What does it mean to be a philosopher? After all, it's an odd job title. In this episode, Justin E.H. Smith asks philosopher and Point columnist Agnes Callard, What even is philosophy? What does philosophy do, and what does it take to do it? Along the way, they consider whether philosophy is meant to reveal actual truths about the world, answering abstract questions like "What is reality?" or more everyday ones like "How should I be happy?" Or could philosophy actually be a form of complaining?
Justin E.H. Smith [00:12]
Hello, and welcome to “What Is X?,” a regular podcast for The Point magazine. I am your host, Justin E.H. Smith. On each episode we investigate a question of the form “What is X?” in the manner of the great Socratic dialogues of Plato—sometimes coming up with conclusive definitions of the Xes we investigate, and sometimes ending in aporia, or in simple dead end. Today we have on the show Agnes Callard, who is a regular contributor to The Point magazine, among many other things. She is a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, and a specialist in ancient Greek philosophy. And she is the author in 2018 of the book, “Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming.” So welcome, Agnes.
Agnes Callard [01:25]
Justin E.H. Smith [01:25]
Today we are doing something that I sort of see as the "What Is X?" episode to end all "What Is X?" episodes, except that there will be more after this, so it won't actually end them. This is the signature episode, you might say, in part, because we have Agnes on and she's kind of the ideal guest for this sort of thing. But also more particularly, because the topic we're going to be investigating is "What is philosophy?" And this is a major question. And it's sort of again, the kind of ultimate question for us, because philosophy informs the questions we're investigating in all the other episodes: What is justice? What is beauty? What is history? What is memory? What is poetry? And so on. Those are all philosophical questions. And indeed, "What is philosophy?" is a philosophical question on steroids. So here we go. We're going to try to figure this out. Just to get things started, Agnes… I mean, I'm a bit embarrassed because I've been a philosophy professor for forever, I have a Ph.D. in philosophy—you would think I would know what I'm talking about when it comes to philosophy. And yet, I'm always a bit embarrassed because I find that I really don't know what exactly it is I am a professor of. And I've I've attempted to work this out, I wrote a book called "The Philosopher" that spells out so to speak at least six different ways in which "philosopher" is said, in different traditions, in different places and times. I can't choose between them. We find radically different stabs at definitions from different figures working in different traditions. Wittgenstein said that philosophy is “showing the fly the way out of the bottle,” Gilles Deleuze said philosophy is “coining concepts.” I don't think those two things are the same activity, yet they've been called by the same name. So what are we going to do? Is it even worth our while to spend an hour or so talking about this question?
Agnes Callard [04:05]
Yes, I think so. I think, you know, ne problem with the question "What is philosophy?" is that it can be posed as almost a request for like, What's your job description? What do you do? But then it can also be posed as a philosophical question. It's both of those things at the same time. And there's something embarrassing about the fact that telling people, like, your job description would require you to go on and on and on potentially forever, and have them refute you and have them talk back, etc. Right? So it's kind of this—it's ill poised somehow as a job description. You know, it's sort of natural that there'd be something embarrassing, I think about trying to give a snappy answer to it. And I find that my answer just changes a lot depending on what I'm thinking about. I always have some answer. But it’s not that the answers necessarily contradict one another. But I'm grasping some part of it at a given time.
Justin E.H. Smith [05:10]
Mhmm. So any answer you end proposing today is going to be one among many possible answers that you could give at different moments, in different contexts, depending on…
Agnes Callard [05:26]
I don't know—maybe the one from today will be so good I'll stick with it forever! Let's be optimistic. Can I tell you my first pass, right now?
Justin E.H. Smith [05:34]
Agnes Callard [05:35]
I was thinking that complaining is the thin edge of the philosophical wedge. Because I've been thinking about complaining, right? And I think that, you know, there are these forms, that complaint takes, sort of these overt forms of protest—moral complaint—and then sort of venting—kind of emotional complaint. But that both protest and venting have something that underlies them. They often express rhetorically a question one could express unrhetorically—directly, right? Like: Why is this bad thing happening to me? Why are my rights being violated? Why did my day go so badly? I can say those things protestingly or as venting, but I can just ask them. Right? And there's a way in which suffering and unhappiness raises a question for a person. It's almost that the natural form of the experience is a question. What has happened to me? How could it happen to me, or something? And that—there's something to me very, like, originally philosophical about that question. Both because it asks—it immediately sets you in a cosmos. Right? But it's also directly—it pours out from your soul. It's not somehow a question about some problem that you're not involved in.
Justin E.H. Smith [07:04]
That would seem to be at least in tension with the common understanding, in certain schools of thought, of the goal of philosophy as a kind of mental and spiritual acquiescence to necessity. For example, Epictetus: "Wise is me who accommodates himself to necessity." Arguably, you have to—maybe philosophy starts in complaint, but issues in acquiescence, or ataraxia, or a state where you no longer need to complain? And then maybe here we have the question: Which is philosophy? Is philosophy the process of getting to that state? Or is it having arrived in that stuff?
