[I have been approached by a publisher with the idea of writing a semi-popular book on the history of the Philosopher as a persona and social actor. That is, what are the various self-conceptions philosophers have had throughout history? How have these transformed throughout different eras and in different philosophical cultures? What follows is an excerpt from a draft of my proposal.]
What is philosophy? One possible answer is that it is the intellectual project that disdains money. Or at least pretends to do so.
Such disdain forms a central part of the founding myth of Western philosophy as told by Plato in his relation of the trial and execution of his mentor Socrates. Here we learn that Socrates has been wrongly charged by the court at Athens on what may be reduced to two principal counts: that he teaches doctrines, and that he accepts money for this teaching. The denial of the first charge is important to the story we would like to tell here, too, but we will return to it soon enough. As to the second charge, Socrates protests: "As little foundation is there for the report that I am a teacher, and take money; that is no more true than the other. Although, if a man is able to teach, I honor him for being paid." Socrates relates of a certain teacher named Evenus that he would admire anyone who "really has this wisdom, and teaches at such a modest charge. Had I the same, I should have been very proud and conceited; but the truth is that I have no knowledge of the kind."
Thus philosophy, on this understanding, cannot be remunerated, because there is no real exchange, at least if this is thought of in terms of the offering of goods or services. Philosophy does not give its adepts a new body of knowledge, but only leads them through a dialectical method that shows what they already knew, or thought they knew, in a new light. There is nothing to sell here, and thus nothing to pay for.
Except that philosophy often does quite a bit more. It also tells us about the world. Socrates himself abjured not only Sophistry but also natural philosophy: the other accusation by the Athens court, which he disputed no less vigorously than that of Sophistry, was that he had "searched into the things under the earth and in heaven." But such a search had in fact been the central preoccupation of most pre-Socratic philosophy, and it would soon be again in Aristotle, and even in Plato's own later dialogues such as the Timaeus. All sought to pry into nature and discover its first principles: water, for example, or air, or hylomorphic compounds. And wherever such prying occured, we find a mixture of theoretical interest and concern for practical, and often overt economic, gain. Natural philosophy (lately called 'science') is not just interested in the first principles of nature, but also in its powers, and how to harness them.
Although Socrates provides a model already in antiquity of philosophy as unconcerned with what goes on under the earth and in the heavens, it is only very recently that the self-conception of philosophers has become entirely separate from that of what are now called 'scientists'. It was only toward the end of the 18th century that natural philosophy ceased to be an integral, indeed perhaps the most important, part of what it is that philosophers think of themselves as doing. Thus we find John Evelyn, in his Fumifugium of 1661, writing about "unwholsome vapours, that distempered the Aer, to the very raising of Storms and tempests; upon which a Philosopher might amply discourse." No one in the 17th century raised an eyebrow at the association of the 'philosopher' with this sort of curiosity. Philosophy remained at least as closely linked in the popular imagination to meteorology as to, say, logic.
René Descartes continued to dissect the heads of animals passed to him by the local butcher. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz spent many of his most fruitful years as a metaphysician almost singularly devoted to research on the medicinal properties of the Brazilian ipecacuanha root, which culminated in the 1695 treatise, On the New American Anti-Dysenteric. He seems to have been more pleased with this work than any other of his vast accomplishments. Long before there was x-phi, there was experimental philosophy, as practiced by Robert Boyle, Margaret Cavendish, and many others, some of whom wrote lucidly on the theoretical reasons why philosophy is best conceived as fundamentally consisting in the project of hacking through nature's thorns, to speak with the poet James Merrill, and kissing awake new powers.
What changed? Immanuel Kant's own career seems to straddle a divide between two epochs. In his early formation, doing what was expected of him as a philosopher in training, the young Kant wrote a Latin treatise On Fire. He would go on in his career to write extensively of cosmology, anthropology, and physical geography. But by the time of his mature, critical work, as for example in the 1783 Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics that May Come Forward as a Science, Kant is sharply aware of a growing gap between science and philosophy, or, again, between natural philosophy and fundamental philosophy: the former is making rapid and unprecedented progress, while the latter keeps cycling back around the same questions, and never seems to get anywhere. Kant thus gives voice in the Prolegomena to a well-known crisis in metaphysics, but what is less often noted is the shift here in the conception of science: he wants fundamental philosophy to 'come forward as a science', and believes that if it cannot, then it has no future. But this implies at the same time that science is something distinct from philosophy, which until very recently it had not been.
The full explanation for this split is complicated, and has to do not just with internal developments in the self-conception of philosophers, but also with social and institutional history. In particular, after some centuries in which the centers of philosophical activity were located outside the university --in royal courts, museums, scientific societies, and so on-- by the end of the 18th century philosophy was again becoming principally an academic endeavor: academic in our contemporary sense of being housed in a university faculty or department, and being focused on pedagogical instruction within the bounds of a clearly defined curriculum.
