Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Where does a philosopher belong?

The demands of phiosophy are unlike any human endeavor, especially in our contemporary world. Philosophy, the love of wisdom, served many unique and vital purposes throughout previous epochs. For the Greeks, beginning with Thales, who introduced to the ancient world the foundations of a systematic approach to thought that answered to mythical religious accounts of the world, philosophy was synonymous with science: accounting for change, accounting for substance, accounting for being, and accounting for ethics or practical concerns were all hosted under the auspices of philosophy. With Socrates, who first said "I am my soul," thus making distinction between body and soul and developing the first clearly systematic ancient ethic, philosophy was connected to the public, the marketplace, the courthouse. The philosopher always had a place; the philosopher belonged. Even individual schools that did not practice the rigorous dialectic as Socrates did had places in which they stayed, addressing natural and ethical philosophical questions in spaces committed to the endeavor of a community: a school of thought was much more than a collection of individuals; it was a way of life. The same goes for Socrates.

Modern philosophers, beginning with Descartes, contributed to the same natural questions, although now the divide between science-proper and philosophy was becoming apparent. Philosophy became a medium through which "non-scientific" questions (e.g., questions not concerning a particular method) were addressed, as well as the clarification of actual scientific questions. Philosophers contributed much to physics during this time, during which physics and metaphysics remained closely aligned. Ethics had a new dimension, however, with the development of modern political arrangements; more and more, as persons retreated from the public into the private, philosophy, oddly enough, followed. Roughly beginning with the scholastics, philosophy became a proper discipline within academia--no longer was dialectic to be had on the street, clarifying terms and getting beneath the common beliefs or opinions. Rather, philosophy began its descent into specialization, which was arguably amplified by the split between science and philosophy.

Hegel is arguably one of the most popular examples of a university philosopher as we now know it; but, other examples certainly exist, such as Fichte and Schopenhauer, and more recently, Husserl, Kojeve, and Heidegger. The issues became more esoteric, but, this outcome could easily be attributed to the development of society away from the public as it could be to the development of modern science, and philosophy in general, from the scholastic period forward. The topics remained ethical, remained metaphysical, and remained concerned with foundations, but the scope was different; as Schopenhauer might be quoted, to write about ethics and to live ethically can be mutually exclusive entities.

Broadly construed, this is where we stand now.

But, something doesn't seem right about this. Is this where philosophers now belong? I would head to the marketplace to exist in the public with my fellow associates, to participate in dialectic, to clarify the search for knowledge, to love wisdom, which is more of a process than an accumulation of definable entities, such as "knowledge," or "truth." This is not to suggest that "knowledge" and "truth" do not exist, but rather, in past epochs (such as the ancient epoch), that truth and knowledge used to be grounded in a project that bore the same name as our contemporary university project, but had an entirely different agenda: ethical practice. Metaphysics was ethical; physics was ethical; epistemology was ethical; ethics were ethical: the point is, what we now recognize as separate disciplines used to be connected by one key point: philosophy was a lifestyle.

To fail to ask philosophical questions, for the philosopher, implicated an injustice to the self, as demonstrated by Socrates. The dilemma of this lifestyle, the lifestyle of the gadfly, for a philosopher seemed inevitably pitted against the uninquisitive customs of society, was taken on without flinching by Socrates, it was a severe, radical disposition. To philosophize, to search for wisdom, to love wisdom, was connected to one's soul, one's life, one's being.

And now, Nietzsche captures the plight of the philosopher best: the burden that one can neither bear, nor throw off. The disposition of philosopher is one of despairing in contemporary times; I lament being a philosopher, and yet, it is connected to the very fabric of my being, and like Socrates, to fail to answer these questions, to fail to love wisdom, is to commit an injustice against myself. This dilemma can be played out on very practical terms: the desire to inquire endlessly, to search the foundations of our very existence, to act, to live, as a philosopher, versus the demands that philosophers now face: graduate student, university teacher, publisher of books, manuscripts, and articles, and servant to university administration (core curriculum, which, by the way, is vanishing in many universities in favor of "practical" programs).

