Justin E. H. Smith, The Philosopher

Reflections on Justin E. H. Smith, The Philosopher: A history in six types (Princeton UP, 2016).

This is a timely, marvelous book that raises fruitful questions and criticisms especially about the ways philosophy is conceived by its modern-day, academic practitioners. Clearly, throughout human history, there have been all sorts of people who have wondered and theorized about ultimate things, morals, politics, gods, love, knowledge, and so on. Today, though, the term “philosopher” is often recognized to refer to a university professor in a department called “Philosophy.” It’s not that what these professors do isn’t properly philosophical; but it might better be seen as one subculture, and not one that merits any special privilege or authority over philosophy as a whole.  This is Smith’s overall point, I think, and through his many examples and asides I think he is encouraging academic philosophers to broaden their minds a bit and to take up the challenge of thinking more creatively about what they should be doing.

With chapters on “the Curiosa,” “the Sage,” “the Gadfly,” “the Ascetic,” “the Mandarin,” and “the Courtier,” one might expect a fixed typology of the various ways of engaging philosophy, with illuminating examples of each type. But this isn’t what Smith provides. Instead, he uses each species of philosopher as an occasion “to elucidate a particular opposition that has been brought into service by philosophers seeking to define what is and what is not philosophy” (18). That is, every type of philosopher is tied to certain efforts, past and present, to draw a line separating real philosophy from really not philosophy. In the end, though Smith is somewhat apologetic about never reaching a crisp definition of what counts as philosophy, it is clear that this is just what he thinks we all should avoid. There really is no need to establish an official policy about what counts and what doesn’t. Why not just let people “do philosophy” in whatever ways seems interesting and important? (And isn’t this, pretty much, what has happened and will happen anyway?)

Smith’s own temperament, it seems to me, pretty clearly falls within the Curiosa, or the ones interested in a thousand different things, who try to find intelligent patterns in the noise. History offers many philosophers of the type: Aristotle and Leibniz spring readily to mind. But Smith uses this occasion to draw our attention to several others who fit this type and yet are not commonly read today as philosophers. There is Laurent Lange, and his 1735 account of the natural philosophers trying to square Siberian mammoth remains with Job’s Behemoth; there’s D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s 1917 critique of Kant’s teleology in biology; there’s François Bernier’s record of being self-conscious of standing out as a materialist philosopher in 17th-century India. And there is all the stuff of Leibniz that typically is not read – really, it’s hard even to imagine something Leibniz didn’t explore – as well as the voluminous undertakings of Athanasius Kircher, whom Smith reserves for later discussion. In short: start pulling at this strand of philosopher-as-know-it-all, and there’s an avalanche of neglected figures in whom we should be taking greater interest.

The same theme emerges in every chapter, the lesson being that, no matter who you are, you should be reading more, and along less predictable lines. It’s not that Smith is trying to show himself off as one who has done it right; rather, it’s that he has discovered a wide array of surprising things in his own readings, and he can’t imagine why we shouldn’t want to do the same. One very interesting aside he offers is his own attempt to sort out his “philosophy” books, which belong at the office, from his “everything else” books, which can remain at home. Descartes is philosophy, as is the Cambridge Platonist Henry More. But what about More’s poetry? And Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen?

Should I keep Jean Genet’s plays at home or in the office? Genet was an important influence on Derrida…. Could it be that somewhere in the work of Genet one might find a hint as to the real significance of some point of misunderstanding in the Derrida-Searle debate? I would not want to exclude the possibility out of hand. And similarly for virtually every other literary author who has worked, broadly speaking, on the plane of ideas, entering into contact with, bumping up against, the people we categorize as philosophers: Aristophanes, Cyrano de Bergerac, Whitman, Eliot, Beckett. I am not prepared to remove these thinkers to their own library, because to do so would be an impoverishment of my private philosophy shelves. (153)

In merging his libraries, Smith is advocating that academic philosophy find common cause with the other humanities. Indeed, he later mentions James Turner’s 2014 book, Philology, which (Smith claims) argues that all of the humanities, including philosophy, have philology as their common origin. But in fact Turner leaves philosophy out of his story; as he says in his epilogue, philosophers have consistently set themselves apart from the more bookish disciplines like history and literature. Of course, this depends on what we mean by “philosophy,” and Smith in his indirect way is providing a vision of philosophy as less celibate and more promiscuous than has commonly been the case. Here, perhaps, he is guilty of a fault he impugns to others, that of providing a “royal road to me” account of philosophy (10). But I’ll forgive him that, as it’s damned near unavoidable.

One would expect a book such as this to offer a great many examples of philosophy from around the world, conceived in ways alien to the European enlightenment. And so it does, with nontrivial accounts of Indian schools, Bantu-speaking traditions, and Chinese philosophy. But Smith also discusses a further source of philosophy that is also neglected, primarily because of economic snobbery: the philosophy of poor and rural peoples. Wonder is not just for an elite; anyone can do it, and people do, everywhere. Smith recounts his own mishandling of a conversation with a Mohawk man, who wanted to assure Smith that his people had philosophy, too, while Smith was keen on pulling the man into “real” philosophy, as it is done in the university. But Smith now sees the error of his ways:

I hear Thomas Nagel holding forth on whether death is or is not an objective misfortune, or Hannah Arendt on why it is troubling to see human viscera, or Daniel Dennett on which creatures may be killed with no moral qualms, and which may not be, and I think: why should I listen to you in particular? There is a whole world full of people out there, some on farms, some in rain forests, and some in slums, all charged up with beliefs of their own about these and many other things. My philosophy would be the one that would take the broadest possible measure of these beliefs, without concern for the institutional affiliations, the literacy, or the geographical niche of their holders. (80)

Smith is also ready to hear from the educated outsiders in our own culture. One recurring character – indeed, one to whom the book is dedicated – is Bud Korg who, real or not, sends Smith letters urging him to read his e-book, Quantum Truths for the 21st Century, which has been praised by Professor Tom Kumpe of Two Prairies Technical College as a bold “attempt to show the unity of human knowledge.” Smith, Korg writes, should take the time to read the book – that is, if he’s willing to take a break from enjoying his “free ride as a tenured so-called ‘philosopher’” (124). We all know the kind: the enthusiastic autodidact who thinks he’s come up with something all the trained professionals have missed. But wait – are we talking about Descartes here? Or Leibniz? With what sort of right do we brush aside the Bud Korgs of the world? And what makes us so infuriatingly condescending?

So: this is no typical survey. It is, at once, thoroughly European, but confronting both internal and external obstacles; it is learned, but also refreshingly creative and autobiographical; it shows great literacy, with equal interest in the non-literate. It reflects what philosophy has been and can be: an interesting and unpredictable ride through Wonderland.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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2 Responses to Justin E. H. Smith, The Philosopher

  1. Howard says:

    Hi I wonder why this provincialism in philosophy might have to do with the idea that the truth can be found with the right method or approach and with the disenchantment of the world. It seems that people like Aristotle and Leibnit had a sense of wonder, that they were enchanted explorers, sort of like Sinbad, in an odd way.
    Of course there is the matter of over specialization


  2. Howard says:

    Just to make my comment easier to read: “I wonder if”


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