The first article I wrote in this column had to do with the all-too-common question “Philosophy? What’re you gonna do with that?” and the recent historical transformations that breathe life into it. This week I’d like to address another question that my friends often ask me, which is more like “So what do you do, exactly?”, and which in my view amounts to “What is philosophy?”
I suppose that for a lot of people reading this I’m answering a question they never really asked, and when I do talk about it I often feel like that’s exactly what I’m doing—even when I am asked! I could tell you I’m writing this simply because I have the inclination and the venue for it; but, in fact, I’m interested in propagating what I’m about to say because I think it’s true. I don’t imagine it’ll spark a mass conversion to Plato or anything, but it’s worth giving an honest account of something that some people might find helpful if they begin to see it like I do.
I should point out some historical facts: philosophy began in Greece with Thales, as the story goes, but the figure of the “philosophy professor” is two centuries old. The university, meanwhile, is a product of the middle ages and initially involved a monastic lifestyle, which is in stark contrast to today’s diploma factories. Philosophy, that is to say, vastly precedes both the university and the professorship, which probably seem like the natural environment and occupation for someone like me. In any event, the professorial “thing,” which really got going in the nineteenth century and reached its apex in the twentieth, did benefit many people but, in my view, it’s resulted in thinking becoming trapped, in a bad way, in what’s commonly known as the “Ivory Tower”.
The “publish-or-perish” model of tenure-chasing is on thinner ice all the time…
So I can’t really tell people what I do or what philosophy is without pointing out the historical situation in which I encountered it. These days, things seem to be changing again, because universities, like so many institutions today, are in serious trouble. This causes anxiety for academics who are concerned about how to eat, have families (or even stable relationships of any sort) and manage a debt load. But in another way, the situation is hopeful because of the opportunities it creates. The “publish-or-perish” model of tenure-chasing is on thinner ice all the time, which means that there are ever fewer reasons for those who care about the importance of ‘original thought’ to speak in the language of academic publishing, funding, the tenure-track job hunt, and all the rest of it which has defined our world for decades.
In other words, the growing uncertainty that permeates academia allows me to explain to my friends that I’m invested in something other than life as a philosophy professor; namely, that I’m invested in philosophy as a way of life.
Not just intellectual entertainment
The idea that philosophy consists of idle speculation about grand ideas that have no bearing on life is, like philosophy professors themselves, relatively recent. If you spend an afternoon reading one of Plato’s dialogues or the Meditations of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, or even a much more recent work like Spinoza’s Ethics, you’ll see pretty quickly that for these people, philosophical thinking is at the heart of coming to grips with the predicament of finding ourselves alive.
In Plato’s dialogues, you’ll usually find Socrates questioning some young Athenian, for whom the dialogue is named, about some concept which is invariably an abstract, universal concept (we still live with these and use them all the time: love, justice, truth, God, human, peace, war, forgiveness … the list is innumerable). Socrates’ conversational partner usually believes that he can provide one underlying definition for the concept in question, a definition that will anchor all the others. For example, in the dialogue Euthyphro, the concept in question is piety; in the famous Republic, it’s justice.
It usually turns out that Socrates’ interlocutors discover that they can’t provide one single underlying definition, that the concept in question is nebulous and can’t be anchored by any of its many possible meanings. Now, one possible outcome of that discovery is the conclusion that nothing inherently means anything and therefore meaning is determined by whoever’s strong enough to impose his will on everything else. The ancients called this view “sophistry”.
A war against tyranny
But philosophy takes a different path altogether, and it urgently does so in the name of living, not only with oneself, but also with others, in the cosmos and in the political community (or polis, as the Greeks called it). In the famous dialogue Alcibiades, Socrates engages the titular character on the importance of philosophical questioning for the latter’s future as an adult member, and possible leader, of the polis. Actively belonging to the polis means living with and communally using its primary concepts—justice, truth, piety, virtue—and thereby imposing them practically on oneself and others. Now, that imposition never occurs in the abstract: particular meanings of, for example, justice, are adopted by individual members and groups within the polis, who for their own purposes find those meanings most advantageous, and then they try to convince everyone else that their meaning is the true meaning that everyone must accept.
…there is possible a philosophical spirituality, for lack of a better word: philosophy as a way of life.
Competing visions of the correct way to live are practically imposed on people through these concepts; not out of malice, but usually because people are persuaded that this or that definition is the true one. But Socrates wishes to show people, by encouraging them to reason for themselves, that that can never be the case. He introduces philosophical questioning as a way of life for us to deal with the matter of life: not an unanchored speculation for the sake of intellectual entertainment, but a concrete decision to work on oneself in light of the fact that there are no absolute and irreplaceable definitions of the concepts we live with every day, and which can’t be subtracted from human life. In other words, nobody can be given license to force the world into line. For the Greeks, philosophy is a practical war, waged within ourselves, against tyranny.
So when my friends ask me what I do, this is what I want to tell them: that there is possible a philosophical spirituality, for lack of a better word: philosophy as a way of life. Why is “spirituality” even remotely appropriate here? Because it deals with incorporeal, not to say immaterial, things: concepts, ideas, truths, and so on, that have never stopped and could not stop being at the heart of our life. Yet it’s not a religious spirituality: as I see it, philosophy is neither theist, nor atheist, nor even agnostic. It’s not even what you might call a political spirituality, in the sense that some people make their lives acceptable through a particular organization or catalogue of ideals. It cuts across those options on the diagonal and resides at no permanent address, as it were.
But I think that philosophy is profoundly political in the sense that it attaches to the shape and dynamics of the community and the individuals who populate it. There is also something like a philosophical faith in the sense that philosophy requires hurling oneself into an abyss that promises nothing; and in this apparent madness, a tentative serenity emerges. I really do think that philosophy as a way of life deserves consideration among the others on offer, many of which seem to be exhausted or simply flaky. And the good news is that we don’t necessarily need professors, or departments, or degrees, or universities to do it. All we necessarily need is writing, speaking, thinking, and living.
“We imagine Plato and Aristotle only in long pedants’ gowns. They were upright people like everyone else, laughing with their friends. And when they were amusing themselves by writing their Laws and their Politics they did it light-heartedly. It was the least philosophical and serious part of their lives, the most philosophical being to live simply and calmly. If they wrote about politics, it was as if to provide rules for a madhouse. And if they pretended to treat it as something important, it is because they knew the madmen they were talking to thought they were kings and emperors. They connived with their delusions in order to restrain their madness to as mild a form as possible.”
– Blaise Pascal, Pensées, §457.