Saturday, September 22, 2012

What is a philosopher -– a Saturday reprise

(These two posts, combined here into one, appeared in May 2010.)

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.

(Cartoon by Charles Barsotti, New Yorker.)
My friend and colleague Professor Capobianco has responded to my question, "What do philosophers do?" -- and with a conciseness untypical of his profession does it in less than 400 words. Thanks, Richard.

My good friend Chet has challenged me (at least I think it was me!) to help us understand what a philosopher is. As he points out, in earlier centuries that might have been an easier task because philosophers, as "lovers of wisdom," were often precisely those who advanced our understanding of the natural world and of every other aspect of what we call "reality." Admittedly, thinking about what a philosopher is or does in the contemporary world is more difficult because the study of what used to belong to the domain of philosophical thinking has split off over time and has been taken up by specialists in the other disciplines, what we call today the natural and social sciences. So, Chet asks, what's left for philosophers to think about? Why do we need philosophers at all anymore?

The answer, I think, has to do with the peculiar nature of philosophical thinking from its origins. Philosophy, in the proper sense of that term, is concerned with examining, clarifying, and questioning the fundamental assumptions of all our human activities and inquiries. Philosophers ask: what are the fundamental assumptions of our social and political lives? our institutions? our religions? our ethical stances? our art? our various modes of inquiry? With respect to that last item, we might observe that the working physicist, to use one example, proceeds with a method and a vocabulary but does not spend time examining that method and vocabulary; that is what a philosopher does best.

It's the philosophers, and, yes, even those much maligned postmodern philosophers, who remind the practitioners of the other disciplines that in the deep background of their research are basic assumptions about who we are and what the world is that are not fixed and eternal, but contingent and subject to modification or even radical revision. If history is our guide, then the very assumptions that Chet the physicist proceeds with today are likely to be viewed sometime in the future as no less quaint as Aristotle's assumptions appear to us today! So, to put it simply, good philosophy keeps our unknowing in view, and therefore keeps us thinking, keeps us questioning, keeps us wondering. Good philosophy keeps us unsettled in our knowing -- and, remarkably enough, it's precisely in this way that philosophy serves to "advance civilization."
(Cartoon by Charles Barsotti, New Yorker. Capobianco's new book is Engaging Heidegger, University of Toronto Press.)