I understand this dilemma because I live it, and desire to live it: I want to go on to graduate school because after two years of consideration, I feel there is no better place for a philosopher in society; maybe we can change this. I want to teach. But, I also want to live this radical lifestyle because it is connected to my soul, to my very being: if I were to abandon this project, this life, my life, I would be committing a severe injustice against myself. I feel the despair of Nietzsche, for I can neither bear nor throw off this burden, and yet I feel the empowerment of Socrates, that "I am my soul." This is my project. And yet, it is inevtiably connected to others...

There must be a better place for philosophers in contemporary society. Universities, parents, students, the world-at-large all favor practical programs, for businessmen, for engineers, for many other areas of "expertise." Philosophy is easily tossed aside as "impractical;" and yet, it seems as though persons are only tossing aside university philosophy as it appears to be for the past two-hundred years or so: to label philosophy "impractical," to dismiss philosophy, is to disrupt the very core of philosophy itself, the very demands of the project. Philosophy can never be impractical, even when it flies in the face of the customs of a society, because philosophy, at root, must be concerned with "living." To study philosophy, to be a philosopher, to ask a philosophical question, is to ask "what is my life?" This is a question that is obscured within the spaces of privacy of civil society, for there is no marketplace, no gymnasium, no courthouse whereby we congregate and participate.

Persons that wish to rid the University of philosophy, that feel that philosophy is no longer needed as a major portion of core curriculum, are making a bold statement: they are ignoring the roots, the demands of philosophy. Philosophy is difficult, philosophy is empowering; and, followin the modern era, philosophy is despairing. Philosophers need a space, and that space cannot be exclusive; for, we must demand for philosophy to take up the very project of justice, the project of a life: to be a philosopher is to demand ethical action from oneself; metaphysics must be ethical, physics must be ethical, epistemology must be ethical, once again...

So, the question remains: where do we belong? Where do philosophers belong?


Anonymous Jess said...

I don't know if this is a direct cause of the modern philosopher-without-a-place syndrome or if it just exacerbates the problem, but philosophers themselves share some blame. Certainly we all know a philosopher or 10 who would rather hide away in a university department, quibble only other philosophers in a university department about this or that nano-philosophical issue (and do so only through an academic journal), and otherwise cloister themselves from broader society.

I also think it's a problem that young philosophical minds essentially never live an adult life outside of academia. I plan on going to graduate school for philosophy eventually, but for the time being, I have had my fill of soft-handed, disconnected philosophers who otherwise have great minds. I don't mean to insinuate that you'll personally become one who will contribute to the self-seclusion by philosophers, but I really do think this trend is deadly for our future.

5:07 PM  
Blogger Nick Z. said...

That's a fine point; the other end of the spectrum: philosophers that seclude themselves in academia.

I certainly agree that's a problem, because I don't think it's necessarily correct to be able to label oneself a philosopher, and yet hide away, only talking professional jargon, and so on...I agree with your classification.

To be honest, I like what you said about taking some time off. I think that's excellent. I am applying and hoping to go on right away not because I want to seclude myself, but because I feel ready to write, take on my life project, and work with the challenge of philosophy.

(I definitely didn't take your comment as an insinuation that I am of the "secluded" camp; so no worries there.) Your point is very legitimate.

To be honest, if no one accepts me to graduate school, these problems won't go away, of course. I'll do this whether they pay me or not; ironically, the university is a problematic place for philosophy, and yet, I really have not found another place where philosophy can actually be practiced...perhaps I ought to search harder.

Thanks for your comment, Jess, I really appreciate your reading and commentary on this entry.

6:23 PM  
Blogger baelmon said...

