Lesson 1. The image of the Philosopher.


    We have all heard of "philosophers". For many of us, they are famous characters one can identify in history as a handful of figures tradition has left us: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius for the Antiquity; Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz for the Modern period; Kant, Hegel or Heidegger for the Contemporary period. For what reason does the general term of "philosopher" apply to these men? It is a little as when you say of A or B that he is "an artist" or "a scientist". It means that they are examples to a greater or lesser extent of a certain ideal type, in the same way that Picasso or Van Gogh can be said to be artists or that Einstein in our eyes embodies  the ideal scientist. We recognize  traits in them we believe to be characteristic of the "philosopher".

    But what does it really mean to be a "philosopher"? Do Plato, Descartes or Spinoza conform to the vague opinion we have of philosophy? Isn’t it rather that they embody philosophy in a lively and personal way? Perhaps these are not the same thing. Why say of Descartes, of Spinoza that they are philosophers?

    In other words: What is a philosopher? To answer this question, we shall have to draw a sort of portrait of the philosopher and see to what extent he is effectively recognised as such. Then we shall have to examine how our idea of the philosopher has changed throughout history.

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A. The figure of Socrates.

    Since we are beginners, it is much easier to start off with concrete examples. We could consider many great figures like Epictetus or Spinoza. We shall choose Socrates because he has often been identified as the father of western philosophy and perhaps as the most accomplished of his kind. In a way, Socrates incarnates a vocation of philosophy which stands out as a model. We can therefore make our question more precise: who was Socrates? In what way can he effectively be said to be a philosopher?

    History and Socrates’ biography yield little information. His father was a sculptor, his mother a midwife. His background was not aristocratic, he was an ordinary citizen of Athens. What extraordinary deed of his made people view him as a philosopher?

    Let’s make a pause. Is it at all pertinent to look for some manner in which he distinguished himself that would have made Socrates a philosopher? We ought to examine the prejudice which consists in thinking that a philosopher is someone distinguished, unlike the rest of us. There is nothing extraordinary about Socrates’ life except in fact his death. You do not become a philosopher like you become a hero through winning a battle in war or a sport’s game. Philosophy is not a manner of distinguishing oneself through some lustrous deed, or of posing; being a philosopher is not something that can be shown in a single exceptional act. We can only be philosophers in ordinary life, in everyday life and not just in exceptional situations or to "show" we are philosophers. In fact, whoever pretends to be a philosopher is he really one? The man who claims to be a philosopher is certainly not one, but only a show-off, a boaster, a pedant, the caricature of a philosopher. This first lesson in humility can be drawn from Socrates’ very simple life.

    Socrates is portrayed as a man who lives in close contact with his fellow citizens. He is not locked up in some ivory tower, he is not a recluse. Socrates does not show contempt, nor does he keep a distance from a crowd he might (yet another prejudice) have looked upon as "ignorant". The philosopher does not "shun" the world. He is not an ascetic or someone "marginal". He lives in the World, assuming the responsibilities of social life and of his own human condition. Philosophy is not a romantic escape into beautiful ideas, far from the World’s contingencies. Socrates lives an ordinary public life, to the point of assuming all his responsibilities when comes his turn to preside the Council of Athens. However, Socrates is different from a politician in one respect: he kept political career at a distance. He does not appear to have been much interested in power. This is a point we could develop as an argument against those who think of the philosopher as only a "committed intellectual". The philosopher as such is not a man of action, a politician concerned with the defence of a political trend, party or ideology. The doctrinaire’s partial attitude in social polemics, the greater weight he tends to give to action rather than thinking, are the very opposite of the philosophical spirit. This does not mean that the philosopher withdraws into himself, nor that he shuns the world and all commitment. Halfway between frantic commitment and chilly withdrawal, there is an essential position we shall come back to: that of a lucid observer of his time or of an impartial witness of reality.

