In a happy and somewhat surprising move, the New York Times has introduced The Stone, a column in philosophy. Happier still, it’s written by someone other than regular NYT writer Stanley Fish, who too often seems to be a hater of wisdom. The inaugural column is instead written by New School philosopher Simon Critchley, who gives us a thoughtful and interesting meditation on what a philosopher is.
Riffing on a “digression” in Plato’s Theaetetus, Critchley comes up with a creative definition: the philosopher is one who takes time. Plato’s Socrates contrasts such a philosopher to the lawyer, the “pettifogger,” the specialist – for whom time is money, for whom a result must be reached quickly. It is likely not a coincidence that Socrates made his living from stonecutting, not from philosophy. The “digression” is introduced when Socrates’s interlocutor asks “Aren’t we at leisure?” and Socrates replies “It appears we are.” The pettifogger asks “What do I need to know right now, for this practical purpose?” The philosopher explores the bigger picture, takes the leisure to explore at length.
This picture of the philosopher seems to describe Socrates very well – or the monastic philosophers like Buddhaghosa or Śāntideva or Aquinas, who were charged to spend their lives in contemplation, and were fed and clothed and housed for doing so. It might even describe the tenured research-university philosophy professors of the 20th century, who had a guaranteed income for life as long as they showed up to teach a few classes and refrained from having sex with their students.
But what a different world faces the young man or woman who dreams of being a philosopher today! Our elders and betters tell us incessantly: figure out what you love, and then find a way to make money from it. And with the exception of a few (very, very rare) independent philosophers like Ken Wilber, to make money from philosophy is to be a philosophy professor. And those who aspire to be philosophy professors today epitomize a lack of time.
Noelle McAfee notes: “the academic system robs even we supposedly otherwordly philosophers of the leisure of time. There is a constant pressure to rush through things to get things done.” I wouldn’t say “even” us philosophers; rather, especially us philosophers, for whom the academic job situation is so dire. In graduate school and as a junior professor, there is a constant sense that every moment you spend at leisure could rob you of your only chance to ever get that semi-mythical leisured state of tenure – a state which the majority of current PhD candidates in philosophy and religious studies will never have. (If you’re unfamiliar with the apocalyptic state of the academic job market in the humanities, see here and here for a primer on the current situation; and see the acute analyses of Marc Bousquet if you would like to think it’s ever going to get significantly better.) McAfee tries to address the situation with the stopgap time-management measure of taking 20 minutes for every professional task she undertakes, thus creating a minimal amount of leisure for each task. Within the unfortunate position of the junior academic, that may be the best you can do. But it’s not very much. When you are teaching four courses a semester and struggling desperately to simultaneously publish articles in the knowledge that you’ll never get tenure without them, the idea that you can have any “leisure” is entirely implausible, no matter how you arrange your time.
Instead, if one is really to live the leisured philosophical life that Socrates and Critchley speak of, why not seek leisure in the more conventional sense? If we fight to hold on to the imperilled work schedule our grandparents fought so hard to get – a 35-40 hour week, with sick days and a few weeks a year of paid vacation (much more than this if we live in Europe) – and we don’t have children, we can have genuine leisure time, genuine spare time in which we can think about philosophy at a slow, leisurely, thoughtful pace. Such a job is the complete antithesis of the academic philosophy career track. Which is to say that one can best be a philosopher in Plato’s or Critchley’s sense if one has a completely unphilosophical job.
It seems to me, then, that a young person can most truly be a philosopher today if – like Socrates and Spinoza – she does not try to make of philosophy a profession. For them, philosophy was neither career nor hobby. For them, as for the nearly-extinct tenured professor, philosophy was genuine leisure. Their path seems the surest route for the aspiring young philosopher now.