The Sage Within

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An optimistic take on how everyone can discover philosophical questions and answers

The Philosopher: A History in Six Types |  Justin EH Smith | Princeton University Press | Pages 272 | $27.95

IN MARCH 2006, soon after the publication of Manliness, a controversial book that extolled manly virtues allegedly at the cost of women, author Harvey Mansfield was asked an unusual question: how could there be women philosophers when women were not allowed into top academic institutions until recent times? The unflappable Mansfield replied: universities produce doctors of philosophy and not philosophers.

So what exactly do philosophers do? The academic answer would be about the study of specialised questions like free will, the problems of rationality (and irrationality) and a host of arcane questions. Many, including Justin Smith, a professor of science in Paris and the author of The Philosopher: A History in Six Types, will disagree. Philosophy, as the common understanding goes, is about ultimate questions. This had been so from ancient times until almost the end of 19th century. Today, there is a huge gap between the two conceptions, one that appears almost unbridgeable.

Smith is optimistic about bringing back the subject to its original form where everyone—and not just doctors of philosophy—can address philosophical questions and answers. ‘There are people alive right now who are engaging with philosophical ideas in Tibet and Amazonia, perhaps ingeniously, in social settings no more different from that of an [American Philosophical Association] attendee that were the social settings of Aristotle and Leibniz, yet who would be utterly out of place if they were to show up at some Baltimore Marriott... and ask for their name tags.’

This is touching and very hopeful. But the truth is—and Smith, a philosopher of science surely knows this—that philosophy’s domain has increasingly shrunk with an explosion in human knowledge. Sciences—especially physics—have better answers to questions like the nature of time and space than what philosophy could provide. Smith’s favourite kind of philosopher—the Curiosus, the person who asked questions about ‘specific things’ like storms and tempests and magnetic variation—is now extinct. The slow demise of natural philosophy was coeval with the rise of modern physics. It won’t be wrong the put a date to its death: 9 June1905, the day when Albert Einstein published his paper on the photoelectric effect, putting an end to centuries, if not millennia, of speculation.

Something similar has occurred in humanities and social sciences as well. For example, the dividing line between political philosophy and political theory is now thin to the point of being non-existent.

So what is left for philosophers to do? Plenty of stuff, but specialised. For example, some of the finest philosophers in the 20th century have worked on a vexed problem since Aristotle: the nature of action, whether it is rational or irrational, and the question of weakness of will or ‘akrasia’ in Greek (first elaborated in Book VII of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics). The names GEM Anscombe, Donald Davidson and John Broome, among others, are not exactly household names. But ask any student or professor of philosophy and she will explain to you the depths to which these thinkers have explored the subject.

Unfortunately, this sort of ‘speculation’ is unlikely today in ‘remote madrasas and monasteries and union halls.’ Smith is engaged in a laudable attempt to re-expand the frontiers of philosophy. He wishes to do so by not only considering philosophical ideas of other cultures but also by taking philosophy to arenas such as archaeology, art and anthropology.

There is nothing wrong in this. But the trouble is that this quest places a heavy burden in relativising ideas. For example, one could ask: what is the nature of truth in Western and Tibetan philosophy? Because these are different cultures, the easiest thing to say would be that the answer is contextual. But that would run against the grain of two millennia of philosophy where the answer sought is expected to have finality about it. To take the cultural route would bring philosophical query dangerously close to a mere linguistic issue. Surely, truths are time (and language) invariant? To deny this would be to reduce philosophy to anthropology.

The Philosopher is a fun book to read for anyone, professional philosophers included. It harks back to a time when anyone could ‘do’ philosophy. The first philosophers, after all, did philosophy on their feet, dialoguing. Who knows, in future, the story of speculation may return to that pristine state.