The Work Of Philosophy
(from Meditation On Being A Philosopher)
by Alice Koller
You would not have turned to look at Socrates. In the portrait sculptures that have come down to us, he is short and balding, not fat but not lean and muscular either. His nose is broad and snub, upturned as though sniffing out those who do not know what they claim to know. His woolen cloak, the himation, drapes over his right forearm, leaving bare that shoulder and half his chest. The usual undergarment that Athenian men wore folded around the body, girdled at the waist, and pinned at the shoulders, the chiton, is absent in these statues. Poorer citizens, Socrates plainly among them, do not wear it.
He was my teacher.
Almost only through Plato do we know Socrates. Aristophanes wrote of him, mocking him in his comedies but in a loving way, since they were good friends for years afterward. Xenophon, as young as Plato but a military man, was first a country man. To him, the city-dweller Socrates said, “I never learned anything important in the country.” And Aristotle, born more than a decade after Socrates died, was a student of Plato’s for twenty years. These are our only written sources. Which of these educated and worldly men, all of whom loved Socrates, gives us the real Socrates?
Plato was two generations younger, but he had known Socrates as a familiar guest in the households of his own distinguished family for as long as he could remember, had listened to him, honored and loved him. He was not present at Socrates’ death, grieving too deeply to attend the dreadful drinking of the poison that the Athenian tribunal had decreed. Within a few years, however, he described those final hours in the Phaedo, placing us even now, twenty-five hundred years later, in the living presence of the man whose idea of what philosophy is is permanently inscribed in civilized minds.
Plato founded his Academy in 387 B.C., a catch-as-catch-can institution by twenty-first-century standards. Legally registered at Athens as a thiasos, originally meaning “a religious guild,” but by then understood as a school of philosophy, the Academy educated statesmen and other professional men who, for nine centuries thereafter, flocked to it from all of Europe, and from the Orient as well, until A.D. 529, when the emperor Justinian disestablished it. The Letters of Plato contain passages begging for money to support his institution, using ploys familiar to anyone who has no reliable source of income but who knows that what he, what she, promises in the way of educating others in philosophy deserves to be adequately funded. Athenian law permitted convicted citizens to propose to their judges an alternative sentence to the one that the person’s accusers had proposed. I in my poverty and also a philosopher know that Socrates spoke only partly in jest when, in accordance with that law, he proposed his alternative to the death sentence that his accusers had already placed before the court: free maintenance at Athenian expense. He deserved being supported from the public treasury, he said, because only such an arrangement could compensate a poor man who benefits his fellow citizens by giving them moral encouragement, a duty that requires leisure. The judges, well knowing that Athenians occasionally honored an Olympic victor that way, were outraged.
Plato too was my teacher.
And Aristotle, born fifteen years after Socrates’ death, entering Plato’s Academy at age 18. Fourteen years after Plato died, Aristotle founded the Lyceum, also registered as a thiasos.
We know Aristotle’s work too only at second hand: his extant works are notes that devoted students made of his lectures as he delivered them, but primarily they are notes he prepared in advance, speaking from them, or made soon afterward, during the twelve or thirteen years he headed his own school. Plato twice, and Aristotle once, escaped death at the hands of kings who, decades apart, had invited these philosophers to their courts to teach them philosophy.
You are perhaps beginning to understand that being a philosopher is a dangerous way to live one’s life. Not merely for consorting with kings (Descartes, with a queen) whose power was absolute, so that no class of nobles, no constitution, no parliament, no congress, stood against them, even in nominal check. Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish community of Amsterdam, one of the few refuges for Jews at a time when they were persecuted throughout Europe. The text of the Anathema, the official Orthodox curse the rabbis read out to Spinoza in front of the Amsterdam congregation as the first step in banishing him, curses the air he breathes, the limbs and members and organs of his body, the food he eats, and all other persons his gaze falls upon, nor does it omit cursing the smallest kindness that anyone might in the future freely offer him. Although he had not concealed his divergence from Jewish orthodoxy, he thereafter openly pursued his own thinking, but his physical safety depended upon his leaving the city. He was 24.
A long line of men, and at least one woman, suffered for being philosophers. Hypatia was torn apart by having her limbs tied to four chariots, each of which was then driven off north, east, south, and west. That happened early in the fifth century in Alexandria, once Egypt’s great center of Hellenistic culture but by then only a weak challenger to Constantinople’s dominance of the Eastern Roman Empire.
The public rage against philosophers isn’t simply a matter of ancient history. Bertrand Russell was jailed at age 92 for inciting civil disobedience. That was only fifty years ago, and in enlightened England.
