Who is a Philosopher? with Jason Reza Jorjani


thinking aloud

conversations on the leading edge of

knowledge and discovery with

psychologist Jeffrey Mishlove hello and

welcome I'm Jeffrey Mishlove today we're

going to explore the topic of who is a

philosopher with me is philosopher Jason

Reza George Ani he's on the faculty of

the New Jersey Institute of Technology

and he is the author of several books

including Prometheus and Atlas world

state of emergency and a new anthology

of 20 essays on great philosophers

called lovers of Sofia welcome Jason

it's a great pleasure to be with you

again Geoffrey it's a pleasure to be

with you as well philosophy frankly

seems to have lost its way I've heard

one philosopher put it this way that

they spend too much time thinking about

the meaning of meaning rather than the

meaning of life is that your opinion yes

it's because the various empirical

Sciences have disintegrated from out of

philosophy to the point where philosophy

as a distinct discipline has been

construed as an analysis of linguistic

meaning an analysis of the propositions

used in various specialized sciences

mmm-hmm it's almost a subdivision of

logic or something that's right a

handmaiden of the sciences and as it

were and it's not how philosophy

originated I mean the very word

philosophy means the love of wisdom does

it not and that's right I think this is

a fundamental betrayal of the purpose of

philosophy and of what it means to be a

philosopher mm-hmm and I guess one might

say it's a process that has occurred

gradually I mean philosophy as a as a

discipline is is maybe the oldest of all

academic disciplines yes I mean the

inception of philosophy in a sense

is contemporaneous with the founding of

the Academy of course the first Academy

was the Academy of Plato perhaps you

could see the Pythagorean Order as a

predecessor to an extent yeah but you're

right that this has been a gradual

process however it's been a gradual

process that's only really taking place

over the last couple of hundred years

mm-hmm because prior to maybe 300 years

ago people who engaged in science were

considered natural philosophers yes even

less than 300 years ago because

Descartes Galileo and Newton were all

referred to as philosophers it's really

only in the 1800s that physics first

breaks away from philosophy defines

itself as a distinct field of human

activity let's say and this was really

an insult leveled by certain

philosophers against others by defining

themselves as physicists the word

physics goes back to the word for nature

in Greek fuzes these philosophers who

had adopted materialism and mechanistic

reductionism we're trying to say to the

other philosophers we're the only ones

who really have a handle on what nature

is the rest of you are just basically

trading in mere opinions and speculation

so the first of the sciences to

distinguish itself from philosophy as

physics in the early 1800s and then

subsequently biology was established as

a distinct discipline and the last of

the major branches of philosophy to

differentiate itself as an empirical

science with psychology sometime in the

late 19th century early 20th century you

might say that William James was perhaps

the last philosopher psychologist that's

right yeah well

it's it's sad that this has happened and

in a way it's as if philosophy has lost

its way it's more than sad it's a

catastrophe because although I just

mentioned the empirical sciences its

although also the case that what we

refer to as political science was a

branch of philosophy until the 20th

century political philosophy is what we

now refer to as political science I mean

Aristotle and Plato were political

scientists to refer to their

contemplation of justice in a rather

anachronistic fashion and yet on the

other hand I think it's fair to say that

if science had not become specialized we

wouldn't have seen all the progress that

we mean the last hundred hundred and

fifty years have shown just incredible

transformations in human society due to

science that's a fair point

in order to make concrete breakthroughs

in the sciences and also in

technological applications of you know

scientific discovery you need to

demarcate a more focused realm of

problems and you need to assume a

certain framework of knowledge what we

call a paradigm without that you can

advance specific theories or test

distinct hypotheses however it's not the

case that Aristotle was unaware of this

Aristotle drew a distinction between

people who work in epistemic what we

would call science and people who are

seekers of no ASUS or who are operating

contemplating in the realm of Nueces so

you know you can have defined oasis well

higher intellectual contemplation of

abstract concepts and fundamental

principles whereas epistemic is the

acquisition and classification of

knowledge so it isn't as if there were

not specialized researchers in the time

of Aristotle they just wouldn't have

been considered philosophers mm-hmm I

mean there were I suppose geographers

sure but I mean Aristotle conducted the

dissections of biological organisms in

his laboratory

he also ran a political science think

tanks and he had people employed in

those writing the Constitution's of

various Greek city-states on contract

not all of those people employed by

aristotle as at his think tanks would

have been considered philosophers what

we've lost is that type of activity

that's synthetic and that has the

capacity to encompass what we've

differentiated as all of the fields of

scientific inquiry and to call into

question the fundamental framework in

terms of which various types of

scientific research take place well in

addition to science having disassociated

itself from philosophy you have branches

of philosophy now where typically I

think if you get hired in academia

you're expected to be a specialist in

ontology or political theory or

epistemology or the ancient Greeks or

some other particular branch of

philosophy very few generalists any

longer that's right the branches of

philosophy are metaphysics or ontology

and by the way before I go on to the

