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Socrates of Amazonia

By (June 1, 2016) 10 Comments

The Philosopher: A History in Six Typesahistoryinsixtypes
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 DeathofSocratescondemned 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 Nyāya, for example, involves ideas and inquiries that would make perfect sense to a modern logician, and much material from the Mīmāṃsā 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.

domesticsSuch 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.

forumSmith 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.

Robert Minto is an editor of Open Letters Monthly. He blogs and tweets.


  • Jan Sand says:

    As with much of philosophy this is centered on the definition of a word which is assumed to be the property of a select group of academicians. Whatever you might label it, the attempt to formulate the elements of curiosity over perceptual and social relationships is a universal activity of active human minds. If it needs a more general label than “philosophy” does not affect the activity itself.

    • Sal Scilicet says:

      Extraordinary. Seven-point-four billion individuals as we speak [can’t say I’ve met them all]. And yet. Whenever I see an article recommended on Arts & Letters, that indicates one comment, I say to myself, that’s got to be Jan Sand of Helsinki. Out of seven billion possibilities. What happens in Tonga? Anyone? Or Rwanda? Ecuador? Is Jan Sand the only one who reads OLM?

      Meanwhile, in accordance with Wittgenstein’s ‘tyranny of language’, whenever you deploy the verb-to-be after the ‘thing’ under consideration, you are more or less obliged to commit to some sort of definition or description. Quite forgetting the while that there can be no universal consensus on a meaningful definition of ‘philosophy’.

      Let alone what constitutes a ‘philosopher’. Out of the mouths of babes come the most profound observations on life, by those who haven’t yet begun. Metaphors are not supposed to be explained. We’re all expected to know what philosophy isn’t. Something about intuitive wisdom, I think. Consider happiness. Or “having sex”. Now there’s a can of worms, if you like. Define freedom. Or time … gravity. Metaphors for subjects that nobody can explain … to the satisfaction of all, there’s the rub. Bit like fishing, I suppose, to philosophise. Simply throw in a line and wait till somebody bites. Anyone can do it.

  • Sal Sciliet says:

    Further to my earlier missive. Sitting at breakfast, a dismal view on a very wet suburban street, I observed one of those popular late model small cars. And noticed something. [This may seem off topic. But I believe this may yet conceal some obscure application as to the way one reads, in the first instance. And how one derives meaning, not only from philosophy, but from any newspaper article or email.]

    What I noticed was that the hubcap on this neat little car was [equally?] divided by seven ‘spokes’. Then I noticed something else. For which, typically, a certain amount of a-priori data is required, as retrieved from what we still like to call ‘memory’. In my case, I already knew that the ancient Babylonians [not that they considered themselves particularly old], in their infinite wisdom, had determined that, on the basis of a peculiar ‘sexagesimal’ number system [as distinct from our own decimal scheme of things] a circle is best divided into 360 ‘degrees’.

    In his book ‘A History of Pi’ [1970], Petr Beckmann, a Czechoslovakian mathematician, mentions a clay tablet found in 1936, near what must have been Babylon, translated in 1950, which “states that the ratio of the perimeter of a regular hexagon to the circumference of the circumscribed circle equals a number which in modern notation is given by 57/60 + 36/(60^2).”

    Beckmann goes on to say that “the Babylonians knew, of course, that the perimeter of a hexagon is exactly equal to six times the radius of the circumscribed circle, in fact that was evidently the reason why they chose to divide the circle into 360 degrees (and we are still burdened with that figure to this day). The tablet, therefore, gives … Pi = 25/8 = 3.125.”

    Which is to say, “burdened” or not, we owe much of our familiar geometry, all of our fond chronometer-based principles of navigation and our beloved, accepted-as-God-given-fact, 24-hour/twelve-month circadian rhythms, to the Babylonian ball park invention of “our” 360 degree circle.

    So. What’s that got to do with that hub cap? Well, as it happens, 360 degrees are equally divisible by every primary number in the decimal system, except seven. All other numbers from 2 to 10 divide into 360 evenly. For some reason, the designers of that car decided to make an exception by dividing their distinctive hub cap into seven spokes, which necessarily involves a lot of cerebral bother with part-fractions of a degree. Those clever Babylonians, arbitrarily working in ‘base-60’, naturally took 6×60 as the obvious foundation for “making sense of our world”. [There’s one grand, albeit indispensable, assumption for you.] An accidental coincidence, if you will.

    Regrettably, as luck would have it, Beckmann also commits the universally-accepted claim that the Sumerians [by impressing their cuneiform script on clay tablets hardened in the sun] were first to invent writing, which he understandably calls “one of man’s greatest inventions… through written communication, knowledge could be passed from one person to others, and from one generation to the next and future ones.” To which I should like herewith to humbly submit, if this were incontrovertibly true, the Bible, in any iteration, and the Koran would each be uniformly understood worldwide. And the fateful, albeit much-feted, hide-bound Constitution of the United States would not so predictably continue to exercise, with infinite patience, the supreme intellect of nine Justices.

    Ambiguity would be just another oxymoron. Poetry would never have evolved and music would not move me by “speaking to the heart”. Marriage would be as simple as riding a bike. And ‘philosophy’, whatever you want that to be, would be as obvious as Doctor Seuss. In the immortal words of the Apostle: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness”. [2 Timothy 3:16-17] Which instantly recognisable, enigmatic written text, for all its mellifluous resonance, is nevertheless itself bursting with double entendres, frank superstition, irony and cant. “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

  • ted schrey montreal says:

    How about defining philosophy as “love of knowledge”?
    Or possibly “love of knowing”?
    Or perhaps better yet: “love of what it means to ‘think about’ thinking?

    Personally I prefer philosophy as sorting out the innumerable appearances and (aspects of)manifestations of the rational mind –as opposed to or compared with manifestations of consciousness.

    I am quite certain of one thing: this review tells me nothing, ab-so-lu-te-ly nothing knew or enlightening about philosophy.

  • Bob says:

    Same with poets. No English PhD’s in poetry.

  • John Mountfort says:

    Perhaps philosophy needs a new word for itself — just so long as it isn’t one of those sickening enculturizing words like “Anglo-European…” that pretend to openness while actually practicing a mean and unenlightened reduction of the matter touched. “Philosophy” was a good word for a rigorous attempt to keep questioning in motion, but sometimes you have to accept the weight of history and move on. Some arguments aren’t worth having.

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