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Socrates of Amazonia
Robert Minto writes in Open Letters Monthly
The Philosopher: A History in Six Types
By J.E.H. Smith
Princeton University Press: 2016
In 2012 the philosophy professor Justin Smith was hired to teach in Paris, but he discovered quickly that he would have difficulty living in the City of Light on his new salary. So, he writes, “I decided to get creative and supplement my income by becoming a philosophical free agent, offering one-on-one philosophical conversations with willing clients.” He would meet tourists in the Parisian cafés and help them pretend they were existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir.
When other professional philosophers found out about this little burst of entrepreneurial activity, they were appalled. They thought Smith must be desperate if he was willing to pimp philosophy this way. Nothing could be further from the careful linguistic analysis and historical research that goes on in philosophy departments, where PhDs, who have devoted years of intense mental effort and sacrificed more remunerative career-paths, perform the rarefied labor of real philosophy. But, Smith retorts in The Philosopher: A History in Six Types, “the great majority of people deemed philosophers in history have not had PhDs, have not belonged to a professional philosophical organization, and have not carried out their careers in ‘departments.’”
The Philosopher is an iconoclastic account of what philosophy has been over the longue durée. It makes sense to talk about the long-term when it comes to philosophy because unlike most departments in the modern university philosophical activity seems to have a niche in every society in recorded history, and therefore it has perhaps more in common with age-old professions like war, storytelling, and sex-work than with the other humanities and sciences. Philosophy is so primitive and socially basic that its domestication in the university can seem a dubious proposition or a laughable reduction. But it’s also a credentialed and systematized modern discipline: that’s not a mere fantasy of professionalization. Thus Smith concludes that “philosophy,” over the long history of the word and the concept, has meant several distinct (albeit closely related) professions or kinds of activity: there is no single definition of philosophy or the philosopher that can account for its history or present variety. The Philosopher offers a typology of these kinds: the philosopher as curiosa, sage, gadfly, ascetic, mandarin, and courtier.
“This list,” Smith cautions, “is not exhaustive, and it is not obtained by rigorous deduction […] but what we will find is that our six types, and various hybrids between them, give us enough to make sense of the life work and the social impact of more or less everyone called a ‘philosopher’ over the past few millennia.”
The book undermines academic pieties not just in its thesis but in its form: it combines a bewildering variety of expository genres. These range from straightforward conceptual or philological analysis of the word “philosopher,” to fictional interludes presenting first-person dramatic monologues, to historical anecdotes and autobiographical reminiscences. Smith is a very good writer, very clear about what he wants to say. Like Menelaus hanging onto Proteus until he gets a straight answer, Smith wrestles a compelling argument from his shape-shifting book.
Of course in order to defend his claims about the variety of things philosophy has been, Smith has to defend his pluralism from the artificial boundaries set up by modern professional philosophy. Academic philosophers are very keen to say what philosophy isn’t, often without regard for the history of the term or the possibility that philosophy, even today, can be found in places outside the university. So in the course of expounding his types Smith rejects one by one several spurious distinctions between the philosophical and non-philosophical.
The first such distinction is between the study of particular things and universal or abstract truth. Most philosophy PhDs would reject the idea that the study of intestinal worms or the classification of new types of fern are philosophical activities. But in fact the oldest usage of the word philosopher, and what it has meant for long stretches of its recorded history, is precisely the study of particular things. This fact blasts the essentialist distinction between philosophy and science that practically defines the modern self-conception of philosophers since Kant. Although there are several contemporary strands of philosophy that attempt to assert the unity of philosophical and scientific knowledge, most notably the “experimental philosophy” movement, Smith argues that,
a more thorough reunification [of philosophy and science], one that is closer to the spirit of early modern […] philosophy, would be one that does not simply adopt the methods of one branch of empirical science—psychology in the case of recent experimental philosophy […] Rather, it would see the making of contentful claims about the world as themselves fully and unproblematically philosophical.
Kant’s first work was on the nebular hypothesis (the theory that the solar system developed out of a nebula). Aristotle dissected fertilized chicken eggs to study the development of organs. Leibniz collected lists of common words and translations of the Lord’s Prayer in East Asian languages for etymological research. Socrates himself was condemned to death, among other things, for knowing too much about phenomena “in the heavens above and in the earth below,” and he is parodied in a play by Aristophanes for his theories about clouds. Smith argues that these activities were not ancillary practices, not embryonic instances of more special sciences to come, but a major part of these philosophers’ directly philosophical projects.
Perhaps the most controversial and interesting of his polemics is against the idea that philosophy belongs to a specific historical tradition stemming from the ancient Greeks.
That is how philosophy is usually taught: as a specifically European innovation in human history, a thing which emerged with the Milesian cosmologists, found its patron saint in Socrates, received its first great works from the hands of Plato and Aristotle, and continues to be informed by these points of origin. Smith argues this account is too narrow. True, there is a tradition—which he calls Philosophia—stemming from the ancient Greeks. But we need to recognize its inadequacy to explain every instance of philosophy in world history.
The biggest counter-example to the idea that Philosophia equals philosophy comes from India. The six darsanas of Hindu philosophy overlap in unmistakable ways with some of the conceptual territory in Philosophia. The darsana known as Ny?ya, for example, involves ideas and inquiries that would make perfect sense to a modern logician, and much material from the M?m??s? darsana would sound familiar to a philosopher of language. But the darsanas of Hindu philosophy do not appear to share a root with the Greek philosophical tradition.
