5/17/10

The Stone

Brian Leiter isn't happy about The New York Times's choice of Simon Critchley to moderate its new philosophy blog, but I think he's focusing on the wrong thing. It isn't Critchley's credentials that concern me, it's his inaugural essay. 

Here's what Leiter says--
I would urge readers to send a short note to the public editor, Clark Hoyt, stating, roughly, that you are pleased to see increased attention to philosophy in the NY Times, but are concerned that someone who is not taken seriously as a philosopher or scholar has been invited to serve as "moderator."  Keep it short and sweet.  If they get a couple thousand e-mails to that effect, maybe they will wake up to the spectacular mistake they've made.
I don't agree that the moderator has to be someone "taken seriously as a philosopher or a scholar." It just needs to be someone who could do a good job as a moderator.  That might be a philosopher who's especially good at seeing connections between philosophy and contemporary life, or someone with exceptional writing ability.  Or someone who's just interesting, insightful, and fun to read. 

Critchley's first essay is not interesting, insightful, or fun to read.  He asks "what is a philosopher?"  A good question, but then he makes the question about "the philosopher," as if philosophers were still a stock figure in contemporary life.  There's "the Wall Street banker" and "the soccer mom" and "the high-powered lawyer" and .... "the philosopher"?  I don't think so.

Anyhow, we are to be enlightened by what Plato said about "the philosopher" in The Theaetetus.
Socrates tells the story of Thales, who was by some accounts the first philosopher. He was looking so intently at the stars that he fell into a well. Some witty Thracian servant girl is said to have made a joke at Thales’ expense — that in his eagerness to know what went on in the sky he was unaware of the things in front of him and at his feet. Socrates adds, in Seth Benardete’s translation, “The same jest suffices for all those who engage in philosophy.”

What is a philosopher, then? The answer is clear: a laughing stock, an absent-minded buffoon, the butt of countless jokes from Aristophanes’ “The Clouds” to Mel Brooks’s “History of the World, part one.” Whenever the philosopher is compelled to talk about the things at his feet, he gives not only the Thracian girl but the rest of the crowd a belly laugh. The philosopher’s clumsiness in worldly affairs makes him appear stupid or, “gives the impression of plain silliness.” We are left with a rather Monty Pythonesque definition of the philosopher: the one who is silly.
Critchley goes on to refine this initial caricature, but evidently he sees some truth in the idea of "the philosopher's clumsiness in world affairs."  But why?  The philosophers I read are not clumsy.  In the Environmental Ethics course I just finished teaching, we read John Broome, the well known Oxford philosopher and economist, on the nature of the social discount rate, and how that figures into the ethics of climate change.  This is hardly "clumsiness in world affairs." In fact, yesterday's special "economics" edition of the Times magazine touched on the very same urgent question.

We also read David Schmidtz, the Arizona ethicist, writing about an issue as urgent and nitty gritty as how to preserve biodiversity in Africa.  Again, there was a connection to yesterday's magazine.  Like Cass Sunstein, Obama's OIRA chief, he espouses a sort of paternalistic libertarianism. 

Lots of philosophers today are right there in the middle of the discussion of world affairs, applying more abstract and abstruse work to timely issues, not falling into wells. If there are also well types, why identify the field with them?  Why do they get to be "the philosopher"?

Critchley does move on from here.  "The philosopher" isn't just a clumsy oaf.
But there is a deeper and more troubling layer of irony here that I would like peel off more slowly. Socrates introduces the “digression” by making a distinction between the philosopher and the lawyer, or what Benardete nicely renders as the “pettifogger.” The lawyer is compelled to present a case in court and time is of the essence. In Greek legal proceedings, a strictly limited amount of time was allotted for the presentation of cases. Time was measured with a water clock or clepsydra, which literally steals time, as in the Greek kleptes, a thief or embezzler. The pettifogger, the jury, and by implication the whole society, live with the constant pressure of time. The water of time’s flow is constantly threatening to drown them. The freedom of the philosopher consists in either moving freely from topic to topic or simply spending years returning to the same topic out of perplexity, fascination and curiosity.

By contrast, we might say, the philosopher is the person who has time or who takes time. Theodorus, Socrates’ interlocutor, introduces the “digression” with the words, “Aren’t we at leisure, Socrates?” The latter’s response is interesting. He says, “It appears we are.” As we know, in philosophy appearances can be deceptive. But the basic contrast here is that between the lawyer, who has no time, or for whom time is money, and the philosopher, who takes time. The freedom of the philosopher consists in either moving freely from topic to topic or simply spending years returning to the same topic out of perplexity, fascination and curiosity.