    Physically, Socrates was said to be rather stocky, pug-nosed with a vivid look. His contemporaries tell that he was endowed with an unfailing health that enabled him to skip sleep, while remaining unaltered, unaffected, even in banquets when wine flowed freely. It is told that at one banquet, while everybody had fallen asleep, Socrates rose and went off to spend his day in the usual way. He also appears to have been gifted with a remarkable power of concentration. "…he could behave in a most unusual fashion. On the road, he lagged behind, his look fixed ahead. He could stand in this manner for a whole night. When dawn came, he ‘made a prayer to the sun and walked off’". This capacity for concentration and this constant alertness are related to what we shall call philosophical vigilance. We shall see that there is necessarily in the philosophical attitude a higher state of consciousness than our usual one.


    Yet in what sense does philosophy begin with Socrates? The traditional answer to this question considers Socrates’ very unusual way of using dialogue. Socrates spends his days meandering through Athens conversing with men of all walks of life. This however does not mean that he is merely chatting. In fact, it is when one has understood, along with Socrates and his disciple Plato, what a philosophical conversation is that one begins to perceive the difference between chatting and dialogue. Here the purpose is not tossing words about, talking of this, that and the other to say nothing, filling conversational voids for the sake of it, endlessly repeating the same things. Chatting is a limited form of Speech, a speech that has nothing to say and so little presence that, in reality, it speaks to nobody and pays no attention to what is being said. On the contrary in dialogue attention is livelier. Two elements are essential to dialogue: I am speaking to somebody specific and we have something to say to each other, instead of nothing. Socrates does not chat because very soon he begins to ask questions and press for an answer. The scenario is identical in most of Plato’s dialogues. Socrates encounters Critias (or Charmide etc…), discusses with him and questions him on what he has seen or done. Conversation is then geared on a topic into which it goes deeper. Let’s suppose that on leaving Law Courts we run into a judge. Beyond the purely technical considerations of his trade and conventional platitudes, we might like Socrates want to ask him the following question: "You dispense justice every day, hence you ought to be able to enlighten me on what justice is?" If we ask this question earnestly we expect a more elaborate reply than a mere list of examples: this trial, that famous case. We do not approach the lawyer as journalists. We want to know what justice is, what its essence is independently of this or that particular application of the law. And the same goes for all questions about the essence of something: what is courage, friendship, hatred, death, desire, fear or mediocrity? This is precisely what the people talking to Socrates fail to see in the beginning. They believe they can satisfy what they understand as Socrates’ somewhat naive curiosity with a few common place opinions and facts of all sorts; however to give facts is not the same as giving a rigorous definition, to aim for the essence. Socrates listens, weighs the words, carefully examines and exhibits what is insufficient, contradictory or irrelevant. This scrutiny reveals first of all how shallow most answers, or opinions, are. The interlocutor becomes aware of how empty his opinions are and realises that he believed himself to be knowledgeable while in fact he knows nothing.

    This situation implies, for us who have just undertaken our philosophical journey, that we spend a lot of time talking about essential things without really knowing what we are talking about; we talk about justice, virtue, courage, wisdom, beauty and so on without knowing either, without in fact knowing what Life is. How many years can be spent talking hot air without knowing what we are talking about! Becoming aware of this is certainly no pleasant experience, it is a negative moment of lucidity, yet essential since up to then we were so immersed in opinions that we were not even able to see how ignorant we were. The tragedy of ignorance is precisely that one is not aware of it. The tragedy of ignorance is to yield a life which is dazed from lack of self-knowledge. We find in Socrates’ provocation a brutal awakening which in turns leads to the following acknowledgement: I believed I knew, but in fact I don’t know. I discover now how ignorant I am, and this of life’s most important questions, those that give life all its meaning. This is a necessary stage when one is tied down by prejudice, within the boundaries of one’s knowledge. When a mind acknowledges its limits it is open, while a mind that believes it knows it all is narrow, because it has opinions on everything. The surliest of ignorant men is not the one whose mind is empty, but the one whose mind is weighed down by shallow opinions, second-hand knowledge, cheap commonplace knowledge. He is the very man to endlessly chatter on, yet easily given away once subjected to scrutiny.