In the two centuries, and some, since Kant, philosophy has grown increasingly professionalized, again as a result both of internal developments in the field as well as the complicated social and institutional history of the modern university. Today, no one could make any sense of the claim that a philosopher, qua philosopher, might enjoy discoursing upon storms and tempests, or delivering the results of her research upon the medical virtues of syrup of ipecac. Still further from our understanding of the social role of the philosopher are models from the deeper past, which come mostly from the church and the temple, a social milieu from which philosophers would like to maintain a very safe distance: the philosopher as priest or monk, as social mediator between the human and the divine, or as isolated, world-renouncing contemplator of the divine. But these are part of the long heritage of the discipline, too, and it behoves us to understand the way this long history continues to impact philosophy's efforts to define itself.
Such an effort at historical self-understanding become particularly urgent in periods of dramatic social and institutional change, such as those the current university system is now facing. Whether we like it or not, the future of philosophy, like much of its past, may well unfold outside of the university. J. M. Coetzee has recently compared the situation of humanities professors today to the one faced by dissenting academics under the communist regime in Poland, where those who were not permitted to teach real philosophy let it be known that they "would be running a philosophy seminar in [their] living room, outside office hours, outside the institution." In so doing, Coetzee writes, "the study of philosophy was kept alive. It may be something along the same lines will be needed to keep humanistic studies alive in a world in which universities have redefined themselves out of existence." Unlike Polish communism, however, the changes happening in the world today are global, and it is difficult to imagine how they could possibly be reversed.
Ironically, one of the mechanisms by which universities are destroying themselves, or at least are seeking to remove their own humanistic hearts, is by forcing philosophers to conceptualize their own work on the model of the positive sciences: by forcing them to apply for large grants, for example, with explicit 'methodologies' (which can no longer be simply reading a bunch of books, and thinking about them) leading to concrete research 'results' (which can no longer be simply interesting and compelling observations about the world and our place in it). But what the administrators and the faculty alike both miss in their mutual misunderstanding here is the depth of the historical relationship, indeed the identity, between what is now being called 'science' and what has for a much longer time been called 'philosophy'. It cannot be that philosophers must retain their independence from the sciences, for it is a simple historical fact that this independence is a recent invention, and not necessarily a justified or useful one.
If there is, then, a new expectation that philosophers justify what they do in terms appropriated from the sciences, the deeper problem with this expectation might be that these terms are equally inadequate for grasping what it is that science itself does, or might have done in the past and might do once more in the future. But again, in order to see this, we need to reconstruct the history of natural philosophy, to expose the self-conception of the people who in different eras and contexts sought to hack through nature's thorns. And we need to do this in a way that does not cordon natural philosophy off from philosophy on the basis of anachronistic divisions.
For Coetzee, the living-room philosophy of the Polish intellectuals is noble, and worth replicating, presumably in large part because it is offered freely, just as Socrates offered it so long ago. But again, this is only one conception of what the philosophical endeavor is, and by no means the most prominent one throughout philosophy's history. Philosophers have been cast in many different social roles, with many different job descriptions. Among these, we may identify at least six, though of course they are partially overlapping and any given philosopher in history will probably be a mixture of at least two or three. These six roles, and the way they have been embodied by different historical figures in different periods and contexts, will constitute the six principal chapters of the book.
There is, first of all, the Priest. This is the oldest social role of the philosopher. The label here is to be understood in a broad sense, to include any socially revered figure (almost always an older man) who is held forth as a mediator between the immanent and transcendent realms, who is held to be able to speak for the gods or interpret what is going on beyond the realm of human experience. It includes, for example, the Brahminic commentators on the sacred scriptures of India, who have provided us with the textual basis of classical Indian philosophy. This social role is also surely continuous with that of shamans and like figures in non-textual cultures, even if it only starts to look like a philosophical or quasi-philosophical endeavor at the point in history when the mediating role of the Priests is laid down in texts that display some concern for conceptual clarity and valid inference.
Second, there is the Ascetic, who appears in what Karl Jaspers helpfully calls 'the Axial Age', the age in which Buddhism and Christianity come onto the world stage, both positioning themselves as explicit rejections of the authority of the Priests in their ornate temples. Cynics, Jainists (known to the Greeks as 'gymnosophists'), early Christians, and other world-renouncers provide a template for a conception of philosophy as first and foremost a conformation of the way one lives variously to nature, or to divine law, or to something beyond the illusory authority of society, the state, or the temple. The Ascetic continues to be a familiar figure in philosophy throughout the middle ages, though now mostly confined within the walls of the monastery, and still has late echoes in secular modernity in figures such as Friedrich Nietzsche. The latter is generally seen as a peculiar individual, but this may have something to do with the fact that there was by the late 19th century no longer an obvious social role for him to play.
