Justin E. H. Smith on six types of philosophers

Smith jacketThe Natural Philosopher, the Sage, the Gadfly, the Ascetic, the Mandarin, and the Courtier. What would the global history of philosophy look like if it were told as a series of job descriptions—ones that might have been used to fill the position of philosopher at different times and places over the past 2,500 years? The Philosopher: A History in Six Types by Justin E. H. Smith does just that, providing a new way of looking at the history of philosophy. Why six types? Are some types superior to others? Recently, Smith took the time to answer these questions and more about his latest book.

This book doesn’t have a conventional structure or approach. In addition to straightforward scholarly exposition, it also contains autobiographical elements, as well as what appear to be fictional excursuses, written from the perspective of invented historical figures who represent different philosophical types. What are the reasons for this experimental approach?

JS: When I began speaking with my editor at Princeton University Press, what intrigued him most were some reflections of mine on the relationship between the activity of a philosopher and the practical need we all have to earn money and pay the bills. I had recently moved to Paris, was having trouble making ends meet with my modest French university salary, and so had begun experimenting with some ‘freelance’ philosophical dialogues with people willing to pay—mostly Anglo tourists who were looking to experience the frisson of sitting in a Parisian café and talking about love and death and stuff just like Sartre and De Beauvoir. So when I began writing, that personal experience served as the point of departure for reflecting on the long history of the problematic relationship between money and philosophy—after all, one of the most common foundation myths of the tradition is that it began when Socrates refused remuneration, thus liberating whatever it is we’re doing qua philosophers from whatever it is the Sophists had been doing. This approach then sort of expanded to other parts of the book: launching into an investigation of some aspect of the definition of philosophy by revealing something about my own personal engagement with it.

As for the fictional elements, I suppose this is just an irrepressible symptom of the sort of writing I’ve come to believe can best get across what I’m trying to do philosophically. I’m with Margaret Cavendish, who explicitly lays out at the beginning of her delirious 1666 novel, Blazing World, how it is that fantasy can be harnessed and utilized for the exploration of philosophical questions in ways for which the faculty of reason alone might be less ideally suited. I faced some resistance to these portions of the book from some readers of drafts. They wanted me to more clearly mark off and explain what I was doing in them, somewhat as Martha Nussbaum does when she introduces a fictional figure in one of her books to guide as through the exposition of arguments that follow. But I didn’t want my characters to serve simply as didactic aides. I wanted rather for the work to be, at least in part, a work of fiction, a product, like Cavendish’s, of the literary imagination.

Is this book philosophy, or is it about philosophy?

JS: I don’t know that there can really be a valid distinction here. By the same token, I’ve never understood what people mean when they talk about ‘metaphilosophy’. We’re all just trying to come to a clearer understanding of the nature of this activity we’re engaged in, in order, in part, to better engage in it. Philosophy is peculiar in that a great deal of effort is expended, by those who profess to practice it, in seeking to determine where its boundaries are, and what falls outside of them. This is a problem sedimentologists, say, don’t have, and one might easily suspect that philosophy is essentially constituted by this activity, that there’s not much left over to do once philosophers have stopped trying to determine what philosophy is not. I think my approach, the transregional and wide-focused historical survey of the very different ways people we think of as philosophers have themselves conceived what they were doing, helps to establish this point: ‘philosophy’ is said in many ways, to paraphrase Aristotle. I’m sure some critics who have some stake in portraying philosophy as essentially thus rather than so, or vice versa, will be quick to say that this book is ‘not philosophy’. But I think I can survive that, and in fact I think they’ll be helping to support my thesis.

Why six types? Is this list exhaustive or arbitrary?

