Monday, May 24, 2010

What is a philosopher?


Simon Critchley, a philosopher at the New School for Social Research in New York, opens a new series of philosophical essays on the New York Times website with "What Is A Philosopher?"

I read it eagerly, because, quite frankly, I've always wondered what is a philosopher, notwithstanding the fact that I've spent half-a-century reading philosophy and have philosopher friends -- that is, people who hold academic professorships in philosophy departments.

The problem is this: A definition of a profession usually makes reference to what one does for a living, and I've never been able to figure out exactly what a philosopher does.

To his credit, Critchley begins by saying, "I certainly don’t want to add more hot air to the volcanic cloud of unknowing."

And then he does.

A philosopher, he says, is someone with time on his hands. And: "Because of their laughable otherworldliness and lack of respect for social convention, rank and privilege, philosophers refuse to honor the old gods and this makes them politically suspicious, even dangerous"

And that's about all I can dig out of the essay.

Which more or less makes me a philosopher. I have time on my hands and a modicum of irreverence. I don't think of myself as dangerous.

So what do philosophers do? They make footnotes to Plato. Or footnotes to footnotes to Plato. Or footnotes to footnotes to footnotes to Plato. Which doesn't exactly advance civilization or increase the gross national product.

There was a time when philosophers thought about how the world works, but that activity has been subsumed by science. Epistemology is a useful occupation, but I'm not sure much has been added since Ockham, Bacon and Hume. Ethics? After you've stated the Golden Rule, what's left to do?

Here at the college, in retirement, I keep my laptop locked up in the Critical Theory Library of the Literature Department. The shelves groan with the likes of Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Rorty and all the rest of the recent gang of philosophers. Talk about "a volcanic cloud of unknowing"! These books suck the air right out of the room.

OK, OK, I'm being deliberately provocative. I'm going to send this post to a philosopher friend with whom I've had many lively discussions. If he wants to tell us what philosophers do, in 400 words or less, I'll post it here.

(Tomorrow: Philosophy of science. Cartoon by Charles Barsotti, New Yorker.)