The Stone

From the NY Times:

The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.

The first entry, “What is a philosopher?” is by Simon Critchley, who is “chair of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, and … moderator of this series.” 

His answer to his question appeals to a life lived outside of, and with disregard for, many expected patterns:

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. As Wittgenstein says, “This is how philosophers should salute each other: ‘Take your time.’ ”. The philosopher, by contrast [to “lawyers, policy-makers, mortgage brokers and hedge fund managers] is free by virtue of his or her otherworldliness, by their capacity to fall into wells and appear silly…

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.

Well, that’s the sort of thing that makes me pretty cross.  It’s the kind of statement that leaves students unprepared to find that in fact professional philosophers form a club, with pretty well defined boundaries, that reflect all sorts of divisions in the society.  And that many (most?) philosophers today are unwilling or unable to recognize the extent to which their choices are influenced by an unconscious internalization of the mores and conventions of our time.

But there’s more to come.  What do you think?  Disagreement is very welcome, especially if you have good reasons that your can describe.

Finally, readers might be interested in our discussion here of the supposed  negative reputation of analytic philosophy.

29 thoughts on “The Stone

  1. I’m tired, so this could be on me, but I don’t really follow the objection. Is it because you feel that this sort of discussion creates an excuse for those working in philosophy to feel that they do not have a responsibility to the city and the life people live there? Or something else?
    The otherworldlyness of being a philosopher that Critchly presents feels more than a little like the sorry excuse that Heidegger gave for his nazism. He was just so busy studying and teaching the pre-Socratics to know that fascism was a bad idea.
    I did, however, feel that his discussion on taking time was certainly interesting. I’m sure this isn’t an exclusive trait of philosophy, but it certainly strikes me as an important argument.
    Regardless, I’m interested to see what more will come from The Stone.

  2. Did Critchley steal Leiter’s philosopher’s stone for himself, or is there another explanation for the latter’s outright hostility?

    I didn’t find the column particularly egregious, especially since its purpose is to draw the interest of people other than academic philosophers. I’m not all that happy with the perpetuation of the stereotype that philosophy is about having your head in the clouds (despite the truth to it) although I guess it’s inevitable, since nobody can tell us what else to do with our degrees anyway. I’m interested to see what else comes of it.

  3. Scu:

    I think the objection is partly about the fact that the definition or view of “the philosopher” is completely at odds with what most professional philosophers are like and what they do, and that giving an impression that this is what being a philosopher about is misleading to those who don’t know any better.

    But the point about ignoring society’s influence on their views is also very good (and applied to the greeks too)

  4. I agree that this is troubling. Each of us has a perspective, which biases us and blinds us in various ways, but which also enriches us. As a philosopher or as a scientist, part of our professional responsibility is to work on being aware of our perspectives (cultural, biological, personal experience, whatever), but that doesn’t let us escape them. One could say that Critchley is discussing the ideal to which philosophers should aspire, but I’m not convinced that a hypothetical pure, disembodied actor wouldn’t be even more biased and blind than one firmly but consciously embedded in a body and a city. To me, Critchley’s words come too near the notion of separating reason from emotion. We’re human beings, thinking animals, not machines.

  5. I think there’s a priming problem here: philosophers buying into Critchley’s model prime themselves for objectivity, their minds are outside the city, they are of no party or clique, above factions etc etc. This hinders them from confronting their internalised biases (an effect that’s been discussed already on this blog).

    I suspect the problem may be a belief (perhaps subconscious) that one can avoid bias simply by willing that one not be biased.

  6. SeanH: interesting thought about how we might believe we can be unbiased if we just decide to be.

    There’s a dilemma here, I suspect. The answer does not fit professional philosophers well at all, but the article appears to rely on his professional position to establish that Critchley is a philosopher.

    Underlying all this is, one suspects, a fairly naive view of the human mind. I think one of the problems with professional philosophy is that it gives its practitioners the illusion of great self-knowledge. It’s as though one can know whether one is biased by staring inside one’s mind. ‘If you don’t see it, it isn’t there.’ But that’s false. We are biological and social creatures and the idea that one can choose to step outside those bounds is actually pernicious. Cutting oneself loose of such constraints is something one could work at one’s whole life, but in the end one might achieve little of real value.

    Also, one of the contributions of experimental philosophy might be to make it clear just how skewed “philosophical intuitions” can be.

