Stoned! Philosophers-as-Idiots? Enough Already!

The NYT has a new blog called The Stone, billed as “a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.” Simon Critchley launches it with a piece entitled, “What is a Philosopher?

Critchley begins, as any good freshman essay would, by claiming that “there are as many definitions of philosophy as there are philosophers – perhaps there are even more.” I suppose he’s checked into this claim. I suppose, if asked, he could produce, say 250 essentially different definitions of philosophy. Or 100? Or 50? Who knows, because, like those freshman papers, he simply asserts.

But anyway, defining philosophy is not the purpose of this column. Rather, Critchley wants to ask: What is a philosopher? Okay, I suppose, but let me simply point out that the question presumes that a philosopher is a “what,” and not, say, a “who.” Just how good is that presumption?

Critchley takes his first cut at trying to say what a philosopher is by deferring to Plato (he cites the justly famous and pithy and yet problematic in the extreme bon mot by Whitehead: “philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato”). Although Plato tries to say some things about philosophy and philosophers in innumerable places throughout his work, Critchley selects the well-known passage from the Theatetus in which Socrates tells a little story about Thales of Miletus that is alleged, I guess, to be illustrative of what a philosopher is. Here’s some of the passage [174a ff]:

Socrates: I will illustrate my meaning, Theodorus, by the jest which the clever witty Thracian handmaid is said to have made about Thales, when he fell into a well as he was looking up at the stars. She said, that he was so eager to know what was going on in heaven, that he could not see what was before his feet. This is a jest which is equally applicable to all philosophers. For the philosopher is wholly unacquainted with his next-door neighbour; he is ignorant, not only of what he is doing, but he hardly knows whether he is a man or an animal; he is searching into the essence of man, and busy in enquiring what belongs to such a nature to do or suffer different from any other;-I think that you understand me, Theodorus?
Theodorus: I do, and what you say is true.
Socrates: And thus, my friend, on every occasion, private as well as public, as I said at first, when he appears in a law-court, or in any place in which he has to speak of things which are at his feet and before his eyes, he is the jest, not only of Thracian handmaids but of the general herd, tumbling into wells and every sort of disaster through his inexperience. His awkwardness is fearful, and gives the impression of imbecility. When he is reviled, he has nothing personal to say in answer to the civilities of his adversaries, for he knows no scandals of any one, and they do not interest him; and therefore he is laughed at for his sheepishness; and when others are being praised and glorified, in the simplicity of his heart he cannot help going into fits of laughter, so that he seems to be a downright idiot.

After re-capping this idea by saying that the philosopher is “the one who is silly,” Critchley rightly advises us to remember that things in Platonic dialogues are not always quite the way they first appear and that Socrates is quite an ironist. Good advice.

But then Critchley–this must be tongue-in-cheek (O please God, let it be so!)–tells us that Thales thought all things were ultimately composed of water, that water was Thales’ philosophers’ stone, and that by falling into the well, Thales was inadvertently pressing his basic philosophical claim. Yikes!

The reflections then take a more serious turn, as Critchley recounts the Socrates’ distinction between the philosopher and the “lawyer” or “pettifogger,” in Seth Benardete’s translation. The latter is on the clock, looking for billable hours, always running out of time. “The philosopher, by contrast, is free by virtue of his or her otherworldliness, by their capacity to fall into wells and appear silly,” says Critchley. The person trying to succeed, to achieve, to produce, to be useful has no time for the things of philosophy, no time to stand in wonder, no time to wander aimlessly in thought. The philosopher is, apparently, simply useless.

Critchley then warns us that, despite the dreamy, carefree character of the philosopher, the philosopher is nevertheless in mortal danger. Socrates had to drink the hemlock. Aristotle had to flee for his life during political turmoils in Athens. Indeed, philosophers have been hounded by the powers-that-be down through the ages. Because philosophers ask too many questions, because they question authority (wanting to know for themselves), philosophers appear dangerous to regimes of all sorts, from tyrannies to democracies (which frequently are tyrannies by other means). “Philosophy kills,” Critchley says.

So, if you are reading the Stone–the blog that Critchley’s piece is inaugurating–you will be well-advised to stay away from philosophy. Should you choose to engage in philosophy, you will either be–or at least be seen as–foolish and futile, or–even worse–you will be pitting yourself against everyone and everything, taking your life in your hands. Idiotic or dead–these are the fates awaiting the philosopher.

Well, as I said the story of Thales and the Thalesian character of philosophy is well-known. But there is another story of Thales that stands under-reported. It can be found in Aristotle’s Politics [1259a].

