Does a Philosopher Need a Formal Education?
by Paul Ewing
One of my college philosophy students once asked me if a philosopher had to have a college education. My short answer was, No! I then told the class the story of my wood carver friend in Ontario. He lived in Montreal River Harbor, a tiny community on the east shore of Lake Superior, just south of Lake Superior Provincial Park.
With his third grade education, Barry had worked in the lumber industry all his life. He retired to be a skilled woodworker and armchair philosopher. I felt privileged to know him and engaged with him in many a long, deep dialogue punctuated with moments of irrepressible mutual hilarity!
After I told the class this story, I came across a passage relevant to the student’s question in an important book I was reading, Arthur Herman’s “How the Scots Invented the Modern World.”
The quote concerns James Watt, the Scottish inventor who figured out a way for the steam engine to generate constant motion. He was an “instrument maker for the University of Glasow, self-taught;” i.e. without a college education. “…but what he knew impressed everyone who came into his shop. Even the university professors were impressed, ‘I saw a workman, and expected no more…but was surprised to find a philosopher.'”
In Montreal Harbor, Ontario I too once discovered a workman who was also a philosopher. Barry, I display the 3 canoes you carved for me in a prominent place in my home. I will remember our spirited conversations forever. Rest in peace, Sir.
Source: Arthur Herman, “How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It” (New York, MJF Books, 2001) pp. 320-321.