Third, there is, of course, the Gadfly, who understands the social role of the philosopher not as mediating between the social and the divine, nor as renouncing the social, but rather as correcting, to the extent possible, the myopic views and misunderstandings of the members of his own society, to the extent possible. Socrates is a special case of the Gadfly, since, as we have already discussed, he does not have a positive program to replace the various ill-conceived beliefs and plans of his contemporaries, in contrast with the various social critics or philosophes engagés who follow in this venerable and still vital vein.
A well-known and much despised social role for the philosopher is, fourth, that of Courtier. A recent popular book set up Baruch Spinoza as the noble Ascetic against the unscrupulous Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who was ready to sell his philosophical services to whichever European sovereign was willing to pay the highest salary. Here, for the first time in our list, money makes its explicit appearance (though it was surely there in the Priest's temples as well). The more recent incarnation of the Courtier is the 'sell-out', or, to put it in somewhat more euphemistic terms, the 'public intellectual', who unlike the Gadfly is out there in society, not in order to change it, but in order to advance himself and his own glory. (The gendered pronoun here is intentional.) But there is a problem, of course, in determining who fits this description and who does not; all philosophers need support, and few have the fortitude to retreat into pure Asceticism. Those who get cast as Courtiers seem to be the ones who take earthly wealth and glory as the end in itself, rather than at most as a by-product of their pure love of wisdom. Or at least they are the one who do a particularly bad job of concealing the fact that it is wealth and glory they are after. Whether, however, these desiderata are strictly incompatible with profound thought is an important question. Leibniz would seem to provide a counterexample to the claim that they are incompatible, but an interesting question remains, and indeed a question whose answer could tell us much about the nature of the philosophical project, as to why 'Courtier' continues to function as such a potent ad hominem against the integrity of a philosopher.
Fifth, there is the Curiosus, the great forgotten model of the philosophical life. It is a principal concern of this book is to solve the mystery of his disappearance. He is the philosopher who expatiaties on storms and tempests, on magnetic variation, on the fine-grained details of the wings of a flea. The Curiosus is often a Curiosa: many of the adepts of early modern experimental philosophy were women (women have also been Ascetics and Gadflies, less often Priests). Curiosae and Curiosi believe that there is nothing shameful about knowledge of what Leibniz celebrated as res singulares: singular things. These too can reveal the order of nature as a whole, and it is eminently the task of the philosopher, on their view, to discover this order. The paradigm statement of this approach to philosophy may well be found in Aristotle's defense of the worthiness of marine biology against unnamed critics: looking into the viscera of some sea cucumber or cephalopod, he proclaims, citing Heraclitus, who was caught by distinguished visitors lounging naked on a stove: "Here too dwell gods." In a complementary vein, Nietzsche observes that science first emerges when people are no longer able "to think of the gods well." The Curiosus, a familiar figure of the 17th century, just prior to the emergence of the figure of the scientist, seems to have been the last of the philosophers to see the gods, so to speak, in the particular things of nature.
There is, sixth and finally, the Mandarin. This is a pejorative term, though unlike 'Courtier' it describes an entire class of people rather than exceptional individuals who may emerge from that class. The term comes from the examination system that produced the elite class of bureaucrats in Imperial China, and may be easily extended to the modern French system that produces normaliens, and also with only a bit more stretching to the system of elite education in the Anglo-American sphere out of which the great majority of successful careers in philosophy take shape. Mandarins have a vested interest in maintaining what Thomas Kuhn called 'normal science', and are typically jealous guardians of disciplinary boundaries, wherever these happen to be found in the era of their own professional activity. Like Courtiers, Mandarins often have wealthy benefactors (now corporate rather than royal) and they stay close to centers of power (top schools in philosophy today tend to be found within a short drive or train ride from the world's major metropolitan concentrations of capital). But unlike Courtiers for the most part they are able to pursue their careers more or less as if money were not an issue, and indeed are the ones most quick to denounce the Courtiers for their unseemly conduct.
It is the Mandarins whose fate is most uncertain in the post-university landscape presaged by Coetzee. And yet, as I hope to go some way towards showing in this succinct survey of the different types of philosopher throughout history, it may be that we will be better able to usher philosophy into a very new historical period in a very new and unfamiliar world --where the old insititutions are rapidly transforming beyond recognition, and new ones are taking shape in ways that are nearly impossible to predict-- by resurrecting and breathing new life into old and forgotten ideas about what it is to be a philosopher.