    Socrates – and this is original enough to deserve a little attention – does not appear to be a philosopher because he would come up with yet another piece of knowledge, one more pretentious than the others, some esoteric doctrine that would pretend to be the one that explains it all. He is a philosopher because he questions knowledge itself and because he demands justifications. Facing Socrates were the Sophists, those who went from town to town pretending they could teach everything. Socrates is a philosopher in the following peculiar sense: he is aware that he knows nothing. Philosophy begins with not knowing. Socrates explains that what he does not know he does not pretend to know, unlike those who so dearly sell their lessons on everything, on Rhetoric, on Virtue, on Justice. A mind beginning in a void immediately frees its intelligence. It does not rely on hear-saying, it always exacts a justification. It is ready for true understanding. Let’s get the point of Socratic dialogue. The philosopher is not some sort of twisted prattler whose sole purpose is seeking to corner other people. Philosophy is not the art of being eristic. Philosophical discussion is sincere inasmuch as it aims for the truth, borne by an invincible faith in it which is revealed in the course of a rigorous questioning. To loyally accept that one knows nothing is not the same as choosing "nothingness", and pretend that human matters and knowledge are all vain illusions. It is rather to look for the totality of all that is, to comment on what is true of it. In this procedure Socrates appears to admit of no external authority, be it of the opinions or even of the mere reference to authors and well-known authorities. Who cares of people’s opinion, what they can say or even think of me, says Socrates during his trial. Who cares what accusers and their lies purport? Truth alone has authority. Socrates adds that the inner voice, the daimon, did not stop him and that this voice alone has authority. One’s inner conscience is the sole authority, because in matters of truth the mind should only bow to the evidence of reasons.

    On the contrary, the sophistry Socrates is up against follows the fashion of demagogy and does not give truth all its credit. The Rhetoric of the sophists is an art of persuasion which can turn away from truth, since what matters is that the rhetor gets it his way. Rhetoric enables the rhetor to speak from the level of pathos, of spontaneous feeling, since the result he wants is power, a hold on his audience. The rhetor construes his argument in view to rule. Sophists know that language has its magic, that there is a score to gain from elegant wording, if only you know how to go about it cleverly. From the beginning onwards of the Apology of Socrates, Socrates refuses to use language in this way and he explains that his has no pretty phrases to offer, that he does not know how to use language to move the audience like the Sophists do, that he will limit himself to telling the truth with the first simple words occurring to him. It is not by chance that this is the topic of the opening pages of the Apology. This is a topic we shall be finding throughout the history of philosophy, because it deals with our relation to language here and now. It is remarkable that, while ancient thinking was so prolific, Socrates came up with no doctrine of his own. He does not oppose one doctrine to another. He teaches philosophy as a mere exercise in lucidity, unadorned and without presuppositions. Socrates notices that the Greek City is crumbling, the corrupt behaviour stirred, it would seem, by sophistry itself. He admits that facing such a problem, the knowledge of his time, Anaxagoras’ philosophy of Nature, has no solution to offer. Accumulating this sort of knowledge does not construe inner man. It has nothing to offer when what is at stake is the well-being of man and the City. So what is to be done?

    All that remains is a free quest, one able to deal with error at the root, and the concern to place the soul face to face with itself and thereby give it back its desire for Truth. Summed up very briefly this holds in one formula: Know thyself! This is the starting point of Socratic philosophy. This because knowledge is not ultimately to be found in books, but within ourselves, in the soul. Truth is the intimacy of the mind. Socrates’ teaching is not so much concerned with filling the mind with new ideas as to have it give birth of the truth it contains already. As Socrates awakens the disciple, he does not learn, he understands, he wakes up and discovers what, in fact, he had always conjectured. He gains a truth which previously existed in him only as hazy opinions. The example of Socrates shows us that the Truth, rather than being a mere piece of knowledge that one "learns" in books, is to be found in the soul of the disciple discovering it. It is within us and is only waiting to show itself in the course of a correctly conducted investigation. Socrates presents himself as a midwife like his mother, but unlike the latter he assists the birth of a mind, he practices maieutics, the art of assisting minds in giving birth to the truth they carry within themselves. Awoken by Socrates the person justifiably called the disciple does not learn anything external to him; rather he experiences a kind of reminiscence of a truth that was always within him, but in a latent form. He un-covers what he had always known deep down, but that had remained covered; he wakes up from the torpor of his ignorance. Such is the authentic experience of understanding, such is the Awakening of intelligence.


