What is the philosopher’s function?

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?

[Related to this is a post over at Hot, Cold, Sun, Rain regarding academia as a whole, coming from a different perspective: Who should thank the academy?]

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2 thoughts on “What is the philosopher’s function?

  1. For what it’s worth, I personally don’t think it’s wrong to feel discontented with this vagueness. In fact, I think it’s a sign of sanity to demand that philosophy constitute some recognizable activity.

    What’s difficult about philosophy is that it is, by definition something that is not practical. Philosophy is what fixes the signifiers that determine what ‘use’ and ‘value’ are; philosophy that could be described as useful wouldn’t be philosophy proper, because the very invocation of practical use would presuppose some notion of value, which is itself a fundamentally philosophical object.

    This definition seems problematic, but it is only problematic because philosophy is comprised of a professional (and sometimes rather insular) cabal. Philosophy is actually a very important activity, because good systems of thought are surprisingly difficult to come by, but it’s an activity to which there is no fundamental bar to entry — in principle, anyone can philosophize. This fact explains, for instance, the profusion of facile and poorly thought-out ideas passed of as ‘philosophy’ in popular culture, but it also exposes a profound antagonism. Because anyone can philosophize (though not all attempts are equally good), the professional philosopher is at great pains to justify the difference between his own philosophy, and that of anyone else who might care to take up the subject. It’s only natural that this anxiety take the form of a preoccupation with what a philosopher “does”. The plumber is a plumber because he comes to your house and fixes the pipes. The carpenter is a carpenter because he uses woodcraft to produce structures and other useful articles. Even the preacher is a preacher because he goes out and publicly delivers oratory. Professions set themselves apart by the performance of some activity. Philosophers do, in fact, perform, but if their performance differs from that of everyone else, it is in degree and not in kind. Everyone philosophizes to some degree, but some people have greater experience, or do it more deeply or thoroughly than others.

    What this observation means for the profession of philosophy, I don’t really know. One could say a lot of the same things, for instance, about art. What I am sure of is that, when the pressures of professional justification are removed, the practice of philosophy easily speaks for itself.

  2. Aha! You pin down precisely what I tried to avoid (thank you!), namely the notion of the “practical”, which I think we can agree is too restrictive. I attempt to steer things in the direction of “function” because I hope it is some route out of the useful/useless swamp. I am not so sure it is, but I have one of those ill-thought-out intuitions that it may be a route towards defending the philosopher, and I think that if “function” is to work, then it must be supported by a variety of other elements. One of these is the importance of ideas, no matter that they are immaterial and slippery to deal with.

    I am not sure if this would be acceptable to you given your last post (“You are not ideas”), because I take an opposite view that “substance” and “real” aren’t necessarily the final arbiters in the court of philosophical validity (perhaps I am unfairly putting words in your mouth, and apologies if I am!). Anyway, that said, perhaps this little activity of doubting and discussing that there are any grounds for this activity of philosophy are sufficient grounds for persevering. Perhaps philosophy is that realm of cognition where paradox and apparently self-contradiction are systemic, the equivalent in thought of “the set of all sets that don’t contain themselves”.

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