An Interview with Justin E.H. Smith, author of The Philosopher: A History in Six Types
Why a history of “the philosopher”?
It struck me that historians of philosophy face a problem historians of science don’t. European and Indian astronomy have the stars in common, Chinese and Greek medicine have the human body in common, and so on. But what, exactly, do all traditions or schools of philosophy share? It seemed to me that the best way to approach this question was to turn the focus to the social role of the philosopher: what need is he or she filling?
Is there a common denominator among all the different types of philosopher you identify?
No. In fact, this is perhaps the most noteworthy conclusion of the book: there can be no necessary and sufficient conditions for identifying people in different times and places as philosophers. There are, at most, family resemblances.
How does the long, global history of philosophy challenge today’s idea of what a philosopher does?
There are social roles that have been filled by philosophers or philosopher-like figures in the past, which we have entirely forgotten, but which arguably continue to play a role in our self-conception today. One important example is monasticism: throughout much of the history of philosophy, the monk or world-denier served as the ideal of what a philosopher ought to be. Today, by contrast, it is taken for granted that a professional philosopher has the right, perhaps even the duty, to lead a worldly life, with a family and a craft-brewing kit and whatever else. The last philosopher to understand what was at stake in the loss of the monastic ideal was Nietzsche.
What is your favorite of the types of philosophers you describe and why?
As I report at the end of the book, I had started out writing it with the idea that I would be impartial among all the different types. But by the end it had become clear that I could not contain my sympathy for the natural philosopher, while most of the others left me cold. The natural philosopher seems to embody the fullness or capaciousness of philosophy that was lost by the end of the eighteenth century, when it became a fully institutionalized discipline alongside the natural sciences.