What is a Philosopher? Comment on Critchley (from May 17, 2010)

I am a professor of philosophy. From time to time I have told my students that philosophy is what happens when a person stumbles on an interesting insight, exaggerates it until it is no longer true, and then defends the exaggeration to the death with sophistical arguments. If a professional philosopher is honest with himself about what he sees in his professional community and the tradition he champions, he must have serious doubts about whether philosophy is needed at all, if people aren’t doing just fine without him. This would be true if people had no propensity toward conceptual confusion, no need for a larger picture providing a sense of orientation in the world beyond what can be provided by an aggregate of unconnected facts, and were perfectly capable of managing their personal and collective political lives without advice. But to state these conditions is to reveal exactly why philosophy is needed, however unhelpfully it may be practiced today in the academy. Every day I read at least five op-eds on matters of some public urgency that are shot through with fatal confusion. Every day I see the extent to which people hand over their need for a world-picture to religious and political ideologies hawked by people utterly unconcerned with their plausibility or reasonableness. Every day I hear about someone in therapy, not for some “disease” but for a failure to manage their personal life sensibly. By all means let us mock the professors for their failings. But (as Plato himself said) their failings are not failings of philosophy properly conceived, but the failure to do philosophy properly. And as soon as everyone else shows signs of reasonableness in their personal, political and religious lives, philosophy will no longer be needed. I’m not worried that the need for philosophy will dry up; I worry that my colleagues don’t do enough to meet that need.


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