Spy Philosophy

Defining philosophy is difficult and controversial, not least because it claims the privilege of determining its own rules.

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Defining philosophy is difficult and controversial, not least because it claims the privilege of determining its own rules. An indirect approach of comparing it to other activities, to seek parallels and analogies might therefore help. We might consider the philosopher in different roles – as joker, as actor and – in this article – as spy.

I might be suspected of, uselessly, trying to explain what I know by what I don’t. After all I am not, and have never been an actor, standup comedian or spy. However while the image of philosophy is elusive those of the activities I have mentioned are clear-cut and fairly noncontroversial. Furthermore, once I focus my mind on their images I detect traces of acting, joking and spying in my philosophic pursuits.

Without first hand knowledge of spying and conceding that fiction often distorts reality, we can agree on two defining characteristics. Firstly, spying seeks knowledge which is not only hidden but secret. In other words there are not only obstacles to knowing, but these obstacles are there by design. A library search is not spying even if the material sought is hidden in badly catalogued archives.

The other defining characteristic of spying is the use of subterfuge such as disguising one’s identity or aim. This covers beside spying ‘proper’ industrial espionage and even the case of sociologists, psychologists or anthropologists posing as innocent visitors, fellow employees etc., but excludes spinsters alleged to be spying on their neighbours. There is no disguise and little subterfuge. We know who is watching and may see the curtain twitch, nor is what is observed invariably secret. The curious watcher may merely learns that the new neighbour is rich or tends to get home late.

However, before we can fruitfully consider in which way philosophers are like spies we need to explore further what is involved in being a spy. We must note first that spying, though the professional occupation of a small minority of specialists reflects universal human interests and propensities. This is evidenced by the enormous popularity of spy thrillers and the interest aroused by books and newspaper articles about actual spying.

The desire to learn what is hidden, to become party to a secret is virtually universal and already very evident in children. It inspires gossiping, solving crossword puzzles and other kinds of puzzles, reading ‘inside stories’ or accounts of scandals. It also provides the impulse for scientific research. More complex and intriguing is the problem of accounting for disguise, of wearing, as it were, a mask, entering seriously into a contrived role, living a lie.

Moralists and philosophers through the ages – recently, existentialists in particular – have preached the importance of “being oneself” or “being true to oneself”. Does this undermine the point I am trying to make? I certainly do not wish to challenge the ideal put forward or the fact that it has enjoyed such widespread support. But then why should it be necessary to stress that we should be or become, what in a trivial sense we inevitably are, unless there were temptations and pressures in the opposite direction?

We can distinguish between the very obvious reasons for philosophers to use disguise from more profound reasons they share with the rest of mankind. The reasons why philosophers might be shy about their profession are not far to seek. They have frequently been persecuted. Socrates was put to death, Plato had to extricate himself from Syracuse; Descartes left his native country for the freer climate of Holland. Spinoza was excommunicated by his own community and did not dare to publish his main work in his lifetime. In totalitarian countries this persecution continues to this day but in the rest of the world we are less likely to be physically threatened. Instead we tend to be despised, marginalised and considered useless. Among the victims of university cuts philosophy departments and philosophy teachers have been prominent.

So there has been a general retreat from the proud and confident self-assertion of philosophers such as Plato or Hegel. Locke described himself as an under-labourer and his activity as picking up pebbles on the beach. Others sought shelter under the authority of science, claiming either to be scientists or serving them. More recently it has become fashionable for them to pose as lexicographers or grammarians. As language is both important for and characteristic of human beings it appears useful and respectable to pose as guardians of language, clarifying concepts, pointing to misuses and tracing intellectual worries to linguistic confusions. We can then claim to be respectable academic specialists who are no danger to society, not the gadflies which Socrates thought it proper for philosophers to be. We can claim a right to making a modest living by performing a limited and skilled task outside the layman’s range.

However, to explain the philosophers impersonations simply as responses to the layman’s mistrust and the malice of authority would trivialise the issue, because there is a more general human tendency towards acting, roleplaying and dressing up. One of its functions (particularly obvious in children) is exploration. By projecting ourselves into different roles we extend our imaginative grasp.

Adapted from philosophynow.

