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! Continue reading