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When other professional philosophers found out about this little burst of entrepreneurial activity, they were appalled. They thought Smith must be desperate if he was willing to pimp philosophy this way. Nothing could be further from the careful linguistic analysis and historical research that goes on in philosophy departments, where PhDs, who have devoted years of intense mental effort and sacrificed more remunerative career-paths, perform the rarefied labor of real philosophy.

It makes sense to talk about the long-term when it comes to philosophy because unlike most departments in the modern university philosophical activity seems to have a niche in every society in recorded history, and therefore it has perhaps more in common with age-old professions like war, storytelling, and sex-work than with the other humanities and sciences. Philosophy is so primitive and socially basic that its domestication in the university can seem a dubious proposition or a laughable reduction.

The Philosopher offers a typology of these kinds: the philosopher as curiosa, sage, gadfly, ascetic, mandarin, and courtier.

The Philosopher A History in Six Types

The book undermines academic pieties not just in its thesis but in its form: it combines a bewildering variety of expository genres. Smith is a very good writer, very clear about what he wants to say. Like Menelaus hanging onto Proteus until he gets a straight answer, Smith wrestles a compelling argument from his shape-shifting book.


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Of course in order to defend his claims about the variety of things philosophy has been, Smith has to defend his pluralism from the artificial boundaries set up by modern professional philosophy. So in the course of expounding his types Smith rejects one by one several spurious distinctions between the philosophical and non-philosophical. The first such distinction is between the study of particular things and universal or abstract truth. Most philosophy PhDs would reject the idea that the study of intestinal worms or the classification of new types of fern are philosophical activities.

The Philosopher: A History in Six Types, by Justin E. H. Smith

But in fact the oldest usage of the word philosopher, and what it has meant for long stretches of its recorded history, is precisely the study of particular things. This fact blasts the essentialist distinction between philosophy and science that practically defines the modern self-conception of philosophers since Kant. Aristotle dissected fertilized chicken eggs to study the development of organs. Perhaps the most controversial and interesting of his polemics is against the idea that philosophy belongs to a specific historical tradition stemming from the ancient Greeks.

That is how philosophy is usually taught: as a specifically European innovation in human history, a thing which emerged with the Milesian cosmologists, found its patron saint in Socrates, received its first great works from the hands of Plato and Aristotle, and continues to be informed by these points of origin. Smith argues this account is too narrow. Volume 48 , Issue 3 April Pages Related Information.

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