What is there about philosophers that brings torture, banishment, prison, untimely death, poverty, upon us? None of these ills is confined to philosophers, of course. History overflows with narratives of human beings inflicting harm on other human beings in wars, regicides, usurpations of thrones, crusades. Not too long ago, history was considered to be identical with narratives of such harmings. Nevertheless, although philosophy is universally acknowledged to be one of the towering achievements of the human intellect, the history of philosophy is remarkable for the number of its practitioners who suffered for no reason other than that they did this very special kind of work.
What is this work for which brilliant thinkers whom we now deeply honor were feared and hated during their lives? Something about doing philosophy—philosophers talk about it as something we do, an activity—distinguishes it from every other kind of work. It is not one of the sciences, neither physical, biological, nor social. It is not one of the professions: medicine or law. It most certainly is not religion, nor is it history of any kind whatever (although it has a history). It is not mathematics (although the two fields are unquestionably abstract, each in its own way). It is not among the arts (although some of the arts are activities, albeit physical ones; and others of the arts make things, albeit physical things). The kind of activity that philosophy is is not physical, and, although the outcome of that activity is a made thing of a special kind, the thing that philosophers make is not physical either.
If something is unique, by definition there is no other thing with which it can be compared. If philosophy is like no other work, if philosophers cannot tell you what it is like, how can we tell you what it is?
I can tell you with certainty two things that philosophy is not. First, it is not the holding of specific beliefs. Religious people are paradigms for having been martyred because they devised new beliefs or interpreted traditional beliefs in new ways, or even because they were thought to have done either of these things. By contrast, philosophers can be Anglican or agnostic, Democrat or Socialist, royalist or republican, independently of what we do as philosophers.
It is not our specific beliefs about religion or politics or health care or any other matter that distinguishes philosophers from people whose activities are not the activity that is philosophy.
Second, philosophy is most certainly not a set of facts to be memorized. Oh, it’s a fact that Plato wrote the Protagoras, and that Kant believed there are synthetic a priori propositions. But these and similar facts constitute the history of philosophy. Philosophers do of course know the history of philosophy, which in the West spans two thousand six hundred years, but we know it as philosophers. Someone can be an historian of philosophy, can know who said or wrote what, when, where, and in response to whom, or in anticipation of whom, without thereby knowing how to do philosophy. Why anyone undertook to do philosophy at all may remain beyond that scholar’s understanding unless he or she learns how to ask a whole new set of questions. This is why philosophy baffles whoever begins to study it. You can’t open a philosophy book and read it the way you’d read a book about High Renaissance Italian art, or, least of all, the way you’d read autobiography, a memoir, or a novel.
I’m pointing out only that philosophy is not religion and that it’s not history. So if you carry around these or any of the other inaccurate ideas that people hold about philosophy but can set them aside from time to time, you may (I can’t promise) learn what philosophy truly is.
I’m also repeating that philosophy is not like anything else. Niels Bohr, who with Ernest Rutherford first proposed the quantum nature of the atom, which since antiquity had been believed to be indivisible, knew that only the distinctive notations of mathematics and physics can accurately “describe” atoms. And so, when physicists talk to nonphysicists about atoms, he wrote, they can’t use language the way all of us do in our daily lives but only as poets do: physicists have to “resort to metaphors” to try to express their understanding of physics. I’m going beyond what Bohr says: I’m saying that even metaphor can’t be used to say what philosophy is. But then, Bohr was a scientist, and philosophy isn’t science either.
So I can neither tell you what philosophy is like, nor what philosophy is. In fact, I cannot tell you at all. But I can show you. In fact, I can only show you, because what philosophy is cannot be said. Professors of philosophy show what philosophy is in their classrooms every day: university catalogues call it “teaching philosophy.” But there are crucial differences between how we can show students in a classroom, and how I must show you, a reader.
Teaching at a university gives me sustained time with students. We meet for several hours a week during the months of a semester or a quarter. They and I are in one another’s living presence, whether in class or privately during my office hours. Even in these places, however, students learn only by indirection rather than by being told or by memorizing. And a very long time can pass before they first begin to understand. Here, you and I are together only through the words that appear on these pages.
The official authority of my academic position lets me assign certain passages for students to read by next Tuesday, and it gives me the final say on their grades. But readers can toss my book aside at any moment and never return to it. Any authority I may possess with a reader can arise only if the words I write speak so directly to you that you keep reading the next word and the next until you come to the end.
Being unable to say what I do as a philosopher, and being unable to show you even by the
indirection that a classroom nourishes, I had to find or invent another kind of showing. No one else has yet relied on writing a book to establish contact with students unless those students had already experienced at first hand a philosopher’s living intervention and guidance. I have set myself the task of establishing that contact with readers: showing in writing the activity that philosophy is.
“Wait,” my fellow philosophers will say, “Plato showed in writing the activity that philosophy is.” But only philosophers recognize the full extent to which the Platonic dialogues are philosophy, and most of us needed long and close study before we understood that. Nonphilosophers reading Plato do little more than repeat metaphors that Socrates used, or they consider as authoritative some intermediate conclusion he posits during the reasoning. But philosophers can’t be authorities: authorities have full bodies of knowledge at their fingertips, while philosophers don’t know anything. (We are, however, skilled in doing
something.) So I have set myself a formidable task: to show what Plato showed, but to do so in an entirely different way.