Interesting post. When talking about philosophy as a way of life, we usually think of Socrates or the Stoics, i.e. people who tried to be virtuous and used philosophical discourse as an aid to that end. But what about using philosophy for the opposite, i.e. sanctioning behavior that usually gets branded evil, inappropriate, indecent, etc? Foucault has remarked somewhere that those who tried to transcend their sexuality in antiquity are very much like those in our own time who have sought to overcome collective repression by indulging in sex--both types of person are simply trying to make their lives more beautiful by differentiating themselves from the majorities of their societies. Of course, one might counter that the Stoics and Socrates weren't doing anything much different, as they too were differentiating themselves from the "herd" by engaging in philosophical and moral discourse. They too were pronounced evil and indecent (e.g. Socrates executed, just about everything in the Diogenes legend). At best, they were probably regarded as strange. But it seems that we have internalized many of their moral precepts, so that to us they do not appear strange, whereas the more recent revolutionares of personal conduct (Nietzsche, Foucault) still seem too impious to accept. Perhaps the future will regard figures like these with the same view as we regard the ancients, wondering why their contemporaries found them so strange and dangerous.

10:43 AM  
Anonymous Vinnie said...

I really like this post. As a person in a major that seems to produce natural enemies of philosophy, I've also felt that frustration with the idea that philosophy is labeled "impractical," or more often, "bullshit." I've always found it strange how much people rely on more "practical" or, I guess, functional methods of thought and take no interest in the more basic thought processes that form these things. I enjoyed my five philosophy classes but also understand why myself and others could never see ourselves immersed in the field. At the same time, I don't see how philosophical inquiry can be separated from any academic or professional field. And I already feel from personal experience that embracing that mindset gives anyone an advantage and clearer grasp of whatever field he or she is in.

9:20 PM  
Blogger Nick Z. said...

I like your comment, Vinnie, thanks for reading. Just out of curiosity, what field do you study in?


"both types of person are simply trying to make their lives more beautiful by differentiating themselves from the majorities of their societies."

Toby, I am intrigued by your distinction. I definitely am in tune with the contra-society aspect of philosophy that you mention...I think what is very interesting with the whole contra-society aspect of philosophy is that although Nietzsche and Foucault are not yet highly regarded as Socrates is (Nietzsche is on a different level right now, than Foucault, I'd imagine); but, even though wide regard doesn't exist, there is a great faction of persons in academia, across disciplines, working on Foucauldian and Nietzschean problems.

Is this merely another piece of evidence of a group of persons aligning themselves as gadflies of a sort, attempting to wake the sleeping horses?

10:02 PM  
Anonymous Jess said...

Good luck with the applications, Nick. I know those grad school admission packages can be a bear to put together.

I don't know that I practice philosophy in my day job. I guess, if broadly construed, I do--thinking about ideas of what's right and helping to move things closer to that in the future. Though the projects are not of my own choosing, and they are rather narrow.

To be honest, the reason I know I will go to grad school is because I am entirely unfulfilled right now--and I really am lucky to have such a cutting-edge, creative, and challenging job. Although I read and write most evenings, I wish I had more time and energy to devote to it. On the other hand, it's good to grapple with the facticity of "practical" living, since that is reality for the vast majority of people. It leaves me profoundly unsatisfied, but somehow I still think taking time off is important and even advantageous for would-be academics.

6:34 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...


Fascinating and satisfying read. You touch on quite a few compelling issues, but I wanted to comment briefly on maybe two or three.

4:18 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Oops. Those two or three issues are the contra-society attitude of philosophy and the place of a philosopher in the modern world.

At a certain level, to live a life devoted to philosophy is to suggest, by implication, that other people are living a life that is less wise than the one you want to live. Few people will thank you for that.

But do think of people like Aristotle, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Locke who lived lives of high repute for most of their days. A lot of it has to do with the metaphysic you believe. Socrates believed in a world of shadows, so he stepped out of the cave. Aristotle and Aquinas believed that the world before us (that land of shadows) possessed its own light. Consequently, they were able to move through human society and accept its validity and its upward striving on friendlier terms.

I think Jess's inclination to take some time off aligns with that impulse. Every philosopher is trying to see reality as it is for what it is - to see "the real." Since Socrates saw it in another realm he had to step aside from the distractions. Since Aristotle saw it in the realm he had to live in the "shadows."

Reality, I would suggest, is the embodiment of the idea, the incarnation of the logos if you like. If so, the idea can be known in a painting, in music, in a dialectical discussion, in a mine or in the stars, in a balance sheet or in the plant, or, most joyfully, at a baseball game (where it is most clearly perceived!).

