Blog Post

Ivory Towers? Heads in the Clouds? If Only!

The notion that philosophers have their heads in the clouds is one of the oldest in the book. Make that a specific book; as Alexander George points out in a recent contribution to The Stone, Aristophanes used it to ridicule Socrates in The Clouds. The problem is that the criticism, while commonplace, gets it exactly wrong. Philosophers aren’t detached from reality, lost in an ivory tower, irrelevant; rather, they want to be all these things but can’t be. Reality inevitably gets in the way.

Why should philosophers want to be detached from reality? Well, the basic idea is that reality means life, and life means vicissitudes, change, hunger, pain, pleasure, suffering, etc., an altogether annoying series of intrusions on the job of thinking. Philosophy, so it would seem, should be about truth, which is something that remains unchanged by all these pesky factors, and thus philosophers at least hope to attain some detachment from the pressures of reality in order to get a better handle on truth.

Of course, reality has a nasty habit of not allowing itself to be skipped over so lightly. In a much less obvious sense than would perhaps seem the case, then, philosophers are always talking about the real world, real concerns, and real needs, even when they appear to be doing something else entirely. Simply reading philosophical texts for biographical clues at to their "real concerns" would be far too facile, and would be as reductive as reading Borges exclusively in the light of his blindness, or listening to Beethoven in the light of his deafness—either one a fine endeavor as long as it is not held to offer an exhaustive explanation of what these artists' oeuvres mean. But that said, I think we can safely say that Immanuel Kant's conviction that humans are free agents laboring in a world of physical constraints may have had something to do with his appreciation of the sort of governance that flourished under the "Enlightened" monarch of Prussia, Frederick the Great. How can it not be the case, in fact, that living people with passions, political convictions, desires both open and covert, would not translate some of those myriad and largely unfathomable concerns into the medium of their expression, just as poets, artists, and musicians assuredly do?

Just take the amusing example of a recent interview the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek gave to The Guardian. Here are some of the questions he was asked along with his answers:

—What do you owe your parents?—Nothing, I hope. I didn't spend a minute bemoaning their death.

—To whom would you most like to say sorry, and why?—To my sons, for not being a good enough father.

—What or who is the love of your life?—Philosophy. I secretly think reality exists so we can speculate about it.

—How often do you have sex?—It depends what one means by sex. If it's the usual masturbation with a living partner, I try not to have it at all.

—If you could edit your past, what would you change?—My birth. I agree with Sophocles: the greatest luck is not to have been born - but, as the joke goes on, very few people succeed in it.

 

While there can be no doubt that Zizek stands out as an extreme example, what these tongue-in-cheek (or not so, who knows?) answers reveal is that the philosopher—the one whose passion is to speculate about reality, in Zizek's formulation—is inextricably mired in his own pathologies. I use this term pathology, by the way, not so much in its medical sense as in its philosophical sense, the way Kant used it when he defined ethical maxims as those that would avoid pathological inclinations—namely, those urges particular to any individual. What Zizek's interview demonstrates is in some sense both the hope and the inevitable failure of such a view of philosophy. Yes, philosophy will continue to search for universal idioms in the hopes of transcending particularity with arguments that seek to convince us and thus alter our embedded opinions. And yes, that search will always be anchored in given humans reacting to and reaching out from their own pathological soup.

The philosopher seeks truth, but does so from the trenches of reality. And that's not a bad thing either. 

William Egginton's picture

William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches on Spanish and Latin American literature, literary theory, and the relation between literature and philosophy. He is the author of How the World Became a Stage (2003), Perversity and Ethics (2006), A Wrinkle in History (2007), The Philosopher's Desire (2007), The Theater of Truth (2010), and In Defense of Religious Moderation (2011). He is also co-editor with Mike Sandbothe of The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy (2004), translator of Lisa Block de Behar's Borges, the Passion of an Endless Quotation (2003, 2nd edition 2014), and co-editor with David E. Johnson of Thinking With Borges (2009). His most recent book is The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In the Modern World (2016).