Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Friday, May 21, 2010

What is a Philosopher?

According to Simon Critchley, it's a silly person who doesn't have to punch a clock, and has ideas that are of no practical relevance but that are seditious and dangerous because... Socrates, hemlock and stuff. Which I suppose is accurate in at least the case of Simon Critchley.

In case you think I'm lying, lets take this point-by-point:

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.”

So philosophers are people with their minds on higher things which the hoi poloi don't understand. But get this:

But as always with Plato, things are not necessarily as they first appear, and Socrates is the greatest of ironists. First, we should recall that Thales believed that water was the universal substance out of which all things were composed. Water was Thales’ philosophers’ stone, as it were. Therefore, by falling into a well, he inadvertently presses his basic philosophical claim.

Best I can tell, that makes no sense. Falling into a well has, as far as I can see, zero relevance to the claim that the world is composed of water. I suppose you could charitably say that a man who believes that water is the essence of all things should spend more time looking at water and less time looking at the sky, but even that's pretty damn tenuous. And he didn't actually say it.

It doesn't get any better:

But there is a deeper and more troubling layer of irony here that I would like to 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"...

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...

Indeed, it might tell you something about the nature of philosophical dialogue to confess that my attention was recently drawn to this passage from Theaetetus in leisurely discussions with a doctoral student at the New School, Charles Snyder.

I'm not sure that tells us something about the nature of philosophical inquiry, so much as lends weight to a lot of people's prejudices about academics who don't do science being pretentious wankers with too much time on their hand who could do with a funding cut or two. As an academic who doesn't do science, I'd like to request that Simon Critchley be first in line for that sort of treatment.

And finally this:

Nothing is more common in the history of philosophy than the accusation of impiety. 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. Might such dismal things still happen in our happily enlightened age? That depends where one casts one’s eyes and how closely one looks...

Nurtured in freedom and taking their time, there is something dreadfully uncanny about the philosopher, something either monstrous or god-like or indeed both at once. This is why many sensible people continue to think the Athenians had a point in condemning Socrates to death. I leave it for you to decide. I couldn’t possibly judge.

I'm prepared to be wrong about this, but I'm not actually sure it's true that anyone does "think the Athenians had a point in condemning Socrates to death" which would explain why Critchley, who usually can't stop himself from dropping names, confines himself to the weasel words "many sensible people." He is using Socrates as a sort of philosophical everyman here, so maybe he's trying to make the point that he, Simon Critchley, is a philosopher who frequently annoys people and is therefore also "politically suspicious, even dangerous." In which case someone should really disabuse him of that notion fast.

So, on behalf of sensible people everywhere: Don't worry Simon, no-one thinks you're remotely dangerous, and you aren't going to be killed. We just don't really want to listen to you.

All this by way of introduction to The Stone, which is the New York Times's new philosophy forum. So far there's only Critchley's introduction up, but the plan, apparently, is "to discuss issues both timely and timeless." Which of these labels best describes Critchley's contribution is left for readers to decide, but I'm going for "timeless" - masturbation is as old as humanity itself, and and while it may sometimes be philosophically timely to do it in public, I don't think Critchley's really there yet.


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