A medical doctor has graduated from an accredited school of medicine, passed board exams and completed a residency at a teaching hospital. A barrister has passed the par exam and graduated law school. Even a cosmetologist has received a relevant certification after a training course. What then, qualifies one to bear the title, "professional philosopher?" Adam Smith says, “Many improvements have been made by the ingenuity of the makers of the machines, when to make them became the business of a peculiar trade; and some by that of those who are called philosophers, or men of speculation, whose trade it is not to do any thing, but to observe every thing, and who, upon that account, are often capable of combining together the powers of the most distant and dissimilar objects in the progress of society, philosophy or speculation becomes, like every other employment, the principal or sole trade and occupation of a particular class of citizens. Like every other employment, too, it is subdivided into a great number of different branches, each of which affords occupation to a peculiar tribe or class of philosophers; and this subdivision of employment in philosophy, as well as in every other business, improve dexterity, and saves time. Each individual becomes more expert in his own peculiar branch, more work is done upon the whole, and the quantity of science is considerably increased by it.” If we are to accept his definition, no formal education seems to be required of a professional philosopher. Rather, the status of being a professional philosopher seems to be more of an analogous to being able to speak or write in the manner expected of a philosopher than the status of having received specialized training or certification. What then, prevents any layman from calling himself a philosopher a priori and considering himself equal to you?

Nothing prevents a layperson from calling herself a philosopher. Likewise, nothing prevents someone from calling himself a concert violinist, or a master gardener, or a novelist or a mathematician. Of course, whether someone who calls herself a philosopher or calls himself a master gardener actually has the skills and knowledge that would persuade the well-informed to agree is another matter, and someone who doesn't even know how to tune a fiddle isn't a concert violinist no matter what she calls herself.

When we add the word "professional", things get more complicated. There's no law that stops me from simply calling myself a neurosurgeon. There are laws to stop me from performing neurosurgery on people—particularly if I charge for my "services." Having an unqualified person perform your brain surgery is likely to be bad for your health. Having an untrained cosmetologist give you a perm may be temporarily bad for your social life, but hair grows pretty quickly. We've decided (wisely in my view) that if people are going to charge people to do certain jobs that can go badly wrong, it's worth having a certification system to protect the public from hucksters. In some cases (surgeons, for example), we're pretty strict. Performing surgery without a medical license will get you into a lot of trouble; giving someone a haircut without training—even if you charge for it—will provoke less severe penalties.

Philosophy isn't a profession in the way that medicine or the law or plumbing is. People do get paid to do philosophy (to my continuing astonishment, I'm one of those people) but most of us don't hang out signs and advertise to the untrained public. Academic departments will pay a lot of attention to skills and credentials before they hire someone as a philosopher, but there's no standard list of requirements. I have one colleague whose entire academic training was as a physicist. I have another whose education was entirely as a mathematician and computer scientist. Both of them count as philosophers because they have the knowledge and skills to work in the branches of philosophy that led my department to hire them. Before we hired them, we read their work, heard them lecture and sought the opinions of people with recognized expertise in the relevant subfields. We don't need a licensing system for philosophers. The public isn't at much risk from unqualified people charging for philosophy, and even (especially?) philosophers would have a hard time agreeing about what the required qualifications ought to be.

You may still wonder: what does it actually take to make someone a bona fide philosopher? I don't think there's a precise answer, but there's an old-fashioned kind (old-fashioned, that is, in philosophical circles) that gives us a sort of rule of thumb. It's not a definition because it starts by assuming that at least some people count as philosophers. People who have several publications in respectable philosophy journals would count, for example. So would people with PhDs in philosophy who have positions in philosophy departments at accredited universities. Such folk are paradigm cases of philosophers (at least, in the early 21st century in the west.) People recognized as philosophers by paradigm-case philosophers will count. People similar to paradigm-case philosophers are candidates for being counted as philosophers; the stronger the similarity the stronger the case. That said, there will always be interesting exceptions and the boundaries are bound to change over time.

As you can see, this is close to your "walks like a duck, squawks like a duck" suggestion. It's a functional approach; you might have hoped for a story in terms of what people can do and what they know. There are things we could say here, but the fact is that two people who both count as philosophers by any reasonable standard might have very different professional interests, have read very different books and papers, know about very different corners of the profession. The functional answer is in many ways more useful.

As for your last question, nothing prevents people from calling themselves philosophers. But if they want to get hired by a philosophy department, they'd better have some moves. Philosophers may not have as much in common as you might expect, but they're exquisitely good at sniffing one another out.

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