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The Philosopher’s Audience: A Problem

The Philosopher’s Audience: A Problem

Since the beginning of philosophy, people have debated about who should be philosophizing because it is understood that the philosophy arrived at will, in some manner, reflect the nature of the philosopher. Plato, for example, argued that only people over the age of thirty should be allowed to become philosophers:

Now, when a man is in this state, and the questioning spirit asks what is fair or honourable, and he answers as the legislator has taught him, and then arguments many and diverse refute his words, until he is driven into believing that nothing is honourable any more than dishonourable, or just and good any more than the reverse, and so of all the notions which he most valued, do you think that he will still honour and obey them as before?

Impossible.

And when he ceases to think them honourable and natural as heretofore, and he fails to discover the true, can he be expected to pursue any life other than that which flatters his desires?

He cannot.

And from being a keeper of the law he is converted into a breaker of it?

Unquestionably.

Now all this is very natural in students of philosophy such as I have described, and also, as I was just now saying, most excusable.

Yes, he said; and, I may add, pitiable.

Therefore, that your feelings may not be moved to pity about our citizens who are now thirty years of age, every care must be taken in introducing them to dialectic.

Certainly.

There is a danger lest they should taste the dear delight too early; for youngsters, as you may have observed, when they first get the taste in their mouths, argue for amusement, and are always contradicting and refuting others in imitation of those who refute them; like puppy-dogs, they rejoice in pulling and tearing at all who come near them.

Yes, he said, there is nothing which they like better.

And when they have made many conquests and received defeats at the hands of many, they violently and speedily get into a way of not believing anything which they believed before, and hence, not only they, but philosophy and all that relates to it is apt to have a bad name with the rest of the world.

Too true, he said.

But when a man begins to get older, he will no longer be guilty of such insanity; he will imitate the dialectician who is seeking for truth, and not the eristic, who is contradicting for the sake of amusement; and the greater moderation of his character will increase instead of diminishing the honour of the pursuit.

Republic, Book VII

Plato’s is not the only answer on offer. Others have suggested that only men become philosophers. Only the intelligent. Only the healthy. That everybody should be a philosopher. That nobody should philosophize.

I am not here writing to posit my own answer to the question of whom should be permitted or encouraged to engage in philosophy. I rather want to point to the agreed-upon importance of the “who” to the “what”: the nature of the philosopher and that influence upon the philosophy which follows.

By analogy, we might picture this as being akin to observing that two different engineers with different aesthetic preferences and inclinations, set with the task of spanning the same river, may build two completely different kinds of bridges, even when provided with the same materials for the task.

But suppose these two engineers are provided with different materials. Suppose they are spanning different spaces, of different dimensions, with differing ground and wind and water patterns. Even two engineers who were identical in nature, education, and stylistic preference would likely produce different types of bridges. Though individual personality will still come through in the final product, the external context dictates certain constraints in the design and construction of the bridge.

While the nature (age or otherwise) of a philosopher is akin to the nature of the engineer, it would be silly to try to predict the quality or style of a philosophical undertaking without similar regard to the source material and setting of his product. To the philosopher, his ground, wind, water, and river to span — his external context — is his audience. As with the engineer, the inner nature of the philosopher will certainly dictate aspects of his final work, but perhaps to a much lesser degree than the external context and its demands: his audience.

If we care about who is philosophizing on the grounds of the effect of personality upon the thoughts which the philosopher expounds, then we should care as much if not more about who the philosopher is speaking to.

Understanding the history of philosophers and their contextual audience — purely in relation to each other — is sufficient to establish the point. Aristotle’s philosophy seems to have been — in part — a rebuke to Plato. Virtually all of medieval philosophy was a history of Christians and Muslims attempting to synthesize Plato and/or Aristotle into their own religious systems. Kant’s entire work began as a response to David Hume’s skepticism. Meanwhile, Hume, being an Enlightenment philosopher (the Enlightenment being the rediscovery of Ancient Greece, specifically, Greek reason) was borrowing from the Greek school of Skepticism founded by Pyro. The “post-modern” movement would be incomprehensible without an understanding of the modernism (Enlightenment) which immediately preceded it. In the same way, the Frankfurt School in the mid-20th century would be completely incomprehensible without appreciating Hitler’s Germany and the rise of fascism immediately before.

