Plato and Professional Philosophy. Studies in Critical Metaphilosophy & Critical History of Philosophy 1.

1. A Prefatory Note, by Z.

My first passionate loves in philosophy were Plato, life-changing metaphysics, early Wittgenstein, life-changing metaphysics, Whitehead, life-changing metaphysics, Kant, and life-changing metaphysics.

In the late 70s, in my Plato phase, working ecstatically on my senior thesis on Plato, Kant, and the life-changing metaphysics of value (yes, 70s naif that I was, I had read and totally loved Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and even drove all the way to Montana to look at the place where he’d taught), I was studying ancient Greek, and also taking courses in classics alongside my other philosophy and literature courses, at a large public university somewhere in North America, with a huge philosophy department.

Before the first semester of my senior year, I specially petitioned to be admitted to a graduate seminar on the Socratic dialogues taught by Gregory Vlastos, who was visiting from Princeton (or Berkeley, I forget which–whatever) for the Fall.

I was admitted!, and immediately started re-reading all the dialogues, making reams of notes, fully prepared for what I thought would be an amazing philosophical experience and opportunity.

It wasn’t amazing. It was complete bullshit.

Vlastos spent the whole semester making us read and critically discuss (in the light of other secondary literature) recent articles by Terence Irwin, and never let us talk about the Platonic texts themselves. Every time I tried to bring the discussion back to the texts, Vlastos wrinkled his nose, made some curt reply, the graduate students rolled their eyes in professorial solidarity, and I was effectively shushed.

I was deeply disappointed, disgusted, and also pissed off. So I dropped out of the seminar to focus on my senior thesis. I also stopped studying Greek, and focused on studying German, Wittgenstein, life-changing metaphysics, Whitehead, life-changing metaphysics, Kant, and life-changing metaphysics instead.

If this is what doing ancient Greek philosophy for a living was like, I didn’t want it. Fuck it. I’d take my love of philosophy elsewhere.

Of course I was too young and stupid to know then what I know now, that the two-part problem was and still is (i) professional academic philosophy, not ancient Greek philosophy per se, and (ii) me.

Tell it like it is, Ishmael.

2. The Essay, by Ishmael.

At Phaedo 83b-d Socrates says that “the greatest and most extreme of all vulgarities” is “believing those things to be true which the body says (are so).” This thought all by itself, but especially when taken together with much else in the dialogue (65a-66a in particular), suggests that Socrates (or, more likely, Plato) intends here to condemn empiricism.

But Socrates includes in this same condemnation the belief that whatever causes bodily pleasures and pains is “most manifest and most true.” And this, read in the context of Socrates’ earlier disapproving mention (at 81b) of the soul “bewitched by the body, and by desires and pleasures, so that nothing else seems to be true (to it) besides the corporeal, which someone might touch or see,” suggests that Plato means also in this section to condemn materialism.

But, speaking roughly here, the combination of empiricism and materialism amounts to scientism.

Apparently, then, according to Plato, scientism is the greatest and most extreme of all vulgarities.

Nor is this all: notice that scientism as presented in the Phaedo develops specifically in men who are hyper-susceptible to the lures of bodily pleasures and pains, pleasures in particular (64c-65a). Indeed, to the observation quoted above regarding the type of corporeal objects the bewitched soul of the materialist believes in, Socrates adds those things one might “use for sexual pleasures.”

So it looks as if Plato traces the belief in scientism back to a thoughtless commitment to a self-indulgent variety of hedonism, or at least to a thoughtlessness caused by an exaggerated vulnerability to the influence of the bodily appetites. (This fact, by the way, accounts for my translating kakon as “vulgarity” rather than the more common “evil.”)

Now where today does one find ruminating herds of intellectuals committed to scientism? In departments of philosophy, of course.

But from Plato’s point of view, this makes absolutely no sense. It is not in the character of the philosopher to believe that “investigation through the eyes … through ears and the other senses” is anything besides “deception” (83a). Nor is it in the philosopher’s character to be serious about bodily pleasures (64d).