B. The Philosophical Disposition

    So much for this portrait. Let’s consider now what can be learnt from this example. The philosopher appears to be an independent man, moved by a personal and sincere quest for truth. This concern for truth is so far-reaching that Socrates is ready to die from respect for truth, not out of fanaticism but rather from probity. What this shows us is that the philosopher is inseparable from Philosophy. One can not totally separate a philosophy and its fruits in the life of the philosopher. It would be contradictory to think of Philosophy as a sort of removable skill with no effect on life.

    1) One does not expect of the scientist that he live according to the quantum theory or the set theory, neo-darwinism or Weber’s sociology. Competence in one area of knowledge does not by the way preclude a dark and difficult life. One cannot ask of science that it come up with a wisdom which is not really its object. There is on the one hand the objectivity of theories and on the other individual subjectivity. It is not the purpose of science to establish a link between subjectivity and objectivity. Physics is not wisdom, it is not even philosophy. It is a knowledge founded on objectivity. As a man, the physicist can have a certain vision of life, an art of living; yet this vision, precisely because it is subjective, pertains more to philosophy than to pure science. A philosophy necessarily has a bearing on real life. A philosophy that would not be lived, that would only be objective knowledge would not even be a philosophy. Authentic philosophical knowledge always reflects a personality: without this, it would be dogmatic.

    What much pertains to the philosophical attitude is this personal manner in which we think of Life as a totality of which we never feel separate. One could say that one aim of philosophical thinking is an endeavour of Life to comprehend itself, a manner of Life to understand itself in us as soon as we become aware of its scope and meaning. We would be shocked by a philosopher saying one thing and doing another! And so it should be because this in itself would pose a philosophical problem. One expects a minimum of consistency from a philosopher, since his concern is the strict application of knowledge to living. In this we can remark that the philosopher is close to the artist, since we do connect art with life. When someone’s behaviour, dress or bohemian life style is slightly eccentric one says "he is an artist". We feel it is natural that one can be an artist with life as one can with a piece of paper, a block of marble or a partition.

    2) Thus it seems that one can speak of a philosophical disposition, a kind of tendency to a global comprehension of life, specifically exercised by those we call philosophers, and latent in the rest of us. It is a style or a twist of mind if you like, as long as one keeps in mind the one crucial thing which makes a man a philosopher: the concern for truth. It is in this sense that we would say that the philosopher is a man of Thought, because Truth is the very object of philosophy.

    In the writings of Epictetus we find some descriptions of this philosophical disposition. Epictetus keeps repeating: "do not call yourself a philosopher, do not speak abundantly in front of laymen of the principles of philosophy; but act according to these principles. For example in a banquet, do not tell people how they ought to eat, but eat as one ought to." "Calling oneself a philosopher" pertains to the realm of appearance, "acting according to philosophical principles" pertains to that of being. If you want to be a philosopher, then be what you are, a lucid intelligence in keeping with reality. He whose vocation is Thinking is a philosopher. We can say, and Heraclites strongly emphasizes this point, that the philosopher stands out, but not in the sense that he would be in some way or other superior or condescending. It is not enough for him go with the flow, he wants to follow the best path or, as Alain says, he makes being a man his profession. To go with the flow means here that it is enough to be alive, without worrying about living a good life. The distinction between a life and a good life is a philosophical one, one specific to the character of each philosopher.

    This implies a certain loneliness, since thinking takes a distance from opinion, and a vivid sense of seeking, an unending journey towards truth and authenticity. Philosophy does not end, it is always on the move. It demands an intelligence which is quick and always awake. He who never has enough of the mystery of Nature and of reality’s puzzling complexity is a philosopher, a philosopher too he who seeks to understand and does not lose his way. Someone who pretends to know it all or who pretends his present knowledge is sufficient is a mind already asleep in stupidity.

