It’s been contested on occasion, to myself at least, that spending the majority of one’s time learning to think the thoughts of obscure German philosophers makes one think in a way unintelligible to normal people – or even worse, might distort one’s moral character beyond recognition. While I don’t think this is right, it’s not impossible to see how the idea might arise. For this reason, it seems like a topic worthy of some consideration.
Philosophers often debate the question “What is Philosophy?”, but this accusation demands asking a slightly different question, “What is a Philosopher?”. A Philosopher is one who does Philosophy is a possible response, one which tries to include the question “What is a Philosopher” inside the question “What is Philosophy?” – this would make the philosopher simply the activity of Philosophy enacted, a simple correlate to the activity itself. Like many “answers” in Philosophy, this isn’t incorrect, but it rides on an uneasy presupposition – the idea that bringing something into activity is the simple part of a question, and the difficult question concerns the activity itself. In other words, it demands we concentrate on the abstract and, and supposes the concrete will clearly play itself out. But is not this exactly the kind of emphasis on abstraction which might cause the Philosopher to be perceived as monstrous, as ‘other’, as unrecognizable to the everyday person?
So, I ask again, “What is a Philosopher?”. We could give another answer, “The Philosopher is the one who practices Philosophy” – ah, but what is a practice? Does the Philosopher practice philosophy as the dentist practices dentistry, as the architect practices architecture? The analogy appears apt – isn’t a philosopher one who is paid to “do” philosophy, what is the difference in a capitalist economy, after all, between the “practice” of philosophy as teaching and research, and the “practice” of dentistry as caring for patients? Both produce a result, both are considered socially valuable in varying degrees, both are a service provided in exchange for a fee. Both are highly skilled services, requiring years of training. So, is a Philosopher like a dentist?
If a Philosopher were like a dentist, we might reasonably look to how the employment of being a dentist might affect the worldview and moral character of the person who becomes a dentist. For one, dentistry school is quite expensive, so the dentist will likely become pre-occupied with money to pay back his loans, and subsequently might get used the high level of income. Having more money than others, this might effect how he seems him or herself in society, and how he or she perceives others. Also, a dentist must put people in painful situations, day after day – he or she might begin to think in an extremely logical way about pain, might become better than others at recognizing how much pain people are in, how to minimize that pain, how to weigh the benefits and costs of more pain-suppressants against their side effects, etc…
Having outlined possible effects of a dentistry practice on a dentist, might we think similarly about a Philosopher? A Philosopher reads strange books, day after day. Sometimes a philosopher will consider his real friends to be all dead, because no one alive excites him as dead book writers. Might the philosopher then not become alienated from the existing world, since it pales in comparison to his philosophical one? Also, if his world is all words and reasons, might the everyday moral world we live in be replaced by a world of strange words and concepts, which exist only in the heads of philosophers, which they project and expect other people to understand as well, at least in meaning if not in name.
If Philosophy were like dentistry, then this would be a convincing condemnation of anything but the most contemporary and scientifically/socially informed contemporary philosophy. But, Philosophy is not like dentistry, it is not like other academic disciplines. Why? Because all other disciplines have a specific subject matter, and for this reason are an external practice, a techne, like cabinet making. The dentist finds his subject matter in the teeth-bearing people. The historian finds his subject matter in historical events considered as causal sequences. The architect finds his subject matter in his buildings. All these subject matters stand outside of the intellectual worker. Since the thing being worked on is external, these workers require monetary compensation.
Philosophy, if it is not simply another form of knowledge-work, is distinguished by the fact that in Philosophy, the thing worked on is the Philosopher himself. Certainly, a philosopher writes books and articles, contributes to discussions, and teaches students. But what is the most proper activity of Philosophy? Why thinking! And what is the purpose of thinking? Thinking finds no purpose outside of itself – a philosopher philosophizes in order to think, in order to further enable thought. A philosopher might hide his best work away for centuries if he believes that will foster the most essential thought.
But wait, on the one hand, I’ve said that the Philosopher works on himself, and on the other hand, I’ve said the philosopher works on thinking. But, is thinking something external to the Philosopher? Is it not external when someone else is doing it? Isn’t thinking like every other activity, like running for instance? If a runner wishes to foster running in others, that fostering does not foster something in himself (or does so only by a secondary effect), but fosters the running in others. If Philosophizing were like running, then thinking would be an activity which belongs to the philosopher who is thinking. But can we not think the same thought as someone else? If any comprehension is possible in any aspect of life, it is possible, to some extent, to share thoughts.
