April 28, 2021 3 min read

I could list the usual things here: a philosopher can argue well, draw logical conclusions (not everyone can), write well, understand complex texts, weigh moral frames of action, provide something like "life counseling" or simply be a good entertainer.

Basically, however, the field of activity is neither defined nor limited. This circumstance raises questions (and jokes), namely primarily those, which skills a philosopher brings along at all in relation to usable qualities for the job market or in the broadest sense for society. This is even easier to determine in the case of an artist, who, after all, has mastered an instrument, a painting technique or invented something completely new. For the philosopher, his own activity remains "philosophical", i.e. ultimately not ascertainable. Why this should be different at all is not to be discussed further here, but only what the skillset of a philosopher can be broken down to. The freedom to be able to do nothing also brings with it the responsibility to be able to do everything.

The German philosopher Odo Marquard characterizes the history of philosophy as a history of successive loss of skills, and this is precisely what could be applied to the individual philosopher. Thus, the philosopher of antiquity and before was at the same time physician, astronomer, historian, chronicler, political advisor, educator, naturalist and much more. In any case, a social purpose and a learned skill could always be added to the status of being a philosopher.

Originally, therefore, philosophy was universal, "competent for everything". Today, for some time now, it has been "competent for only one thing: namely, for admitting its own incompetence." Philosophy: it has come to an end; we do philosophy after the end of philosophy." Philosophy is left with only one competence, precisely the incompetence-compensation competence. This word can be translated as the competence to compensate one's own incompetence. There is humor in the word alone, because such incredibly long words can actually be formulated perfectly correctly in the German language.

So Marquard did not write this without self-irony, yet it is precisely this self-settling that does justice to the basic philosophical idea of professing the truth, however uncomfortable it may be for one's own standing and pride. The popular understanding of the term "incompetence compensation competence", on the other hand, has recently been found primarily in self-help literature and business guidebooks. Here, almost as a matter of course, the term is quite negatively connoted and people with this quality are portrayed as types of phonies. This is already a reinterpretation of the term, which comes by the vulgar understanding of laymen, if necessary even with a malicious intention. For what is actually concealed is that people - set above all philosophers, who are endowed with this quality, can get into complex problems faster than others. In this sense, they are trained universalists, which of course contradicts the labor market's demand for highly differentiated specialists.

To answer the question about the skills of a philosopher: he can do nothing and yet s/he is capable of everything.


All quotes from: "Farewell to Matters of Principle: Philosophical Studies" by Odo Marquard.

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