What Is a Philosopher?

By Simon Critchley in the UK’s Telegraph Online

There are as many definitions of philosophy as there are philosophers – perhaps there are even more. After three millennia of philosophical activity and disagreement, it is unlikely that we’ll reach consensus, and I certainly don’t want to add more hot air to the volcanic cloud of unknowing. What I’d like to do in the opening column in this new venture — The Stone — is to kick things off by asking a slightly different question: what is a philosopher?

As Alfred North Whitehead said, philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. Let me risk adding a footnote by looking at Plato’s provocative definition of the philosopher that appears in the middle of his dialogue, “Theaetetus,” in a passage that some scholars consider a “digression.” But far from being a footnote to a digression, I think this moment in Plato tells us something hugely important about what a philosopher is and what philosophy does.

Socrates tells the story of Thales, who was by some accounts the first philosopher. He was looking so intently at the stars that he fell into a well. Some witty Thracian servant girl is said to have made a joke at Thales’ expense — that in his eagerness to know what went on in the sky he was unaware of the things in front of him and at his feet. Socrates adds, in Seth Benardete’s translation, “The same jest suffices for all those who engage in philosophy.”

What is a philosopher, then? The answer is clear: a laughing stock, an absent-minded buffoon, the butt of countless jokes from Aristophanes’ “The Clouds” to Mel Brooks’s “History of the World, part one.” Whenever the philosopher is compelled to talk about the things at his feet, he gives not only the Thracian girl but the rest of the crowd a belly laugh. The philosopher’s clumsiness in worldly affairs makes him appear stupid or, “gives the impression of plain silliness.” We are left with a rather Monty Pythonesque definition of the philosopher: the one who is silly.

*****
[Read the full article; http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/what-is-a-philosopher/?ref=opinion&nl=opinion&emc=tya1%5D

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