What is a philosopher?

In an already widely-discussed post on a new NYTimes blog called “The Stone,” Simon Critchley answers the question, “What is a Philosopher?” He refers to some of Socrates’ statements in Plato’s Theatetus to explain that philosophers are, unlike those who must spend their time arguing cases in courts, men [always men for Plato, and still frequently men today] who can and do pull away from the affairs of the present day and place and take the time to think otherworldly thoughts:

“Socrates says that those in the constant press of business, like lawyers, policy-makers, mortgage brokers and hedge fund managers, become ”bent and stunted” and they are compelled “to do crooked things.” … The philosopher, by contrast, is free by virtue of his or her otherworldliness, by their capacity to fall into wells and appear silly [like the story of Thales].”
“Socrates adds that the philosopher neither sees nor hears the so-called unwritten laws of the city, that is, the mores and conventions that govern public life. The philosopher shows no respect for rank and inherited privilege and is unaware of anyone’s high or low birth. It also does not occur to the philosopher to join a political club or a private party. As Socrates concludes, the philosopher’s body alone dwells within the city’s walls. In thought, they are elsewhere.”

There are some very thought-provoking commentaries on various blogs already, including this one by Jean Kazez, which rightly points out that this romantic view of the philosopher doesn’t adequately describe many philosophers today who are active in the social and political realm and use their philosophical work to facilitate change therein. Here is another commentator who does exactly that, and who provides an important criticism of this entrenched, problematic view of the philosopher: see Robin’s post on Critchley’s column at her “it’s her factory” blog. There is also an ongoing debate happening at the Feminist Philosophers blog. See also another post on this topic at the Feminist Philosopher’s blog.

What is the problem with this quaint and well-worn picture of the philosopher? After all, Critchley points out that by separating himself from his social and political surroundings, the philosopher becomes dangerous, and thus potentially a revolutionary figure:

“Because of their laughable otherworldliness and lack of respect for social convention, rank and privilege, philosophers refuse to honor the old gods and this makes them politically suspicious, even dangerous.”

The philosopher, under this view, can stand above the usual conventions and criticize them, endangering himself in the process for the sake of what is right. At least that is what Socrates himself is often portrayed as doing. But Critchley doesn’t emphasize the role of the philosopher in instigating social change. Instead, he points out that “PHILOSOPHY KILLS,” meaning not that it kills aspects of the social and political context that should be altered or eliminated, but that it kills the philosopher (e.g., Socrates) who goes against the social grain. Critchley (rightly) bemoans the various ways philosophers have been subject to various forms of silencing, but he de-emphasizes the role of the philosopher as someone who is in a good position to do something that shows him/her to actually be dangerous. If pulling away from our time and place in the present is to serve any purpose other than allowing us the leisure time to enjoy our deep thoughts amongst ourselves, then it needs to be used to engage in critique of the here and now in order to promote needed changes. If we are going to appear dangerous, that should be because we are.