What sort of thing is philosophy, then? Smith proposes three analogies to sort out our options. Perhaps philosophy is like ballet. This is the view which identified Philosophia with philosophy, because ballet is a specific kind of dance with a geographically and historically specific point of origin and with culturally specified meaning and value. Or perhaps philosophy is like guns, a military technology that, while it has a specific point of origin, is so useful to any group that gets hold of it that it catches on like a successful mutation in a Darwinian struggle. This second view could explain the way in which philosophy has become so pervasive. Or finally, perhaps philosophy is like dance itself, a practice inherent in human life and society, which emerges in a host of forms in widespread and disconnected places and times: ballet in Italy, the rain-dance in North America, abhinaya in India.
The facts of the case, Smith thinks, suggest that the last is the most appropriate analogy: philosophy is like dance, and it can be found wherever and whenever humans begin to reflect on the concepts by which they live.
From this boundary-erasing argument, Smith shows glimpses of dazzling possibilities for the historian of philosophy:
It seems to me […] reasonable to suppose that there was quite likely a Socrates of Amazonia (or indeed several): a member of a traditional Amazonian culture who has mastered the culture’s forms of reasoning, and has exhibited swift intelligence in questioning these forms and in exposing their presuppositions and shortcomings. It seems so likely that it would be eminently worthwhile to begin to work, collectively and diligently, on developing methods of research, at the intersection of philosophy, anthropology, and history, that would enable us to recover something of what such a thinker might have offered up to his or her interlocutors, and of how and why this would have been meaningful within the particular cultural setting.
Such investigations would be a natural consequence of acknowledging that philosophy is a basic human activity. Indeed, not to expand the borders of philosophy’s history would be as absurd as writing all histories of dance with an exclusive focus on ballet.
This idea, exciting or consternating depending on who you are, is a direct consequence of a decision with regard to the history of philosophy that Smith announces at the very beginning of his book: he will seek to describe, not prescribe. To a non-philosopher, this might seem like an obviously good plan. But in fact most books written by philosophers about what philosophy is end up advocating for a specific kind of philosophy, relying on tactics of exclusion. Throughout the book Smith mentions examples of such exclusionary thinking that touch a cold finger of guilt to the back of your neck if you’re a professional philosopher. He mentions how disgusted philosophy professors often are with students who express an interest in developing “their own philosophy” or a “philosophy of life,” as if these uses of the word philosophy were somehow out of bounds. He reports an interaction with a member of the Mohawk tribe who approached him to ask what kind of philosophy he taught, insisting that his people, too, had a philosophy. At the time, Smith dismissed his claim as obviously incorrect, naive and parochial, but now he suspects he was the parochial one for assuming that real philosophy was Philosophia and could only be practiced in a university.
I suspect that Smith’s ideas won’t be met with open arms. For one thing, philosophy as an academic discipline depends upon its distinction from other disciplines and upon the assumption that it requires a certain kind of setting and its own set of credentials to exist. No one wants to lose their job, and philosophers are already fighting to seem relevant to the corporatized University. If those who pursue the special sciences are philosophers, and therefore don’t need a philosophy department to instruct them in epistemology and logic; if philosophical material can be found well outside the canonical texts of Philosophia; and if philosophy itself is a basic human activity that finds a form and expresses itself in every society—then why do we pretend as if you need a degree and a department to do it? A recent NYT Editorial argued that philosophy departments should rename themselves “Anglo-European Philosophical Studies,” since their exclusionary focus on what Smith calls Philosophia means that these departments have no right to represent philosophy tout court. There is also a danger that in seeking a niche, an economically viable perch within the contemporary world, philosophers will fatally compromise the activity they profess to represent:
At present, a danger exists for professional philosophers that they will betray their own moral sense, and adapt their philosophical commitments, in order to preserve a place, any place at all, within a rapidly putrefying university landscape. They will, for example, agree to teach business ethics classes in which they help up-and-coming minions of global capital to feel better about bilking the poor and despoiling the environment, rather than forcing them to do what philosophy, on one widespread understanding, calls on us to do: question everything, including our own supposed life calling.
Smith doesn’t praise himself for this, but it struck me that his own response to the pressures of money—his freelance philosophical conversations in Parisian cafés—is a more honorable response to the institutional evolution of philosophy than simply asserting the discipline’s importance to non-philosophers only to end up as a professional rationalizer (what Smith calls a “courtier”). There is comfort in Smith’s book for people to whom philosophy is important, comfort in the fact that ultimately, the fate of the university system has little to do with the future or viability of philosophy. Philosophy is bigger than the university, and there are other ways to be a philosopher than to study and teach it in a university.
Smith’s critique of exclusionary definitions might seem to betray his initial promise to be descriptive and not prescriptive. But in fact his audacious act simply of investigating the history of the word “philosopher” and its use throughout history, and then comparing that use to practices that exist outside the language traditions that include the word, are a deathblow to the universalizing and essentialist definitions that rule the day in the modern university. He’s not anti-academic—indeed, how could he be, holding a prestigious professorship at a major French university, and having published acclaimed studies of early modern philosophy?—but he’s also not prepared to allow his affiliation with an institution to cloud his vision of history. “Most expressions of cosmopolitanism,” he writes, “are marked by the circumstances of their origins, and therefore by a certain paradox.” The Philosopher is a much-needed call to the cosmopolitan ranks of contemporary philosophy to wake up and consider its own paradoxes of self-definition in light of its own history.