I suspect, therefore, that Plato would sympathize with those of us who worry that in many contemporary departments of philosophy the place of real philosophers has been usurped by academic specialists who happen to be credentialed in a field officially labelled philosophy, but who have no particular interest in, much less any love of, wisdom. To apply to this type its proper name, then, we may designate this variety of specialist a professional academic philosopher.

Z has recently argued that many of our most influential professional academic philosophers are in fact sophists.

No doubt the accused would defend themselves by protesting that they are precisely the opposite, that in fact they represent and uphold the Socratic-Platonic ideal of seeking the truth through unbiased rational thought.

But this brings us back to the Phaedo, in particular to Socrates’ famous condemnation of misology, the hatred or mistrust of reason (89d-91a).

Note that in the relevant section Socrates says that “there is no greater kakon one can suffer than” misology.

Now since I am sure that Plato was not so haphazard as to identify as the greatest of all possible kaka two distinct and unrelated phenomena (and this within the span of a mere six Stephanus pages), I conclude that he intended to associate misology with scientism.

The association makes perfect sense from a Platonic perspective. The Platonist believes that logos is independent of (which is not to say always utterly disengaged from) empirical observation, also that logos provides insight into the reality of phenomena other than material particulars.

In short, the Platonist, which is to say the lover of logos, is neither an empiricist nor a materialist.

In fact, Socrates characterizes the misologist, the despiser of logos, in terms similar to those he employs to describe those committed to scientism. As the latter are seduced by bodily pleasures, the former are not “healthy” (90e2-3), and this because they lack the “courage and eagerness” to make themselves “healthy” (90e3) by disengaging from the body and its desires, its appetites, fears, illusions, and foolishness, all of which subvert one’s dedication to philosophy (66c-d).

Now what does Plato call those who deny the existence of immaterial realities accessible to the intellect but not to the senses, and who engage in philosophical disputation for the sake of power and pleasure?

More often than not, he calls them sophists.

Another way to characterize a sophist is as a teacher of eristic for hire, less interested in pursuing wisdom than in enhancing his own reputation. But this characterization of the sophist reads like a description of all too many contemporary professional academic philosophers.

There has of late been much chatter on professional philosophy blogs concerning the discipline’s perceived irrelevance to broader cultural concerns. We want to be heard on the big issues of the day! We want to have our say!

The problem is that we don’t want to change our style of thinking and writing.

I suggest that many people would be very eager indeed to learn what authentic admirers of wisdom think about any number of issues, but that these same people could not care less about the hyper-specialized cogitations of professional academic philosophers.

Here, then, is another suggestion: Perhaps we should stop conceiving of philosophy as a profession. Perhaps we should strive to raise ourselves up to the thought that the concept professional academic philosopher is self-contradictory, or, really, just a pompous euphemism for sophist.

As I have written before, philosophy should not be regarded as a profession, not even by those who earn their livings as professors of philosophy.

There was not long ago a post on a popular philosophy blog lamenting the lack of interest in ancient philosophy in the author’s department. I myself could not relate, for the ancients are wildly popular in my own department.

In the end I concluded that if there is little interest in ancient philosophy, it must have to do with the way ancient philosophy is taught.

If one treats the dialogues of Plato, for example, as a repository of logical arguments to be extracted from their context and evaluated according to the expectations and standards of propositional logic, or as an excuse to stack yet another layer of dead wood atop the already enormous pile of tedious secondary literature, then of course they will lose much of their appeal.

If, on the other hand, one takes them seriously as artistic wholes, and as encouraging a philosophical way of life that is a live option still even today, then I expect that ancient philosophy will flourish.

But this depends on engaging with ancient philosophy as a real philosopher, as a sincere lover of wisdom, rather than as a professional academic plying one’s trade in a philosophy department, which is to say as, at best, a philosophologist, or, at worst, a sophist.

And what is true in this case of ancient philosophy is true as well of philosophy in general. Therefore, I say: Down with the philosophy profession! Up with real philosophy!