Selected Minor Works: Where’s the Philosophy?!

Justin E. H. Smith

(An extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing can be found at

Now that I am a tenured professor of philosophy, and thus may resign from service in my profession’s pep squad without fear of losing my salary, I’m going to come right out and say it: after all this time as a student, and then as a graduate student, and then as a professor of philosophy, I still have absolutely no idea what philosophy is, and therefore what it is I am supposed to be doing.  I do not know what the special competences are that I, qua philosopher, am expected to have. It’s clear that I am expected to say “qua” a lot, and to give off other such social cues through language, gesture, and dress.  But it is that thing that I can do because I am a philosopher that a surgeon, or an archeologist, or a thoughtful sales clerk cannot do, because they are not philosophers, that remains elusive.

Well, one might reply, there’s “critical thinking.” But this is something that, in the ideal situation, any active participant in the civic life of a free society would be able to employ in reading the newpaper, listening to the speeches of politicians, etc.  There’s formal logic, but if I agree with Heidegger on anything it is that logic, like shortpants, is for schoolboys.  In the good old days, when one learned anything at all at school, one learned the forms of argumentation, the fallacies together with their Latin names, etc.  This is all really just advanced critical thinking, and if I can see that q follows from p on a symbol-dense page, I still don’t believe that counts as knowing anything.  As Wittgenstein said, everything is left the same.  Finally, of course, there’s the stuff about God and the soul, which used to be the stock-in-trade of philosophy and which philosophy still can’t really dispense with, in spite of its general awkwardness around the topics.  There I am certainly as ignorant as every other human being is and always has been.

I do have some special competences.  For instance, I know how to read Latin, and I use this in my research.  But that doesn’t count as a distinctively philosophical competence, since I could be employing it to read the Pope’s encyclicals, and those sure as hell aren’t philosophy. Some people, unlike me, claim to have distinctively philosophical competences.  ‘Round hiring season, one hears quite a bit about these from young Ph.D.’s without jobs. When philosophy departments run ads in the professional publication for new hires, they ask for candidates with competences in “philosophy of mind,” “philosophy of science,” etc.  I’ve even seen “philosophy of sports and leisure.”  When the candidates come for their interviews, they are asked: “Can you do philosophy of mind?”  And they had better reply: “Oh yes I can. I can do philosophy of mind.”  And then the hopeful young things will go on to list all the other varieties of philosophy they can “do.” Doing these is crucial. These days, one “does” philosophy, and one does not “philosophize.”  Eager young grad students have now sprouted up throughout America who innocently speak of “rolling up their sleeves” and “doing some philosophy” as if this were a group activity facilitated by a hackey-sack or a waterbong.

Now I’ve read countless books filed under “philosophy.”  I’ve thought about what these books have to say, and I’ve written as much as I’ve been able in response.  But I don’t remember ever having “done” philosophy.  I don’t think I belong to the same world as one capable of saying that.

The question lingers, though: is a specialist in “philosophy of mind” comparable to an organic chemist or an archeologist of neolithic burial mounds with respect to some specialized body of expert knowledge?  Perhaps, but this is still not some body of expert knowledge that every philosopher, qua philosopher (there’s that “qua” again), must have, since as I have already said I am a tenured philosopher and I have only an inkling of an idea about it.  It is not that I am not interested in it.  I am about as interested in it as I am in organic chemistry, and rather less than I am in neolithic burial mounds. And, well, vita brevis

So then why not just say that having expert knowledge in philosophy of mind is a sufficient but not necessary condition for being a philosopher, and that there is a cluster of such bodies of expert knowledge, with family resemblances between them, and that is what makes up philosophy?  There are a few problems with this approach.  One is that the millions of scruffy undergraduates cannot be entirely wrong when they see a page of, e.g., Jerry Fodor’s “A Theory of Content” and think to themselves: that’s not philosophy!  The kids want Dasein, and will-to-power, and différance, and other stuff they can be sure they won’t understand.  I am not saying that curriculum decisions should be turned over to the students. That would be a disaster.  But Richard Rorty is at least right to say that what philosophy departments offer fails largely to live up to the sense that newcomers have that the discipline ought to be doing something rather more, well, important.  Another problem with the family-resemblance approach is that there simply are no traits that occur regularly throughout the various subdisciplines. We cannot be a family if it’s not even clear that we’re the same species.

