Robertson v. Oelschlaeger
US Supreme Court, October Term (1890), 436

In 1844, a Mr. Oelschlaeger was importing a variety of instruments when a collector for the port of New York imposed a 45%  duty on the goods. Oelschlaeger objected that the official had misclassified the material as unspecified manufactured products made of metal, when, in reality, these were, in the words of the law, “philosophical apparatus and instruments,” and thus required only a 35% tariff.

The court decided that some of the instruments qualified as philosophical and others did not, the former devoted principally to “observations and experiment” in seeking “discoveries in nature” for “developing and exhibiting natural forces”;  the latter were “implements for mechanical or professional use,” which were “usually employed in the trades and professions for performing the operations incidental thereto.” For instance, the judge held that a “large compound microscope” and an “astronomical telescope on tripod” were philosophical. But a “jeweler’s magnifying glass” and an “ophthalmoscope” were not. He left six for the jury to decide, and they counted a “double-barreled field glass” [binoculars] philosophical, and an “opera glass” not. The Supreme Court differed with the judge in his calling a stereopticon philosophical (when it was really a device for amusement), but they basically agreed with his approach, so Oelschlaeger paid two rates, depending upon the item.

It’s interesting to see the way they used the word ‘philosophical’ in the late nineteenth century, for the concept has evolved through the millennia. Today, it sounds odd to call a microscope an instrument of philosophy, so what is philosophy anyway?

It goes back to the Greeks, to the people who coined and employed the term (men like Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plato), a word built from “love” and “wisdom,” thus denoting a “lover of wisdom.” It enjoyed broad currency in New Testament days, showing up, for instance, as philosophias in Colossians 2:8. So who wouldn’t want to get on board with loving wisdom? Well, Paul had his reservations, expressed in that passage—not with wisdom itself, but in how the world went about pursuing and presenting it, without reference to or respect for Scripture. This isn’t to say that everything philosophers did was bad. Paul didn’t ban philosophical talk from the fellowship of believers. But he did say they needed to be very careful about it.

So what were these philosophers up to? In the beginning (in the persons of Thales, Anaximenes, Anaximander, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Empedocles, Epicurus, Pythagoras, etc.), they engaged in what we call “cosmology,” the study of the fundamental nature of the “cosmos,” the natural universe. In a culture of sheepherding, soldiering, homemaking, and such, it was no small thing for a man to step back and spend time on the question, “What’s it all about?” And so they came up with a variety of guesses, from water to flux to unchanging being to The Boundless (whatever that was). By the way, some say this last-named guess marked the true beginning of philosophy, in that it had the required level of abstraction.

These were the pre-Socrates, the forerunners to the philosopher who, so to speak, “moved the game inside,” where he addressed the big human topics, such as friendship, knowledge, justice, and courage. But, like the others, he was pressing for the ultimate answers, the standards by which we may evaluate the hum and buzz of human activity, and the stage on which it occurs. Amalgamate all this (from Thales to Plato and then to Aristotle, who did some important taxonomical work, specifying categories of study), and you have philosophy as inquiry into the big stuff heretofore beyond one’s reach.

To make a very long story short, people became increasingly confident that a lot of things were not beyond their reach. Science kicked in, and physics, chemistry, and biology became their own realms, with a host of sub-specialties and combinations coming into play, e.g., bio-chemistry; genetics. Once you could run controlled experiments and crank out mathematical formulae to translate science into technology (e.g., taking Bernoulli’s Principle about the relationship between flow and pressure and applying it to airplane wings for lift and race-car spoilers for track grip), philosophy could bid adieu to the day-to-day work of that discipline and move on to new frontiers. (Not surprisingly, the social sciences are still in the birthing process, in that applying math to human behavior can easily leave a lot to be desired or presume to say too much about what’s important.)

On this model, the very expression, “philosophical apparatus,” seems an oxymoron. If you can use an apparatus to do your work, it’s no longer philosophy, but rather science. But the terminology in the Robertson case seems to fit with the practice we see at university graduation exercises, where scholars receive PhDs (doctorates in philosophy) in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology (subjects that used to be spoken of as forms of “natural philosophy”).

So are these degrees anachronisms, charming vestiges from the day when mortarboards were actually used to carry mortar up ladders as students helped to build their schools? Not really, for there is a philosophical aspect to these various subjects when well-taught, namely the disputed, theoretical frontiers of their thought. PhDs are not just practitioners of this or that science (or other discipline, such as literary criticism, American history, or art appreciation). They are supposed to be people who can bring critical tools to bear on the very methods and value of literary criticism, American history, and art appreciation, asking whether what they’re doing makes sense or even matters. They’re equipped to theorize about their theories, to work at the boundaries of their vocations, to philosophize, if you will, hence the PhD. Furthermore, they’re supposed to be able to join in the integrative work of the academy as a whole, joining their colleagues in big-picture thinking about the rightful place of their disciplines in the life of mankind, how they feed and, in turn, feed on what others are doing, for good or ill—synoptic, synthetic, comprehensive thinking.

