I do my work in cafes. I am of the tribe of lone Mac toting, slow sippers, who ‘hot desk’ for the price of a double espresso. Amidst this tribe of authors, playwrights, English students, designers, entrepreneurs, aspiring or otherwise, I work, I think, I write. The hot young baristas serve me with friendly familiarity, yet with no suspicion of what I do.
I am a philosopher.
I tend to keep this to myself. There is a great deal of misapprehension about what that means — to be a philosopher. It can really kill a conversation, especially at parties, when a philosopher can no longer evade the question ‘so, what do you do?’ If eyes do not automatically glaze over, or the subject fails to be immediately changed, you risk the earnest: ‘Ahh, cool. So what’s your philosophy? Is it like Deepak Chopra’s, I think I’ve read something by him?’
‘Um…no. That’s spirituality.’
‘Oh, so what do you believe in then?’
‘Sorry, that’s theology.’
‘Well, are you some kind of psychoanalyst?’
Once you have patiently gone via most of academia and beyond, you ask your questioner ‘so what’s your favourite movie/band/colour?’ and both of you get on with the evening.
If you are lucky (or particularly unlucky) you will get those who apparently know a thing or two about philosophy. Especially, the well-meaning scientist and/or just one of the millions who own an unread copy of A Short History of the Universe and/or have watched a Brian Cox documentary. They just want to teach you the error of your ways, declaring: ‘Philosophy is DEAD.’
Instead of ‘DEAD,’ the more subtle may describe it in various shades for faeces. Smiling politely throughout, this corrective barrage will only cease once — as a philosopher — you confess to being dedicated to the masturbatory. Of course I have had fulfilling, interesting, stimulating conversations about philosophy with non-philosophers of all descriptions, even at parties. Nevertheless, the overriding feeling is that being a philosopher is pointless academic folly. Parroting many eminent scientists, one predominant way to express this is to claim science is ultimately the answer to everything.
This is an interesting claim: ‘Science is the answer to everything.’ And its corollary ‘Philosophy is dead.’ An interesting philosophical claim. Yes, a philosophical claim. Well, it cannot be a scientific one. Science cannot prove it. No experiment can demonstrate it, nor can it be derived from some equation. It is not a scientific fact. It is a philosophical position. One entrenched in about 300 years of philosophical discourse. Unfortunately, well-meaning scientists at parties everywhere, once you make such a declaration you are doing philosophy. Actually there are some very eminent philosophers who could help you refine your arguments.
The confusion may lie in the fact that philosophy has been largely rarefied into ‘academic philosophy’ only to be practiced in the darkest corners of universities. Notwithstanding this, at its heart contemporary philosophy is still deeply concerned with the fundamental questions:
What is there?
What can I know?
What do I feel?
How ought I act?
Ancient philosophy expressed these questions singularly as ‘how to live?’ The enigmatic Oracle of Delphi posed the answer ‘know thyself’. Since Socrates, the enduring puzzle has been to work out what this could even mean, and how can we get from that question to this answer. Scientific method and its defence is (only) one of the longstanding attempts to work this out.
Still, you may not be convinced that this question requires a distinct field of study with dedicated institutions and practitioners. Surely, everyone is working out how to live simply by being alive! I agree — we are all philosophers. But, like everything, not everyone is equally skilled or well-trained; as some party-going scientists demonstrate, often, we are not even aware when we are doing philosophy. To address this, maybe philosophers should be less evasive at parties, but also, a more considered response would help. Let these conversations live. In fact philosophy started out mostly as conversations at Athenian symposiums, that is, ancient Greek drinking parties. Yes, parties.
To be a philosopher takes effort, dedication, training, and practise. In the course of this Blog, I shall explore the practice of being a philosopher. It is my aim to converse with you on the value and need to be good philosophers, and how philosophy touches your everyday every day. Most significantly, I am going to concentrate on philosophical practice, rather than, philosophical ideas, emphasising form over content.
I definitely consider it a privilege to be a full-time philosopher — to be dedicated to contemplating and critically engaging with these questions — but it is mistaken to think it to be a complete folly, a decline into masturbation. (Though, like every field we philosophers are not immune to this sort of behaviour.) Fittingly, some of the greatest philosophy came out of conversations in eighteenth-century English coffee houses. So it is apt that this, my opening conversation, is being composed in a cafe. Make mine an espresso…
Next time: Know thyself?