“What is a philosopher?” — Apparently a “hip” white dude

Simon Critchley recently began a philosophy column for the New York Times, and his inaugural post poses the question “What is a Philosopher?”. Here’s the post:


Below, I argue that Critchley’s philosopher practices the logic of hipness. As I detail in my recent article in Contemporary Aesthetics (http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=549) , “hipness” is a masculine disidentification with certain privileged masculinities (e.g., white and/or bourgeois ones) whose purpose is to prove or demonstrate one’s superior masculinity (and privilege) to these groups with which one disidentifies. To simplify, the hipster says: “I’m SO incredibly privileged that I can disidentify with/reject/rebel against the conventional signs/attributes of privilege and still receive the benefits of that privilege.” This disidentification for the purpose of demonstrating unqualified privilege is at the heart of Critchley’s definition of a philosopher.

Critchley’s response to his question is that a philosopher is someone who disidentifies with the status quo in order to prove how superior he (gendered language is intentional here) is to others privileged in this status quo. The status quo is the world of necessity. “The philosopher,” as “the person who has time or takes time,” rejects or rebels against the constraints posed by corporeal and social needs. Insofar as the philosopher is unconstrained by needs, “the freedom of the philosopher consists in either moving freely from topic to topic or simply spending years returning to the same topic out of perplexity, fascination and curiosity”. The philosopher is not only rejecting the “economic” world of “time and money,” but also the oikos, the domestic, the sphere where needs are met. So, one definition of a philosopher is: he who rejects femininity/the feminine/women’s work. Given the recent study finding that female scientists continue to do a disproportionate amount of housework relative to male scientists (http://chronicle.com/article/Female-Scientists-Do-More/63641/), Critchley’s claim that philosophers reject the oikos normalizes maleness/masculinity and makes it difficult for female philosophers to be seen as “real” philosophers.

The other side of this first definition of “philosopher” is he who disidentifies with the time-money economy. Here is where the logic of hipness is most evident. Unlike those most socio-economically privileged in contemporary society—professionals, businesspeople, and politicians—the philosopher rejects the tokens by which privilege is conferred and recognized (e.g., wealth, success, etc.). As Critchley puts it, “because of their laughable otherworldliness and lack of respect social convention, rank and privilege, philosophers refuse to honor the old gods and this makes them politically suspicious, even dangerous.” I think Critchley is romanticizing and overestimating the “danger” philosophers are thought to pose to society. While a Texas school district may try to ban Bill Martin’s book on Ethical Marxism, their attempt to do so only made them a laughingstock (they mistook Martin the philosopher for Martin the children’s book author. And, may I add, Bill Martin the ethical Marxist is probably the least dangerous and friendliest guy in the profession). Philosophers are only seen as “dangerous” if they don’t have the very tokens of privilege they reject (whiteness, masculinity, bourgeois class status). When white dudes who don’t too closely resemble indigent people exhibit “otherworldliness and lack of respect [for] social convention, rank, and privilege,” they are merely seen as “laughable”. However, when, say, Angela Davis does this, or when white women, or queers, or people of color do this, they’re not thought to be “laughable,” but dangerous. When the philosopher is a white dude, his rejection of the tokens of privilege further confirms his privilege—this is the logic of hipness at work. While the philosopher may romanticize his perceived “dangerousness” or “nonconformity,” viewing himself as more “free” than the non-philosopher, this rebellion appears as a source of freedom or leisure, and not a source of persecution, because he has the privilege to not be considered a serious threat (just “laughable” and “ridiculous”).