Professional degrees, such as the Doctor of Medicine (MD), Doctor of Jurisprudence (JD), and Doctor of Ministry (DMin), are meant to equip practitioners to do their jobs well. Their aim is not to force students to step back and ask tough questions about whether what they’ll be up to is sensible and worthy. (That doesn’t mean they can’t and won’t do this, or, on the other hand that PhDs will do this; rather, it has to do with the basic parameters of the degree program.)

When PhDs “rise above” their particular work on Meiji Dynasty tapestries, nationalistic themes in the poetry of Walt Whitman, payday purchasing patterns on military bases, hurricane predictions for Bermuda, and such, and fly at the level of theoretical dispute, philosophers will “meet them in the air,” ready to pitch in through the Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of the Arts, Philosophy of Mathematics, Philosophy of History, Philosophy of Man, and so on. And it’s not as though we philosophers are filling in until science can snatch those topics from our grasp, for you can’t settle the biggest biggies with a test tube, an expedition, or a focus group.

So how do you settle them? Well, in one sense, you don’t, since there will never be full consensus on, for instance, the nature and value of religion, democracy, museums, leisure, unions, cloning, and universities. But some answers are demonstrably better than others, and, besides, you can’t remain indifferent or neutral. Issue by issue, you’ll have a position, or one will have you.

If philosophers, as philosophers, don’t do their principal work with spectrometers, archaeological digs, or polls, then what do they use? For what it’s worth, I give my students ten questions they can use to jump into most any philosophical topic, ways to tease out insight and to distance themselves from muddle. I call them “Elements of Dialogue,” a tip of the hat to the dialogical masters, Socrates and Plato, who set the methodological table for us:

1. Can you give an example? (illustration)
2. What’s at stake? What difference does it make? (application)
3. Where are you going with this? (destination)
4. But wouldn’t that mean . . . ? (implication)
5. What exactly do you mean by . . . ? (clarification)
6. So it is kind of like . . . ? (analogy; comparison)
7. But what about . . . ? (counter-example)
8. Wouldn’t it be better to look at it this way? (alternative paradigm)
9. So you’re saying . . . ? (summarization)
10. But how does this square with . . . ? (cohesion)

As harsh as it might sound, the chief tool philosophers use is the reductio ad absurdum (“reduction to absurdity”), whereby someone ventures a guess or proposal and then we get to work on seeing if can stand up to scrutiny or, instead, generates absurdities. If the latter, back to the drawing board, and it starts all over again. Ideally, answers get less and less crazy as we go along.

What shall we make George W. Bush’s 1999 answer to a question raised in an Iowa presidential debate—that Jesus was his favorite political philosopher? He caught a lot of heat for that, but was it deserved? Well, certainly Jesus has a firm grasp of the answers to the biggest questions, and he loves wisdom more than anyone else. Furthermore, his wisdom trumps any worldly wisdom that might be thrown up against his. But, unlike human philosophers, he doesn’t have to wrestle with questions, to puzzle out answers. He knows everything. (The Oxford English Dictionary says a philosopher is “one who devotes himself to the search of fundamental truth,” and Jesus, being omniscient, is not a searcher.) Furthermore, he doesn’t address every little puzzle in Scripture, at least not directly or explicitly. He offers broad principles, but he doesn’t get down in the weeds with academic philosophers on such questions as whether conceptual art is really art, whether monarchies are better than oligarchies, or whether time is a substance.

Though some Christians are inclined to think of philosophy as essentially apologetics when it’s worth anything at all, they miss the point that philosophy is an activity devoted to all sorts of big, conceptual problems which are neither settled by the Bible nor threatening to Christianity. Jesus remains on his throne whether or not we decide to go with a realistic or an abstract sculpture for our city park. But if I’m on the board commissioning the work, and if we have a budget of $300,000 to get it done, I’d sure like someone to think through this with me before I vote. And if I’m on the library commission fielding complaints that the librarians have put Chris Hitchens along with C.S. Lewis (or vice versa) on the shelves, I need help in sorting out the purpose of public libraries in the first place, and I don’t see a biblical proof text to settle the matter.

We need to do some philosophizing on such issues, and, alas, we don’t have a mechanical “philosophical apparatus” to get it done. But we do have our wits and our interlocutors. So game on, careful not to become what the aforementioned OED calls ‘philosophasters’—”shallow or pseudo-philosophers; smatterers or pretenders in philosophy.”