Agnes Callard [07:53]
Yeah, good. I mean, I think that in a way, the picture—the sort of therapeutic picture of philosophy that you find, yeah, in a lot of different ancient philosophical traditions, but then also in a way in Wittgenstein, in a way even in Hume… That picture—that's not how I see philosophy, but it's actually, I think, compatible with seeing philosophy as complaint. That is, as springing from complaint, right? The idea would be: There is, you know, a point of view you could have on the universe where it would cease to puzzle you that you're suffering. It would make sense to you. Right? And that would be the acceptance of necessity. And so, the philosophical activity would sort of take you from the complaint to that state, right? At that point, he would no longer be philosophizing—you'd be done, right? That's sort of what knowledge would be. My own view is more like, No, no, there's a question and you can answer it. And then when you have the answer, that's when you're done. Right? You know, this complaint can branch off, right? The solution to complaint could branch off into something like acquiescence, or it could branch off into something like knowledge of the answer. I'm more inclined to the second view.
Justin E.H. Smith [09:07]
Right, right, right. Yeah. And we can also we could discuss at length the degree of their interwovenness in various philosophical traditions, including the Stoics, right? I was thinking recently about this recent work—I forget the title of the book, you might know—by Christopher Moore, who argues that the original usage of the term "philosopher" is one where the person so called by someone else who could lightly be mocking that person, the philosopher is someone who loves wisdom, but loves it as an absent object. You love it because you don't have it yet. And in that respect, Moore goes so far as to suggest that it might be translated—philosopher might be translated as something like "wannabe sage," that is to say, someone who isn't there yet. Right? And this is beautiful, because it's both cutting the philosopher down a notch. But it's also maybe a more correct understanding of what it is we're trying to do. Right? We're trying to get there. We're not wise, we're wannabe wise people. Does that sound right?
Agnes Callard [10:30]
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that—I read that book, when he first had the proofs or whatever, so it's not in my head. But I think that, you know, in a way Aristophanes's “Clouds” is like the picture of the philosopher who is ridiculous. I mean, it is—you know, there‘s a bit of a conflation between a philosopher like Socrates and a sophist, right? But there are all these inquiries that are going on, and a kind of confusion. And then there's, of course, right and wrong argument, and the idea—or weaker or stronger argument. Right? And the idea that what a philosopher has is maybe the ability to make the weaker argument the stronger—he has this power over argumentation—rather than something like knowledge about how things are. Right? And so the idea that philosophers are masters of argument is, in a way, already a concession that we don't know anything.
Justin E.H. Smith [11:35]
Right, right, because it's the mere scaffold of thought rather than actual thinking. I mean, I've been noticing for a while—I'm very interested in ancient logic texts—and the celebration in them of the power of spurious inferences. Right? That you can use syllogism to infer to completely erroneous conclusions. And when you do, it's often very funny and powerful. So there's this mockery of the tendency of the pure structures of thinking or logic to always issue in just ridiculous farce. I find that very significant about the history of philosophy.
Agnes Callard [12:27]
Yeah, can I—a friend of mine said to me the other day, "If you worked a day in your life, you don't love what you do." Which just cracked me up, right? All it is is the contrapositive. If you love what you do, it's just the flipping of "you don't work a day in the life." Right? But if you just put it the other way it now sounds absurd.
Justin E.H. Smith [12:53]
You're absolutely right. I never thought about that. Yeah, yeah. But you know the kind of inferences I'm talking about, like, for example, when did you lose your horns? The horns arguments and and the "This goat is a mother, this goat is yours. Therefore, this goat is your mother," and things like…
Agnes Callard [13:14]
I know arguments like that from the “Euthydemus.” I'm not—I think I'm not familiar with the text you're thinking of. But there are arguments like that in the “Euthydemus.”
Justin E.H. Smith [13:22]
Sure, sure. Yeah.
Agnes Callard [13:24]
Yeah—like, if you beat your dog and your dog is a father, then you beat your father.
Justin E.H. Smith [13:28]
Yeah, that's a good one. Yeah, so well, we can maybe come back to that. That has always seemed to me like a sharp awareness of the danger of conceiving philosophy as the mere kind of forms of thinking, right? If you conceive philosophy as inherently formal without having any, kind of, even aim for a positive knowledge content, then this is the kind of gameplay you get stuck with. But I wanted to go back to the example of Aristophanes, where I gather, if I recall correctly, there's also this kind of lampooning of the fictional Socrates figure for being interested in what the causes of thunder are. Right? And this is, of course, omnipresent in the pre-Socratic philosophers, natural philosophy—understanding the water cycle, as we would call it today, things like that. But we usually think of that as mere proto-philosophy before something else is discovered. The pre-Socratics are doing something on the way to philosophy but not yet philosophy. What is that extra something?
