WHO IS A PHILOSOPHER?
D. R. Khashaba
Who is a philosopher? Or better: What is a philosopher? The 'Who' question can be answered in the silly manner of Hippias when Socrates asks him: "What is beauty?" and he answers: "A beautiful girl is beauty." The question looks deceptively simple. To appreciate to what profound depths it can draw us we have only to consider that the core of the greatest philosophy book ever written, Plato's Republic, was no more than an attempt to answer that question. (See Plato: An Interpretation, 2005, Ch.VII, "The Argument of the Republic".) Somewhere in Let Us Philosophize, 1998, 2008, I have said that the whole body of a philosopher's work is that particular philosopher's answer to the question: What is philosophy?
On a naïve plane we may say that we have two different classes that claim the title "philosopher". In the first class a philosopher is one who has studied the works of the great thinkers of the past and who may teach the gist of those works in a school or a university. Properly we should say that she or he has studied the history of philosophy and teaches the history of philosophy.
In the second class a philosopher is one who has been haunted by the questions that have irked human beings about the nature and meaning and purpose of the world and of life ever since they acquired the faculty of reflective thinking. She or he has then searched within her or his own soul (mind) for answers to those questions. When a person thinks that she or he has found the answer to the question that person is no longer a philosopher or that question was not a properly philosophical question in the first place. A philosophical question can never be answered but can only be and should only be endlessly explored. That endless exploration is the proper life of the soul (mind). Voltaire's dictum, Aimer et penser: c'est la véritable vie des esprits,
is just but to understand it properly we have to realize that 'aimer' and 'penser' are one thing for a truly living soul (mind).
In the present state of things, members of the second class are rarely found in academic circles. They are mostly independent philosophers. They may or may not write books or essays that are commonly classified as works of philosophy. They may express the outflow of their inner explorations in poetry or fiction or in music. Those are the fortunate ones and they are the ones that constantly enrich human culture and help humans preserve their humanity. The less fortunate – truly unfortunate – ones that can only express themselves in the language of abstract conceptual thinking live and die unrecognized. The fruits of their explorations are not allowed to reach the mainstream of human culture.
I am reading one of the most insightful works of the twentieth century, Lewis Mumford's The Condition of Man. I pick up this sentence from the Introduction: "We must capture once more the sense of what it is to be a man: we must fashion a fresh way of life, which will give to every man a new value and meaning in his daily activities." What has the whole of our present academic philosophy, the whole body of our analytical philosophy, to contribute to this task that is still desperately needed? Nothing, absolutely nothing.
I began this essay in a reflective mood. I ended in a mood of barely suppressed anger. Let me give my anger vent. There is no greater killer of true philosophy than academic philosophy and there is no greater enemy of independent philosophy than the peer-review system of philosophical journals.
Sixth-October City, Egypt,
3rd January, 2014.