Pushing this a little further, we might say that to philosophize is to take your time, even when you have no time, when time is constantly pressing at our backs. The busy readers of The New York Times will doubtless understand this sentiment. It is our hope that some of them will make the time to read The Stone.
Philosophers take their time thinking about difficult things, but thinking about those very difficult things helps us get a grip on urgent, real-world business.  Lots and lots of philosophers are involved in making connections between the timeless and the timely, not just ethicists, but also people working on philosophy of mind and language, causation, philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, and so on.

Critchley goes from making philosophers seem like goofballs, to making them into leisurely ponderers, to suddenly making them out to be daring revolutionaries.
Socrates adds that the philosopher neither sees nor hears the so-called unwritten laws of the city, that is, the mores and conventions that govern public life. The philosopher shows no respect for rank and inherited privilege and is unaware of anyone’s high or low birth. It also does not occur to the philosopher to join a political club or a private party. As Socrates concludes, the philosopher’s body alone dwells within the city’s walls. In thought, they are elsewhere.
Um, the philosophy business is as elitist and rank-obsessed as any other.

Now we get into some serious preening.
Philosophy should come with the kind of health warning one finds on packs of European cigarettes: PHILOSOPHY KILLS. Here we approach the deep irony of Plato’s words. Plato’s dialogues were written after Socrates’ death. Socrates was charged with impiety towards the gods of the city and with corrupting the youth of Athens. He was obliged to speak in court in defense of these charges, to speak against the water-clock, that thief of time. He ran out of time and suffered the consequences: he was condemned to death and forced to take his own life.
A couple of generations later, during the uprisings against Macedonian rule that followed the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E., Alexander’s former tutor, Aristotle, escaped Athens saying, “I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy.” From the ancient Greeks to Giordano Bruno, Spinoza, Hume and right up to the shameful lawsuit that prevented Bertrand Russell from teaching at the City College of New York in 1940 on the charge of sexual immorality and atheism, philosophy has repeatedly and persistently been identified with blasphemy against the gods, whichever gods they might be. Nothing is more common in the history of philosophy than the accusation of impiety. Because of their laughable otherworldliness and lack of respect social convention, rank and privilege, philosophers refuse to honor the old gods and this makes them politically suspicious, even dangerous. Might such dismal things still happen in our happily enlightened age? That depends where one casts one’s eyes and how closely one looks.
Yes, well, philosophers could upset the world order, but not if they're spending their time falling into wells and enjoying endless slow meditation.

I'd prefer less artistry and erudition and a more straightforward picture of what philosophers do and how they contribute to public discussion of issues people care about.  They do make that contribution, but you woudn't know it, from Critchley's caricature.

15 comments:

amos said...

It's a very romantic picture of philosophy. However, generally, romantic pictures of careers are used to interest lay people: think of the difference between the real work of a doctor or lawyer (especially lawyers) and the way those professions are portrayed in numerous TV shows and movies: doctors never sleep, never fill out insurance forms, while lawyers crusade, without visible means of support and without demanding payment, against injustice. Now, whether it is good to fascinate the public with idealized portrayals of professions is another question.

Jean Kazez said...

My point is that there nothing idealized about this portrait. If fails to capture the fact that philosophers, right now, today, even as we speak, are contributing competently to the discussion of all sorts of urgent contemporary matters.

amos said...

You're right: it's not idealized.
It's romantic. I should have stuck with my first adjective. One of the things that philosophy contributes and which does not appear in the article is training in precise use of language (not confusing "romantic" and "idealized") and critical thinking. The mental precision of philosophers, compared with the educated general public, never fails to amaze me and that element is missing in the article.

Faust said...

I like Rorty's version of "the philosopher" in "The Philosopher as Expert." They should have just reprinted that :)

c said...

One might also wonder how seriously Socrates intends this portrait of the philosopher. Critchley's reading seems to assume that Plato through Socrates endorses this view of the philosopher as removed from the real world--something that may be true for the mathematician Theodorus (with whom Socrates is talking), but cannot be said for Socrates, who goes from this conversation to his indictment, and who always had a certain interest in the city.

Mark S said...