Agnes Callard [14:52]
I think that—okay, I guess if you see the pre-Socratics… The pre-Socratics are not very easily made continuous with Socrates, but they're pretty easily made continuous with Aristotle. So, you know, if you look at the Physics, Aristotle is just engaging with Parmenides and Empedocles. And he's saying, like, "What are the basic things that the world is made up of? How many are there? Like, are they earth, air, fire and water? But then how do those things combine?" Right? I mean, in On Generation and Corruption, he's talking about, like, you know, If you're an atomist, how do you get the bits into the other bits? Right. So if you see Aristotle as full-blown philosophy, I kind of think you have to see all those as philosophers. But I guess what I would say is that they're just not as good. Like, it's kind of the beginnings, right? But you know—but somehow they're not—it's like they're approaching this problem of material constitution and mixture, but without really having an abstract framework in which to insert it. And I mean, maybe you could read the Phaedo as a critique of that. You know, because towards the end of the Phaedo, Socrates says, I was super excited about Anaxagoras, and by this idea that everything is caused by mind, but then, in addition to having mind in his story, he also had, like, these material things, and then they were supposed to be doing the work and the mind wasn't doing the work. And it's like Socrates is saying, How does that theory fit together? So I guess I'd be inclined to say it was like theorizing, that didn't sort of fit together that well. Or if you think about Parmenides, it's like raising a challenge—like a really, really profound challenge, maybe the most profound challenge anyone's ever come up with. But the positive story being like, everything is rounded, like a ball… You know, that's not that compelling. So, I don't know, that's a great question. That's my first attempt at it.
Justin E.H. Smith [16:58]
So if the natural philosophy falls out of the picture altogether, as it does with Socrates, as it definitely does not do with Aristotle, then are we losing a part of what is naturally constitutive of the full project of philosophy? Or are we rather getting down to the pure kind of core matters of philosophy?
Agnes Callard [17:29]
So, it's a really deep question, how do practical and theoretical philosophy relate to one another? How are they the same discipline? And of all the divisions in philosophy, that's the one that I find the most persistent. Like, I feel like we're really doing something pretty different. And, you know, so… I mean, one way to think about what Socrates was doing was that he was only doing practical philosophy or ethics of some kind. That's a bit anachronistic, in the sense that he didn't draw the distinction. Aristotle drew the distinction. So, you know, I think that maybe one way to think about it, though I'm not sure this is the best way, is to say, everybody has some questions that they ask about their lives, in the manner of like: Why? Or, what is this thing? "Why am I suffering?" would be the, you know, the thin edge—everyone asks that one. But some people, they don't just need to know "What kind of person should I be and how should I live?" We all need to know that. They also need to know, "What is the world made up of? What kind of place am I hanging out in, considered independently of me? What is this place? What is the reality that I'm located in?" And I think maybe that's sort of not a question that has to bother you. And that one bothers me a lot less than the practical ones. And so it might be that it's almost like there's a required part of philosophy. And then there's like an optional part. And the theoretical part is like the optional part.
Justin E.H. Smith [19:18]
Right, right, right. That's interesting. Yeah, that seems to confirm the approach of people like Pierre Hadot, who wanted to show that it's the "How should I be happy?" question that lies at the very core of our shared project. And sometimes this extends out to the resolution of such questions as: whether the basic constituents of the world are atoms, or rather homoeomeries. Sometimes it doesn't extend that far. But how could—I mean, how could you not be that interested in what kind of place we're hanging out in? You mean that?
Agnes Callard [20:03]
For me, it's not that hard to not be interested. I mean, sorry, it's not—it's not that I'm not interested at all either. Like, I can get interested when I talk to somebody who's interested. So like, if I'm reading Aristotle, I suddenly start to puzzle over, like, you know, how could there be anything like self-motion? There's this debate between Plato and Aristotle about, you know, the unmoved mover, and are there self-movers and is there some part of it that moves, some other part of it? But I need somebody else to be into it first. And then I'm engaging with that person. And if you had just—you know, if you had just left it to me, and to my interactions with others, I wouldn't have been the driving force of those questions. That's why I think of it as like a wedge, you know? So like, the thinnest edge of the wedge is like these complaints that, like, even children can be like, Why can't I have it? But that's already—it's already proto-philosophy. And then the wedge extends outward, and the very outermost parts are these questions about—yeah, I guess, like, you know, parts and wholes. And I mean, you can get very abstract with metaphysics or logic, where it seems to be very, very, very far from anything that your life drove you to ask. And so people are like, very naturally driven—like, immediately almost maximally driven all the way to the end. And I'm not one of those people.
Justin E.H. Smith [21:28]
So where do you dwell? What is your home base in philosophy?
Agnes Callard [21:33]
I think I move around. But like lately, I have—when I'm asking my own questions, I'm often just trying to engage with some other thinker, like Socrates, or something, then I'm sort of asking his questions. But if I'm asking my own questions, I've been very interested lately in emotional pain, and like what that is. In complaint, in anger. In sort of the idea that emotions are—like, they're… To me, it's very confusing thing to have an emotion, it's like not clear what that is. And it seems to be a way of grasping something, but some kind of imperfect way of grasping that thing. So anyway, I have been thinking a lot about those sorts of issues. That's maybe just one example. But that's because, like, I have these emotions, and I want to understand them. So they're presenting themselves to me as a thing that I have to understand.
