From Theoria vol. 72, Part 1 (2006).

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   Philosophical Schools


The word “school” can denote what the Oxford English Dictionary explicates as a “place or establishment for instruction”. It can also mean, in the words of the same dictionary, “a body or succession of persons who in some department of speculation or practice are disciples of the same master, or who are united by a general similarity of principles and methods”. [1] In the latter sense we also often use the term “school of thought”.


The oldest philosophical schools, those in the Hellenistic period, seem to have been intermediates between the two modern senses of “school”. However, it is probably correct to say that they were closer to what we today call schools of thought than to places or establishments for instruction. [2] In his treatise on the philosophical schools, Hippobotus seems to have referred to groups of philosophers who were united by shared philosophical views. [3]


What is the role of philosophical schools of thought today, and what role should they have? Is the organization of philosophical activities in schools of thought an advantage or a disadvantage for our discipline? In order to answer these questions, it is useful to distinguish between two types of schools of thought. The distinction is implicit in the above quotation from the Oxford English Dictionary, according to which schools can be united either by having “the same master” or by having “a general similarity of principles and methods”. We can call these two types of schools respectively person-centred and idea-centred. 

Person-centred schools

A person-centred school consists of followers of a particular person. [4 p. 4; 5 p. 280] When such a school is well-established, its members tend to call themselves X-ists or X-ians, where X is the name of the person whose ideas they are following. The followers of a philosopher are usually philosophers, but some philosophers have also obtained a significant following of non-philosophers. (Jacques Derrida is an interesting example of this. He has a much larger following in literature departments than in philosophy departments. [6: 26b, 53c])


The system of person-centred schools of thought has often been criticized. Plutarch warned that a disciple runs the risk of having his judgment enslaved by esteem for the teacher, and bemoaned the folly of those who went as far as to imitate Plato’s stoop or Aristotle’s lisp. [7] More recent characterizations of person-centred schools have emphasized the same features. Person-centred schools have been described as “closed to external influences” [8 p. 87] and their members’ attitudes as “adulation and unquestioning acceptance” of the teacher’s ideas and personality. [5 p. 283]


It is difficult to find a clear defence of person-centred schools. Although many have defended the particular school that they themselves belong to, few have defended the system of person-centred schools more in general. A guarded defence was expressed by François Roustang, who claimed that person-centred schools are useful for some disciplines but not for others. More specifically, he said that they are proper for psychoanalysis but not for physics. Physicists are “guided by the internal coherence of their discourse and the relationship between calculation and experimentation”, and therefore they cannot “confirm or invalidate their scientific claims by referring to the master’s thinking”. In contrast, he says, it is “impossible to separate the founder of psychoanalysis from current psychoanalytical work”. [9 p. 21]


We can leave psychoanalysis aside here. What is important for our present purposes is that although philosophy is different from physics on many accounts, the two disciplines both aim at a high degree of generality. Saying that certain philosophical ideas cannot be separated from their originator’s work is a highly negative appraisal of the generality or generalizability of these ideas. In philosophy, just as in physics or any other discipline, progress requires an open intellectual process that is never deferent to authorities. Therefore, good philosophy cannot have its impetus in the interpretation of a master. X-ianism or X-ism is always a threat to philosophical creativity, irrespective of who X is.


Unfortunately, although philosophy has no more use for authority-bound structures than any other discipline, it has a much stronger tradition of such allegiances than most other disciplines. This is an historical burden that it is long overdue to cast off.  

Idea-centred schools

Some of the disadvantages of person-centred schools do not seem to apply to idea-centred ones. In the general literature on academic schools, it has been argued that idea-centred schools can contribute to a sound intellectual pluralism. [10] It could perhaps be argued that in philosophy, idea-centred research communities can have the positive role of ensuring that coherent wholes, interconnected solutions to several philosophical problems, are developed in more detail than what can be accomplished by a single person. But on the other hand, schools need not be person-centred in order to run the risk of closing themselves to criticism from the outside. [4; 11; 12]


In a famous passage, Kuhn maintained that although there are schools “in the sciences”, they are “far rarer there than in other fields; they are always in competition; and their competition is usually quickly ended”. [13 p. 177] He did not specify these “other fields”, but John Servos has interpreted him as meaning that schools are proper for philosophers, artists, and sociologists but not for the mature sciences, for which other types of communities are more proper. [4 p. 7] However, it is difficult to see why the disciplines should differ in these respects. All disciplines have need for co-operations between investigators who are interested in the same topics. No discipline has need for uncritical or uniform thinking or for communities of researchers who do not communicate with other such communities working on the same or similar problems. Since philosophy proceeds largely by argument and counterargument, it is certainly not less susceptible than other disciplines to the negative effects of intellectual isolation.


The crucial distinction is not between disciplines with greater or smaller use for schools of thought. The crucial distinction is that between different types of schools of thought, namely those that are open and welcome criticism, and those that are not. In order to have a positive function in philosophy – or any other discipline – schools of thought have to be open to criticism, capable of self-criticism, and most certainly not devoted to developing or interpreting the thinking of a particular person.


                                                                                                                                  Sven Ove Hansson



 [1]  Oxford English Dictionary Online, http://dictionary.oed.com/.
[2] Philip Mitsis, “The Institutions of Hellenistic Philosophy”, pp. 464-476 in A. Erskine, ed., A Companion to the Hellenistic World, Oxford: Blackwell 2003.

Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, I:19-20.

 [4]  John W Servos, “Research Schools and Their Histories”, Osiris 8:2-15, 1993.

 J. Gordon Chamberlin, “Discipleship in Academia”, Humanitas 11:279-289, 1975.

[6] Michele Lamont, “How to Become a Dominant French Philosopher: The Case of Jacques Derrida”, The American Journal of Sociology 93:584-622, 1987.
[7] Plutarch, Moralia, 26b and 53c.
[8] Diana Crane, Invisible Colleges, Chicago: Chicago University Press 1972.

François Roustang, Dire mastery: discipleship from Freud to Lacan, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 1982.

[10] Sheila C. Dow, “Structured Pluralism”, Journal of Economic Methodology 11:275-290, 2004.

RGA Dolby, “Debates over the theory of solution”, Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 7:297-404, 1976.

[12] Neil McLaughlin, “How to Become a Forgotten Intellectual: Intellectual Movements and the Rise and Fall of Erich Fromm”, Sociological Forum 13:215-246, 1998.

Thomas S Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1970.

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