other ones let me just point out that

this term metaphysics that has such a

mysterious connotation these days and

that's been dismissed by many analytic

philosophers has a very mundane origin

when they were trying to classify the

writings of Aristotle there was a set of

texts that wasn't really physics and it

was sort of left over after all the

other classifications including biology

and psychology Aristotle wrote treatises

on biology and psychology and so they

called this the stuff after physics or

stuff beyond physics metaphysics really

it's not at all

distinct from ontology mmm-hmm and so

what ontology is is the logic of being

it concerns questions about the ultimate

nature of reality and the fundamental

principles of the cosmos mmm-hmm

a contemplation of nature including

human nature then epistemology concerns

the theory of knowledge what did he what

it means for some

to be knowledge rather than mere opinion

and of course this was the starting

point for philosophy and the classical

Greek society around the time of

Socrates Socrates is depicted by Plato

in his dialogues as someone who's

constantly challenging the arbitration

of mere opinion the decision-making in

terms of political life in terms of the

good sacred ideals and so forth on the

basis of mere opinion where anyone in

everyone thinks that essentially they're

qualified to pass judgments on these

questions so epistemology goes all the

way back to plato's attempt to demarcate

knowledge as distinct from opinion truth

as something distinct from mere

semblance mm-hmm and then we have ethics

and which is relatively self-explanatory

let's just say provisionally for the

moment and we have politics and you know

ideally one's politics one's political

philosophy should be grounded in one's

understanding of ethics

finally there's aesthetics and this is

not something trivial at all because you

know it could be argued that the ethical

life can only be properly comprehended

on the basis of aesthetic judgment that

basically the way one weaves the fabric

of one's ethos or character requires

aesthetic judgment and then again that's

reflected in a certain political theory

or another a certain political

Constitution so these are the main

branches of philosophy and as you said

it's expected that you specialize in one

or another one these days in academia

but that's defeating the fundamental

purpose and calling of a philosopher

which is to be able to contemplate truth

beauty and justice in an integral

fashion as one seeks greater wisdom and

understanding now

some philosophers I interviewed Pierre

Grimes not long ago who was a specialist

in ancient Greek philosophy and he felt

that for a philosopher to contemplate

what is good what is true what is


actually in platonic thought requires

them to achieve a state of higher

consciousness a state of enlightenment

not so different from the Vedantic

philosophers of India that's right so I

would say that any philosopher needs to

be someone who is seeking enlightenment

seeking some higher spiritual State and

yet not everyone's seeking a higher

spiritual state and not everyone who

sets themselves up as a guru who can

offer others a path to such a spiritual

state is legitimately describable as a

philosopher sure

so all those seeking enlightenment are

not philosophers but any philosopher has

to be someone seeking enlightenment and

this is another way in which we can see

the difference between a scientist and a

philosopher or a mere political theorist

and a political philosopher well in the

history of philosophy there are great

philosophers I don't think anybody would

challenge the notion that Aristotle was

a philosopher he's practically the

archetypal philosopher that's right and

I would assert that one of the criteria

of determining who are the legitimate

philosophers throughout the course of

the past 2,500 years is whether their

thought elaborates revolutionary ideas

with respect to the nature of truth

beauty and justice in other words they

have to be thinking across all of what

we now have defined as these various

subdivisions of philosophy why

revolutionary I mean some great

philosophers basically just elaborating

on the work of others a

I believe Nietzsche for example borrowed

a great deal from Spinoza he did but he

defined new concepts that went beyond

the thought of Spinoza or any other of

his predecessors and I would say this

invention of concepts is characteristic

of any true philosopher you really have

to discover new ideas and of course this

by itself is a controversial

philosophical question

are you intuiting ideas that already

exists that are in some kind of platonic

realm of forms or is a philosopher as

Nietzsche would be more inclined to see

it a creator an artist of concepts that

can organize knowledge in new ways so

you know I would say that the

revolutionary activity of the

philosopher is to invent or to discover

concepts that were here they're too

unthinkable and thereby bring about

revolutions both in the in the sciences

so I would see philosophical discoveries

philosophical concepts as the point of

origin for all scientific revolutions

and also to bring about revolutions in

the political sphere based on the

elaboration of new concepts in other

words well one philosopher who has

influenced me I don't know if you would

consider him a philosopher Rudolf

Steiner I think you would he's a tough


yeah a tough case he probably more of a

mystic than a philosopher possibly but

in any case he raised the idea that a

concept itself is a spiritual entity

that concepts have force concepts it's

it's as if you know when a concept goes

from one mind to another mind it becomes

autonomous in some sense I'd be inclined

to agree with that mm-hmm so that's the

realm in which philosophers are ideally

addressing that's right and again I mean

say profoundly unsettling activity which

is why I call it revolutionary you know

the careers of tens in our world

hundreds and hundreds of people are

invested in the survival of a particular

scientific paradigm and these scientific

paradigms like for example the Cartesian

paradigm are based on philosophical