If any communication is possible at all, then thinking does not belong to us like running does. Thinking is not “indexical”. Rather, my thinking belongs to me, but not exclusively. When I think, I think a thought which is thinkable by anyone. So, does foster thinking simply mean to tell others our thoughts, “Penny for your thoughts”? No, because a thought is not a being, it is not like a tomato. But, what is a thought? Sometimes Greek can clarify questions of this sort – in Greek, a thought is a noema, which means an intellectual grasp, a having-a-hold on something in thought. It co-responds (answers-at-at-the-same-time-as) the nomematon, the “thing represented”, the thing which the noema has a hold on. If a thought is this having-a-hold on a being, then it is fundamentally distinct from beings themselves (noemata, the represented, the objects) – it differs from them by having an inclination towards them, which they have towards it, but not towards each other. The inclination is the direction, the movement, of reference, or of signification. The thought “signifies” the object by pointing it out.
But, if the Philosopher is simply the one who thinks, and we define thinking thusly, does not everyone think? Is not everyone a Philosopher? In certain sense, of course everyone is a philosophy, everyone loves sophia. Sophia is just the knowledge of those things whose principles don’t change, those things which endure, which stay the same – and we all love this knowledge. Even if we don’t do science ourselves, we love its results, which means we love what sophia gives us (knowledge of those things which present themselves to us in a stable fashion) – this stability enables all science, and by extension, all modern conveniences.
But we have arrived at a strange conclusion – the Philosopher is the one who seeks the knowledge of those things which don’t change, we call that knowledge science – so does that not mean the true philosophers are the Scientists? Ah, but I’ve made an error – I’ve confused “love” with “desire”. Desire, in the sense of wanting more and more of something, is the relation Scientists bear towards “facts”, but Scientists do not love facts in the sense of wanting to tarry alongside them. This means that while Scientists preserve our resevoir of thoughts concerning those things that don’t change (of course, any physical process is a description of change, but the process itself doesn’t change, or if it does we understand that only based on another formula which expresses the meta-stability of the change with a knowledge of principles that doesn’t change), that Scientists do not “think” these thoughts in the same way Philosophers think.
So, what do Philosophers do? I’ve attempted to clarify what a thought is, and that a Philosopher is one who thinks rather than collects thoughts. But what is thinking? Thinking is an activity, it is something I do, but it does not belong to me (like running), because it can be passed on (otherwise, why teach or write?). The philosophical thinking is that thinking which thinks thoughts in a free manner. But have I not just added another term, and insulted the Scientists by calling them “unfree”? What I mean by freedom is that, for the Philosopher, the task is to think the inner potency of a thought – to think the same thought as others means to experience the same potency of the thought, it does not mean anything like “coming to the same conclusions” as others.
But what do I mean by the “potency” of a thought? It should be relatively easy to convince anyone that thoughts are potent in our world today – we live in a world where ideas have given us power (the gasoline engine), have given us power over nature (evolution), have given us power over people (psychology, propaganda), and have given us power over ourselves – both individually and together (drugs, democracy, participatory politics). But these might all be understood as material implications of thoughts – a thought is powerful insofar as it ‘changes the world’ – in this sense, are any philosophical ideas potent at all? Why does a Philosopher insist that Nietzsche’s thought of “Will to Power” is the most potent thought? How many washing machines has it built?
Philosophy is called “abstract”, and rightly so. But it is crucial to understand what “abstraction” means. In one sense, abstraction means to generalize, to make simple, to leave out the particulars. I can abstract from all the particulars of a basket of apples and say “there are five apples here”. In this sense, abstraction is required for all communication – because we never communicate the absolute particularity of the world, we communicate it only abstractly, through estimations, or through poetic allusions. But abstraction also means that which I don’t yet understand, that which I can’t get a handle on. The thought is “too abstract” is a complaint often leveled against philosophers. But this is not an accident – which we can see by relating the two thoughts, abstraction as condition for any possible comprehension, and abstraction as non-comprehension, that the Philosopher is the one who tries to comprehend in the highest sense, and for this reason is everywhere dismissed as too abstract.
The philosopher, traditionally, thinks the thought of Being – what does it mean that something is? What “is” Being? Being is everywhere, everything that is is in Being. Even things that aren’t, i.e. unicorns, seem to exist in some sense because we call talk about them and understand each other. Being is the most abstract thought, it tries to grasp everything in terms of one idea, “Being”. To call something a “being” does not set it off from any other beings – at most, Being is set off against the nothing. But the “nothing” is also a being, also has being, in a certain sense, if we can refer to “it”, does it not? When I say something “is not”, I do so only on the basis that things exist – so while the no-thing might not subsist itself, it not-subsists only on teh basis of the subsistence of other things. Non-being relies on being for its non-being.
