Philosophical Forms and Functions

by Peter Saint-Andre


Following up on my post a few months ago about philosophical professionalism, I've been thinking about the many forms of philosophical writing and their functions in our intellectual and practical life. Throughout history, philosophical questions and answers have been presented in so many written forms: aphorisms, dialogues, essays, letters, allegories, parables, stories, novels, plays, poems, lectures, sermons, manifestos, journals, memoirs, biographies, autobiographies, epitomes, proofs, puzzles, thought experiments, dissertations, treatises, and scholarly papers. Yet it's only the last few of these that are acceptable these days in academic philosophy. Even a widely-cited essay like Thomas Nagel's "What Is it Like to Be a Bat?" probably wouldn't get published in an academic journal these days, and that's a shame.

These various forms of philosophical writing serve an equally wide variety of philosophical functions: wondering, exploring, observing, analyzing, summarizing, persuading, justifying, proving, exhorting, exemplifying, reminding, distilling, combating, warning, consoling, guiding, and so on. Here again, the modern culture of theoretical philosophy isn't interested in all of these functions, and likely doesn't consider them all of them to be philosophical in the first place - even though they were pursued by foundational thinkers in philosophical traditions both West and East.

Even deeper, there's the question of written vs. oral discourse. Socrates, of course, was famous for not writing anything down, because he believed that the love and practice of wisdom comes to life only in the back-and-forth of human conversation. You can't ask questions of, and receive answers, from a book! Plato tried to overcome the limitations of writing by creating dialogues that were an imitation of real-life Socratic conversations (indeed, in the Poetics Aristotle called such dialogues a form of representational art).

Although I try to keep my blog posts fairly conversational, they're no substitute for actual conversation. Whether you're interested in my philosophical coaching services or just want to explore the issues I raise here, I always welcome you to contact me via email, LinkedIn, or even the dreaded Twitter (which I log into only a few times a year!).

(Cross-posted at


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