Justin E.H. Smith [22:34]
Right, right. It's interesting with children who are expert complainers, and we often also praise them for being natural philosophers until they have that inculcated out or exculcated, you might say, by elementary school and other forces, but children are also good askers of purely speculative, theoretical, why questions—right?—of the sort: Why isn't there a largest number and things like that? And that is maybe just one bit of evidence for the suspicion that maybe these two things are not so far apart after all. Right? Because when you first propose it: philosophy is born of complaint. I want to say, wait a minute, no philosophy is born of just pure curiosity and wonder. And those are two very distinct things. But the way you're articulating it now makes me think I might be exaggerating their distance.
Agnes Callard [23:44]
Yeah, good. I mean, I, you know—I know Aristotle says that, like, it begins in wonder, that we all have wonder. I think that—I think wondering and curiosity are quite different, right? Thaumazein—like, to be to be amazed, right?
Justin E.H. Smith [24:02]
Agnes Callard [24:02]
Curiosity is this thing. Curiosity is something I'm interested in too. And it's this very weird thing, because you look at the original use of the word—it's a noun, right? Um, you know, curiositas is the actual noun.
Justin E.H. Smith [24:15]
Agnes Callard [24:17]
And it's a bad thing, in Augustine, Apuleius, right. It comes in as a noun to describe a kind of mental vice—being interested in stuff you shouldn't be interested in sort of indiscriminately.
Justin E.H. Smith [24:35]
Agnes Callard [24:37]
And it's so interesting to me that nowadays, everyone uses it as a positive word, as a virtue. And something I'd like to understand better, how it became so unambiguously—I don't know when this happened, historically—but a good thing, right? But you might think: Look, thinking is really dangerous. You can get down all kinds of weird paths. You can lose your way, you can get nowhere, you can waste a ton of time. It happens to me all the time, I waste so much time just thinking about stuff that I should have been disciplined and been like: stop obsessing over that thing, you know, control your mind down a certain path, right? And because of my stupid curiosity, I end up just not doing that. So I think, you know, philosophy really is the love of something. And so it is a kind of incompetence, but it involves a kind of devotion and dedication that I think is really incompatible with mere curiosity, right? I mean, one thing that's interesting about curiosity is that people often say, I'm just curious, right? There's something very unaggressive about curiosity, right? "I don't have any ulterior motives, you can trust me." I associate curiosity with a word like introvert, like, these are ways that people identify themselves to you in order to show you that they're not a threat. So curiosity has become something like that. It's become a form of intellectual engagement that is easily perceived as nonthreatening by others. And that's distracted us from the question of: Is it valuable? Is it going after anything good? It might well not be.
Justin E.H. Smith [26:13]
Right, right. Right, right. Yeah, I suppose. I mean, the valence changes in part in the early modern period, with the kind of new Baconian imperative to focus on individual instances. And then this gets kind of articulated culturally into cabinets of curiosity, and so on. But there's, I think, a propagandistic effort in all of that, to convince and assure people that curiosity is a virtue. And I don't think the case was ever fully convincingly made. I think people are still suspicious out there that if it's laid on too thick, it will come across as a kind of perversion.
Agnes Callard [26:58]
Justin E.H. Smith [27:00]
But back to complaint, though. Again, since it is your first stab, I want to pursue this a bit further. To say that philosophy is closely connected in important ways to complaining, again, places the activity of philosophy more in working through something than in having achieved that something
Agnes Callard [27:30]
That corresponds to Chris Moore's definition of philosophy, right?
Justin E.H. Smith [27:32]
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so it is something therapeutic. And it's also something that is distinct. A philosopher is not a saint [?]. You have the sages who know the motions of the heavens, and how the germ grows and things like that, as well as the nature of God and so on. But being in that state is either having already graduated from philosophy, or being somehow so special that you were able to circumvent philosophy altogether, would you say?
Agnes Callard [28:10]
Or it might just be like, you know, you're asking a set of questions, the answer to which doesn't essentially involve conversations with other people anymore. And maybe they used to, but they don't anymore.
Justin E.H. Smith [28:28]
Oh, okay. This is important. This is really important. And I know where your sympathies are, I think. And, indeed, because you and I are talking to one another right now, it's hard not to have some sympathy for this idea that philosophy is fundamentally constituted in dialogue, and dynamic between two rational conversation partners. Do you think that's a pretty firm rule for philosophy?
Agnes Callard [29:08]
Yes, I think that, in order to think—philosophical thinking, involves two people. You can't do it by yourself. That is, really fully by yourself. There's sort of versions of it. You get good at imagining an interlocutor, as a philosopher, right? That's one of the things that you're in effect training yourself to do. Or at any rate, you get better at it. And so there's a kind of simulacrum of philosophical activity that you can do on your own where you're, in effect, constructing an interlocutor for yourself, but there's no way to do it without constructing that interlocutor. Like I'm always imagining objections, right. I'm trying to have a conversation.
Justin E.H. Smith [30:00]
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, I mean, I suppose I was going to object the cases of philosophy that emerges from some sort of retreat from the world—from a cave or a monastery or what have you. But presumably that is something that occurs only when you've been in sufficient dialogue with others that you've got enough dialogues ringing in your head for the rest of your life, while you're withdrawn?
