This week, The New York Times began a philosophy blog called The Stone, moderated by Simon Critchley. The series will address “issues both timely and timeless – art, war, ethics, gender, popular culture and more.” And it will ask: “What does philosophy look like today? Who are philosophers, what are their concerns and what role do they play in the 21st century?”
Not everyone is happy with the choice of Critchley as moderator, but it looks like there will be participants to suit all temperaments: “Nancy Bauer, Jay Bernstein, Arthur C. Danto, Todd May, Nancy Sherman, Peter Singer and others.”
Critchley begins with a question bound to invite snarky comments: What is a Philosopher? Such comments have a long history (I’ve included a YouTube clip of my all-time favorite parody above). And so the natural starting point for any answer to that question is the popular conception of philosopher as bullshit artist and “absent-minded buffoon”: “Socrates tells the story of Thales, who … was looking so intently at the stars that he fell into a well.” That’s a conception that, I have to admit, troubled me when I was a philosophy graduate student and led me to drop out. And it has troubled philosophers historically: many a sober treatise begins with the unflattering comparison of philosophy to the empirical sciences and the stated goal of remedying this deficiency. And some strains of analytic philosophy argue that the solution to philosophical problems is to realize that there are no such problems, and that philosophy has a relatively modest supporting role in clarifying the foundations of science.
True to my philosophical pedigree, I think that the question is in a way its own answer: philosophical problems naturally elide into the problem of what philosophy is and what it is that philosophers do. One level of reflection tends to lead to the next, and doubt to self-doubt. Philosophers are people who spend their time trying to figure out what they’re doing with their time and why they’re doing it. And so for instance, questions about how we should live (ethics) and what we can know (epistemology) are also questions about whether the life of the mind is worthwhile and whether philosophical pursuits are properly scientific. The unavoidable state of affairs here is that philosophy falls perpetually into one crisis (or well) after another –recent department closures are just one example.
One way of remedying the nagging thought that philosophy is merely a retreat from worldly affairs, practicality, and life in general is to do precisely what The New York Times has done here, and try to initiate more popular and less academic conversations about the subject. (And to get in a plug, it’s what I and two other philosophy grad school dropouts have tried to do with our podcast, The Partially Examined Life; and what I think Open Culture does with its focus on the intersection of education and new media).
For Critchley, the question of time is paramount to answering his opening question: newspapers and blogs are typically focused on timeliness rather than timelessness, and they’re meant for busy people who want to quickly absorb “information.”
But that tension is inherently philosophical.
Wes Alwan lives in Boston, Massachusetts, where he works as a writer and researcher and attends the Institute for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Culture. He also participates in The Partially Examined Life, a podcast consisting of informal discussions about philosophical texts by three philosophy graduate school dropouts.