Defining philosophy is difficult and controversial, not least because it claims the privilege of determining its own rules.
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May 20, 2017 – Online MCAT CARS Practice
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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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