Agnes Callard [30:38]
Yeah, I mean...I guess I just don't know. I've never done that. And I've never experienced it. I've never read it, the text of such a person. Even if it were text, I mean, then they would be talking to me, right. So I can't judge it, like, maybe they get so good at simulating other people that it's not a problem. Personally, I'm not very good at simulating other people. So I feel like I've definitely made progress. But I haven't made as much progress as you would think. Here's one way that I have of thinking about it, of just how bad the problem is. Kant has this discussion of causation that I've always loved, where he talks about this difference between... I haven't reread it in probably a decade. So I'm sure I'm messing it up somehow. But you know, watching a boat go down a river or something, and you see the boat in one position, and then you see it in the second position and then you see it in the third position. That's really different from, say, you look at the floor of your room that you're in, and then you look at the wall, then you look at the ceiling, right? So those are also three different perceptions, but in the second case, they're not in order. They're in order in your mind, but they're not in that order in the world, right. So there's an objective succession that you have with the boat. But with the room, it's only a subjective succession. It's super important that we can tell the difference between those two things. Imagine if you couldn't tell the difference between subjective and objective succession, you really couldn't understand causation. And how do we tell the difference between those two things? It's super mysterious, right? But presumably, it's somehow that we interact with the world, and if we couldn't interact with the world and everything was like a movie, we couldn't tell the difference.
Justin E.H. Smith [32:28]
Agnes Callard [32:29]
Okay. So I think—and I think that I have an unusually acute experience of myself as being unable to tell the difference between those two things, not in the case of causation, but in the case of the distinction between psychological and logical succession. That is, my thoughts go in a certain order. And it seems to me like something follows from something else. I'm like, here's a good argument. I'm like, Okay, well, I just thought them in that order. Maybe it's like the room. How do I know it's like the boat? The only way I have of telling whether it's like the boat is to talk to someone else. The other person is like the world that I'm interacting with, that's giving me a sense of the objective succession.
Justin E.H. Smith [33:08]
And then they can tell you whether this is merely psychological or logical, but why should you believe that? Why should you have more faith in their account than your own?
Agnes Callard [33:20]
Yeah, great question. So I think what can happen is that they can agree with me. And then I'm like, okay, maybe this is something. Usually they don't agree right away. They push back on it, and I have to modify it... But even if you have that, you still don't know. And I think that's right. I don't know. I think I am better off. And what I do is I try then to talk to other people and to think about it in other ways, such that what I'm in effect correcting for are any idiosyncrasies of that person, right. But I don't have any way of correcting for them other than just by talking to other people, and by probing, like: Wait a minute, you only agree with me about this because of this, right? So I have to probe that actual person or talk with other people. And I think that—so this is part of what I mean by [saying philosophy is] thinking with someone else: I think there's nothing else I have than that. You might be like, Is that so much better than just being in your head? And, well, it is, if that's your only alternative? Right? I think some people think there's some other thing you could consult, you know, like some big book of facts, or something. That would be awesome. That's what the scientist kind of has, right? Galileo saw science as kind of reading from the book of nature. And I think there's no book of nature. There's just other people. That's all I have.
Justin E.H. Smith [34:46]
Mm hmm. Okay. I'm trying to find a way to broach this question of the overwhelming importance of the human in your conception of philosophy. And I think I can reveal to you, it won't come as a surprise, that I'm inclined to think that our conception of who we are is wrapped up, also, in our apprehension of an orientation to the kind of place we're hanging out. Right? That is to say, the fact, for example, that we are an evolved life form, among other life forms of essentially the same nature, is crucial for understanding who we are. And I think considerable effort has gone on in many strains of our philosophical tradition to conceal the fact that we are part of a natural world. Even if we accommodate the so-called animal body within our ontology of the human being, we tend to recognize it as a problem, or as an afterthought, or as something of a secondary rank. So I suppose one way of asking this question—this circles back to the question of natural philosophy or of, say, what the pre-Socratics were doing relative to what Socrates is doing, so it's a big question that includes really everything we've talked about so far. When Socrates says that he prefers the company of men and cities and not of trees, he is arguably zeroing in on the true and correct focus of our philosophical engagement. Or, possibly, he could be expressing the urbanist bias that characterizes our tradition. What do you think?