I'm not endorsing the article by Critchley, but I am concerned about some of the criticisms of it. Both the Leiter blog and this one seem to hold to the idea of a "philosopher" as one who has salaried employment teaching philosophy at an institution of higher learning. I do not think these two are equivalent, i.e. one can be a "philosopher" without having that type of employment.

Further, it concerns me greatly when "philosophers" are overly involved with and concerned with such practical/worldly matters. The idea that philosophers feel the need to justify their activities by pointing to "serious engagement" with "practical" problems that the general public concerns itself with is not the proper path for a philosopher. I always felt that "philosophers" traditionally were obliged to ignore (to some extent) practical/worldly matters, hence (for example) Gadamer's total lack of involvement one way or the other in German politics 1933-45. I always felt that this detachment from present fleeting worldly matters was part of the "ethos" of the concept of the "philosopher".

So the story of old Thales goes:

“The story goes that when they found fault with him for his poverty, supposing that philosophy is useless, he learned from his astronomy that there would be a large crop of olives. Then, while it was still winter, he obtained a little money and made deposits on all the olive presses both in Miletus and in Chios. Since no one bid against him, he rented them cheaply. When the right time came, suddenly many tried to get the presses all at once, and he rented them out on whatever terms he wished, and so made a great deal of money. In this way he proved that philosophers can easily be wealthy if they desire, but that this is not what they are interested in.” (Aristotle, Politics, taken from “Philosophy before Socrates” McKirahan, page 23-24).

Jean Kazez said...

I didn't say that all philosophers have to be worldly. I just said it's wrong to portray "the philosopher" (the paradigm case) as unworldly. Philosophers often make contributions to all sorts of pressing problems, and it's a good thing they do.

I also said nothing about philosophers having to be salaried university professors. In fact, I think there are some good philosophers around who are independent writers.

Anonymous said...

The choice of Critchley, whose writing has elicited sneering animadversion from student and professional philosophers, some deserved criticism, and equally supportive commentary, has appeared to have succeeded by the journalistic criterion that a series editor should stimulate discussion among its readership.

It also provoked the author of the philosophy gossip blog to launch a letter writing campaign to the public editor of the New York Times protesting the choice of Critchley. This provided readers with further insight on the answer of the philosophy profession (or some of its more vocal members) to the question in the title of Critchley's article.

I once published an op-ed in the New York Times. Have you published in the Times? Do you think it likely that the New York Times will provide Brian Leiter the kind of forum it has provided Critchley?

Jean Kazez said...

The point of your last paragraph is evidently: there's more to being a good columnist than being a highly-regarded academic philosopher. Right. I said that in my post.

Anonymous said...

Are you sure that my last paragraph made precisely one point? I would rephrase the one you identified: there is more to being a highly-regarded columnist than being a good academic philosopher.

Jean Kazez said...

Anonymous, re: deleting your comment. This comment thread is starting to fray. I said--let's talk about the column, not the person. Now you're talking about a person, though a different person. Sigh.

Andrew said...

"...it's wrong to portray "the philosopher" (the paradigm case) as unworldly."

This claim is either false or controversial. The paradigmatic philosopher is Socrates. It would be interesting to point out his courage on the battlefield, or his holding-to-the-fire the feet of public figures, but the fact remains that Socrates has got something otherworldly going on with him and that it is a crucial aspect of his persona that he cannot participate in politics and so on.

I don't think people like Peter Singer (or the scientist's handmaidens in neurophilosophy) are even in the ballpark of doing what Socrates did. Even if what they are doing were equally philosophical, the fact is that the paradigm has yet to be changed as a result of their more worldly understanding of what philosophy is up to.

I don't like the column either, but I don't think your criticism is fair.

Jean Kazez said...

You've made no argument at all why it makes sense to keep using Socrates as the model when painting a portrait of "the philosopher," considering that today's most visible philosophers are people like Peter Singer, Daniel Dennett, Martha Nussbaum. Doesn't each age get to have its own paradigm case of "the philosopher"?

amos said...

Thoughtfulness seems a key quality in a philosopher: she's not just a high IQ super-computer spinning out logical arguments. Thoughtfulness is found in philosphers from Socrates to Peter Singer, Baggini, Kazez, Faust, but not in all people with philosophy degrees.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for letting me know of Brian Leiter's letter-writing campaign against Simon Critchley. So mean-spirited is that effort, that I was immediately inspired to write a letter to the Times, in absolute support of the selection of Professor Critchley.