To contrast what Plato was doing with what I’m doing in this book, I first point out that Plato had two distinct audiences. One consisted of certain citizens of Athens, Cyrene, Syracuse, Megara, and other city-states (there was no “Greece” then), who gathered around Plato when he founded his Academy in 387 B.C. By then, Plato had formulated the daring purpose of educating men in the “disinterested pursuit of truth for its own sake,” a pursuit that classical Athens permitted only men to undertake.
To Plato, only such an education could adequately prepare citizens to legislate judiciously for the city-state and to fairly administer it. Plato reached this understanding of what his work was to be only after he had written the “dramatic” dialogues, before the age of forty. At the Academy, therefore, as the astute Plato scholar A.E. Taylor writes, “The teaching given to Plato’s personal associates depended for its due appreciation on the actual contact of mind with mind within the school and was therefore not committed to writing at all” (Taylor 1952, 10). Taylor here clearly asserts that when Plato was genuinely teaching philosophy, he relied on “the actual contact of mind with mind,” rather than “committing [what and how he was teaching] to writing at all”: philosophy cannot be written about but only shown.
For his other audience—chronologically his first audience—Plato needed a special contrivance to bring vividly before his readers the living presence and the living thought of Socrates. Within a very short time after the Athenians had put Socrates to death, Plato began casting about for a form that would perfectly suit that purpose. In Syracuse, on the island we know today as Sicily, Plato observed the performances of Sophron, an actor who excited audiences by his miming, an art he thoroughly transformed. According to W.K.C. Guthrie, the distinguished Plato scholar, Plato so admired Sophron’s work that he introduced him to Athens (Guthrie 1969, 332). Athenians of the fifth century B.C. didn’t consider mime to be worthy of the serious attention they gave to tragedy and comedy, but Sophron’s version of it soon elevated it to the status of literature. Sophron’s innovations included a conversational style (unlike the silence of mime today) and realistic settings for his performances, both of which
of course characterize the early and “middle” Platonic dialogues, all of which he wrote during the twenty years following the death of Socrates.
Taylor says that Plato’s “desire for dramatic life and color” led him to avoid the method of reported dialogue and to return to the direct dialogue that typified his great dramatic dialogues—Republic, Phaedo, Apology, and Symposium: those written before he founded the Academy. Taylor quotes John Burnet, another major Plato scholar writing some years before either Taylor or Guthrie, as spelling out what Burnet called “the formula of the reported dialogue: ‘Antiphon told us that Pythodorus said that Parmenides said' " (Taylor 1952, 19). By the time Plato, aged 60 or so, wrote the Thaeatetus (about 368 B.C.), he was ready to give up the “tediousness” of reported dialogue. He had not thought it tedious until then, but twenty years of teaching serious and able students had intervened, and his superb taste drew him toward a more austere style. After the Thaeatetus, Plato wrote the dialogues with all the participants speaking directly to one another, as in his very early dialogues written during the decade following Socrates’ death and before he founded the Academy.
What conclusion can we draw from considering these distinct ways that Plato used (invented, really) for reaching his distinct audiences?
From reading Plato, people can indeed come to understand what philosophy is. They can, provided that living instructors guide them, that they possess an unremitting desire to understand—a desire that itself demands unrelenting honesty—and that they’re willing to rely ultimately on their own judgment. Plato did not intend his written dialogues to achieve such a purpose but only that they should, as Taylor says, “appeal to the ‘educated’ at large and interest them in philosophy.” Here Plato and I are perfectly in step: that very audience came to me through my other books, even though most of those readers, including my publishers and almost every bookstore, did not realize that it was philosophy that drew them.
But on the written page alone, without the living presence of a guide in the “mind-to-mind contact,” only some arresting device that brings “dramatic life and color” can (if anything can) let me show what philosophy is. So Plato and I diverge in that I’m using writing to do what he believed could be done only when one or more minds are in the presence of at least one other mind more deeply expert than they who guides the intellectually candid and deliberate search to learn what is true by exploring one’s own or another’s thinking (including trying to understand what it is for anything at all to be true).
Plato and I also diverge in this: his success has lain open to the world these twenty-five hundred years, but the only success that I now dare hope for is that I’m able to finish writing this book. Thereafter, not enough time may be left for me to discover whether a publisher who understands it will bring it out, and, if so, whether anyone else reads and understands it as I intend it to be understood.
Guthrie, W.K.C. 1969. A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 3: The Fifth-Century Enlightenment.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Taylor, A.E. 1952. Plato: The Man and His Work. New York: Humanities Press.
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© Alice Koller 2012