    OK, I’ve had two attempts to get at what I find unfortunate. Please let’s have some more ideas.

  7. I didn’t read Critchley’s column too carefully. After a half-dozen paragraphs or so, I decided it was the familiar pablum so many of us give our students on the first day of Intro to Philosophy: Thales falls in the well, `philosopher’ means `lover of wisdom’, `corrupting the youth’, blah blah blah.

    So perhaps I missed something crucial, but while I find this bit of patter obnoxious, I don’t think it’s actually pernicious. First, because it is pablum, and I doubt it reflects the self-conception of philosophers, either individually or collectively. If philosophers, either in general or within certain prominent subdisciplines, tend to fail to recognize that their minds are not free-floating of their bodies and the community in which they live (or some deep-seated injustices within the discipline), I don’t think that’s because of a story about Socrates they heard on the first day of their first philosophy class. Second, and similarly, because I expect that the impression our students have of philosophy is informed much more by the entire rest of the class than by the opening lecture. The isolation of much of epistemology from sociology, history, and psychology, for example, probably does far more damage.

  8. I think there’s a sense in which it could be seen as pernicious that is independent of whether undergraduates take much away from it, and that is that it has become the standard false advertising of the profession, so that (1) the sometimes blatant disparity between what we claim philosophy is for and what we actually do lowers the reputation of philosophy in the eyes of people in other fields (one thinks of Edward Reed exasperatedly pointing out that while philosophy as an encompassing study pre-existed psychology, philosophy as a departmental profession in academia was a largely reactionary response to the formation of psychology departments, perpetuated by people who opposed experimental methods in studying the mind; and that academic philosophers regularly elide the two senses of philosophy, thus treating the narrow academic field as if it were the massive project of civilization); and (2) I think it clearly is often used as cover for the lack of self-knowledge in the profession. A sign that (2) is clearly in operation is that the sort of thing Critchley is saying shouldn’t come across as pablum; there have been times and places in the history of philosophy where Critchley’s description arguably more or less applies, and inquiry and creativity were fruitful and thriving. It’s a potentially substantive program, however poorly our current institutions are adapted to it. And yet, as Dan says, it does come across as pablum, and that’s a sign that it or something like it is very often already being used in a canting way.

    But I do worry that this discussion is coming close to assuming that philosophy is simply to be identified with academic philosophy, which is certainly not tenable historically and seems dangerously close to being yet another way in which academic philosophers can give themselves unjustified airs. This actually relates to the issue about analytic philosophy, I think, since most of the complaints about analytic philosophy have little to do with a.p. itself, and a lot to do with the fact that academics have tended to pursue it as if it were ancillary to nothing but their own historically contingent and socially limited interests. But it’s entirely possible to see it as contributing to a larger project that belongs, or can belong, to a larger community than academics with a certain kind of degree. And there is nothing wrong with seeing it as such. Critchley’s description is naive because it’s a mish-mash, not because it’s putting forward a set of goals broader than academic philosophers typically have.

  9. I wish he would not have included that quote of Socrates that refers to the pettifogger as a shyster since that term is so associated with anti-semitism (or used a different translation- that word is far more recent than Plato- makes me wonder how old his translation is…).

  10. Dan Hicks,

    what I said is pernicious is the idea that one can choose to step outside those bounds of biology and culture. In fact, there are many different things one might mean by that. What I meant is that we are deeply shaped by both, and assuming one can just decide otherwise is pernicious. In fact, I have a spiel, which I will spare everyone, that in the analytic tradition we treat historical texts often as detached from the philosophers’ psychology and their context. One consequence of this is that we look at the texts in terms of arguments and consistency, at both of which the philosophers may be pretty bad.

    What is often most highly valued in philosophy are new ideas, while at the same time the training we give students – privileging arguments and consistency – may positively discourage them from accessing the intuitions that provide humans with new ideas.

    I’m intrigued by your thoughts about students’ ideas about philosophy and professors of philosophy. It took me a very long time before I stopped expecting some attempts at reflection and wisdom from professional philosophers. Maybe part of what was encouraging me is the high moral tone of much of our discourse, including that here. E.g., wrong ideas are pernicious.

    Brandon: interesting ideas! I’m glad you are stressing that professional philosophy is not necessarily engaged on the large project. One think that’s puzzling about the NYT piece is that it’s not clear whom today he is talking about.

