The Gadfly and the Spider

The Gadfly and the Spider

Justin E.H. Smith wants to convince academic philosophers that it’s a problem to define philosophy narrowly as a Western endeavor.


There’s a game I sometimes play with my friends, and it’s not unlike 20 Questions: One player picks a thing to keep in mind, and then the other players take turns trying to guess it. But instead of asking yes-or-no questions, players will ask, “Is it more like X or more like Y?” Say I pick “cloud” as the thing; my friends might ask me if it’s more like art or more like grass. That’s a tough one, but I would answer, “It’s more like grass, but it’s like art in that it’s lofty.” While 20 Questions works by a process of elimination, hacking away at the possibilities rationally and categorically, this game is much less direct and more comparative, working by poetic similarity. It’s good for long car rides; it can take a while, but sometimes not as long as you might think.

In The Philosopher: A History in Six Types, Justin E.H. Smith plays a similar game with philosophy: Is it more like ballet or more like dance? It’s easy to see what Smith is getting at—dance is a general category and ballet a specific one. What’s more, ballet is a Western practice, whereas dance has emerged in cultures globally; and while dance is an innate human phenomenon, ballet is not. Philosophy, as is its wont, doesn’t fit easily into either category. Is philosophy practiced by a “specialized and privileged elite within a broader society”? Does everyone in society do it in some way? If philosophy were more like dance, it would be ubiquitous. But it isn’t a practice that we see in every culture—in fact, Smith asserts, it has only arisen organically as a defined practice twice in human history, once in Greece and once in medieval India. But if philosophy were more like ballet, we should be able to see it as part of something larger than itself.

Smith looks to answer these questions by surveying the role of the philosopher and the meaning of philosophy since ancient times in different cultures and across the world. Because he’s conducting a survey, his modus operandi is to take an expansive and prismatic view of the kinds of work a philosopher can do. While the survey includes practices that define themselves as philosophic, it also explores the philosophical aspects of things like ritual, myth, even astronomy.

The style and method of Smith’s book show him to be as good as his word. The text is divided into six chapters, corresponding with six “types” of philosopher: the Curiosa, the Sage, the Gadfly, the Ascetic, the Mandarin, and the Courtier. These categories are not mutually exclusive; they are more like archetypes or allegories, tools for exploring the changing relationship between philosophy and society. Each chapter flits about from East to West and from ancient times to modern; each teems with quotes, examples, personal anecdotes, and fictional monologues by its philosophical characters, offset as long block quotes. In writing this way, Smith has taken a huge aesthetic gamble—one that he never quite admits to. He writes, flippantly, that “A story needs characters,” making the conceit sound like a gimmick to sell books. He is selling himself short: His book is a laudable effort to straddle the many ways of thinking about philosophy, and to avoid promoting one particular perspective.

But the survey also has an agenda: Smith is vocal, in this book and elsewhere, about the problems that arise with a definition of philosophy that is exclusively Western. While I have no doubts about his appreciation for the philosophy of other cultures (he teaches classical Indian philosophy, for one), the point of his survey is less intellectual (or passionate) than tactical; he wants to convince academic philosophers that it’s a serious inconsistency, if not an actual logical fallacy, to define philosophy narrowly as a Western endeavor or, more constrained still, a Western academic one.

* * *

The Gadfly is perhaps the most recognizable character to readers of philosophy. It was made famous by Socrates, who described himself as a gadfly upon the horse of the state. The horse is slow to move, and the pesky fly stirs it to action through persistent questioning. The Gadfly sees this annoying quality as an integral aspect of his thought. The Gadfly is not a mediator but a corrector, someone who can see the “myopic views and misunderstandings of the members of his own society,” Smith writes. He develops this point by creating a character named Bud Korg, an amateur philosopher trying to get the attention of a well-known professor. Korg writes numerous unsolicited letters asking the professor to download his e-book, Quantum Truths for the 21st Century, and challenging him to come down from his ivory tower and expand his “philosophical horizons.” Korg’s letters are peppered throughout the chapter, and they gradually become more confrontational, asking the professor to “consider freeing yourself from the narrowness and irrelevance your profession imposes on you.” The letters are cheesy, too neat. But they’re an effort on Smith’s part to translate his ideas into a new format, a new style—and to demonstrate the aversion of academics to work that is not already vetted or recognizably philosophical.

