The Sophists set themselves up as educators. Democracy had made it possible for any gifted man to make his mark on the assembly, if he could speak eloquently and persuasively. But the ordinary curriculum did not help young men to acquire these skills […] The Sophists stepped in to fill the gap, offering a higher education to anybody who could pay the required fee.
Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation, p. 251
A relevant and important question to ask is, how have we set ourselves up? It is remarkable how close we often stay to comfort, with what is called “ivory tower” irrelevance by others (the scholarly finessing of the past) and a passing newspaper irrelevance (finessing the present). When was the last time the philosopher sat down to ask “what would I do?”? It is almost offensively naive to a pose such a question to a philosopher. It smacks of interviews with the well-known and ill-informed, where they insist on discussing their “philosophy of life”. Really, it just upsets us. So I’ll try another approach.
What is the fuction of the philosopher (note that I do not say the ‘role’) when technology and science seems to move as fast as thought itself, when each progressive subdivision is leading us closer to truth, and yet farther away from a form where such truth can be comprehended. Is the philosopher to be the great architect of knowledge, saying what goes where, describing rather than prescribing? But we cannot know enough to decide, and science and technology are not to be directed, they direct themselves. So do we become even more agonistic about matters, and emplace the philosopher as a referee, to settle disputes between different factions? But again, this is unlikely given the expertise required, and the peer-reviewing manner by which science operates. What then of something analogous to a coach who has an aim, a strategy? The scientists and engineers have the tactics. Together there is a goal in sight, and we coordinate our efforts accordingly. But this is but a rehased version of the Philosopher King.
We have in our mind some nebulous, inchoate ideal of the philosopher, facilitating discourse between the various groups who have their own jargon of the guild. The philosopher is, in this vision, as a raven far overhead who can see the lay of the land, but who swoops down and with gimlet clarity shears away the accumulations of superstition, flabby thought, circular reasoning, skewed analysis, biases, prejudices… But really… what do we do?
Is there an activity common to philosophers across the various subdisciplines, beyond talking to other philosophers via conferences, or helping to facilitate thought via editing and contributing to journals, or occasionally swooping down from the oxygen/reality-deprived heights of our ziggurats (for which countless endangered mammals have been sacrificed) to grace the peasantry with our glorious thoughts? Should these be enough? Is my dissatisfaction with the above picture a sign that I am an unreconstructed idealist, or blinded and stunted by the gloomy light of the academy? Should it be sufficient to aim for tenure or the next best thing, and am I simply vulgar in asking for more?