If Philosophy thinks the most abstract thought, the most universal thought, is it not trying to comprehend the world in the highest sense, to think the highest thought in Sophia? To think the world as a whole in its stability? But for what do we need this thought – and besides, isn’t this what String theory tries to do? What is the need for Philosophy?
But, the purpose of this essay is not to determine that there is a social need for Philosophy, not to determine what Philosophy is, but to determine what the Philosopher is, and what moral/civic implications becoming a philosopher might have on one’s own being. We have determined that the Philosopher is the one who thinks, and since thinking is not an activity with an external end, there is no need to compensate the Philosopher as one must compensate the dentist (although, the Philosopher must live, if he wishes to philosophize). (This is not meant to prove Philosophers should not be paid, but rather that Philosophers do not become Philosophers because it pays better than some other employment). We have determined that thinking is having a grip on things, and is thus distinct from a being – again, a difference between the subject-matter of philosophy and the subject matter of all other disciplines. Thirdly, we have attempted to get a hold on what thought the Philosopher thinks, considered in its potency and its universality. But, what are the implications of this on the philosopher him or herself?
We might say, the Philosopher is much more likely to be affected by his or her profession than the dentist, because the thing being worked-on is him or herself, rather than an external thing. However, does this not mean the Philosopher is more cognizant of its effects? But, this is meaningless if we do not determine what these effects are. The content of the thought of Philosophy – the abstract thought – is where we should go next. It might be contended that because philosophy thinks the most abstract thought that the philosopher will learn to hate particulars, to be unconcerned with everyday life, with particular human problems – he will be “blind to the world”. But is this not a silly way of understanding abstraction? We know already that all communication requires abstraction, but the philosopher studies abstraction itself, as such, in studying the most abstract thought, in thinking the hardest thought abstract itself is thought. But does this not mean the philosopher will be the most cognizant of what we are doing all the time, of abstracting, and therefore conscious of the benefits and costs of abstraction. Will not the philosopher be more conscious of the way everyone is thinking all the time, because he is forced to think about thinking itself? How could this bring the philosopher farther away from everyday life – would it not rather torment him by making everyday life thinking comprehensible as one modality of thinking?
We assume, and sometimes rightly so, that the abstraction of the thought of the philosopher brings him away from the world, towards crystalline castles in the sky. However, the very same thought can bring the philosopher ever closer to where we already are – since all thinking is “building castles in the sky” – all thinking posits ideals, universals, none of which are appropriate to this world. Nietzsche said nihilism means “the uppermost values devalue themselves”. Nietzsche also said, “for us, being is a value”. What does this mean? This is the thought only a philosopher, or philosophically minded person, can think – and it is the kind of thought which can bring us closer to where we already are, because it thinks where we are as where we happen to be – it thinks what we do as what we happen to do. We should expect that anyone could do this, in the same sense that we expect that anyone could do partical physics – given the dedication and training, and time devoted to the study, anyone could participate in this thought. It is a mistake, I think, to believe that philosophical thinking is somehow any more immediately comprehensible than thinking in abstract math, poetry, or modern art – all these fields, like philosophy, require years of specialized training. Of course, some things in any of these fields can be immediately communicated, and others cannot – why would it not be the same for philosophy?
Philosophy sees what is necessary for us, and in its disclosure as necessary, shows up as contingent. Philosophy reveals what we do, in the most abstract universal sense, and by formulating what we do as a proposition, immediately, unintentionally even, begets the thought that we might do things differently – it plants the seed of revolution wherever absolute hegemony is found. Revolution, here, is meant in the literal sense of “turning-around”, Philosophical thinking allows us to turn-around from where we are, and see it as where we are, rather than just being-where-we-are, as we are – initially and for the most part unconsciously.
The question initially posed remains – so far we have clarified what the Philosopher is in his activity – an activity which is thinking, which is a certain form of questioning. We have differentiated the Philosopher from the dentist by noticing that the subject of his or her practice, for the philosopher, is inside oneself (thinking as such), and not external (people with teeth). We have made preliminary remarks concerning the self-reconnaissance this might grant the philosopher, but we have still said nothing about whether the Philosopher will be able to have friends?
