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.”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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.