…a collection ought also to be made of the scattered accounts of methods that have brought success in business to certain individuals. All these methods are serviceable for those who value wealth-getting, for example the plan of Thales of Miletus, which is a device for the business of getting wealth, but which, though it is attributed to him because of his wisdom, is really of universal application. Thales, so the story goes, because of his poverty was taunted with the uselessness of philosophy; but from his knowledge of astronomy he had observed while it was still winter that there was going to be a large crop of olives, so he raised a small sum of money and paid round deposits for the whole of the olive-presses in Miletus and Chios, which he hired at a low rent as nobody was running him up; and when the season arrived, there was a sudden demand for a number of presses at the same time, and by letting them out on what terms he liked he realized a large sum of money, so proving that it is easy for philosophers to be rich if they choose, but this is not what they care about. Thales then is reported to have thus displayed his wisdom, but as a matter of fact this device of taking an opportunity to secure a monopoly is a universal principle of business….

So the “useless” “otherworldly” philosopher Thales got the drop on his “useful” “worldly” competitors, the ones always laughing at him. Who had the last laugh, though?

Notice, too, in this passage, that Aristotle doesn’t find anything exclusively “philosophical” about Thales’ ability to draw a business advantage from his studies. Neither does Aristotle argue that there is anything preventing philosophers from being successful. In fact, he says it is “easy” for philosophers to get rich – always a measure for worldly success, it seems. Aristotle just says that philosophers–as philosophers–are not interested in “worldly” things.

So it turns out that to know that someone is a philosopher will not tell you anything about whether or not they will be successful in worldly matters. Nor does knowing that someone is successful in a worldly way tell you anything about whether that person is a philosopher. So how can you tell who is the philosopher?

“Philosophy kills.” What, really, does this mean? In Critchley’s sense, it appears that “philosophy kills” should be read like “smoking kills.” If you engage in it, it will kill you, it will lead to your destruction, to your death. Critchley even wonders aloud whether Athens might not really have had a case against Socrates. Philosophers cause problems…maybe they deserve what they get for disturbing the rest of us.

But the regimes–the political orders, constitutions, institutions, cultural practices, laws, courts–that are threatened by and that persecute philosophy…where do they come from?

In essence, all of these institutions and laws and practices are answers to questions. What questions? Questions such as these: How should we live? What is just? What is fair? How will we deal with each other in the market place? What is an education? What is art? And so on. All are questions raised by philosophers.

So in another sense, “philosophy kills” can be taken to mean that – ironically – philosophy is that which does the killing. You are not killed by someone or something else because you philosophize. Philosophy itself leads directly to death. Philosophy is the killer. It asks questions. Questions demand answers. Answers do not (necessarily) demand questions. Answers get hypostatized, solidified, codified, institutionalized. Answers don’t take kindly to being questioned. Answers put a stop to questioning. Answers are a solution to questioning. Indeed, they are the final solution to questioning. Answers–which were demanded by philosophical questioning–kill philosophical questioning.

Philosophy as executioner and executed, and, paradoxically, the executed comes before the executioner. The executed is the question; the executioner is the answer. But philosophy is all about asking and answering questions, so is there any way to see this situation such that philosophy is simply the gadfly victim of society?

If these two very common views of philosophy – that it is silly or that it is simply dangerous – were all to be said on the matter, then it would be easy to dismiss philosophy. It would either be useless or pernicious or both, but in any case, who needs it?

There may be one more way to say what philosophy is, and it follows from the second view. It would be something like philosophy-as-heroic. The idea is that, yes, philosophy is the gadfly and society and all its institutions desperately need to feel its sting from time to time to wake us up from moral torpor. However true this may be, it makes philosophy out to be extraordinary, special, to be applied only on certain occasions by exceptional people. By exceptional, this means that there are some few who can somehow see society from some “otherworldly” vantage point from which it can criticize it, see how it is really supposed to be.

If there is something to the first two views at all, there is something more to this version. However, neither philosophy-as-foolish, nor philosophy-as-pernicious, nor philosophy-as-heroic seem to capture adequately what is at work in philosophy.

I think there is evidence of torpor at the Stone. We’ve gotten stoned on thinking about philosophy in these cliche ways. Because we have, we’ve been all-too-content to diminish the profundity of philosophy. And it is a bit ironic to see academic philosophers getting worked up about the increasing number of universities shutting down philosophy departments. After all, in our bid to “professionalize” philosophy, we’ve domesticated it, quashed its eros and “divine madness” (mistaken by the the non-philosopher for foolishness), castrated its questioning into formulaic scholasticism, and, occasionally, as a reaction, squeezed it into fairly predictable political posturing. And then we wonder why (corporatized) universities don’t find it fruitful.

The philosopher is not a “what” but a “who.” Philosophy is not a “what” but a “way,” a way of living your life as a person in a world with others, a way of asking and answering and asking again about the ways of being human. We need to re-learn this way. It is not idiotic. It is not essentially pernicious and is very often salutary. It is not especially heroic, nor is it for some special few. It is for you, whoever you are.


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