If we try to answer the question empirically, we see some philosophers are solitary and some have many friends. We see some who thrived in intellectual communities, and others who lacked compadres, forced by circumstance to work alone in huts. One thing we always see, however, is that Philosophers share the highest friendships with other philosophers, or with people they dialogue with Philosophically. We can see in Heidegger’s letters to his wife that his love for her was strengthened by her understanding of this philosophy – which can’t be accorded to specific training or genius on her part, but patience and persistence on his part to communicate his essential questions. Interestingly, it seems from these letters, that Heidegger’s wife understood his thought quite a lot better than Arendt, even though Arendt was a philosopher in her own Right, and Heidegger’s love for her (Arendt) certainly made him wish she could understand him.
What this small biographical matter indicates to me is that the communication of difficult thoughts to another does not require that the other has extensive training – but that patience and empathetic clarity can overcome great chasms, like the one between Heidegger and his wife in matters of philosophical reflection.
This can certainly not stand as an empirical “proof” that Philosophers can speak philosophically with their friends – because one instance does not a rule make, and because my interpretation of the letters could be considered contentious – and most of the letters are not even published. But the letters do seem to suggest hope, hope that difficult thoughts are not incommunicable when love is present.
But, what can this philosophical marriage tell us about friends? The analogy suggests that empathetic communication enables philosophers to communicate philosophically with non-specialists. But what about everything else, can a philosopher stop philosophizing? If a philosopher interprets every situation philosophically, will he not drive his friends batty? Is not the “philosophical interpretation” of a situation often at-odds with the everyday interpretation of it?
These concerns are real – any specialized training will make the world show up in a certain way to the one trained – but unlike other trainings, which concern a specific subject matter, philosophy concerns “being itself”, the most universal thought – and as such, nothing lies outside its subject matter. This is why philosophers have opinions on Science, Ethics, Politics, moral matters, Art, Food, religion, culture, planning, etc… This would be fine – doesn’t this simply mean a philosopher is a Renaissance man? But, in every case, the philosophers view concerning the issue, will (likely) be informed by an entire stream of thinking which is absent, or present only unconsciously, in others. So, a philosopher thinks he is always trying to make explicit what other people think implicitly about issues, or, think rationally what other people think irrationally concerning these issues. This means in many cases, the Philosopher’s view will appear as a radical over-turning not only of other people views, but of the grounds of the questions on which those beliefs are formed as responses. Many of their positions, in other words, will be not a critique but a meta-critique of other positions. It’s no surprise, therefore, that their positions will look unintelligible to those unwilling or unable (due to lack of clarity on the part of the philosopher) to grapple with the meta-critique. Any of these positions of meta-critique could in principle be empathetically clarified by the philosopher and understood by others, but the work required in time both on the side of the philosopher and the readers is not trivial – and often, especially in certain kinds of online communication, people are in general not willing to deal with any position which is not immediately comprehensible. The fact they might be more willing to deal with the non-immediately comprehensible if it was coming from an expert scientist speaks to certain biases in our culture, but is relatively beside the point here.
So, can a philosopher have friends? This depends on the philosopher, and on the friends. I’ve tried to clarify some reasons why a philosopher might have much difficulty engaging in conversation with non-philosophers, and these problems are probably fatal if they happen continuously. So, how could they not be fatal? Probably a mixed approach is neccesary. On the one hand, the philosopher must be cognizant that his or her approach to questions makes their positions relatively unintelligible to others – which means they should be offered with as much background as is feasibly possible, but it also means in many cases they must accept not being understood, and in some cases, it might be better to say nothing at all rather than be misunderstood. The friends of a philosopher, if they wish to be his or her friends, need to be alright with not having everything said to them be immediately comprehensible – in other words, they need also to be sensitive to the difficulty someone who thinks at the most abstract level will have communicating his or her views. If they want to be friends to whom the philosopher does speak philosophically to, they also need to communicate why they mis-understand a certain position, and not simply that they do not understand it – at least concerning those issues that interest them. Generally speaking, they should also recognize how that the alienation they feel when speaking to the philosopher-friend is not unrelated to the alienation that philosopher likely feels most every moment of their lives.
Above all, Philosophy should not be understood as “neutral” – understanding is not neutral. Both because the understanding could be profoundly wrong, and have disastrous political consequence, i.e. “Those who think great thoughts risk great errors” – Heidegger on his political involvement with the Nazis. But is it a risk we can do without? Thinking is always risky because open thinking, thinking where nothing is closed off in advance, could lead anywhere – which means it could lead to particularly horrible places. But, thinking which closes those places off in advance is no longer free thought, an initial stifflying of thought’s potency. One aspect of this risk is political, and another is social – and it’s the social risk of Philosophy – “Can a philosopher have friends?” – that I’ve tried to elucidate here.