Ever since Thales, Philosophy has had a reputation for being irrelevant and remote from the concerns of the world. Thales, it will be recalled, was reputed– by Plato in the Theatetus –to have fallen down a well while staring up at the heavens. The implication of this anecdote is clear. Rather than attending to the earth, to this world, the philosopher is withdrawn and occupied with imponderables that are of no consequence to concrete existence. Philosophers, it is said, traffic in abstractions and questions without answers. This is often what people have in mind when they denounce metaphysics. We can imagine a play by Molière depicting the life of a philosopher devoted to passionately defending the metaphysical thesis that every thirty seconds everything doubles in size. The comedic value of such a play would be that if it were true that everything doubles in size every thirty seconds, such a truth would be of no consequence whatsoever; for rulers also would double in size and we’d therefore never be able to detect these differences. Such a play would depict the standard picture of the philosopher as occupied with things that don’t matter. Does it really matter whether Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, or Heidegger is right? Does it make any difference? Or is the thought of these thinkers merely an idle distraction from the concrete world that we live in?
This hostility towards philosophy and reflection and thought in general is itself something worthy of thought. Where does it come from? What prompts it? Were philosophy irrelevant we would expect indifference, but instead we often encounter outright hostility. Not only are there the resistances– almost in the psychoanalytic sense –that the educator often encounters in the philosophy classroom, where the beginning student despairs at being asked to think rather than just memorize, but in the broader world outside of education people often seem to go out of their way to mock philosophy. “Would you like fries with that?” “That matters about as much as how many angels can fit on the head of the needle!” And then, of course, there’s the fate of Socrates for his public interrogation of the leaders of Athens, cross-examining them to see whether they truly had the knowledge they claim to have.
There’s a disadequation here between what people commonly say of philosophy, and their attitudes towards philosophy; a disadequation that appears symptomatic. Far from being a matter of indifference, from being something remote and in the clouds, people behave as if it matters a great deal; as if it is dangerous. We can readily see how philosophy was dangerous in the case of Socrates, for Socrates wasn’t simply raising the question of whether or not the leaders or most respected citizens of Athens had knowledge, but was challenging the transferential conditions for the possibility of power and leadership. Lacan argues that transference is organized around a subject supposed to know. The “supposed” here is not of the order of a moral ought as when we say that a mechanic has a responsibility and a duty to have a knowledge of cars. Rather, the “supposed” here is of the order of a supposition, a belief, where the person in a state of transference believes that another person has knowledge. Transference is what Kafka depicts in his parable of the law, where the man believes there is a secret to the law that hides behind the door of the law. We follow others, we treat others as leaders and authorities, because we suppose or believe them to have knowledge. In revealing that the most respected citizens of Athens did not have the knowledge they claim to have, that they were ignorant, Socrates was dissolving the transference upon which their political power was based. Seemingly remote questions like “what is piety?” in the Euthyphro were in fact instances of working through the transference. Socrates was revealing the illegitimacy of this political power. This is why they killed him.
However, reference to Plato’s Euthyphro draws attention to another way in which philosophy matters. Euthyphro is about to prosecute his father for murder because he believes it is his pious duty to do so. Those who have read the dialogue will recall that on of his father’s servants had gotten drunk and killed another servant. His father bound the servant, threw him in a ditch, and sent a messenger to fetch the authorities to determine whether the servant was guilty and how he should be punished. During this time the servant died of exposure to the elements and his bonds.
Euthyphro’s action, his persecution of his father, is based on two things:
- His concept of murder. For Euthyphro the presence of a dead body entails murder (i.e., he makes no distinction between murder and manslaughter).
- His concept of piety and the duties and actions entailed by that concept.
In other words, what Euthyphro is about to do is based on what he believes. As a consequence, the rightness or justness of his action is dependent upon the truth of his beliefs. Euthyphro therefore has a moral responsibility to determine whether or not his beliefs are true.
Far from being remote from the concrete world, our actions in the concrete world and the manner in which we inquire into the world is premised on our concepts. And this is precisely why philosophy matters. Somewhere or other Hegel observes that all of our language and action is riddled with concepts. What we discern of being is based on prior concepts of being. What we do is premised on prior concepts. Concepts are everywhere operative in our action and inquiry. However, these concepts are also unconscious. They are so immediate, so close to us, we use them so readily, that we treat the world as being identical with the concept of the world and are unaware that we’re using these concepts at all. Schizophrenia obviously appears to be a neurological disorder, rather than a visitation by gods or a product of a particular cultural organization in history. Philosophy is that work of rendering the concepts governing our actions and our observation of the world conscious so that they might be subjected to critique to see how they hold up. In doing so, philosophy hopes to produce better and more just action, as well as better inquiry into the world. A concept is never just a representation. It is a schema for action and comportment.