Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Speaking Philosophy

In COMM 149, Rhetoric and Public Life, my students and I start with a discussion of the relationship (borrowing somewhat from Robert Pirsig: the "war") between philosophy and rhetoric. I typically begin by noting there are as many definitions for rhetoric as there are rhetoricians. For that reason I was intrigued by Simon Critchley's NYT piece, What is a philosopher?, which starts the same way.

Soon afterward Critchley defines his topic pretty much the same way most folks start when discussing philosophy:
"As Alfred North Whitehead said, philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato... What is a philosopher, then? The answer is clear: a laughing stock, an absent-minded buffoon, the butt of countless jokes from Aristophanes' 'The Clouds' to Mel Brooks’s 'History of the World, part one' … But as always with Plato, things are not necessarily as they first appear…"
Thereafter, Critchley distinguishes philosophers from lawyers, the former composed of people who savor time to think, the latter filled by those who measure time [I can't help but add that, once again, sophists are positioned as mere counterpoints to the truer forms]. More broadly, while the lawyer is judged by the rules of the city, the philosopher ignores the city's rules: "the philosopher’s body alone dwells within the city's walls. In thought, they are elsewhere." On the subject of the body, though, Critchley adds that a philosopher's life is not so ethereal as to be free from harm. Socrates [as Plato described him] knew that truth all too well. And so have many other free thinkers who have chosen to eschew social conventions.

Critchley concludes on a positive note by reminding us that petty people, the types obsessed with social rank and worldly pleasures, become perplexed, nearly speechless, when asked to tackle thorny questions of truth and justice, the philosopher's intellectual home. But I'm not so sure I share his optimism. Reading about the apparently successful efforts of Texas Board of Education hacks seeking to trump the expertise of those children of philosophers - historians, sociologists, and economists - with religio-ideological drivel [NYT], I fear that intellectuals are increasingly the ones who stutter, while those who barbarously yawp seem ever more outspoken in their desire to build and unbuild the city of words.

Read the entire piece: What is a philosopher?

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