Who is Your Favorite Philosopher Ever! A group of graduating philosophers contemplate their favorite thinkers — and discover this is a surprisingly difficult question.
Nietzsche called on the ‘philosophers of the future’ to use wisdom as a form of disruption — as a way to re-imagine the possibilities of human thinking, living, being. Don’t we need this now, more than ever? As we look to change the future, so much of our wisdom is in the past, a grand repository calling for our exploration, our inner transformation.
And yet the effects of our encounters with philosophers’ ideas are never equal. Like travelling into a strange land, sometimes we see a whole horizon open up before us and all we want to do is wander for hours, not even caring if we become lost. Others strike us as impenetrable, frustrating forests, or bombastic shouts from studious mountains. Rarely to we leave these encounters with great minds, unchanged. But some reach into us further and deeper, for reasons that are never fully accountable, not even to ourselves.
For me, it has always been Plato. I remember when I first came across the Republic, I could scarcely believe that I was reading philosophy at all. What struck me more than anything was the luxuriousness of time, the open space of the Agora where arguments did not emerge, but characters! Stepping into the scene from a world as substantive as the very pillars of the Parthenon.
It was a quality I had not experienced before. Only much later, and completely by accident, I came upon the original meaning of this word — ‘quality’ — from a now obscure etymologist called Owen Barfield:
“…the word quality is used by most educated people every day of their lives, yet in order that we should have this simple word, Plato had to make the tremendous effort (it is one of the most exhausting which man is called on to exert) of turning a vague feeling into a clear thought. He invented the new word “poiotes”, “whatness” as we might say, or “of-what-kind-ness”. (Barfield, 1967: 18–19).
It was the visceral substance of philosophy itself that so struck me — philosophy that you could hear and see and breathe. Philosophy that lived. But what drove it all? Of course — a question. ‘What is justice’? Eventually. For first, there had to be a gathering.
In Plato’s time, to ask about quality and the nature of thinking, we would need to raise a more concrete question: what does it mean to gather? Different kinds of thinking were associated with different kinds of gatherings. Philosophical gatherings embodied one aspect of the meaning of this word — fellowship, companionship, in the service of a search for knowledge and truth.
To gather can also mean to assemble, and in the Republic Plato represents the assembly as a “large and powerful animal” whose “moods and wants…tastes and desires” comprise the ‘knowledge’ of sophists who manipulate this “creature” for their own self-interested ends.
The famous digression in the Theaetetus presents the gatherings in the law courts as akin to a state of slavery, where the “man of the law-courts” is “always in a hurry when he is talking; he has to speak with one eye on the clock…his adversary standing over him” compared with the philosopher whose mind “pursues its winged way throughout the universe”.
Ways of thinking implied kinds of existence, a type of relation with oneself and others, mediated by love of wisdom itself. But more fundamentally, attitudes to knowledge, truth and value amounted to a consequence for human happiness.
I once had a philosophy teacher who asked a question that has always stuck in my mind: is it possible to desire what already fulfills you? It was only after I had read the Republic that I understood the world of that question. The world of philosophy as a form of life, existence.
From this vision of the past, we now pass on this question to our thinkers of the future — who is your favorite philosopher (or favorite philosophical idea / concept)? Why? How has this disrupted your self, your view the world / the future?