Sunday, May 17, 2009

On Being (And Not Being) A "Philosopher"

There's a debate ensuing over on The Leiter Report (which, for all intents and purposes, serves as the internet bulletin board and agora for professional philosophers) over whether or not the pensive-looking woman to your left, Hannah Arendt, is a "philosopher." The question that started the debate, posed by Jason Stanley, is articulated in his short post entitled Who is a philosopher?. Stanley describes the problem with identifying philosophers thus:

Many academics use the term "philosopher" not as a description of the people working on the set of problems that occupy our time, but rather as a certain kind of honorific. As far as I can tell, on this usage, a philosopher is someone who constructs some kind of admirable general theory about a discipline - be it cultural criticism, history, literature, or politics. So while it would be odd for a philosopher to call themselves a literary critic because they work on interpretation, it is not unusual for English professors to describe themselves as philosophers. In contrast, we philosophers do not regard the term "philosopher" as an honorific. We tend to think that there are many people who are really truly philosophers, but are pretty bad at what they do. We also think that there are many brilliant thinkers who are not philosophers. This difference in usage has ruined many a dinner party for me.

In order to illustrate this distinction between "honorific" philosophers and "real" philosophers, Stanley cites an interview with Hannah Arendt. Before getting to what Arendt actually said on the matter, I should note that Arendt is widely considered a philosopher. Her work (which includes several "major" texts of the 20th C., including The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, Eichmann in Jerusalem, and the ever-so-philosophically-titled The Life of the Mind) are all regularly taught in philosophy courses, and many a philosophy dissertation has been written on Arendt. So, Arendt is a far cry from other folks that we might think of as being somewhat suspiciously labeled "philosophers." But as it turns out, Arendt herself excepted herself from the set of proper "philosophers" in this interview (in German, sorry). Stanley writes:

The interviewer asks Arendt what she thinks about being a woman in the traditionally male circle of philosophers. Arendt is bemused by the question - she protests that she does not belong to the circle of philosophers, and in no way feels herself to be a philosopher. Her "job" is political theory. She points out that just because she studied philosophy, that doesn't mean that she stayed with it. Arendt obviously doesn't think she is a worse thinker for not being a philosopher. She is just baffled that the interviewer confuses the kind of qualitative political and cultural theory Arendt built her career around with philosophy. Arendt knew enough traditional philosophy to understand the contours of the discipline; it might prevent some misunderstanding if our fellow humanists did as well.

It was quite a surprise for me to learn that Arendt didn't consider herself a "philosopher"... even more so that her decision was a consequence of this bizarre separation of "philosophy" from "political theory." I'm actually sympathetic with Stanley's concern as he originally stated it, namely, the tendency to use "philosopher" as some sort of vague honorific. But I find the distinction that he (and Arendt) wants to make between political theory and philosophy very strange. Is Hobbes a philosopher? or Machiavelli? or Montesquieu? The questions of political theory, in my mind, are entirely consonant with archetypical philosophical questions: what is the nature of the human being? what is the best way to organize human communities? how can we achieve the sorts of institutions and practices that we consider prerequisites for "the good life"? what is justice? what are rights? what, if anything, do we owe one another?

Now, I'm willing to concede that there are a battery of ways to address these questions that are not, properly speaking, "philosophical." For example, the largely quantitative work that political scientists do (as opposed to political theorists) isn't, in my view, philosophical work, even though much of that work does address the same issues and problems as the work of political theorists. And I also think that (sometimes, though not all the time) there is a real difference between the kind of political theory that one finds being done by people in political science departments and the political theory done by people in philosophy departments. I'm not sure that I have a litmus test for telling the difference, but my main point here is that it seems terribly prejudicial and largely inaccurate to categorically proscribe the inclusion of political theorists in the more general category of philosophers.

So, what is the prejudice that motivates this proscription? I suspect that it may be a peculiarly 20th C. prejudice, a result of the "split" between Continental/European philosophy and Analytic/Anglo-American philosophy. My suspicion is that what Stanley (and perhaps Arendt) really think is that real philosophy is the work typically done by "analytic" philosophers-- metaphysics, epistemology, and logic, mostly. That is, "philosophical" work is "analytical" work; it's not interpretive or hermeneutic work, it's not speculative or prescriptive work, and it's not historical or political or scientific work. By those measures, I would likely have to excuse myself from the set of putative philosophers as well, which I am disinclined to do. Perhaps that's because (despite its frequent misuse) I am inclined to think that "philosopher" does have some legitimate use as an honorific, inasmuch as it is meant to describe a person who is a lover of wisdom, who frames his or her problems/questions/theories in the broadest possible context of what we know and seek to know, who hearkens back to the days before disciplinary specialization, when philosophy was the grand synoptic discipline, the "science of sciences." Certainly, that sense of what philosophy is would include lots of people who work outside of philosophy departments, and would likely exclude lots of people who work in them.

So, all due respect to Arendt, I don't think I'm going to just take her word on this one. Not any more than I'm going to (simply) take the word of Nietzsche when he calls himself a psychologist, or Kierkegaard when he calls himself a poet... or, for that matter, Socrates when he calls himself an ignorant gadfly.


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I wonder how much of her disavowal of the label "philosopher" depends on her having studied with Heidegger who (at least on an orthodox account of his views) restricts philosophy to metaphysics... Even on this narrow construal of "philosophy", exactly what Arendt's theory of the construction of the social or the vita activa in the Human Condition other than philosophy isn't clear.

emma b. said...

One of the most ridiculous things about current professional philosophy is the level of anxiety about what philosophy is and isn't. When I first went to graduate school I got all torn up in knots about it, organized a conference and edited a collection addressing the issue. Now I realize I couldn't care a fig about the question of who's "in" and who's "out." I'm for a broad church (or "big tent" as they say in this country) and wish that our discipline would transmute into a homebase for the theoretical humanities, for the "meta" stuff writ large. As it stands, the siege mentality threatens to make the discipline less and less relevant... rats in a maze riddled with anxieties of belonging...

A girl can dream...

anotherpanacea said...

This reminds me of the joke about Chican@ identity: they didn't cross the border, the border crossed them!