  11. I am also very troubled by Critchley’s suggestion that philosophers can–and do–step outside of the bounds of their own society/body/biases to reflect (objectively?) on the world. In addition to some of the points raised above, I would also add that Critchley’s way of defining “philosopher” seems to exclude those of us who do philosophy from within a community and who understand our identities to be tied in some ways to our social position within a society. My questioning attitude that I bring to philosophy–and my attempts to get below the surface and really *understand* the world–is deeply connected to my being female in a male dominated world. And at this point, my understanding of many philosophical issues is connected to my feminism, and to the contributions of my feminist colleagues, both within and outside philosophy (and the acadamy).

    So, like the Stanley essay (though in somewhat different ways), this piece provides a very limited (and skewed) vision of what philosophy is–and should be–about.

  12. i find it a little funny that critchley is interpreted here as promoting philosophy as a kind of “view from nowhere”; that’s certainly not my understanding of his work, which tends to take things like society, community and embodiment seriously. and i myself am a big proponent of the thales-to-socrates method of teaching philosophy 100, not because it’s pablum, but because i think that it tells us important things about philosophy, such as the social conditions at work in the distinction between the “witty and attractive” thracian slave girl and the philosopher. that these are the stories that philosophy tells itself about its (fantastical or fictional) origins is significant.

    i certainly think that the idea that the philosopher is silly or has one’s head in the clouds can be taken too far and itself become rather silly. but the ability to step outside, even ever so slightly, the ability to see, to analyze, or to critique, all of these i think can be thought of as essential to philosophy, even if it does not guarantee objectivity or a “view from nowhere” which would not, in any case, be desirable.

    that we are suspicious of this as professional philosophers could, i think, be taken to mean that professional philosophy is more akin to pettifogery (or whatever that is) than ever, as the university becomes more and more the education industrial complex. even as i have disciplinary boundaries to care about, if not police, philosophy in a larger sense is a human endeavor and i’d like to avoid complaining too much that the masses are doing it wrong. so long as they don’t get published before i do!

  13. I take a lot of the points above, but at the risk of shocking myself, I think I’d like to defend Critchley. On one point only, that is. He rightly identifies the turnaround that philosophers perpetrate in their story of themselves. Whereas the story looks like a story about harmless, befuddled old philosopher-fools, the true story is that by that very weakness, imbecility, inappropriateness and, yes, impiety, philosophers in fact wield their greatest powers.

    This is where (and I also don’t often get caught saying this) Nietzsche got Plato right. If we follow the story of the Theaetetus, the philosopher is the consummate slave moralist. And it’s not an accident that the story is conceived as occurring through the view of a slave girl: however witty and attractive she may be, her laughter reveals her implicit subjection, even at the moment that she stands high above the philosopher.

    So, the moral of the moral of the story? I think we can make Plato’s allegory in the Theaetetus even more interesting than merely taking it at face value. Critchley is on to something when he says philosophy requires time, but he mistakes a condition of philosophizing for its substance. Time is necessary, but it really isn’t what philosophy’s about. When we take time, we can read the story against itself, recognizing it as a story told by philosophers for philosophers, and, yes, perpetuating a lot of unnecessary and sometimes pernicious views about the role of philosophers. Philosophy, then, isn’t the leisure part, it’s what you do with your time–as sk notes, it’s the critical enterprise itself. And wasn’t that just what Socrates meant by his invocation of the Delphic dictum, ‘know thyself’?

  14. As someone who spent much of his life trying to liberate his thinking from his social origin, class, generation, even gender, I can assure you all that one gets nowhere, but learns a lot in the process. I no longer remember why I embarked on that process, but it once seemed vital to me.

  15. sk: I must read more of robin’s writing. She says that one thing Critchley is implying is, “I’m SO incredibly privileged that I can disidentify with/reject/rebel against the conventional signs/attributes of privilege and still receive the benefits of that privilege.””

  16. yes, it’s very interesting. it’s similar to what i understand as “hipster racism,” the phenomenon of relatively privileged people making racist remarks ironically, or just to be funny, etc., fully believing that their irony shields them from actually practicing racism, or from the consequences of making racist statements (such as, other people disagreeing with them that they are in fact funny). this implies that we can actually distance ourselves from privilege in this way, whereas robin is arguing here that this in fact just further re-entrenches that privilege. i think that we’ve seen a similar logic at work with that unfortunate facebook page about domestic violence (though i think it was a productive experience for folks involved).
    this logic would render philosophy much more akin to e.g., vice magazine than i am comfortable with!

