A Plea for Folk-Philosophy


by Justin E. H. Smith

There is a well-known division between two camps of academic philosophy, often called ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’, with each side more or less convinced that what the other side is doing is not really philosophy at all. This is a provincial and mandarin dispute, and I do not wish to discuss it here. Instead, I want to consider those expressions of interest in fundamental questions that one might find in monasteries, madrasas, tea houses, yurts, around campfires, late at night as the seal blubber burns. Can such interest count, I want to know, as philosophy?

Once I took part in a conference in a mid-sized provincial city in Transylvania. As part of the opening ceremony, the local Orthodox bishop was invited to hold forth on the value of philosophy. He seized the opportunity to denounce Marxism, existentialism, and even rap music, and praised all in attendance for guarding the flame of spirituality in a corrupt and materialistic world. His éloge dragged on. The most distinguished member of our delegation could be heard snoring. I passed the time looking over the paper I was going to present, which as it happens was on 18th-century materialism.

The bishop had heard there were some philosophers coming to town, and he assumed he shared a common language with us. I can only guess as to his exact background, but I imagine this man had spent time in a seminary, and that he read there at least some of the authors academic philosophers would recognize as constituting the Western philosophical tradition: Origen, Clement of Alexandria, probably Augustine, maybe even the pagan Plato. This man had probably incorporated what he learned about these authors into his understanding of questions such as, What is the fate of a person after death? Am I essentially or only contingently associated with a physical body? What is infinity?

Now on most reckonings those are philosophical questions, yet the reaction of the visiting party (myself included) was to dismiss the bishop as something of a yokel. I suspect this would be the reaction of the vast majority of professional academic philosophers in the West, and a fortiori if it were not a Transylvanian bishop, but rather, say, a Mongolian shaman, who deigned to hold forth on the questions on which we take ourselves to be experts. While at the time I went along with this prevailing sentiment, it now seems to me that this encounter was in fact nothing other than a clash of provincialisms.

The problem might simply be that the term ‘philosophy’ is used in two very different senses: one to describe a well-defined tradition of systematic and methodical inquiry, which appears to have developed independently in human history only in China, India, and the eastern Mediterranean; the other, which might be called ‘folk-philosophy’ or ‘ethnophilosophy’, on the model of ethnoastronomy, ethnotaxonomy, etc., to describe the set of cultural variations on a range of beliefs about nature, the self, etc., which humans qua human cannot help but have. But one way of moving beyond provincialism might be to consider the possibility that all philosophy is in a sense ethnophilosophy.

After all, the minds of non-literate pastoral peoples are exactly the same as those of seminarians mastering Thomistic doctrine. The difference is that the pastoral people’s minds have different prostheses and institutions to support and to mirror their thoughts. A revealing parallel case is law: does law begin with Hammurabi, and receive its first mature expression in the Roman period? Or were these milestones simply the explicitization of something that was already there, that cannot not be there wherever there is a society that is organized in some way or other according to a set of –perhaps unspoken– rules and prohibitions? Is a written legal code the coming-into-being of a new way of thinking, or is it the transfer of a familiar way of thinking into a different, external storage medium? If we are prepared to accept the latter possibility, we are thereby enabled to think about, say, Roman law, in fruitful comparison to, say, Hausa law (generally called Hausa ‘custom’). And similarly with philosophy.

Postcard by Moriz Jung, c. 1980, via

Philosophy in our narrower sense might be more rigorous than folk-belief, yet still indebted to folk-belief in ways that it ought to be part of the philosophical project to uncover. An analogous uncovering has been undertaken in recent decades in the cognitive-scientific study of folk-taxonomy. It has become clear, in particular,  that the modern system of Linnean biological classification, while more exact and rigorous than pre-scientific and pre-literate systems throughout the world, is not for that so much a rejection of the earlier systems as it is an outgrowth of them. This discovery tells us something not just about the history of science, but also about the way that science at present continues its project of carving up the world.

The distinguishing feature of Indian, Chinese, or European philosophy, on this approach, would turn out to be not some greater clarity or depth of thinking. Instead, it would be a by-product of the way certain, principally Asian, technologies, above all writing and the reproduction of written texts, are incorporated into a society. The presuppositions and aims of inquiry might be different for, say, an uncontacted Amazonian tribe, and the technologies and institutions for pursuing these aims are certainly different. But there are still human minds there puzzling out the nature of reality and of humanity’s place in it. This activity ought to be of interest to philosophers not out of some naïve celebration of cultural diversity, but rather for the hard-headed scientific reason that it gives us a real measure of the full scope and range of humanity’s responses to the questions we call ‘philosophical’. Taking this measure is one way of deepening our understanding of these questions.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website