The Gadfly chapter takes on the question of whether philosophy’s aims concerning knowledge and truth dictate a particular style. Literary and poetic works—including mythology and science fiction—are often dismissed as unphilosophical because they stray from the “actual” into the “possible,” outside the boundaries of reason. While austere or purely logical writing is what the word “philosophy” tends to evoke, Smith shows that this just isn’t the case. When you look at it closely, the distinction between impersonal language and more poetic, metaphorical language breaks down pretty quickly. Philosophers turned away from abstract categories and began to consider the interrogation of the self as a legitimate starting point for philosophy as early as Montaigne and Descartes. Before that, philosophers thought that “we are all in some sense identical, while what differentiates us, such as our taste in condiments, is ultimately irrelevant to the profound question of who we as human beings are. Montaigne shifts this old conception without rejecting it altogether. Human beings are in some sense all identical, but we are able to discern that identity by accounting for the diversity of individuals.” Montaigne, in short, found the universal in the self.

Furthermore, to categorize based on style seems to question philosophy’s distinction from other genres of writing. To illustrate this rather poignantly, Smith puts a text by the philosopher Henry More next to a passage from Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy. More vividly describes a woman in the midst of a seizure, and sounds like a sensationalist Puritan telling a story about the devil. Sterne’s Shandy, on the other hand, writes loftily about Locke. While More’s text is closer to the philosophical canon, Sterne’s novel is at least as philosophical—and he “is making a philosophical argument in part through his choice of style,” Smith writes. For example, “Sterne treads into a difficult philosophical problem…when he asserts that wit and judgment cannot go together.… one might just as well attempt to fart and to hiccup at the same time.” This is the argument that every English major hears at some point: that literature can be just as deeply philosophical as logic.

Not only does a prejudice against poetic writing sideline a large body of work that we would consider philosophical today, Smith writes; it also betrays a bias toward Western texts. Although these days we generally ignore the natural metaphors used by the canonic Western philosophers, they are still the occasion for dismissing philosophical texts from other cultures as poetic, not rigorous. Smith provides a wonderful example of this—the Brahmin comparison of the universe to a spider that lets silk out and draws it back in, which was also discussed by David Hume:

But as Hume points out the apparent ridiculousness of the particular animal chosen to model the cosmos in the Upanishadic tradition has only to do with the symbolic role of the chosen animal within European culture. Insects might be thought to be universally repulsive, and thus unworthy of a role in a cosmological model, but then again we might note the case of the bee, which has played a key role in Western political philosophy, if not cosmology, from antiquity to recent discussions of group rationality and distributed cognition….

Pointing out the similarity between the bee in our culture and the spider in Indian culture not only encourages us to see the philosophical basis of the latter; it also puts our own culture in perspective, showing that language we may think of as anodyne is marked by a certain type of poetry. On the other hand, this is another tactical point in a book that is full of them. Smith doesn’t expand much upon the meaning of the metaphor: What would we gain, philosophically, from entertaining the idea of the universe as a spider? Smith doesn’t say. Does he wish philosophers to incorporate concepts from other cultures into their work? Or is he advocating for philosophical pluralism—the simple recognition of legitimate alternatives to the Western philosophical canon? The Gadfly can reveal our most basic assumptions, but he can’t tell us how to act.

* * *

In his second chapter, on the Sage, Smith turns to cosmopolitanism as another lens through which to examine philosophy’s tense relationship with universality. The first cosmopolitan was Diogenes of Sinope, an ascetic extremist who renounced allegiance to the state in favor of allegiance to the world (Plato described him as “a Socrates gone mad”). To be a cosmopolitan nowadays is not only to view oneself as a citizen of the world, but also to present a framework for how people with conflicting views may coexist. The idea is to look at humanity broadly, to find a common ground beneath different experiences and ideas, and to act based on mutual respect. In other words, cosmopolitanism is a political philosophy that strives to recognize universality. But Smith argues that, when put into practice, cosmopolitanism is often bastardized into imperialism:

Claims to possession of universal truth, and claims of loyalty only to the global level at which such truths hold, are one thing in the hands of philosophers and mendicant monks, another in the hands of armies…. we often find a proper cosmopolitan spirit in the philosophers who give voice to the values that are simultaneously being spread by force.

