The Philosopher and Society

To interpret a thing is to categorize it. We may categorize only in accordance with existing categories, of course, which in practice — an obvious point but one easily forgotten — means in accordance with categories we know. Hence, the limits of interpretation, for each man, are determined by the modes of existence that he himself has previously recognized or intuited from his experience. From this it follows that if there is a man or way of life which lies outside the experience of most men, in the absolute sense of occupying a world beyond even the speculative extrapolation from familiar experience that allows us, for example, to understand a murderer although we have not murdered, through reflection upon our own experiences of anger, ambition, or hatred, then this man or way of life cannot be properly categorized by most men at all. That is, this man or way of life has no place, and therefore can find no acceptance, within the normal societal understanding of what a man is, or how he may live.

The problem of the philosopher in society. The essential problem of politics, if philosophy, strictly speaking, is indeed the definitive or highest human life. For the philosopher will always be, in the eyes of most men, the uncategorizable man, and his life, therefore, an object of suspicion, distrust, derision, indignation, or hatred. Politics is the necessary and inescapable human realm in which there is, paradoxically but as a matter of practical necessity, no natural place for the best life.

There are men we call philosophers today, and whom we plant in university chairs in order to squeeze an intimidating and challenging notion into a safely familiar and recognizable category. This is modernity’s way of denying its ignorance and debunking the uncomfortable reality of a natural hierarchy of purposes: Impose the appearance of equality by reducing and deflating substantial differences to mere “different areas of specialization.” But this imposition and reduction merely highlights the intractable problem, namely that the philosophic life, which has absolutely nothing in common with occupying a university chair or any other public position, remains as impenetrable and intimidating to most men as ever. The only difference is that in the past, societies faced up to this challenge by either killing the philosophers or demanding that they serve it as private advisors or public gurus, whereas modernity, lacking the courage and decency to face up to anything, least of all its own deficiencies, has contrived to redefine philosophy as something innocuous, perhaps mildly useful for “learning how to think clearly” — everything in modernity must be justified on utilitarian grounds — but ultimately secondary, or even dispensable.

We have “solved” the essential political problem, the problem defined for all time in Plato’s Apology, by pretending we all know what philosophy is, and insisting to ourselves that it is either nothing at all, or at least nothing fundamentally at odds with any other “career.” In other words, the problem remains unsolved and insoluble, in spite of our cleverest efforts to hide from the truth. “But did a philosopher ever invent a smartphone?” we ask rhetorically, to hide from ourselves. The proper answer to that question, if there were anyone to give it, and if we moderns could digest it, would reveal everything we have lost, and exactly how we lost it.

You may also like...