Monday, May 17, 2010

Critchley: Sinking Like a Stone

What just happened? Critchley's occasional contributions to the New York Times have never exactly been prime content, but he's now been given a column and has decided to kick it off with a bang. Not, mind you, the sort of bang that one hears marking a celebration, but more like the bang of a very confused unfortunate choosing to step into the unknown. The most charitable reading I can give is this: Critchley is desperately trying to be as cool as Zizek, and he's got his tongue firmly in his cheek. See, the idea of the column, as far as I can tell, is that NYT readers are probably lawyers or pettifoggers who don't give a crap about philosophy--they must think it's all loony. So the best way to get the philosopher's revenge is to explain to them in great detail that, unlike them, the philosopher has time. See, if you just wasted five minutes reading this column and you're a philosopher, you won't feel bad about it, because what else would you have been doing instead? Grading? But if you're a pettifogger, well, the joke's on you: you just spent five minutes on a completely aimless fantasy that stands to Phil 101 in something like the relation that a dirty sock has to a Prada loafer.

That's the charitable reading, anyway. Less charitably, what the hell? Does the question "What is a Philosopher?" have to be answered by readings of Plato that, well, have nothing to do with Plato? I suppose it's better than actually drawing on Plato, not because Plato isn't great, but because philosophy has undergone a few changes in the past two and a half thousand years. But really it doesn't matter, because aside from masturbatory fantasies of philosophical self-aggrandizement, what we have here is a rehashing of almost every cliche you can come up with.

Did you know, for example, that according to Socrates, "the philosopher’s body alone dwells within the city’s walls"? This must be before the Crito, where Socrates seems to have more than a bodily obligation to Athens. But perhaps we should interpret this in light of the philosopher's absent-mindedness, since "It also does not occur to the philosopher to join a political club or a private party." Perhaps while we are on the subject of Socrates, we might remember his Pythagorean pedigree; but maybe starting a political party is an activity far removed from joining one. Philosophy's all about origins, right?

But maybe we are on more solid ground when we recall that "philosophy has repeatedly and persistently been identified with blasphemy against the gods," as the referenced cases of Socrates, Bruno, Spinoza, and Hume remind us. Of course we are! But only so long as we completely forget about all those other philosophers, like Augustine (who spent some quality time branding heretics), Aquinas, or Maimonides. Someone, of course, could always be ready to call them heretics, but if the point is just that anyone who takes a stance on a contentious issue is likely to be branded a heretic, this defines philosophers the way "green" picks out a single member of a large class of tree frogs.

The important thing to keep in mind throughout is that philosophy is dangerous. Yes, folks, you heard it here first! Taking this column seriously can threaten your credibility in some social circles, like the ones composed of just about anyone who has ever learned something in a philosophy class. But since I'm tired and down on my wit, the best laugh line I can provide is just by quoting Critchley: "Nurtured in freedom and taking their time, there is something dreadfully uncanny about the philosopher, something either monstrous or god-like or indeed both at once."

Of course maybe--maybe--popular writing about philosophy doesn't have to be simultaneously insulting to its readers and as defensive as a guard at the Alamo. Maybe it doesn't have to keep hammering in the idea that what philosophers do is completely pointless, since no philosopher would ever stoop to addressing anything of relevance to the non-monstrous, non-god-like mortal (at least, no philosopher worth her salt, right?). Ah, but to do anything other, the mythical philosopher would have to step down from his imaginary timeless throne and find immediately that "the water of time’s flow is constantly threatening to drown them." No indeed, the philosopher--sorry, I meant the tenured philosopher--doesn't go swimming in that stream.

Seriously, is this any way to apologize for being full of crap? And does every other philosopher have to get dragged into it? Don't get me wrong, I like Critchley. Sometimes I even like his philosophy. But not all Derrideans were born to be columnists, alas.

(Thanks to Lauren for the pointer.)


  1. I once published an op-ed in the New York Times. When was yours published? Do you think it likely that the Times would give Brian Leiter, who is scathing in his denunciation of Critchley, a similar forum? Could the selection of Critchley as the series moderator make journalistic sense, even if substantial numbers of professional philosophers dismiss his work?

  2. As my earlier posts should suggest, I am neither dismissive of Critchley's philosophical work nor on board with the sorts of off-hand philosophical dismissals Leiter specializes in. But this particular column was pretty lousy--a point that, as I stress above, has nothing to do with Critchley's standing as a philosopher. Perhaps this column made marketing sense, but it makes no journalistic sense--if journalism is to have something to do with truth--since it grossly misrepresents what philosophy is and what philosophers do (not that there is even an attempt to seriously deal with that question).

  3. I actually don't have much use for Critchley's philosophical work, but the column did make sense to me as a non-dogmatic opinion piece to kick off the project. He's trying out one diagnosis of the popular skepticism about philosophers and their enterprise(s) using a big, recognizable name (Plato) to do so. A bit over-cute, and probably not what I would have written, but so what?

    Challenge (not meant snarkily at all): Blogo-philosophers should write their own introductions to the Stone, as if they had been given the keys. (And no attacking Critchley! Do it like it was the first time!)