The New York Times has started off its new feature on philosophical issues with, quite appropriately, a simple question: "What is a philosopher?" Simon Critchley, chair of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, lays out the question's complexities: "There are as many definitions of philosophy as there are philosophers--perhaps there are even more." He doesn't think that the New York Times is likely to "reach consensus" after three thousand years of dispute, but he nevertheless sees value in reviewing some answers that have been offered in the past.
One answer may be found in a story from Plato. Its depiction of a Thracian servant girl mocking a philosopher gives one possible definition--the philosopher as "a laughing stock, an absent-minded buffoon," as Critchley writes. But then he notices, too, that Plato distinguishes between the philosopher and the lawyer, or "pettifogger." For instance:
The pettifogger, the jury, and by implication the whole society, live with the constant pressure of time. The water of time’s flow is constantly threatening to drown them.
By contrast, we might say, the philosopher is the person who has time or who takes time ... Pushing this a little further, we might say that to philosophize is to take your time, even when you have no time, when time is constantly pressing at your back.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.