For some reason, I have a hard time admitting to people that I’m currently studying philosophy. When people ask what I’m doing in Ireland while Lauren completes her Mitchell scholarship, I usually mention my work for an Evanston-based law firm, my pathetic attempts to learn some French and grow some herbs and vegetables, and then, with eyes down and voice trailing off, add that I’m also doing a course in philosophy.

I suppose this is true for a few reasons.  For one, I’m not very sure myself what philosophy actually is. Thus, if/when pressed to elaborate, I get nervous and ramble off incoherent platitudes and unassertive evasions. Also, I struggle internally about the wisdom of taking on debt to do a graduate degree in a subject that doesn’t have direct career implications while staring down a forthcoming job search in the worst economy in a generation. (I guess philosophy teaches you to think about wisdom, but not to practice it…)

But, I suppose the key reason for my hesitance is that I know how philosophers are often perceived by people (including myself). They are those peculiar folks that have an air of arrogance and aloofness. They can write hundreds of pages about single words like ‘freedom’, ‘justice’, and ‘happiness’ but they can’t give you a straight answer about anything. They lack any applied skills that can actually make a measurable difference to people’s lives here and now like engineers or teachers or doctors do. At best, they can give someone a few different ways to think about a particular question. At worst, they can only ask a question in a needlessly confusing way.

I suppose this is why I took such joy in a recent article by Simon Critchley posted in a new New York Times blog on philosophy called The Stone. In it Critchley asks the question, What is a Philosopher?

He starts by recalling the story that Socrates tells in his dialogue Theaetetus about Thales. Thales – perhaps the world’s first philosopher – falls into a well while concentrating on the stars with curious awe. A servant girl then passes by and comments that in his eagerness to know what went on in the sky, Thales forgot what was going on right in front of his face.

This story reminded me of the time during my freshmen year at Northwestern that I crashed my bike into a car stopped at a stoplight while riding to a political theory class where we were reading Rosseau’s Social Contract. In class I wanted to ask the professor whether Rosseau intended the social contract to be a literal activity that societies undertake, or if it is more of a hypothetical device to explain how states derive their legitimacy. If we are literally supposed to come together at some time and place and form a contract, what happens when new members enter the community later – like immigrants. Are they part of the social contract? Are they outside it? Does the contract evolve? Or do the newcomers have to change to assimilate into pre-existing contractual agreements? Steeped in thought, I veered right and, in the middle of Sheridan Road just outside of the Kellogg School of Management and in front of at least a few hundred students rushing to class, I crashed. Quietly, I later paid the car’s owner a few hundred dollars I didn’t have for door panel damage and rode my bike with crooked handle bars for the rest of the year.

But, could there be value behind the philosopher’s seeming absent-mindedness and lack of acute skill? Critchley thinks so, and so does Socrates. Critchley writes,

“Socrates says that those in the constant press of business, like lawyers, policy-makers, mortgage brokers and hedge fund managers, become ”bent and stunted” and they are compelled “to do crooked things. The pettifogger is undoubtedly successful, wealthy and extraordinarily honey-tongued, but, Socrates adds, “small in his soul and shrewd and a shyster.” The philosopher, by contrast, is free by virtue of his or her otherworldliness, by their capacity to fall into wells and appear silly.”

And,

“Socrates adds that the philosopher neither sees nor hears the so-called unwritten laws of the city, that is, the mores and conventions that govern public life. The philosopher shows no respect for rank and inherited privilege and is unaware of anyone’s high or low birth. It also does not occur to the philosopher to join a political club or a private party. As Socrates concludes, the philosopher’s body alone dwells within the city’s walls. In thought, they are elsewhere.”

Thus, at his or her best, the philosopher pursues questions that go unasked in contexts where the next news cycle, election, or quarterly profit report are the only outcomes that matter (even if this means falling into a well or crashing a bike from time to time). And, the philosopher engages others in this pursuit, approaching anyone, no matter the size of their bank account, the color of their skin, or the number of SAT vocab words they can rattle off, with the same genuine desire to listen, to learn, and to dialogue.

I’m still pretty sure I don’t want to be a full-time philosopher when I grow up. Too much of a desire to be in-the-world working on practical problems. But, at least now  I might be able to look someone in the eye when they ask me what I’m doing this year.

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