JS: I make it very clear in the book that there has been no transcendental deduction of all possible types of philosopher, or anything like that. My approach is more like the one Kant accused Aristotle of taking in his elaboration of the ten categories: his listing of them continued until he grew tired. I also make clear that what we usually see when we look at actual philosophers is hybrids of two or more of the types, or different dimensions of the types becoming apparent at different moments in their work. The point of thinking in terms of types is to help reveal the degree to which the expectations placed on a person occupying the social role of the philosopher will determine in part the range of questions or problems that philosopher considers worthy of attention. I think of types as social categories, and for this reason certain social circumstances need to obtain in order for a given type of philosopher to make an appearance. Is an amateur observer of the way snails copulate in Central Park in 2015 a philosopher? No, but someone who was doing the same thing in the Jardin des Plantes in 1665 probably was.

You seem to be more sympathetic to some types than to others. Why?

JS: My training as a scholar, and so to speak my spiritual home base, is in the 17th century, which I see as a brief period of tremendous openness, of liberality and of true love of knowledge, inserted in the middle of what has generally been, philosophically speaking, a long, dark history of tedious scholasticism, provincialism, and submission to authority. Not coincidentally, this is also the period in which most of the philosophical action was going on outside of universities.

While I didn’t mean to structure things in this way when I began writing, as it turned out the chapters, each of which focuses on a particular type, move from my most to my least favorite. The first chapter is on what I call the ‘Curiosa’ (or, masculine, ‘Curiosus’), and the fictional personnage is inspired by none other than Margaret Cavendish. She represents the intellectual virtue that I believe is most lacking in university-based philosophy since at least the moment, sometime around the end of the 18th century, when the natural sciences broke off from philosophy and ‘natural philosophy’ ceased to be a vital and central concern of philosophers. My least favorite figure is the Courtier, whose fictional representative is based loosely on Jan Sten, the Soviet philosopher who was called in to tutor Stalin on Hegel and dialectical materialism and whatever other profound things the dictator was having trouble understanding, and who was eventually purged in the Moscow show trials. Serves that groveling worm right, we’re inclined to say at our safe distance, but the truth is many of us are doing something somewhat similar when we bend ourselves to the reigning ideology of market-driven university research, and pretend to ourselves and others that that’s still philosophy.

You draw on many sources that are not traditionally considered philosophy in the narrow sense. What is the purpose of this?

JS: I just don’t know how one could possibly coherently define the corpus of texts that deserve to be included in, as it were, the imaginary library of the history of philosophy. Recently (too recently to be included in the book) I’ve been thinking a great deal about the philosophical problem of the concept of ‘world’, as it developed in the 17th century, and the way in which this development is central for our understanding of the metaphysics of possibility, counterfactuals, one of Kant’s three transcendental Ideas, and so on. I’ve learned a great deal about the history of this concept from the work, in French, of Édouard Mehl. One thing I’ve come to appreciate is that this concept simply cannot be adequately understood without reading early modern novels, particularly the ones we might call ‘proto-science fiction’, such as Cyrano de Bergerac’s Les états et empires de la Lune. Am I supposed to exclude that just because it’s not a treatise? But then I will fail to adequately understand the philosophical problem that interests me, and that would be bad.

Often we are willing to pay attention to things that canonical philosophers say that are, quite frankly, no less fantastical than 17th-century lunar fantasy novels, simply because they are already categorized as canonical philosophers and therefore, we presume, everything they say is of interest. So Leibniz says that every drop of water in a pond is a world full of beings, and that is poetic and wonderful, but is it any more worthy of our attention as philosophers than when, say, Walt Whitman finds that he incorporates “gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss”? Both capture something profound about nature and our place in it. Whitman says it better, in my view, and there’s no reason not to pay attention to it, as philosophers, on the grounds that Whitman didn’t also come up with the principle of sufficient reason or the infinitesimal calculus.

In the end you describe the work as ‘aporetic’? Does this indicate a failure?

JS: No, it’s philosophy’s fault.

Justin E. H. Smith is university professor of the history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Diderot—Paris VII. He is also the author of Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy and Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life (both Princeton). He writes frequently for the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, Cabinet Magazine, and other publications.