A local philosophy mailing list has announced a talk being given by a philosophically inclined plumber on Jesus’ philosophy. This rather begs the question* that he was indeed a philosopher. Jesus certainly held ethical principles and taught doctrines, but that is insufficient to make someone a philosopher. Many people have taught things that are in themselves vaguely philosophical, but they are no more philosophers than a reporter discussing political developments is a politician.
So, what is needed to make someone a philosopher? I think that there are two preconditions: one, that the topics are themselves philosophical, and two, that the way the person has arrived at conclusions regarding these topics is through reasoning, and not merely intuition or inheritance. Let’s look at both of these conditions…
I have previously said on this blog that I tell my students that there are basically three broad kinds of philosophical questions:
1. What is there? This is the question of metaphysics. It is not a question about what science tells us there is, because that is physics. Metaphysics is what you are left over with when the facts do not fix the solution. When they do, that is science. Metaphysics includes questions about the reality of numbers, the nature of the physical world, the existence of God, and so forth. When popular bookshops categorise texts as “metaphysics”, they often have quite the wrong idea, treating mystical or doctrinal teachings as being of this “above-science” kind; when in fact they are just claims, unsupported by argument. This raises a point about philosophy that our second precondition engages: philosophy is about argument, not assertion.
2. How do we know it? This is the question of epistemology (from the Greek word epistem?, which originally meant “opinion”, but now means “knowledge”), the study of knowledge methods. In other words, what is knowledge, and how do we get it?
3. What is it worth? This is about morality, aesthetics, and other value-laden matters such as the just society or war. Since the Greeks, this has been cast as what it is that makes a Good Life.
Now, to be a philosopher, and not merely a reporter, one has to present arguments for conclusions. The rational hearer will consider the premises of the argument, and if they are acceptable, will decide if the argument from these premises leads to a particular conclusion. If it does, one is rationally compelled to accept the argument.
So, Jesus: is he a philosopher? I think not, and here is why:
Jesus does not reach his teachings via reason. He does not start with agreed premises, or debate the premises. In fact, if the Gospels are to be believed, he never argued except with the Pharisees (who were in all probability his teachers) and then not for the premises, which he and they shared. This was theological dispute, not philosophy. He does not establish a method by which one can check or assess his conclusions, either. It is revealed to him by God, and his authority as a spokesperson for God is what validates his claims. And there is no way to validate that, either.
His moral claims do not form a system, apart from “God has the right to declare what he wants to be right”, which doesn’t survive the Euthyphro Dilemma. He merely repeats or arbitrarily revises the religious teaching of his time and tradition. There is no reason to think that this applies to all reasonable people, despite what his later publicist Saul of Tarsis tried vaguely to argue in his letter to the Roman church.
His metaphysics are likewise either the product of revelation, intuition, or authority. There is no attempt in Jesus’ teachings to develop any ontology, not in his ipsissima verba nor in the Gospels and sayings preserved elsewhere in the New Testament.
I do not think Jesus is a philosopher. Rabbi Hillel seems to be more of a philosopher, and Philo of Alexandria definitely was. But Jesus is a teacher of religion, and a reformer of religion; however, he is no philosopher. Besides, he never published, and that is death to a philosopher, from which no career can be resurrected.
And he’s not a political philosopher either…
* “Begs the question” means that it presumes its conclusion in its premises, bitches. It doesn’t mean to raise the question, no matter what occasional lexicographers might think. Prescriptivism rules in logic, if nowhere else.