The Philosopher: A History in Six Types

Justin E.H. Smith. Princeton University Press, 2016. 288 pages. $27.95.

By Sarah Gustafson

Justin E.H. Smith (ΦBK, University of California-Davis, 1994) produced in The Philosopher: A History in Six Types a thoughtful, provocative, and quietly confident account of what it is to do philosophy. Thoughtful because his prose and reflections are accessible without making any concessions intellectually. This is a book for those with a vibrant intellect, those who “do philosophy” without being “philosophers.” Provocative because he wrestles with philosophy as a “discipline” to be mastered as opposed to an exercise in thought. Quietly confident because he offers it as one of many different ways to understand the history of philosophy, but as a history much needed to “elucidate a particular opposition that has been brought into service by philosophers seeking to define what is and what is not philosophy.” 

Smith insists there is no progression towards more or less enlightenment in this account. That said, he presents overarching trends that end in the modern university. That the book revolves around the question of “who does philosophy?” raises three separate issues: that of “who,” that of “does,” and that of “philosophy.” “Who” is in the canon has been discussed on university campuses very stridently recently, and though Smith hardly knocks down traditional Western philosophers, he stresses an obvious but often forgotten point: they became “philosophers” in specific historical ways. “A story needs characters,” he writes and “we observe the recurrence, in a number of different times and places, of a few basic types of thinker, all of whom have been held to be ‘philosophers.’” The six types– the Curiosus (Curiosa), Sage, Gadfly, Ascetic, Mandarin, and Courtier – represent a rich bare minimum, capable of producing many different variations. He reminds us that among the Curiosi were many Curiosae. “Many of the adepts of early modern experimental philosophy were women,” even if the narrowing field of “philosophy” eventually excluded them. That the life of the “true” philosopher evolved into “something akin to life in a monastic order” happened through individual lives and biases. As Nietzsche insisted, and Smith quotes, “Heraclitus, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer – they were not married and, further, one cannot imagine them as married. A married philosopher belongs to comedy, that is my rule.”  No women, not one, not anywhere. That women students and faculty today “feel less than at home in the milieus of professional philosophy flows directly and inescapable from the way philosophy continues to define itself as an intellectual project.” The canon need not be blown up or replaced, but simply recognized for what it is: a historical product, fallible, incomplete, circumscribed. It is by wondering what is philosophy and has been that the canon can exist alongside other “philosophy.” Smith’s approach to the canon is a breath of fresh air, and ultimately much more inclusive than exclusionary anti- or pro-canon perspectives. 

The issue of sex is not the only one broached. Smith has an incredibly apt description of the problem of defining philosophy: 

“Most would find odd the claim that there is an indigenous tradition of Polynesian ballet, not because anyone believes Polynesians are inherently incapable of appreciating or mastering this sort of dance, but simply because, as a matter of contingent historical fact, ballet emerged in Europe… Ballet is by definition European. If it later appears anywhere else in the world, it does so by diffusion or appropriation, and not by chance, or in virtue of some innate, universal human capacity. 

“One way to approach the difficult question as to the nature of philosophy is to ask: is philosophy a human activity more like ballet, or is it more like dance? That is, is it a particular cultural tradition, or is it a universal human activity with many distinct cultural inflections?”  

This passage comes from the chapter entitled “Philosophy and Philosophia, featuring the Sage,” in which he defines “philosophy” as the universal human activity and Philosophia as that branch with a Western – both Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian, sometimes Muslim – heritage. The nomenclature is a necessary issue to work through, though it will never be satisfactorily fixed. In regard to the ballet metaphor, we could ask: can there be peasant or folk ballet? Does the form we would label “folk ballet” have the same merits as ballet as high art? Can ballet be self-taught? Can one be a ballerina simply by dancing ballet? Can the word “ballerina” be applied to a man? What makes one a successful ballerina, doing it to a certain standard (set by whom?), and/or doing it as a vocation? And if one does it as a vocation, how essential is remuneration? All these questions involve an “in-crowd” and “out-crowd,” whether along the lines of East/West, low/high, male/female, unaccredited/accredited, dependent on the market or not. These are what Smith wrestles with throughout the book. He bemoans that true philosophy – distinguished from a form professionalized by university and market forces that muddle “the distinction between getting paid and selling out,” that force specialization as opposed to creative thought, and that build barriers to entry via accreditation and exclusionary disciplinary constructs – may need to relocate from “a rapidly putrefying university landscape.” 

But perhaps that will not come to pass. No matter how much philosophy is defined by agreement “shared or coerced” about what it is not, it has always also been a product of those who practice it, whether or not we would classify them as philosophers, or as writers, poets, scientists, etc. Smith refers to this book as a move of “calculated risk” for one who is not an “accredited philosopher” but a historian of philosophy. It is also a beautiful call for openness, for liberal minds and spirits, for both disruption and inclusion in the interest of deeper thought and a real competition of ideas. 

Sarah Gustafson (ΦBK, Davidson College, 2014) has a master’s degree in history of political thought and intellectual history from University College London, where she won the Quentin Skinner Prize for her dissertation on Alexis de Tocqueville. Currently based at the American Enterprise Institute, she looks forward to her pursuit of a PhD in European and intellectual history.