Agnes Callard [37:03]
I definitely think there is something like a bias there. But I think it's maybe a little deeper than urbanist? I see that as just part and parcel of the rejection of natural philosophy in the Phaedo, say. So Socrates is, as we would put it, only doing ethics. I mean, he would say, "No, I'm doing philosophy. This is philosophy." And if your only interest is in ethics, and if, in addition, you have some real serious suspicions about whether this world that we're hanging out in is like, in any sense, the real world, then it's just gonna seem kind of like a waste of time to bother too much with like, the plants. But those are big ifs. And so if you're Aristotle, and you think that the changing world around us has a systematicity to the way that it changes—and so we don't have to throw it away as mere appearances but we can even talk about things as the causes and sources of their own changing—then all of a sudden, the natural world sort of opens up to you as a place with logic. So I think that it's that bias or whatever, that you really see, even I think with the trees. One way to think about the world is that it's like, populated by these fallen gods, right? That's what you and I are, we are these souls that are nailed into some mortal stuff. And, you know, we can get as close as possible to our unsettledness by talking to one another and trying to orient ourselves towards the immaterial. If you see the world roughly in that way, you're gonna see that there's people and then there's a bunch of random stuff around the people, right? And you don't want to let yourself get distracted by the non-people stuff. On this kind of view, even the kind of afterlife cautionary tale comes out to be things like: if you don't behave yourself, you might get turned into a fish in the next life. So that's what the animals are. They're like cautionary tales of what we could get turned into if we screw up. So that's one way to look at the world. And it's a way to look at the world where orienting yourself towards human beings just seems like the correct orientation. So you'd want to be in a city so that you could orient yourself towards human beings. Because that's in a way where the logic is, like the locus of thought and rationality is in the human things that are to the extent that they're not material. But if you look at the world the way Aristotle does, and you see that trees and fish and lions and things are not just things that are subject to change, and drifting in and out of existence, but actually have a kind of logic to the way they hold together, they have an internal principle of change—that means that their changes themselves are logical, then there's logic out there. And you can study it, and you can learn it, and you can understand that the world, the empirical world that we live in, is intelligible as these little, like, glowing balls of intelligibility, that every living thing is that I think very small. And it has its own logic, right? A fish has a different logic from a tree. That point of view is then going to orient you very differently, and it's going to make the natural world seem hospitable to your mind.
Justin E.H. Smith [41:27]
Yeah, I mean, this is an approach that's been echoed over the centuries. I think of Leibniz, for example, for whom coming to know the rational order of nature, as I interpret him, really is not an activity distinct from self-knowledge. And this is part of a general kind of harmony between the mind and the natural world. That means that focus on the emotions of the heavens, or how the germ grows, is something that can't be a waste of time in a short life, or a distraction from what is most worthy of knowledge. There's so many more angles I wanted to approach this from. Really quickly: One of them is the question of how far philosophy spreads among people. This is one very good way to get a handle on it. Is everyone doing, as it were, some low-key philosophizing? Or is this something that can only be turned on by a very specific procedure? And then the same question we asked about individuals can also be asked about different cultures. Is philosophy a particular, so to speak, proper noun that describes what certain people in certain places and times do? Or is it part of, so to speak, our human heritage, our patrimony? To look for answers to this cluster of questions, I think, is pretty useful for zeroing in on a definition.
Agnes Callard [43:32]
I think that philosophy is universal, and it somehow belongs to every human being. But that doesn't mean every human being is doing it all the time or ever. I think that when you said, Is there some specific procedure—in a way the tragedy is that there is no specific procedure. There is nothing you can do to make someone philosophical, in my view. I wish there were! I wish there were some kind of algorithm or something. And it's not always easy to recognize philosophical content that is quite alien from how you think. Because philosophy involves a conversation, there may be, say, two people who are having a philosophical conversation that I cannot apprehend, at least without a quite a bit of work, as a philosophical conversation. So there's the philosophy that I'm conversant with, right. That's a certain tradition, and it's really certain people in the tradition—like, Leibniz, I don't know Leibniz very well, I'm not very conversant with him. So there are certain people who really speak to me. And I'm sort of in a conversation with them. But there's a big danger of dismissing philosophical thought that you're simply not in a position to read as philosophical. I don't know that there's always going to be some mode of translation. I don't know that there's some guarantee that you'll be able to get the translation. Other than having the people who have cottoned on to some of these questions talk to new people, we haven't come up with any other way of transferring philosophy than that.
Justin E.H. Smith [45:27]
But it's always a matter, within the limitations of the tradition that you are working with, within yourself at the outset.
Agnes Callard [45:37]
Yeah. And it's more narrow than the tradition. It's gonna be particular people in the tradition. You know, if philosophy starts in complaint, we all start as philosophers in a way. But that isn't developed in most people at that point. So the question is: What would it be to develop it? And I don't think there's some systematic way to do that. It's almost like we have to rediscover the second childhood or we have to rediscover it. If you ask philosophers, "How did you get interested in philosophy?" it's such randomness, you know, the stories about how they got keyed into it. There's nothing systematic that one can say about that. To me that's always amazing.
Justin E.H. Smith [46:18]
Right, right. Are there particularly inspired complainers in the history of philosophy?
Agnes Callard [46:27]
Nietzsche. I think Nietzsche is the greatest complainer in the history of philosophy. Interestingly, he also hates complaint. And he says it's a waste of time, and it's stupid, and it's the weak people who are complaining, and they're just trying to make other people suffer, and they're just blaming people, and he just complains and complains and complains about complainers. But he is a genius complainer. And I think that is a huge part of his philosophical appeal, that his complaining is attuned exactly to the emotions of the reader in such a way that he really pulls you in. So like, when people say, he's a great writer, he's rhetorical or whatever, for me, all of that boils down to just like how good he is.
Justin E.H. Smith [47:12]
Maybe this is a good moment to work in this longstanding preoccupation of mine, the question of the relationship between philosophy and humor, because there's a sense in which the display of humor is the display of a kind of competence that seems to be close to what we're prepared to recognize as philosophical authority. I think. And this is why in someone like Nietzsche—you know, he's complaining, and he's engaging the world under a critical eye—somehow, there's something always very, very close to comedy in it. Right? Very close.
