Simon Critchley –who had a priceless expression on his face when accused of being a cross between Maureen Dowd and Dr. Phil (Dowd is much wittier, actually)–has written a column, or really, a blog post for the NY Times in which he tries to offer up some answers to the question, “What is a Philosopher?”
Socrates tells the story of Thales, who was by some accounts the first philosopher. He was looking so intently at the stars that he fell into a well. Some witty Thracian servant girl is said to have made a joke at Thales’ expense — that in his eagerness to know what went on in the sky he was unaware of the things in front of him and at his feet. Socrates adds, in Seth Benardete’s translation, “The same jest suffices for all those who engage in philosophy.”
What is a philosopher, then? The answer is clear: a laughing stock, an absent-minded buffoon, the butt of countless jokes from Aristophanes’ “The Clouds” to Mel Brooks’s “History of the World, part one.” Whenever the philosopher is compelled to talk about the things at his feet, he gives not only the Thracian girl but the rest of the crowd a belly laugh. The philosopher’s clumsiness in worldly affairs makes him appear stupid or, “gives the impression of plain silliness.” We are left with a rather Monty Pythonesque definition of the philosopher: the one who is silly.
Indeed! Too bad Critchley keeps going:
But as always with Plato, things are not necessarily as they first appear, and Socrates is the greatest of ironists. First, we should recall that Thales believed that water was the universal substance out of which all things were composed. Water was Thales’ philosophers’ stone, as it were. Therefore, by falling into a well, he inadvertently presses his basic philosophical claim.
But there is a deeper and more troubling layer of irony here that I would like peel off more slowly.
Of course. Critchley finally offers a suggestion:
This all sounds dreamy, but it isn’t. Philosophy should come with the kind of health warning one finds on packs of European cigarettes: PHILOSOPHY KILLS…Because of their laughable otherworldliness and lack of respect social convention, rank and privilege, philosophers refuse to honor the old gods and this makes them politically suspicious, even dangerous. Might such dismal things still happen in our happily enlightened age? That depends where one casts one’s eyes and how closely one looks.
Perhaps the last laugh is with the philosopher. Although the philosopher will always look ridiculous in the eyes of pettifoggers and those obsessed with maintaining the status quo, the opposite happens when the non-philosopher is obliged to give an account of justice in itself or happiness and misery in general. Far from eloquent, Socrates insists, the pettifogger is “perplexed and stutters.”
You can read the rest of Critchley’s interpretation of “Theaetetus” here.