If that is the case, then the place of the philosopher is everywhere and the hands are as much a philosophical tool as the mouth.

Love your stuff, radio.


If so, then

4:29 PM  
Blogger Nick Z. said...

Andrew, thanks for the post, I really appreciate you reading it.

I like your presentation of thought, I think there is a lot of validity in the way in which you present your metaphysics.

The only issue I see pertains wisdom: I don't think there needs to be a suggestion, even by implication, that those failing to lead a philosophical life are less wise than the philosopher. I think the difference between philosophers and non-philosophers is the process of embracing wisdom: to love wisdom is not to have wisdom, but to search for it, and the ethic of a philosopher is to struggle with that process--the two examples I provided were Nietzsche and Socrates.

The troubling thing about philosophy is that it's difficult to know when one must stop searching for wisdom, for it is difficult to to know when one even has it. But, what's truly valuable, and truly empowering, are the questions, and responses to questions, and interaction with persons about these questions that a philosopher can experience along the way.

The wonderful thing about living the philosophical life is that it is a true embrace of the idea of a life: it does, in fact, occupy a lifetime.

5:14 PM  
Anonymous Andrew said...


I agree that in reality there need to be any suggestion about the non-philosopher. But I think that people will interpret your position according to their expectations and understanding.

In our radically anti-elitist society, to differentiate yourself in any way is to create some sort of offense. To call yourself a philosopher in our world will offend some people.

On the question of knowing when you are wise, there really is something substantial to Socrates position that the first step to wisdom is to know your own folly. That may be the last step too.

The philosopher loves "the high white star of truth" [Matthew Arnold] and he believes it is there and he gazes on it and aspires to it. But that is pretty well what we can attain in this life.

However, we can fall into some errors because of our inability to comprehend (using the term in its most precise sense) the truth.

We can conclude that it is unknowable.
We can conclude that it doesn't exist.
We can conclude that it doesn't matter.
We can conclude that something else is a better or adequate end.

The first three destroy philosophy. The fourth can easily turn it into a parlour game. Let me explain what I mean.

You said:
The troubling thing about philosophy is that it's difficult to know when one must stop searching for wisdom, for it is difficult to to know when one even has it. But, what's truly valuable, and truly empowering, are the questions, and responses to questions, and interaction with persons about these questions that a philosopher can experience along the way.

I want to come back to the first sentence in a moment, but think about the implications of the second sentence. If, to reduce your thoughts unfairly, the process or the journey is the point, then eventually that journey will wear you out.

The only reason for going on a journey is because you hope to get somewhere. It's a hike if we aren't heading somewhere. And a hike makes for a great diversion (e.g. parlour game) and it can sharpen you and refine you, but it can't sustain itself forever.

The process is absolutely valuable, great fun sometimes, maddening sometimes, always challenging, invigorating at the deepest levels of the human soul. The process is transformative. But it can't become the ultimate point. There has to be an end, and the only sufficient end is truth.

And that brings us to the first sentence. This life is a pilgrimage, beginning to end. We never attain wisdom. That's why your second sentence is so appealing. All we know here is the journey, so that is all there is.

But there is an end. Plato argued, and I think he was fundamentally correct in this, that some people can be trained to perceive the ontology of the truth. They are the wise.

I would suggest that people can see glimpses of the truth too. They can feel it in their bones. When they look at an embodiment of that truth in some form (poetry-Homer, dialectics-Socrates, sculpture-Phidias, a breaking ball-Sheets), they are inspired to move toward it. They fall in love with the idea of truth.

The rest of their lives is devoted to its pursuit. But if they ever for a moment stop believing that there is a truth at the end of the journey, that the truth is unknowable, that it doesn't exist, or doesn't matter, they risk losing their way "in a dark wood of error."

They have to keep following the star, no matter the "cold coming [they] had of it."

And when they pass away, those with eyes look and say, "He saw something."

You seem to be one of them. Make your life the embodiment of wisdom and everybody you know will be blessed.

8:15 AM  
Anonymous Andrew said...

Sorry, that first sentence should say, "doesn't need to be..."

8:17 AM  

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