Agnes Callard [48:00]
Yeah. So if you think about—interestingly, to me, very few philosophers have been interested in complaint as far as I can tell. Nietzsche complains about it a bit. Aristotle and Kant both say it's stupid and you shouldn't do it. But there isn't, as far as I know, not much systematic philosophical treatment of complaint. There's like a teeny-tiny recent literature. But I think that Simone Weil is an exception. She doesn't use the word that much, but she's really thinking about complaint a lot. But one thing that's interesting is that she thinks about it, and she really associates it with Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Moliere, these kind of profound moments of literature in which the characters are sort of coming forward and while complaining about the human condition. But I think there is just an equally big comic complaint literature. Tragedies complain, but comedies also complain. Stand-up comedy is pretty much usually just literally someone standing up there and complaining to you.
Justin E.H. Smith [49:02]
Agnes Callard [49:04]
And we love that.
Justin E.H. Smith [49:05]
Agnes Callard [49:05]
So I think you're absolutely right, that that speaks to the proximity of philosophy into humor.
Justin E.H. Smith [49:11]
Right, right. Right. Oh, that's fascinating. Also, well, we all have different senses of humor. I've personally always found Aristotle some kind of genius deadpanner of the prose style.
Agnes Callard [49:28]
Wow, I think you're alone.
Justin E.H. Smith [49:30]
The prose style is just so distilled down into something strange and kind of irreducibly foreign that the overall effect on me somehow is comic.
Agnes Callard [49:48]
That's funny. I find that funny but okay.
Justin E.H. Smith [49:52]
So, really quickly, what sort of things are you complaining about? What is it in your complaints that you experience as so to speak as toward philosophize?
Agnes Callard [50:06]
You mean in my own personal complaints?
Justin E.H. Smith [50:08]
Agnes Callard [50:10]
It changes because I complain—I'm a big complainer. Most recently... here's something I complain about all the time: there's people in my life that I like to talk to about philosophy, and I can't force them to talk to me all the time, whenever I want it. And it really bothers me. I'm like: Why can't I just make you talk to me and make you talk to me about all the things I want to talk about? For like, six or seven straight hours… Because you're like: Oh, I have other things to do. And I'm just like: Why? Why do you have other things? How could anything be more important than this question that I have that I need you to talk about in my terms? And [when] you're talking to me, I'm like, "Look, assume this and this," and you're like, "I don't want to assume those things. Those seem true." And I'm like, "But this is how I want to think this!" I'm such a radical, a little bit, in philosophical conversation. And these are my assumptions, this is what I'm working with, I'm trying to go from here to here, I need you to help me, because I literally cannot think by myself. So I'm, like, stuck, my brain is broken, and I need you to help me, I need to farm some of this out to you. And the other person is like, "Leave me alone." And so I complain about this all the time in my daily life, like with my husband, my friends: Why won't you let me talk to you and annoy you with philosophy? But then I've become interested in the question on here, why can't we do something I've become interested in lately over the past couple past week or two? Like, why can't I just go up to people and ask them philosophical questions? Why is that not allowed? Why aren't I in charge of everybody's mind? I'm both complaining about this—like actually complaining, like actually a bit annoyed—and at the same time, I'm actually asking it. I can feel it transitioning from just a pure complaint into, like, a question. And that's just the way a lot of questions are born for me.
Justin E.H. Smith [51:45]
Oh, that's fascinating. That is fascinating. And I never really thought about complaint before, in this way. I think there's a surge of interest in recent philosophy in anger, outrage, and people tend to discuss these in regard to their justice, you know, given in any given case, whereas with your focus on complaint, it seems to be intentionally kind of unanchored to the question whether the person has good cause for complaint. It's the complaint itself that is of interest, and the trigger of the complaint that is somehow incidental.
Agnes Callard [52:40]
Yes. This is something where I'm kind of inspired by Weil, because what she thinks is that, look, there's a certain kind of logic of speech about human rights and stuff, that is kind of—here's how I would put it to how she puts it—the politicization of complaint. There's some official language that I'm allowed to use, and the official language that we've come up with, the official normative language, I call it protest. So that's this kind of normative stuff, and people are angry, but there's something that underlies that, if something is getting translated into protest. Right? And that's a question, and that's part of why the issue of justification doesn't arise. She says it's infallible. She doesn't say why it's infallible, but my interpretation is because it's a question, and a question can't be wrong. The answer could be wrong, but the question can't be wrong. And so what happens to this question—Why am I being hurt? For her that's the fundamental formulation: Why am I being hurt?—is, we then, in order to get purchase on other people, we translate it into: here are my rights and you're not allowed to do this to me, to protest. And then we get anger and all that, but for her, that's the tip of an iceberg. And the iceberg is the question.
Justin E.H. Smith [53:55]
So interesting. I mean, the politicization of complaint. Just maybe one final thought from you on this would be interesting. And then we can try to see where we're at, we can take the measure of this discussion. But in contemporary culture, notably on social media and the widespread discourse of self-care and of therapy as a form of political resistance: Is this a culture of complaining made political, or is it complaint being deployed in a place where it's only strainedly politicized? What has happened there?
