Philosophy: June 2010 Archives

I've seen several criticisms of Simon Critchley's "What Is A Philosopher?" (e.g. here and here). Several points occurred to me that I haven't seen in any of the criticisms I've read. Critchley presents philosophers as being in the grand tradition of Socrates and Plato, which he construes as consisting of:

(1) being clumsy in worldly affairs and willing to appear silly
(2) taking time to move from topic to topic (as opposed to a lawyer who is assigned a task) or to examine a topic fully (rather than being restricted to the time limit given to a lawyer arguing a case
(3) embracing non-traditionalism by rejecting the norms of the society around them and shunning social groups and structures, by adopting impious and politically suspicious views and practices

Critchley's portrait of Socrates and Plato and his picture of philosophy seem to me to be incredibly one-sided. Plato is certainly not arguing for going against the status quo as if that's some absolute good. In fact, his opponents here, what Critchley calls the pettifoggers (following Seth Benardete's translation) were not lawyers as we understand them but the Sophists, who were famous for their claims to be able to argue for any view, no matter how crazy. Socrates points out that all philosophers could be called crazy for their views, but that's because careful thought and willingness to consider where arguments lead for the sake of good reasoning is going to lead you to unpopular views at times (like his theory of Forms, which sounds crazy to some people). He says the ordinary person will consider the philosopher ignorant and arrogant, when in reality it's the popular critic of philosophy who is more often ignorant and arrogant in that very act.

Socrates and Plato both held views that would seem silly and wrong to many people. But that hardly makes them non-traditionalists of the sort that Critchley seems to be praising, those who are counter-cultural and counter-traditional merely for the sake of being different or contrary. It's not that being odd or against one's culture is the goal. The goal is having the right beliefs and living the best kind of life one can lead. Sometimes that will lead Socrates and Plato to criticize the non-traditional views of the Sophists with heightened vehemence. They rightly considered many Sophists' views dangerous in the same way the popular mindset of Socrates' day wrongly considered his views dangerous. The Sophists' own moral relativism or moral nihilism (depending on the Sophist) is one certainly non-traditional, but Plato was pretty harsh with it in defense of a more traditional moral realism. Socrates and Plato, therefore, must be pettifoggers, according to Critchley's account, for defending traditional views on such matters. That wasn't remotely what Plato was talking about, though. Critchley has got Plato very wrong here.

What Plato is really criticizing here isn't defending traditional views. He isn't even that concerned with how much time you can devote to them, although he does think philosophers will attempt to spend the time it takes to think through something fully. The people he opposes are those who take on a view and defend it no matter what, even if the arguments eventually lead to another conclusion. Philosophers are always open to being convinced otherwise. This is compatible with defending a view, however, and it's compatible with defending a traditional view, as long as you think the arguments lead to that view rather than another view and as long as you're listening to arguments to the contrary and willing to consider them. You might still reject those arguments and maintain the traditional view. Plato is fine with that and often did that himself. Critchley seems to be resisting traditional views merely because it's traditional in his own culture (i.e. contemporary academia) to do so. It's interesting to consider, then, whether he is in fact being the pettifogger, both on Plato's account and on his own.



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