What is a philosopher? An unjustifiable accusation

by Arran James

Sing/In the night/In the nameless dark/Father long gone, But we bear his mark/Learn some secrets/Never tell/Stay sick,Don’t get well. (John Darnell, from The Mountain Goats’: Transcendental Youth). 

Following a conversation with a friend last night…forget the question of “what is philosophy?”. Instead ask “what is a philosopher”? Here’s an idea: a philosopher is whoever so tries to make a thought, thought itself, the thought-of-thought (or thought-in-thought) express itself from the inside. The difference between a philosopher and a scientist is thus that the philosopher dwells within thought, is interpenetrated by it; the scientist only approaches it from the outside, never enters into it, never realizes his continuity (but not identity) with it. If this sense has any sense then it is that a “philosopher” can be a scientist and a “scientist” can be a philosopher.

Our terminology needs to be rejuvenated, the nomenclature purged of its intimate betrayal of what it nominates. We need new names for things. On my blog, though I’ve not used it recently, I prefer to abandon the name “philosophy” and take up a different, but related, name. It is a kind of ironic name, a playful name, one that is faithful to philosophy proper only by way of taking leave of it (this reflects my own relationship to philosophy and so is a fully autobiographical move). Just as philosophy is philo-sophia  so I think what is required is catastrophia. Not the love of wisdom, but the love of catastrophe. Wisdom, what is that? Where does it dwell? Catastrophe? Now, that is the very heart of materiality, the very essence of history, the very meaning of our vulnerability. In Aristotelian language, catastrophe is the moment of a play, after the climax, where the characters ‘show their wounds’ and drag the “corpse” on stage. Post-nihilist pragmatism is, in this sense, a catastrophic thought.

We are wounded, but too many of us refuse to show our wounds even to ourselves. How can we hope to improve our experience of the world, to “learn how to die” en masse, if we can’t even look at our own wounded finitude? This is what it means to love the catastrophe. It is to start from inside it, from within the ruin, to turn the ruins into the very material of what we can build. The question is not “what is to be done?” but “what can be done?” When we ask this question inside the ruins of thought and in fidelity to those ruins, our mission is not one of redemption, not one of salvation, but salvage. We create from the ruins. In this regard, I draw attention to the sculptural work of Anselm Kiefer. His falling towers ask a question, held as they are in suspension: are they falling, or are under construction?