What a philosopher is not

Three brief encounters: 1) Concerning my work in philosophy, I was recently asked if I learned about “meditation and that kind of thing”. 2) If this confusion over what philosophy is to those outside the university should seem surprising, consider the fact that the column in the NY Times devoted to exposing the public to philosophy is called “The Stone”. 3) A seller on Amazon (GRACEANDPROVISIONS) advertises a used copy of a technical book on modality with the “warning” that the book “contains false doctrine and will come with a free truthful Bible tract” (in caps). Interestingly, on casual perusal, no other book in this seller’s catalogue (including The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche and The Chinese Way in Religion) is accompanied by this comment.

While an explanation of the last of these oddities would be apposite (and much appreciated), the philosopher’s onus cannot be explanation if for no other reason than that explanation presupposes criteria of understanding that are either unavailable for those to whom it would apply or are those that in this case would require the very explanation of what is not understood. History has shown beyond redemption that the price for justification is the very existence of philosophy. The philosopher is not the defender of reason (since those for whom such defense is necessary are those from whom it is) nor its advocate (what would be gained from convincing the faithful that philosophy contains no “doctrine”)?

There are many ways to renounce the philosophical imperative. Among the most perilous—yet the most naïve—of these reproduces the activity of philosophy as a leisure (schole): a bourgeois endeavor for young people who have nothing better to do or for the disenchanted and socially awkward. The onus of the philosopher is not to explain what philosophy is but to advance what philosophy can do. The only philosophy to survive the present barbarism shall be that which refuses to believe that this—the melancholy, solicitude, and enjoyment of experience—is sufficient.


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