Agnes Callard [54:40]
I think any time complaint can get purchased on large groups of people and be expressed in a kind of public way, it has been politicized, which is to say it has been translated in some way, so as to probably suppress a lot of the inquisitive part of it and which is the part that I think we have the hardest time tolerating and in effect, talk about some way in which it's all okay. Right? So the question is: How is this okay? Right? The intuitive answer is, it's not. But then we have these answers. One kind of answer is political change: we're going to make it okay, we're going to punish the wrongdoer, we're going to make sure this doesn't happen again. Look, we'll change it, and then it will be okay. You'll have nothing to ask about. Or: oh, look, maybe just by expressing it, by saying it, now you've gotten it out of your system, and now you're okay. So I would say part of what's going on with the politicization is, it's an attempt to handle the question in any way other than by answering it. To kind of manage the question. I think a lot of the anger stuff is question management.
Justin E.H. Smith [55:52]
So interesting. What are the prospects for philosophe engage? Is that something that can only exist in a fragile balance between competing commitments? Or is it the model up to which every philosopher should aspire?
Agnes Callard [56:16]
Every philosopher has to be engaged, like at the very least with their students.
Justin E.H. Smith [56:21]
Agnes Callard [56:22]
But I do think it's a weird time to be a philosopher. I'm trying to figure out the answer to your question, and I'm not sure. Like, I'm working it out.
Justin E.H. Smith [56:34]
Agnes Callard [56:37]
You know, I guess there is—I definitely feel that in order for my philosophical thinking to remain answerable to the questions that are actually driving my life, that project somehow requires me to talk to more people than academic philosophers. I don't think it's an a priori truth that those things would become disconnected, but I feel that they have. So in order to be engage in one sense—for my philosophical thinking to be coming from as authentic a place as complaint, where there's something I actually want to know, because I need to know it, in order to move on—I need to also be in a way answerable to speaking it in a form that is in a broader, broader communication than the set of professional philosophers who work on that topic.
Justin E.H. Smith [57:48]
Right, right, right, right. And that's just a contingent fact. If the condition of our intellectual communities were different then we might feel more easily contented.
Agnes Callard [58:00]
Yeah, I almost feel paradoxically like it's partly because of how many professional philosophers there are. If there were only a few of them, then in speaking to each of them, I would have to be speaking in some way to a whole human being. But there are so many that the group I would be speaking to, if I spoke to professional philosophers, would be like people who spent their entire careers working on anger or something. And it's like, I don't want to talk about anger to someone who is—I mean, I don't only want to talk to those people, they're great to talk to. But if I only talk about anger to somebody who has spent their whole career working on anger, then there's a kind of conversation I don't get to have. I would have gotten to have it if I would have had to have that conversation with an epistemologist or something. Because there's like, you know, eight people that I'm in possible philosophical conversation with, and those are the people I have to talk to. It's sort of size of the fields, the global situation, and the possibilities for communication, has made it be the case that within philosophy, it's not very natural to be interdisciplinary.
Justin E.H. Smith [59:10]
Right, right, right. Oh, listen, I mean, we are meandering. We've been talking longer than an episode ordinarily goes. And I kind of feel like I am probably hearing some wind blowing. That signals another classic case of aporia. I mean, I like what you're saying about complaint as a kind of element in the production of philosophical inquiry. It's incredibly interesting and the fact that we pass over it so typically, as a motor of philosophical insight, I think is really interesting. Again, I've never even thought of it as a definition of what kind of work has to be there in order to have philosophy there. I'm not so sure.
Agnes Callard [1:00:24]
Can I defend it very briefly?
Justin E.H. Smith [1:00:26]
Agnes Callard [1:00:26]
As a definition, it's not a good definition. Except if your model of the definition is, say, Socrates in the Meno, giving an example of definitions. He says, I want you to define virtue the way I'm about to define shape. And he says, "Shape is that alone of all existing things that always follows color."
Justin E.H. Smith [1:00:46]
Agnes Callard [1:00:48]
I love that definition. And it's not a definition, right. But what it is, is: Suppose you knew colors, but you didn't know shapes? You could take the colors, and you could use them, you could look at the color boundaries, and suddenly the shapes pop up. And so it's a definition of a kind. Namely, it guides you to the thing you were looking for, by way of something else that you found easier to hook on to.
Justin E.H. Smith [1:01:14]
Agnes Callard [1:01:15]
But in a lot of other ways, it's not a good definition. Socrates goes on and gives two other definitions that Meno prefers. The limit of a body and the definition of color in terms of, you know, little shapes that fit into your eye, right? So there are these more abstract definitions that do that work differently. So this is the definition of a kind, I agree with you. It's a weird kind of definition.
Justin E.H. Smith [1:01:38]
Right. But again, I feel like it's not like you have defined the field so much as discovered an element within the field. And that's a pretty valuable thing to have as well. All right, so listen, once again, this is "What Is X?" I'm Justin E. H. Smith, and Agnes Callard and I were talking today about philosophy and what it is, and I think we still don't know, but I don't think that it's all been a waste of time for that. So thanks again, and we'll see you here next time.