It is only fair that I apply the same standards to my saviour-figure that I apply to others (Paul Griffiths wants a t-shirt with the slogan “Darwin is my personal saviour”). In fact I published an essay asking whether Darwin was a historiographer, if not a historian (answer: yes). So let’s apply my arguments to this question. You know my method, Watson…
Quite a number of people have made out that Darwin was a philosopher, and indeed a philosopher of some originality. This includes Dewey, James and Peirce, so we aren’t talking about tyros here. More recently Michaels Ghiselin and Ruse have run this line. Now, any number of philosophers, from Hull to Dennett have been inspired by Darwinian thinking to develop in various ways both metaphysics and epistemologies based on Darwinian ideas, and this is a project I wholly approve, but does this mean Darwin was a philosopher?
We have rather more of Darwin than we do of either the historical Jesus or the biblical one (or, for that matter, than we do of Heraclitus and other pre-Socratics), so it is a lot easier to ask what his method of argument was. We even have and have heavily studied his notebooks in which he developed his ideas. Thanks to John van Wyhe and the Cambridge University, we have all this material handily online, so go check it out and test what I say. Darwin may be the most widely and extensively investigated individual in history.
There is a public Darwin, who published in his lifetime what he wanted his readers to see. And there is a private Darwin whose ruminations were recorded in his notes and letters, and several unpublished manuscripts. So unlike Jesus we know both what his exoteric and esoteric “teachings” were, and how he intended to be understood.
In his published work, he almost never makes anything resembling a philosophical argument. Despite the misinterpretation that follows Dewey’s claim that Darwin overturned traditional philosophy, Darwin never makes much of philosophical argument; exceptions being in the final chapter of the Variation, in which he discusses whether God or selection is responsible for adaptation if the latter process requires the use of fortuitous accidents, and perhaps in his discussion of the origins of morals in the Descent. Both of these are philosophical issues, and in the case of the former, he makes a surprisingly sophisticated argument.
In his letters, his Autobiography (not initially intended for publication) and his notebooks, however, he repeatedly discusses philosophical topics, including Lockean epistemology, metaphysics, religion, and the philosophy of science. He discusses Aristotle late in life and declares him to be a “god”. So, is he a philosopher?
We have both philosophical method and philosophical topics, but I would not say that he is a philosopher in his public persona. While Darwin clearly worried about such matters as vera causae in scientific explanation, and utilitarian arguments for morals, he is very careful not to publish these arguments. He appears to be aware of the impact his ideas will have on philosophical thinking, at least vaguely (or I could not have made the case he was a historiographer), and he preserved his letters and notes in the knowledge that others would too, so I think we can say that he intended to be remembered as a philosophically significant figure.
But while he lived, the philosopher of evolution was Herbert Spencer, and to a lesser extent, in Germanic countries, Ernst Haeckel. These are the figures that the philosophical community mostly addressed during and shortly after Darwin’s life, not Darwin himself. He was just another, very significant, scientist whose work raised philosophical issues, not a philosopher in his own right, not like Humboldt or Whewell (who had worked with Mohs).
Darwin’s philosophical arguments are never intended to be read by his contemporaries, and they are pretty sketchy except in the Variation, but he is doing philosophy. It’s even interesting and nuanced. But he clearly did not intended to be remembered as a philosopher per se.
Moreover, if we had fragments of his writings the way we do Heraclitus, it would be hard to make out that he was doing philosophy, and easy to make out that he was doing science.
In the case of his historiography, in which I think he came up with a coherent philosophy of history, he did so as a methodological necessity to proceed in his work. Evolution is, after all, a matter of history, so he had to clarify that. But since history is more a science than a philosophy (I know, we can discuss that some other time), I think that counts as methodology, not metamethodology.
So no, I don’t think Darwin was a philosopher, at least not publicly. His work, however, has massive philosophical ramifications…