    2) This makes him lose a very great quality, that of astonishment, of wonder. When a mind is imbued with itself, it gets dull and loses the capacity to wonder at what is, to taste the freshness ever new at every moment. He who keeps this rare ability of amazement, he for whom nothing is trivial or insignificant is a philosopher. In wondering the mind’s interest is always renewed, it is open and free of presumptuousness. For sure the philosophical attitude does not pretend to have the "seriousness" of those so absorbed by worldly matters that they pay attention to nothing other than their activity. Yet seriousness is nothing other than the attention one gives to something.

    Plato writes: "Wonder is the passion of the true philosopher. Philosophy has no other beginning, and he who said that Iris was the daughter of wonder knew something of its origin." This is the positive starting point of philosophy. Wonder is the ability to remove the veil of ready-made representations that stand between ourselves and reality, to be moved to the core by the presence of all that is. If we dare to look at ourselves with sufficient honesty we shall see the extent to which our daily life is often tainted by the confusion we create through our short-sighted concerns and narrow ideas. We so focus on the world around us that this world never amazes us. Its only meaning is one of immediate usefulness to us. In itself it has no Meaning (see text by Aristotle).

    And then one sometimes pretends that the philosopher’s temperament is that of a dreamer! What a simplistic prejudice! Who is dreaming? Who is beholding the world with both seriousness and lucidity? Who is concerned with what the world might really be? One wants us to believe that only active people are "realistic". We shall have to examine this "reality" they keep harping on about. Sure, we have to keep our feet on the ground, but what do you call "the ground"? What is this reality you stand on? How should we look upon the concrete reality of practical people?

    Let’s be clear: the philosopher is not a sweet dreamer lost in his fantasy world. On the contrary we define philosophy as a form of lucidity which is above the alertness of daily life. In addition, Reality is not confined to satisfying material needs, to earning good money, to pleasure and leisure and life’s myriad of unfulfilled desires.

    3) One can identify a negative beginning to Philosophy as one becomes aware of the extremely relative nature of opinions on reality. Just have a look a round at all the quibbling going on over contrary opinions, one man defending one standpoint, the other man the opposite one. Conflicts stem from unilateral views, from the clash of opinions all believed to be the last word and one with truth. We need to detach ourselves from an opinion in order to judge it from above, and put back each statement in its due place in the whole of Reality. One task of philosophy is to serve as a tool for correct discrimination. Epictetus thus sums up this task: "here is a starting point for Philosophy: being aware of the dispute that divides men between one another, looking for the origin of this dispute, the rejection of mere opinion and defying it, a kind of critique of the opinion to decide if one is right to hold it, inventing a norm in the same way as one established the scales to determine weight, or the line to distinguish straight from bent." This is all the more important as the world is subjected to a plethora of information. "Information in excess drowns us in a cloud of unknowledge". One is like dazed by the hypnotic bombardment of television, and left bereft of judgement, dumbfounded by the swell of images. Afterwards, one often only repeats what one believes one has understood. This leads to confusion and a confuse mind cannot be intelligent. It is a mind which thinks it knows, but which in reality knows nothing. And here is the essential question: can one emerge from confusion? Is it possible to live a life borne by the need to understand? Is not the thirst for knowledge the distinctive mark of humanity? He who could not care less about it is he not just content with sleeping his life away? As long as there is a concern for truth, there is humanity and there is also an interest which takes us head on into the field of philosophy.

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    These are the elements of the philosophical nature and the conditions that create the need for philosophy and this amazing freedom of thought that it represents. Freedom of thought finds its expression in an exemplary manner in those men we call philosophers. Every time that a human being takes this vocation to think seriously, to the extent even of devoting his life to it, we refer to him as a philosopher.

    There are two erroneous conceptions of the philosopher we must avoid. The philosopher is neither the activist the media sometimes make him out to be, nor should we see in him a mere teacher of philosophy, someone limited to humbly imparting the knowledge and exactions of philosophy. He is not just an expert, a philosophical erudite, a philologist.

    In fact, there is a certain twist of mind characteristic of the philosopher as a lover of wisdom and which confers the philosophical calibre to he who has the courage to assume it. We become philosophers ourselves whenever we ask the fundamental questions and genuinely demand they be answered. One becomes a philosopher when one loves the truth.

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                                    dialogue : questions and answers

  Home         © Philosophy and spirituality, 2003, Serge Carfantan. Translated by Catarina Lamm