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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Philosophy Beyond the Academy | Chronicle of Higher Education

Photo: Nakul Krishna
Nakul Krishna, lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cambridge notes, "Philosophy is multifarious, with many regional inflections, a new book argues."

Photo: Courtesy of Paul Laffoley, Art Resource, N.Y.

Late in his career, Plato wrote two dialogues, the Sophist and Statesman, each apparently aimed at defining the figure named in its title. But the real subject of these dialogues is their own methods: definition, distinctions, analogies. The dialogues are written as if part of a trilogy, but the climactic dialogue — The Philosopher — was never written. Perhaps that was the point: defining the philosopher needs one to be a bit of a philosopher oneself. Plato’s readers need to take the essential last step for themselves, asking what (if anything) the activities labeled "philosophy" have in common.

If Justin E.H. Smith had this unwritten dialogue in mind when christening his book, he does not mention it — his erudition is worn lightly. Unlike some philosophers who take their lead from Plato, he makes no attempt to intuit the essence of philosophy from the armchair. He gives us, rather, a fragmentary survey of "the history of human activities carried out under the label ‘philosophy,’ as well as many [similar] activities that have been carried out under other labels."

In this, Smith, like Plato, makes good use of analogy. Plato thought statesmanship was a bit like weaving, sophistry a little like angling; Smith likens philosophy, unexpectedly, to dance. He argues that philosophy is best regarded as "a universal human activity with many distinct cultural inflections." Dance, to his mind, is a better analogy than (say) ballet, something "by definition, European," though it may well crop up outside Europe "by diffusion or appropriation." The tradition of European philosophy that traces its lineage back to Plato and Socrates (Smith calls this tradition "Philosophia") is, then, like ballet, a single cultural inflection of a universal activity.

This provincializing of Europe helps to show how at least two ancient civilizations, India and China, have intellectual traditions of writing and argument enough like "Philosophia" to merit the name of philosophy. But Smith goes further, proposing that the reflections of nonliterate societies, oral traditions, and discursive forms based on myth and metaphor have some claim to count as philosophy as well.

As Smith rightly notes, what counts as philosophy has always been up for grabs. That is why it may prove useful "to think of ‘the philosopher’ as represented by various types … whom in different times and places it will make sense to consider as philosophers."

Smith teaches philosophy in Paris but went to graduate school in the United States, where he was well-schooled in the conventions and concerns of the so-called analytic philosophy that dominates the Anglophone academic world. But philosophers who write in this style are only one of the six types of philosopher to star in Smith’s story: In his equivocal label, they are "Mandarins."

The Mandarin shares the pages of Smith’s book with five other types. There is the Curiosa, who blurs the boundaries between natural science and philosophy. There is the Sage, who engages critically with a culture that he or she has thoroughly internalized. There is the Gadfly, whose critical engagement with the culture deploys such modes as parody or invective. There is the Ascetic, who disclaims such ersatz values as wealth or honor or pleasure for the real values: goodness, reflection, simplicity. Finally, there is the Courtier, speaking convenient untruths to power. These types flit in and out of Smith’s pages; wisely, he does not furnish us with representative examples of each type but rather invites us to see something of them in ourselves, our colleagues, and the figures of history.
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Additional resources

The Philosopher: A History in Six Types
Justin E. H. Smith

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education


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