My Calling (or, Three Cheers for Dilettantes!)

Near the end of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Richard Rorty suggests a distinction betwee the philosopher as “epistemologist” and the “hermeneutic” philosopher. (Later this becomes a Kuhnian distinction between philosophers who play at “normal science” and those engaged in “abnormal” discourse.) The philosopher-as-epistemologist plays the role of cultural overseer and arbiter of all knowledge claims–playing the role of “the Platonic philosopher-king who knows what everybody else is really doing whether they know it or not” (p. 317).

He then contrasts this with a description of the “hermeneutic” philosopher in terms that would be abhorrent to most professional philosophers. But I find in them a liberating description of my own self-understanding, or at least my aspirations. As Rorty puts it, the hermeneutic philosopher is

an informed dilettante, the polypragmatic, Socratic intermediary between various discourses. In his salon, so to speak, hermetic thinkers are charmed out of their self-enclosed practices. Disagreements between disciplines and discourses are compromised or transcended in the course of the conversation.

Long live informed dilettantes!