The New York Times has started off its new feature on philosophical
issues with, quite appropriately, a simple question: "What is a
philosopher?" Simon Critchley
, chair of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, lays out the question's complexities: "There are as many definitions of philosophy as there are
philosophers--perhaps there are even more." He doesn't think that the New York Times is likely to "reach consensus" after three thousand years of dispute, but he nevertheless sees value in reviewing some answers that have been offered in the past.
One answer may be found in a story from Plato. Its depiction of a Thracian servant girl mocking a philosopher gives one possible definition--the philosopher as "a laughing stock, an absent-minded
buffoon," as Critchley writes. But then he notices, too, that Plato
distinguishes between the philosopher and the lawyer, or "pettifogger."
The pettifogger, the jury, and by implication the
whole society, live with the constant pressure of time. The water of
time’s flow is constantly threatening to drown them.
contrast, we might say, the philosopher is the person who has time or
who takes time ... Pushing this a little further, we might say that to
philosophize is to take your time, even when you have no time, when
time is constantly pressing at your back.
This freedom from time and convention may make philosophers something else, however: enemies of the state. As Critchley reminds readers, Socrates was sentenced to death, suggesting that philosophy should include a health warning like "one finds on packs of European
cigarettes: PHILOSOPHY KILLS."
Critchley leaves off inconclusively, reflecting on these conflicted definitions of philosophers: "Nurtured in freedom and taking
their time, there is something
dreadfully uncanny about the philosopher, something either monstrous or
god-like or indeed both at once."
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