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This was an article on Philosophy.

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25 Comments


  1. philosophers : use disguise and perform other modest duties

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  2. MIP: role of spy = universal interests; philosophers disguise b/c persecuted –> still happens today

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  3. Philosophers should act as spy to prevent marginalization or prosection

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  4. MIP: spying reflects human interests, philosophers are like spys to avoid persecution and disguise/act to extend imagination.

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  5. Discuss how philosophers are similar to spies
    Persecution
    Disguises

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  6. spy, philosopher = disguise/hidden

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  7. MI: To compare philosophy to other activities such as spying on order to define philosophy with one of its function in exploration

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  8. Despite the fact that many philosophers have succumbed to the tyranny of academia that does not approve the true value of philosophy, philosophy must strive to fulfill its true destined role via exploration against its odds.

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  9. author respects philosophers
    philosophers taken many forms. disguise themselves.
    backthen, to avoid from persecution. now, to avoid from mistrust from laymen.
    they take roles as grammaticians these days.
    but real reason for impersonating is to explore different roles.

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  10. spying seeks knowledge, philosophers spy + because they’re opposed

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  11. MIP: Philosophy = hard to define + spy analogy –> philos. = disguised; tone = neutral

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  12. MIP: Philosophers = criticized but useful; similar to spies in that they are driven to uncover knowledge

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  13. Philosophy is hard to define, but like spies, philosophers often stay out of the public eye because of past persecution.

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  14. Compares philosophers to spies. it is a popular and accepting (role playing) in society as oppose to explaining general philosophers alone (i.e., put to death/useless: P.8)

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  15. Philo and spy both perform role-taking and disguise but philo disguise to survive.

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  16. Philosophers like spies are hidden.

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  17. 7 paragraphs in…

    Spy analogy= sol’n to defining philosophy
    spy=philosopher
    spy knowledge= needed to first investigate this comparsion

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  18. You can understand philosophy through acting in other roles.

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  19. The author is a philosopher himself, trying to defend and explain the field of study in simpler terms through the use of easily understood comparisons.

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  20. MI: P=spys (disguise/subter)=hide bec persecuted/unpop and to help with imag/exploring
    tone: neut

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  21. MI: Philosopher are similar to spy in exploration and disguise. Hide from unpopularity

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  22. philosophers = similar to spy 1) they are searching something hidden & secret 2) they use subterfuge
    philosophers hide b/c they are being despised and to explore with different roles

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  23. Philosophers are like spies
    – searching for truths & avoiding being seen

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  24. Theme: As a philosopher, author wants to help people understand his work so he gives analogies like joker, actor and spy. Analogy of a spy is central in this article. No supporting evidence given for joker and actor. He wants readers to know that philosophy is not that abstract and almost everyone has been a philosopher at some point in their lives.
    Tone: Neutral
    Author feels that a philosopher is basically an observer who like a spy must seek out the elusive obscured knowledge (a library search is not spying…hidden in badly catalogued archives) and one’s identity and aim should never be too apparent (excludes spinsters alleged to be spying….no disguise and little subterfuge).
    To make his work more relatable, he explains that you don’t need to be a philosopher to do what he does since everyone else out there has done some form of sleuthing in their lives.
    Author comments that spies are hugely popular (enormous popularity of spy thrillers…..and the interests aroused), everyone has done some form of spying since young (gossiping, solving crossword puzzles….living a lie) which is a common and natural behavior (in a trivial sense we inevitably are);
    modern philosophers tend not to be too open due to persecution (classical examples) and are lowly regarded (among the victims of university cuts) and their popularity have dwindled over time (general retreat from the proud and confident..) and philosophers have been relegated to roles less prominent but still assume ancillary roles (lexicographers or grammarians…..respectable academic specialists who are no danger to society…..claim a right to making a modest living…)
    Philosophers take on less important role (impersonations) as they had previously incurred the public’s mistrust and the ire of the authorities but continue to take up different roles to do their work.

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  25. explaining philosophy= difficult; spying = seeking knowledge + disguising + universal interest; philosopher = shy + prosecuted (ex. list of those execute etc) + despised; philosopher = retreat and hide under other profession titles, author = philosopher = negative

    Reply

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