  17. While it’s true that being hip is often a form of rebelling against privilege while enjoying those privileges, in my experience those who genuinely rebel against privilege soon lose their privileges. Rebels against privilege who have ended up isolated and poor include noted philosophers: for example, Spinoza and Marx. Surely, there are contemporary examples too. It’s been a long, long time since being hip is a rebellion against the system. To be hip may have been a form of rebellion against the establishment and power structure in the days of Eisenhower and Nixon, but does it signify rebellion against the power elite when the president is Barack Obama, Obama not being a stranger to what is hip?

  18. Amos, I think that one difference here is that you are thinking of something more like a real attempt to become independent of one’s culture, etc, or a real hip rebellion. But I think what Robin and sk are talking about is faux all the way down. So it isn’t the unwashed hippy so much as the person who shows up in very expensive designer jeans that are torn at the factory and artifically distressed.

  19. I’m reminded here of the somewhat classic book “Mr Blue” by Miles Connolly. It’s a classic, at least, in the roman catholic world. When I first read it in early high school I thought it was enchanting, a portrait of a modern saint. Many years later I reread parts of it and was dismayed to realize that the “saint” in question was extremely high maintenance for those around him. A complete disregard for worldly values might seem great, but what if it goes along with ignoring your impact on others? The article about the book, linked to above, shares a perspective with Critchley:

    Yet this journey of faith is really an adventure, not a burden, and though Blue seems like a madman to many, the narrator ultimately understands that “he had all the marks of insanity but somehow he gave you the impression that we were all crazy and he alone was sane.”

    One might wonder about the value of making others feel they are the crazy ones; it does not necessarily make one’s wisdom at all available to them.

  20. J.J.: What you say about saints is interesting. The father of a close woman friend was disappeared by the Pinochet dictatorship for his underground resistance activities. Most see him as a hero, but the daughter is very angry that her father’s heroism deprived her of the benefits of normal home-life and of a middle-class upbringing.

  21. Amos, I’d be hesitant to stand in any judgment of a resistance fighter, and I don’t remember Blue as being particularly helpful at all, or really even trying to behave responsibly. E.g., he inherited a lot of money and gave it away carelessly, as opposed to trying to provide longer term solutions to problems. (This is all according to what I remember.)

    Still, I have to think there’s at least a moral question about one’s primary responsibility when one has a child. I’m sorry the daughter felt the loss of a proper childhood. She does seem able to make good friends, though!

  22. J.J.: That’s very kind of you: I try to be a good friend. I suppose that the woman in question would say that judging someone, in this case, her father, from the perspective of the greater social good is one thing and judging that person from the perspective of a daughter, who did not have a normal (or happy) childhood is another. It seems impossible to weigh the two criteria, one against another.

  23. Amos, I think a person as thoughtful and self-reflective as you obviously are would be a very good friend.

    It’s funny that I later regretted responding to your comment as I did. I wished I had just say that yes, we should consider whether saints can also be impossible people, perhaps destructive people. That is, I don’t know it is true, but it is surely worth considering.

    I’m not sure how to continue with the possibility, though. I do remember Philippa Foot maintaining that the virtues do not conflict; if we think that one virtue demands, say, forsaking family for the greater good and another requires tending to family, we are deeply mistaken. A fuller understanding would resolve the apparent conflict. I have little idea how it would work out in the case of the resistance working, where we do tend to think of irreconcilable demands. And she might just be wrong.

  24. After writing it, I realized that the situation is exactly that narrated by Sartre in Existentialism is a Humanism: as you recall, a student comes to Sartre and asks him whether he should care for his sick mother or join the resistance. Sartre’s answer is that he has no criterion for deciding. I talked to the woman in question, and she claims that a child should be more important to a father than the fate of society as a whole. ( She says that partly as a daughter and partly as a single mother, for whom the child is her priority in life). She also claims that those who had a normal childhood, without fear, without a bomb being placed in their home (that happened), are in no position to judge her insistence that her father should have dedicated himself to his family, not to freeing the country. It is certainly true that ethical dilemmas which involved limit situations (what would I do in Auschwitz, etc.) appear very differently if one is sitting in an armchair than if one is in the trenches, so to speak.

  25. philosophers is a type of branching out of society and not making decision based on what others tell you…Able to look at the outside perspective of a problem…maybe insanity or maybe genius. Who knows maybe both.

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