’ve proven themselves to us as incompetent. That is, I don’t complain to the publisher of our local newspaper about the bimbo he sends who consistently misquotes me. I just don’t do interviews with her. (By the way, she’s not malicious, just stupid.)

In this entry, I want to take a similar position with respect to professional philosophers.


Look, none of us is licensed, as such. All that our doctorates and reference letters certify is that we passed muster with someone. But it’s the institution that hires us, and eventually grants us tenure, that entitles us to do what we do – teach, research, pontificate – within but only within that institution. But when one of us steps outside that institution – say to contribute his two cents worth to the blogosphere – he can do so as either a philosopher, or as just a guy, but not both.

By ‘as just a guy’ I don’t mean he can’t boast that he’s not just any guy. Certainly he can say that his day job is as a philosopher. But he can’t be adding his two cents worth to the blogosphere as a professional philosopher unless he’s prepared to bring his philosophical professionalism with him. If for whatever reason he prefers to leave it behind – perhaps he just wants to pre-reflectively rant the way he hears plaid-shirted guys do in the bar – he needn’t apologize, neither to himself nor to his colleagues back at the office the next morning. God knows we all need to speak our minds sometimes, without having to self-monitor our every word. But what it is to be a professional philosopher just is to monitor every word, every word spoken by others – that’s what the widow’s mite is paying him for – and a fortiori every word he speaks himself.

So it’s not a matter of the hoi polloi pulling your philosophy card when you fail to announce you’ve changed hats. How would they know? The onus falls on you to announce it. And if you won’t – and since they can’t – it falls to one of your colleagues back in the office to say something.

To say something to them? They wouldn’t know what he’s talking about. No, to say something to you. And if you can’t or won’t look in a mirror to see what hat you’re wearing, then neither can you be trusted to know what hat you’re wearing when you’re back in the office and the classroom.

So then what’s your colleague to do? All he can do is keep his own distance and counsel students to do likewise. And that’s not a very collegial position for you to have put a colleague in, now is it?

Categories: Why My Colleagues Are Idiots

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