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.