I often feel strangely disturbed when I hear the word ‘philosopher’. We know these creatures exist, but I have never been able to clearly identify them.
Maybe this is why they can appear in anyone’s face. If ‘philosophia’ means loving wisdom, then we can assume that everyone philosophizes.
But of course it is not just that. If you enter a good library, there will be rows of books under the classification ‘philosophy’. They are usually thick—without pictures—and difficult to read. If we glance through them, we find that philosophy is not merely the expression of love of wisdom, but also a justification. With philosophy, people justify and explain to others and to themselves what wisdom is, what truth is, and how we know them, through what means, and why all of this is important.
Abstruse, yes. I tries to read Deleuze and Guatarrai’s book Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? in its English version, What is Philosophy? After digesting it over a few months, I think I understood only 25 percent of it. Maybe this is why philosophers are so respected—with amusing effects: someone can be called a philosopher just because they mention the name of some trendy thinker and utter an obscure phrase.
But that is how it is: philosophy cannot be simple; matters of ‘love’ and ‘truth’ are indeed not easy.
But actually anyone who questions life can wrestle with philosophy, including those who never attend academic lectures. Philosophy is not a specialized field. There are no ‘experts’ of philosophy—but indeed, it is no easy path of exploration.
So there was a time when philosophy was arrogant, becoming metaphysics that claimed itself to be the ‘mother of all the sciences’. And there was also a time when people were proud to be called ‘philosophers’—thousands of years after this label was introduced and philosophia became a human ‘activity’.
It was not only the Ancient Greeks who knew this ‘activity’, of course. But it received the right milieu, environment and atmosphere in that part of the world. As Deleuze and Guatarri say, Greek cities were places where contest and alliance were social relationships that shaped a plan d’immanence—there was no voice from on high, there was no authority other than what emerged from that plateau—where questions and opinions were free and unobstructed.
Maybe this is why Plato could write such interesting Socratic dialogue: a ‘dramatization’ of conflicting opinions brought to life. There, one opinion could stand as the equal of another; they could move, change, enter a new scene, within dialectics, within rhetoric.
And words became important. Plato was facing a time when rhetoric was a sign of superiority. It saddened him, and according to him Plato too, to see clever people bandying words around at every opportunity, but actually not building any knowledge. To Socrates, as he told Gorgias, rhetoric merely sways people and flatters them into believing rather than teaching what is right and wrong.
But that was the time when Ancient Greece was changing—maybe like our times. Arete, or excellence, was no longer measured by courage in warfare or nobility of spirit; excellence measured by wealth and success persuaded (and shaped) followers in society. Plato, an aristocrat, tried to go against that tide. He saw that philosophers like him who emphasized the exchange of ideas in dialectics, differed from the ‘sophists’ like Gorgias who, he thought, merely stressed rhetoric.
But not everyone saw that difference when eventually what rose to prominence was virulent verbal abuse—or ruse and deception.
This was when Aristophanes wrote his comedy Nephelai, The Clouds. In the play, Socrates is depicted as the director of a school for wastrels and layabouts who need rehabilitation. One of the new students is Strepsiades, a father who wants to become skilled in rhetoric so that he can win in debate with his creditors. At the end of the story, his son Pheidippides agrees to enter the school—and indeed he does change. But he does not help his father, instead he shows, through argument, that he has the right to beat his father.
Words are too powerful and intoxicating—and in the end the philosopher, who praises rationality, is indistinguishable from the sophist who merely bewitches the public.
And not only in the time of Socrates.
Maybe this is why I am often disturbed when I hear the word ‘philosopher’.