The Philosopher: A History in Six Types, by Justin E. H. Smith

A study probing the state of a discipline raises the alarm on scholars selling out, says Martin Cohen

June 30, 2016
Review: The Philosopher, Justin Smith, Princeton University Press

What’s the use of another book talking about “what philosophy is”? As Justin Smith himself admits, there’s something odd and uniquely philosophical about this navel-gazing. OK, his publishers have someone at the European University Institute in Florence to say that this book is doing an important job revising the “Eurocentric” view of the subject. But while that would indeed be a nice thing, it hasn’t advanced very far here. Instead, we have a very leisurely ramble though six different notions of what philosophy is, all of which assume that it is the kind of thing studied in Western universities – but shouldn’t be. Because today, Smith thinks, to be a “philosopher” is to be attached to a philosophy department. Alas, the institutions are the same: “they function to produce people who embody the cultural values of the state through their mastery of certain approved expressions of culture, particularly in the arts, philosophy and literature”.

That this is very true can be seen by the way that people such as Roger Scruton receive extra respect within the subject precisely because they subscribe to all the trappings: fine wines, old farmhouses, fox hunting. Scruton at least acknowledges his elitism; others gravitate towards opera and Chateau Posh, and to Kant and Hegel, without being quite sure why. The hierarchies, philosophical and aesthetic, are set not by philosophers but by convention, and enforced by bureaucracies.

How arbitrary the approach is can be seen by noting that one of Descartes’ key proofs for the certainty of our knowledge of God’s existence – the one about every mountain necessarily coming with a valley – is, well, nonsense. Plenty of mountains appear, such as Kilimanjaro, from out of a vast, flat plain without ceasing to be mountains. Smith is surely right to recommend critical reading of the great works. Even if, still on the topic of necessary existence, he complains that Descartes neglected the possibility that he might one day encounter a non-existent God – an argument that seems incoherent.

Philosophy has thus become whatever it is that philosophers do: something derivative. And all are pushed towards an absurd, arbitrary canon of great thinkers. Smith rightly notes that no one reads even a fraction of the great texts; instead everyone assumes someone else has, and picks up one or two. Yet this “orthodoxy of close reading”, this culture of narrow specialisation, also entails a shutting-out of the vast range of ideas, of alternative viewpoints.

Smith compares today’s professors with J. M. Coetzee’s tale of philosophers under the Soviet regime. For both, “real philosophy” is driven underground by official edict, and only a few subversive types dare create alternative forums “out of hours” for their students. Yet in Eastern Europe surely it would have been the pantheon again?

Today’s philosophers, Smith concludes, will betray everything for a job in a university – offering as his example of venality “business ethics” classes. That’s a poor choice, as the bulk of his book is arguing that mainstream philosophy is the problem – the formulaic proofs of logic, the standard texts – and that true philosophy lies at the boundaries. His big idea – that philosophy is defined by those who, like Nietzsche and perhaps Leibniz, insist on standing outside it – is left hanging.

Martin Cohen is editor of The Philosopher and author, most recently, of Paradigm Shift (2015).

The Philosopher: A History in Six Types
By Justin E. H. Smith
Princeton University Press, 288pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780691163277 and 9781400880577 (e-book)
Published 22 June 2016


Print headline: Thoughts that stick in the mind

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Reader's comments (2)

"Philosophy has thus become whatever it is that philosophers do." Similar to "Musical compositions have thus become whatever it is that composers of music write."
Nope. I appreciate you want to reduce Smith's point to a tautology, but it is more like 'great music' has become whatever is popular on YouTube. The thing about 'real' philosophy is that it is applied to something - from social justice to fine art or whatever. The people in universities who study the study of philosophy are not doing philosophy in the required sense.