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The Invention of Philosophy

In the Spring 2017 issue of the Hedgehog Review, I reviewed Justin E.H. Smith’s The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (Princeton 2016). Here is a PDF of the review.

In the preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant, the eighteenth-century German philosopher who published his magnum opus at the age of fifty after ten years of publishing silence, solicited help from his readers. The initial reviewers of what would become one of modern philosophy’s canonical texts couldn’t understand it. Kant’s critics highlighted his “terse writing style,” disregard for the “greatest part of the reading public,” and irredeemable abstractions that hovered “too much in the clouds.”

For Kant, these criticisms were about style, not content. So he implored a small, unnamed cadre of scholars to “refine” the text but to leave alone the underlying philosophical system, which he equated with reason itself. Philosophical truth, he as much as acknowledged, needed philological help.

By the time Kant had published his request for help in 1787, scholars had already begun to respond. Doing so, they helped create the persona of the critical philosopher and define for generations the character of modern philosophy: the presentation of ideas in systematic, rigorous, and argumentative form.

By the end of the decade, so much was being written about Kant’s work that entire periodicals were started to defend and defy it. In 1788, the Kantian acolyte J.A. Eberhard published the first volume of Philosophisches Magazin, a periodical dedicated to providing “news” about the “philosophical world,” especially any “philosophical disagreements” unleashed by Kant’s Kritik. Thanks to the efforts of Eberhard and other supporters, Kant’s initial hope that the Critique be “refined” and more widely engaged had been fulfilled. “Kant” was now less a particular Prussian philosopher than an entire system with an increasingly influential presence, decisively shaping not only individual philosophers such as Fichte, Hegel, and Schelling but also an entire intellectual and scholarly culture that would come to be known as German Idealism.

The many books and articles devoted to establishing (or attacking) Kant exemplified a genre that exploded around 1800 in Germany. As Eberhard wrote, the German reading public had become “more philosophical.” Philosophy had begun to break outside the “bounds of the school” and gain interest among the “great masses.” But this worried Eberhard. The unconstrained distribution of philosophy through print gave rise to increasing numbers of “charlatans” and “pseudo-philosophers,” he believed. The status of philosophy as Wissenschaft—as science, in the broader German sense of the word—was new and fragile and had to be protected. True philosophy, unlike the musings of the ancient Greeks or disjointed discourses of contemporary writers, was a “profession.” It was an autonomous university discipline in need of no other knowledge but its own arguments and concepts.

The attempts by Kantians in the last two decades of the eighteenth century to define philosophy as a strictly systematic form of inquiry amounted to an implicit rejection of an older German conception of philosophy, a philologically oriented approach that primarily sought to organize in bibliographic form a wide range of texts on matters broadly considered philosophical. Just as Linnaeus had collected animals and plants, early eighteenth-century German scholars collected propositions and concepts and organized them in print. Philosophy as a universal category was best understood in terms of the particulars that constituted it.

The relatively rapid ascendance of the Kantian vision of philosophy as Wissenschaft was based as much on a positive definition of philosophy as system as it was on a rejection of what should not count as philosophy. Could songs, legends, aphorisms, and folklore, for instance—the kinds of things that interested Kant’s erstwhile student-turned-proto-anthropologist J.G. Herder—count as philosophy? The Kantians and post-Kantians who have largely ruled the academic roost of philosophy to this day think not.

Today, even historians of philosophy tend to write histories of particular problems or historical reconstructions of older arguments, concepts, or beliefs. Most historians of philosophy are not historians in the more etymologically inflected sense of the term: scholars and thinkers devoted to the integrity and value of particulars. According to regnant notions of academic philosophy, the diversity of philosophical particulars is only of value when understood in relation to recognizable wholes: a philosophical system, an individual philosopher, a particular concept.

Justin Smith’s The Philosopher: A History in Six Types offers a different sort of philosophy and an inspiring model for the history of philosophy. It echoes the works of the early eighteenth-century Germans, not the Kantians, long since dismissed as the work of an indulgent, pedantic eclecticism. Smith argues—compellingly and convincingly—for a more capacious notion of philosophy, one enlivened by a principled eclecticism. To ask, with the expectation of a final, comprehensive answer, what philosophy is preemptively limits what philosophy may already be. The very question may blind us to the multifarious activities across different times and places that are in meaningful ways philosophical.

At the core of The Philosopher is the claim, buried late in the book, about competing conceptions of philosophy. Many observers within the academy suppose that the most basic distinction is between continental and analytic philosophy. But for Smith the real rift in philosophy is the “profound division” between two conceptions of truth-seeking: between a “Baconian approach” that seeks truth by studying the particular stances taken toward it and a Cartesian approach that seeks truth by proposing self-sustaining arguments. Whereas the former surveys, the latter defines.

There are, of course, epistemological assumptions undergirding each approach. And Smith ably discusses these throughout his book. But Smith’s decidedly a posteriori and comparative approach, one devoted as much to particulars as to universals, shows that philosophy is not only about arguments and propositions. It is also about the dispositions that motivate and sustain them.

Over six lucid and engaging chapters, Smith presents a lexicon of the philosophically learned and able: the philosopher as curiosus, the early modern natural philosopher devoted to finding and explaining res singularesand the multifarious wonders of the natural world; the philosopher as sage, the midwife of wisdom and the mediating figure between “immanent and transcendent realms”; the philosopher as gadfly, the irascible and persistent critic of the reigning social order; the philosopher as ascetic, the suppliant committed to molding his soul to an order more eternal than the state or society; the philosopher as mandarin, the credentialed professional at least as committed to the maintenance of definitive and exclusive distinctions as to the pursuit of truth; and, finally, the philosopher as courtier, the thinker who argues for money and thinks in public or on stage.

Philosophy reconceived as philology allows, at the very least, for a different approach to some of the more recent controversies in academic philosophy, such as the lack of curricular and faculty diversity in philosophy departments. Is philosophy by definition, as some have suggested, white and Eurocentric? Smith interweaves his rich descriptions of philosophical personae with thoughtful discussions of just these types of timely and difficult questions. And he reframes them through a vision of what philosophy could fully be.

Smith’s concluding acknowledgment—that he “failed to determine what philosophy is” and, thus, what the philosopher must do—follows from his method. But it also exemplifies his sense of philosophy as an all-too-human activity and, thus, one as various and engaging as the creatures who have always practiced it in its endlessly fascinating forms.

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