This is not to say that one can, in a deterministic fashion, predict exactly what a philosopher will become based merely upon historical and other external circumstances. But these external circumstances do establish the world that the philosopher addresses himself toward. They shape his objects of focus and the direction of his inquiry. The philosopher is an engineer of language, and the historical, cultural, religious, and linguistic context of his audience is the river over which he is attempting to build his bridge. It is impossible for his audience not to shape and direct his philosophy.

Given this observation, and given the care we take in evaluating who is philosophizing, the following question emerges: what is the proper audience for a philosopher?

If the audience shapes the philosophy more dramatically than the nature of the philosopher himself, this may actually be among the more profound questions a philosopher ought to answer on his own account. “To whom should I be speaking? To whom should I be directing my philosophical attention?”

Unfortunately, the ability of the philosopher to approach this matter objectively is obstructed by the realities of life. Philosophers, like Socrates (and other men), are mortal. They require food and water and sleep and electricity and so forth. They have to make a living. They have bills to pay. Doing anything well requires practice, and a professional will always be better than an amateur simply because they can devote more time and focus to their efforts. This is no less true in philosophy than in any other undertaking. The professional philosopher makes his living by teaching, writing, lecturing, debating, and so forth. His livelihood depends upon scaling up the audience for his books, lectures, and classrooms.

In short, the philosopher’s means of sustenance stack the deck against approaching the audience question with an open mind. The material necessities of life in today’s society presuppose a particular answer to the question of whom one’s audience should be. Academic philosophers emerge as philosophers already deeply invested in an answer to that question, which is this: the proper audience for a philosopher is everybody. And this audience in turn shapes the attention, style, language, perhaps even the beliefs of the philosopher.

Does this then make the most successful philosopher the one who reaches the largest audience? Perhaps most philosophers are unwilling to say that Ayn Rand or Jordan Peterson are the “best” philosophers… that is, of course, if we do not permit Joe Rogan and other comedians to be considered philosophers, which is itself a troublesome distinction to make decisively if the audience and, therefore, judge of a philosopher is everyone. Even if such popular “philosophers” are dismissed as inferior to higher-caliber philosophers as Hegel, Husserl, Wittgenstein and Williams (and indeed, it is unclear how this distinction is to be made unless a similar distinction is made regarding the proper audience for philosophy; no ordinary person is going to read Hegel), there is nevertheless a philosophical convergence towards the mean of the universal audience, not merely in the philosopher’s style of communication, but in the ideas themselves.

This is not to say that some philosophers will not continue to produce obscure and interesting ideas (I think that Curt Doolittle is an excellent modern example of such a philosopher). But the ones which rise to popularity and shape the thinking of the broader audience will be the ones which are comprehensible to this broader audience. This is not merely a matter of simplicity in language, but matching tastes. As soon as the philosopher begins tailoring his work to the public in pursuit of acceptance and legitimacy, the philosophy he expounds becomes a product of this audience.

This process is not unique to a universal public audience; it would hold true even if the audience was the philosopher alone, pondering and expounding from himself to himself. The audience still shapes the philosophy. The question is not whether this is good or bad — it simply is. The question is what the proper audience for a philosophy ought to be, and the problem is that the incentives of survival prejudice the philosopher towards a universal audience, creating philosophies directed toward everyone which are refined into more persuasive and sophisticated-sounding positions due to the practice and professionalism invested in their tacit answer to the audience question… but not necessarily true because of their persuasiveness!

This undermining of objectivity in answering the audience question does not, by itself, prove that a universal public isn’t the appropriate audience either. That very well may be the best audience, depending upon the metric one takes up in attempting to address the audience question. The point is that the economic viability and personal success that follows from taking a universalist answer to “whom should my audience be?” does not in any way prove that philosophically, universalism is the best answer to the audience question. It merely shows that the question is, as yet, unanswered, though it is clearly an important question to address for any philosopher keen on following Socrates’ admonition to “know thyself.”

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. A very interesting article, thank you. It made me think – how might the pursuit of our goals (doing philosophy, for example) change if the need to satisfy the market relations of demand and supply was taken out of the equation. For instance, if a decent universal basic income would be available and allowed everyone to “have” a living instead of “making” it. Surely, this would substantially change the external context. However, a philosopher’s wish to be heard and his ideas recognized would, I think, still remain also in this case. Yet, perhaps it would give many a better opportunity to “know themselves”. Omce again – thanks for this post.

    1. There’s an old strain of aristocratic thought which would support UBI for exactly that reason; the importance of leisure (I think that one of the Frankfurt philosophers actually took a similar line). It’s a psychologically complex issue, but definitely an interesting one.

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