Smith is referring, I think, to something like America’s supposed crusade for democracy worldwide, in which cosmopolitanism is translated into a political regime and American values are disseminated (often violently) under the guise of universal values. The problem with cosmopolitanism, in Smith’s mind, actually boils down to something like his argument about style: All political expressions that lay claim to some kind of essential truth or goodness are not actually pure—we simply cannot perceive their cultural biases when we are part of the culture that spreads them. But Smith muddies the concepts of universality and cosmopolitanism, pluralism and multiculturalism: These are based on the lowest common denominator among peoples, not their ideal values. He never mentions the most ardent defender of modern cosmopolitanism, Kwame Anthony Appiah, who says nothing of universal truth but rather bases it on a shared morality. And here, in implying that the world is better off if philosophers are kept away from power, Smith shows his true skepticism. A structural argument for diversity can’t be the basis for real change, he seems to be arguing. But if that’s the case, what is he after?

Smith’s argument against the gender bias in philosophy is much more convincing; he shows that the affinity for pure rationality translates into a kind of sexual politics. In the first chapter of the book, “The Curiosa,” he discusses the loss of curiosity about the natural world among philosophers with the coming of modern science. Up until the 18th century, philosophers used to be naturalists of sorts, studying the elements, plants, and animal behavior. Specific events in nature were taken to demonstrate general principles of philosophy. With the advent of science, philosophy moved away from examining nature and into the realm of rationality. Smith then artfully connects philosophy’s move into pure thought to its maleness: “Keep your wits by staying away from temptresses, it tells the male masses, while to the male philosophers, it says: maintain the standard of pure rationality by not getting mixed up with the natural world and its cycles of generation and corruption.” In this context, the analytic tradition’s attempts to attain purity of thought, apart from history or poetry, sounds convincingly sexist and racialized. (In Smith’s previous book, Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference, he identifies the Enlightenment as the period during which race—or rather, racism—began to threaten human equality.)

Smith’s battle against philosophical insularity reaches its culmination in “The Mandarin,” the book’s penultimate chapter. The Mandarin is the guardian of disciplinary boundaries, determining who is and who is not to be considered a philosopher. Instead of condemning academia’s overly white, overly Western departments of philosophy and requiring them to integrate a larger conception of the subject into their programs—for the sake of their own survival as well as to do justice to the project of philosophy worldwide—Smith plays the diplomat:

It may be that philosophy would have been better served by a survey of the full range of human interpretations of the ultimate ground of our existence and experience—even, or especially, of those interpretations that attribute powers to trees and stones—and not a priori arguments.… Beliefs, too, are singular things, and they can be collected, out in the field, like flowers or butterflies. This is something that certain early modern philosophers, notably Bacon and Leibniz, seem to have understood about the project of truth seeking, and that others, notably Descartes, seem to have missed. And this rift remains a far more profound division between two conceptions of philosophy, or of philosophy on the one hand and what is now called “science” on the other, than the one between analytics and continentals that has absorbed so much attention.

I have to admit that I was expecting Smith to propose something more forceful as a way forward; this is a blameless, passively worded restatement of the original problem. While all his evidence points to the fact that academic philosophy, in fighting for its self-preservation, is mimicking the structures it has condemned in world-historical thought, Smith stubbornly ends the book by seeking to solve the “two cultures problem” and reconcile the sciences with the humanities. This isn’t exactly a contradiction, but it certainly is an anticlimax.

Smith sees a way forward in the example of the digital humanities and singles out the work of Franco Moretti. A professor at Stanford University, Moretti has promoted the practice of “distant reading,” which applies the methods of big data to vast amounts of text to discern linguistic and literary patterns that would otherwise be undetectable. For instance, by using data sampling to analyze the text of nearly every extant Victorian novel—the mediocre along with the canonical, much more than one person could read in a lifetime—Moretti has produced, in a technical sense, a fine-grained portrait of Victorian syntax. His work has provoked excitement and bitterness in literary studies. I understand Moretti’s appeal; he has arrived as a savior in the field not simply because he is reconciling the “two cultures,” but because he’s doing a different kind of work from others in the humanities. Moretti represents both a capitulation to the reign of science and a way of bridging and expanding the humanities. Smith wants the same of philosophy: an incorporation of quantitative methods as a way of reconciling internal divides.

