What is a Philosopher?

Another Facebook comment has me ragin'. A professor of Rhetoric, in an effort at wit, posts:
Plato Said, I Say

Let's agree that philosophic natures always love the sort of learning that makes clear to them some feature of the being that always is and does not wander around between coming to be and decaying. (485a-b)

Me: No.

Then another professor of Rhetoric laughed, and another supported the laugh. I understand (because I know him) the point that my professor-friend meant to make by posting the excerpt: he means to suggest that he actually prefers the kind of learning that wanders around between coming to be and decaying. A point that would have been absolutely fine in Socrates' view.

Nevertheless, professor of Rhetoric #3 berates Socrates for being a tyrant of ideas: "Why was Plato (as Socrates) always commanding agreement on the very subject that should be debated? Silly toga wearing fool."

Here's my Facebook reply:
He's not commanding agreement; he's simply defining a term. You're free to NOT be a "philosophic nature" (indeed, I'd suggest labeling yourselves as "Rhetoricians," or "rhetorical natures"), but you can't deny that there IS a certain group of people who "always love [that kind of learning]..."

Is it just that you're unwilling to relinquish the label because ya'll consider yourselves to be "philosophic natures?" I don't think that would trouble Socrates... it's not the words that are important, but the distinction between the two groups.

All he's asking is that you agree that there exists a group of people who like to learn about the unchanging being. He's not "commanding" that you sign up.

But, to say "No" (and to "ha," and call Socrates a fool) is not witty in this case -- it's just poor reading. Either that or you're willingly denying the existence of a group of "others" who think differently than you.
This is so clear to me that I can't even envision an attempt at refutation. What I expect is either a long-winded defense that ultimately avoids the point, or some further efforts at wittiness, aimed at disguising the fact that three professors of rhetoric have badly missed the point of a fairly straightforward passage from The Republic! I expect anything but, "Oh yeah, I guess we read that wrong."

In case my necessarily shortened Facebook message was unclear, the point in this passage from Socrates is precisely to get a working definition of a term. It's a very very unobjectionable definition, and that's why Glaucon agrees to it. Best I can tell, the problem here lies in a residual affiliation with the term "philosophy" that these rhetoric professors must harbor: they consider themselves "philosophic natures," and so they cannot conceive of that category as Plato describes it.

But fuck the language here. Let us all agree that one group of people (Group P) always love the sort of learning that makes clear to them some feature of the being that always is and does not wander around between coming to be and decaying, while another group does not (Group R). Then, if you're interested, Socrates and Glaucon are going to continue discussing the group of people that does love that sort of learning (Group P) and the stuff they love learning about.

Let me put this another way because I want it to be really really clear:

Imagine two groups of kindergarten children: Group P and Group R. Now the teacher introduces a certain subject X. Group P grasps the subject, while Group R does not. The teacher gives Group R something else to work on, subject Z. It doesn't mean that Group R is "dumber," or "less able," or "mentally handicapped," or anything like that. It only means that, on this ONE subject X, Group P has a better handle of the material. To be generous: it's very possible that Group R comes to understand subject Z better than those in Group P. Possible.

Now then, imagine Group R getting together at recess and saying, "there's no such thing as subject X!" Well I couldn't blame the kids -- egos are fragile, after all.


I guess I'm a little sorry about my tone. But the distinction is so important that it's worth fighting for. Philosophers (in the original meaning of the term, as something separate from Rhetoricians) do something that Rhetoricians don't do. Certainly, vice versa: Rhetoricians are probably sometimes much better than Philosophers at studying the kind of learning that wanders around between coming to be and decaying -- I'll concede that.

I suspect one more point as being part of the misunderstanding here: contemporary academic philosophy is a kind of learning that is somewhat diffuse, difficult to describe, but that does still carry the label "Philosophy," for better or worse (apparently for worse). But please don't take it for granted that what happens in a Philosophy department in 2009 is the same as what happened in the Academy in 385 B.C.E. just because the name hasn't changed. If you have not studied the unchanging and "unwandering" aspect of Being with great care and some success, you are not -- at least, according to Socrates' definition -- a philosophic nature. It doesn't mean you're a bad person or a worse person than any given philosopher. You're just different. And that's okay. And they're different from you. Which ought to also be okay.


Insignificant Wrangler said...

If distinction is worth fighting for, then why are you so consistently unwilling to make any other than binary oppositions. Its not that you either live in a world with pure truth or utter relativity. No sophist I have ever read has espoused such nonsense. Truth does not have to have Platonic certainty to be. Other notions afford us a more complex and nuanced understanding of our environments and help to explain why, occasionally, humans chain other humans to poles and light them on fire. Maybe if we could endorse an approach to knowledge (I know she is a witch) less rooted in Socratic confidence (you know, a dialectic in which the master isn't always, already convinced of the righteousness of his own position), less people would die.


Casey said...

This isn't a binary opposition. It's a definition. If this definition is a binary opposition, then all definitions are. It's precisely like saying "There are Muslims, and then there are people who aren't Muslims." That's all it is. It's not making any claims about "Truth," it's not asking for a political order... it's just saying that some people are interested in the sort of learning that makes clear to them some feature of the being that always is.

That group isn't in "binary opposition" with anybody else... it simply exists.

Gretchen Pratt said...

BTW: I had hoped you'd at least get a chuckle out of my video. :)