The New York Times Starts New Philosophy Blog

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.

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Comments (5)
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  • Mike says:

    Here’s more reac­tion to Critch­ley’s first install­ment, if any­one is inter­est­ed:

  • Wes Alwan says:

    Thanks — saw that; the vit­ri­ol is unfor­tu­nate.

  • Mike says:

    Yes, I agree. Per­haps I should­n’t have called atten­tion to it. It’s strange the way Leit­er has gone after Critch­ley. He states clear­ly on his blog today that Critch­ley’s aca­d­e­m­ic cre­den­tials are “all in order,” and yet he launch­es a let­ter-writ­ing cam­paign against him. Critch­ley is chair of a uni­ver­si­ty phi­los­o­phy depart­ment, so the Times can hard­ly be fault­ed for invit­ing him to host a phi­los­o­phy blog. If Critch­ley’s cre­den­tials are all in order and yet he is a char­la­tan, as Leit­er insists, then the New York Times is not the appro­pri­ate place to lodge a com­plaint.

  • Wes Alwan says:

    Agreed again!

  • Gary geck says:

    A phi­los­o­phy blog? What a con­cept. Bra­vo. The only prob­lem is that it’s run by philoso­phers like mr Critch­ly when phi­los­o­phy belongs to nor­mal guys and gals …not the high­ly expert pro­fes­sion­als. That is why I had to go and make my phi­los­o­phy blog, com­plete­ly lack­ing in exper­tise-whether they be from the con­ti­nen­tal or ana­lyt­ic school.

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