But this suggestion, at the end of the book, has the ironic effect of undermining Smith’s rich human survey, which in no way resembles Moretti’s data-crunching. While one of Smith’s aims is to usher philosophy into a new age, it’s clear that he thinks only academic philosophy is in need of healing. If philosophy overall is expansive, like dance, then academic philosophy is more like ballet: largely white, refined, malnourished, and overworked, and prone to lose sight of the baseline joy of the practice that underlies it. But it’s unclear exactly what about academic philosophy needs to change. Is it only lacking the standard dose of political correctness? In the end, Smith’s argument lacks cogency because it lacks a vivid appreciation for the very works he advocates incorporating. Smith is admirable in his attempts to interrogate philosophical practice, but, typical of philosophers, he’s more interested in the questions than the answers.

* * *

If Smith’s book is an attempt to coax philosophy out of its ivory tower, The Stone Reader suggests what philosophy in the world can be. The book is a collection, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, of 133 short essays that have appeared in “The Stone,” a weekly philosophy column published in the Web edition of The New York Times. The essays are mostly by professors—Justin Smith among them—but are written for people who are not necessarily philosophers. The book covers a huge range of philosophical thinking across a variety of subjects and genres, but in manageable form: Each essay is no longer than five or six pages. In their respective introductions, Catapano and Critchley defend the relevance of philosophy and the importance of abstract thought to a life “nurtured in freedom.” Nor do they believe that philosophy is in dire need of saving. “We maintain that the reports of the death of American intellectual life…have been greatly exaggerated,” Catapano writes, “and that philosophy both inside and out of the academy is more vital than ever.”

So which is it? Is academic philosophy in danger of withdrawing ever further into itself? Or is philosophy, in daily practice and in the academy, at a high point—accessible to more people than ever, and spilling over its disciplinary boundaries? The answer to this question, it seems, has a great deal to do with how you think about the role of philosophy historically. “The Stone” recently featured an exchange tackling this problem (too recent to be included in the Reader). In January, Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, authors of the forthcoming Socrates Tenured, described philosophy as being quarantined, having split off from the larger society through the process of modernization; the pursuit of wisdom was “purified,” they argue, and with the rise of modern science, “knowledge and goodness were divorced.” Frodeman and Briggle are opposed to specialization and the ways in which philosophy “aped the sciences by fostering a culture that might be called ‘the genius contest.’” Their argument is in keeping with a common account of philosophy, among the other humanities, as a victim of modern science and the Enlightenment, always in defense of its existence. Smith is in this camp as well: His essay in The Stone Reader is about philosophy’s Western bias, which he locates in the connection between its elitism and its identification with modern science. Because philosophy is seen as a discipline that gets closer to the truth over time (think 20 Questions), Smith argues, philosophers end up dismissing other philosophies around the world—or, indeed, philosophies of the past—as irrelevant.

Writing in “The Stone,” Scott Soames refuted these claims, arguing that philosophy has never truly been cut off from other disciplines and is not limited to ethics or political philosophy, as some claim. Instead, he argues, because of its enshrinement in the academy, philosophy has been able to influence other disciplines: donating symbolic logic to linguistics and mathematics, and lending certain tools and concepts to psychology and physics, such as Locke’s and Hume’s application of Newton to their burgeoning philosophies of mind. In fact, Soames writes, specialization has always enabled cooperation, and compared with the natural sciences—whose findings are rarely incorporated in, for example, novels—philosophy has been relatively accessible to other disciplines.

My own answer to the role of philosophers, much like Critchley’s, is that philosophers are thinkers who take time and consider. There’s something futile about it, but also something tectonic. The philosopher deals with the most profound of subjects, but is always chasing the wind; asking whether clouds are more like grass or more like art is total nonsense, but it’s an exercise that gets at the fundamentals. Philosophy, after all, is an activity. The image of the universe as spider comes to mind as a model for philosophy: sending out delicate, silken strands to catch a bit of the truth before they’re broken or reused. There is a beauty to this constant renewal, a ruthlessness, and an opportunity for truth to take different forms. Smith understands this multiplicity; the portrait of philosophy that emerges from his book is full of personality.

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