Who is a Philosopher?

By Deron Newman

There is a technique in which to establish what something is, you say what it is not. It’s called the via negativa, literally the way of the negative. Many ask me the question of ‘what is Philosophy?’, and even in my courses the first thing I cover with my students is the discovery of the meaning of the term. Yet, I don’t wish to begin there and move on a predictable, well-worn path. I want to begin with what is the more impactful practical question of, ‘what is a philosopher?’ To answer this, I want to begin with the provocative question, ‘what is not a philosopher?’ and, as the via negativa has it, come forward with our discovery. Three main ideas come to mind in the three following sentences. Firstly, an individual who does not question is not a philosopher. Also, a person who does not wonder or stand rapt with awe or who does not see any beauty and majesty of the universe, who does not ponder any purpose or direction for their lives, is not a philosopher. Lastly, a person who looks to the opinions of others and subscribes to whatever someone else says and does not think for themselves, who is afraid to be free, is not a philosopher. So then, who is? The short answer is that a philosopher is a lover of wisdom, and the longer we ponder that answer the far more inspirational it becomes. In fact, everyone is born to be one.


Philosophy’s root meaning has to do with Wisdom. First expressed by the ancient Greeks, a philosopher is one who loves Wisdom as a friend, a companion, as a sister/brother, counselor, teacher, guide. In this otherwise well-hashed and tame definition wisdom rings out as the power word and concept that makes the definition wild and free. Almost every student I have taught when I ask them if they want wisdom in their lives have spoken that they certainly do. Many certainly desire it, love it, because we recognize we do not possess it fully. With that said, a lover of wisdom is considered by the ancients as someone who is in touch with the essential aspects of what makes them human and who sees wisdom as necessary quest and guiding principle of life. Without wisdom, and the spirit of that pursuit, we do not truly live but sleepwalk through life. But even with such esoteric thought, a practical question emerges: why should you or I even consider calling ourselves philosophers or students of this Philosophy or love of wisdom? The answer to that lies in three reasons: the love of wisdom inspires an essential aspect of our humanity that you are born to be a philosopher; secondly, that the love for wisdom guides toward a vision of the way life ought to be lived; and thirdly, this love of wisdom frees us to live a life of wildness, freedom, and fulfillment.


Picasso reportedly once said ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.’


Everyone is born a philosopher – it is to remain one that is key. Philosophy is born in the questioning spirit that is fired by Wonder which is that feeling of fascination and awe with the universe, with all that lives, even with the very aspect of our own sense of being alive. It is what we feel innately as children, and manifests through our innate ability to question. That questioning, so used by us as children, enables us to live with the fullness of dreams and visions of what it is to be alive and what life should be for us. The act of Wondering is a recognition of the mysteriousness of the great ‘all’ that gives rise to all that is essential in our humanity: all our art, our science, all we believe and all we know, come through this path. With Wonder the great and phenomenal questions of existence fly into our minds and souls: What am I? What is this universe? What do I believe? What do I know? What do I value? What is my purpose here? What should I do? and a host of others. Through such philosophical questioning, we come to know ourselves: what we believe, what we know, what we value, as well as who we are and for what we live, and in turn, arrive at those insights that give us meaning, direction, even purpose. Such ideas provide an interest in life that is childlike in its power, and shows in a profound way, what it is to be human.

One of the most profound human questions we can ask for ourselves is what is wisdom? We may see it as our knowledge, as experience, as our intelligence or insights for life, and so on. However, these may be true but there is a more profound meaning for wisdom, at least how it applies to our lives. What wisdom gives us is guidance, brought on from our questioning and thought that leads us to understand the way and empowerment of should. The philosopher takes on a mission to seek to uncover or understand the should(s) of life and the reasons for them: what should I believe, and why? What should be important to me in life, and why? What should I see as truth, and why? what should I do, and why should I do it? This question of should gives philosophy its edge and makes even the study of philosophy unique because no other discipline asks such a question. We attempt to reflect upon our past, to see our present in proper light, to see the future of how we should be, even the vision of life to where we are going and for what we are striving.


You became awake to the vision of your life and what you should be the day you realized your ability to wonder and to question, and that spirit is still there. That is the innate spirit of a philosopher, that needs to be awakened, even each day. You as a philosopher represents one who is free to make your own decisions rather than being told what to believe, what to think, what to feel, and what to do. To philosophize and follow your wisdom is to live freely, to live fully, to live with magnanimity. It is about being ‘wild’, for if you strive to be good, then ‘all good things are wild and free,’ as Thoreau said. In the woods, in the oceans, in the skies, all who live are free to roam, to make decisions, to live the lives that they deem as good, in the fullness of what they can and should be that is revealed in their being, not by convention, not by society, and not by opinion. The love of wisdom breeds a sense that the you as a philosopher are self-reliant and self-subsistent in your quest and thirst for the wonder and beauty of life.


This love of wisdom must remain and be cultivated, even reawakened in our minds, souls, and lives immediately. Go to a place where a walk out under the stars is possible; go to where you can look at a tree, see a flower, hear the wind. Ponder the great question of who you are, why you are here, and what should you be doing with your life. With that you will see the philosophical flame within you start to blaze, even once again even where it has been dormant, or maybe be reminded of what you have been doing all along. You are a philosopher, you are lover of wisdom, and you are wild and free. Welcome to the great journey.