Again, the only common threads seem to be sociological, rather than doctrinal.  We recognize each other by our ability to rattle off the names of philosophy professors who have become major public personalities; to note “where they’re at” now, Harvard, Oxford, etc.; perhaps to mention that we’ve heard how much they get paid.  Reading Brian Leiter’s “Gourmet Report” is particularly helpful for generating this sense of cohesion, and anyone aspiring to join the club would do well to study it.  Learn the cues.  Get remarked –to use Pierre Bourdieu’s sardonic term to describe the autoreproduction of homo academicus— by someone who’s been remarked in the Gourmet Report, and you’re well on your way to being a remarkable philosopher.

The long war between the “analytic” and “continental” philosophers, too, has more to do with the sociology of groups than with beliefs. “Continental” philosophers go to their own conferences, where they tend to pick up the same speech habits, even the same distinctive North American Continental Philosophy accent.  They tend to say “imbricate” a lot, which sounds a good deal more precious in English than it does in the French from which it is lifted, but the majority of “continental” philosophers do not speak French.  Analytic philosophers have moved over the past few decades from a demand for “rigor” to an interest in being, like Donald Davidson, “charitable.”  They have also gone more postmodern than they like to imagine, and nowadays before they claim anything, in writing or in conference, they describe to you the “story” they’re about to “tell.”

There is also professional humor, of course, as an important factor in giving philosophers a feeling of belonging to a community.  For the most part, though, it is about as funny as the slogans accompanying images of cats wearing sunglasses that one often find in secretaries’ cubicles.  It is palliative, occupational humor, like Dilbert, or like a bumpersticker on a union van that reads “Electricians Conduit Better”: a futile effort to overcome the poverty of a life that has been reduced to and identified with the career that sustains it.

But clearly there’s some common ground that is truly philosophical, isn’t there?  Brains in vats?  Moral dilemmas involving railway switching stations?  These topics do come up, but I must say I think about them as little as possible.  My own work is on the problem of sexual generation as it was understood and debated by what used to be called “natural philosophers” in the period extending from roughly 1550 to 1700.  No brains in vats, not even any trains, let alone switching stations.

Recently, most of my reading has consisted in 16th-century botanical compendia, or, as the Germans call them, Kräuterbücher. I am permitted to work on this topic, as a philosopher, because as a matter of historical fact many of the people who cared in the period about the topic that interests me today happen to be recognized, today, as “philosophers”: Descartes, Leibniz, and so on.  Thank God for them. Their shout-outs to, e.g., Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, who did not go down in history as a philosopher, permit me, as a philosopher, to read his work on the microscopical study of fleas’ legs and on the composition of semen.  And he’s fascinating. 

What used to be called “natural philosophy” and has since been parted out into the various science departments is, in general, fascinating.  It asks whether frogs emerge de novo from slime, and whether astral influx is responsible for the growth of crystals.  I know in advance the answer to both of these questions, but I can’t shake the feeling that reading these texts, and witnessing their authors struggling with these questions, is more edifying, and more important, than  seeking to solve the problems that happen to be on the current disciplinary agenda.

Of course, as Steven Shapin –that truly brilliant outside observer of philosophy’s “doings”– has said, anti-philosophy, like philosophy, is the business of the philosophers.  Periodically, after a long spell of failed system-building and bottom-heavy foundationalism, some guy comes along with a Ph.D. in philosophy and says: Philosophy! Who needs it!  Rorty is a good recent example, though certainly just the latest in a long line.  Diogenes of Sinope, in his own way, eating garbage and pleasuring himself in the agora, was out to show what a waste of time it is to theorize instead of simply to live, to live!  There are plenty of people who go much further, such as those who drop out of grad school after one semester because they got a B+ they didn’t like, and go into investment banking and spend their lives berating those who waste theirs in the Ivory Tower.  Now that is anti-philosophy. Rorty and Diogenes, on the other hand, remain susceptible to Shapin’s jab. They are insiders, and their denunciations only work because their social identities were already secured through a demonstration of concern for and interest in philosophy.

I do not know that I would like to join them.  I think I would sooner choose to masturbate at the mall than hope to take on Rorty’s establishment-gadfly role.  I think I would just like to keep writing about what interests me, without being asked, as I all too often am by the short-sighted philosophical presentists who hear of my various research concerns: Where’s the philosophy?!  For that is precisely the question I have been asking of them.