concepts the Cartesian paradigm is

grounded in de cartes concept of res

extensa or a mathematically analyzable

extended substance and so you know

whether it's threatening the careers of

tens of scientists who have established

methodologies for their research or

whether it's perhaps the more

significant threat to established

political systems on account of new

political concepts like natural right

which was at the ground of the French

and American revolutions and you know

was a concept elaborated by thinkers

like the Marquis de Condorcet or

Immanuel Kant in any case the discovery

of philosophical concept is a

revolutionary activity well in your

opinion who is the most recent thinker

who would you who you would consider a

real philosopher Martin Heidegger mm-hmm

who died as I recall in the 1960s or so

yeah there are a set of new concepts in

heidegger's thought like being towards

death like three different modalities of

history the finitude of human existence

that you don't find in previous thinkers

and that could become the basis I would

say both for scientific revolutions and

political ones in my own work in

Prometheus and Atlas I've adopted and

adapted certain elements of Heidegger

thought with a specific view to

catalyzing a scientific revolution

mm-hmm well many people are familiar

with Sartre the French philosopher who

as I understand it built on Heidegger's

ideas do would you consider him a

philosopher I would although I believe

that Sark misinterpreted Heidegger's

concept of existence so to some extent

he's dependent on Heidegger and he to

the extent his ideas are original they

also involve the misinterpretation of a

previous philosopher however whatever

particular criticisms I may have of Sark

Sark is someone who elaborated not just

an ontology mainly in being a

nothingness and also an epistemology in

that book but someone who thought

seriously about politics someone who

definitely has a political philosophy

and who was an aesthetician in practice

who not only had an aesthetic theory but

applied it through the many novels that

he wrote so I would definitely consider

Sartre philosophy okay well since the

death of Heidegger and Sartre there I'm

guessing there must be 40 50 thousand

people working around the world as

professional philosophers today yes see

what's happened is there's been this

bifurcation between postmodern

philosophy that's a descendent of the

continental European tradition in which

both Heidegger and Sark are situated and

an anglo-american analytic school and I

can't call it a tradition because it

radically rejects the idea of tradition

so there's this bifurcation and I would

describe both postmodern European

philosophy or postmodern continental

philosophy and contemporary analytic

anglo-american philosophy as in some way

post philosophical I mean they have

rejected the essential idea of

philosophy or the core duty of a

philosopher in the case of

post-modernism I don't think it's nests

Cerie simply because you're intent on

carrying out deconstruction of the

tradition to abandon the calling of a

philosopher after all the concept of

deconstruction is one of the concepts

that is discovered by Martin Heidegger

hmm and there's a way of deconstructing

the history of ontology as Heidegger put

it that could revitalize the

philosophical tradition and take it in a

new direction

but that isn't what's been done by the

majority of so-called postmodern

thinkers and in the continental well

let's go back for a moment to the

ancient Greek idea of noesis which I'm

equated with kind of a higher state of a

consciousness or enlightenment was that

part of Heidegger's thought or sart's

thought it's harder to see it in Sark I

do think it's there it's there in

practice I mean so far as Sark is

exercising no ASUS when he writes being

in nothingness mhm the the type of

cognitive functioning at work in

composing a text like that is most

definitely what Aristotle would call no

ASIS it is a capacity to think in terms

of abstract principles and develop new

fundamental frameworks for knowledge

rather than working in a pre-existing

framework and carrying out specialized

research on that basis I mean when I

think of it there just the title Being

and Nothingness it gives one the

impression that he's talking about forms

of awareness or cognition that transcend

even the notion of being human well what

Sark does the the way in which he

exercises this Faculty of no Isis mm-hmm

despite its differences in specific

content is formally very much the same

as what Heidegger doesn't being in time

and that's an attempt to carry out a

phenomenological analysis of human

existence what that means is to attend

to the phenomena evident in being human

to notice delineations of the structure

of human experience that are so

fundamental that they persist or

underpin different frameworks of

knowledge so to be able to bracket your

assumptions that are based on one or

another paradigm and to proceed with an

analysis of the fundamental structure of

our existence in effect what you're

saying is that the the purpose of this

type of philosophy is is to question

things that people have never questioned

before that's we assume some things that

a deep such a deep maybe unconscious

level that like well for example the

nature of space and time most people

deal with space and time as is Givens

not as anything to be questioned indeed

and you know if you want to see a

striking example of that kind of

questioning why not to look at the

extreme changes in artistic styles that

took place you know from the 19th

century through the 20th century in the

successive artistic movements like

Impressionism and dades and surrealism

Abstract Expressionism Georg Hegel in

his phenomenology of spirit advance the

view that these changes in artistic

style were indicative of an evolution of

human consciousness hegel hegel yeah

Hegel and the phenomenology of spirit

but now he wrote what 150 to past years

the genius he anticipated this to the

extent that he was looking back to

classical art and seeing the difference

between classical Greek art and its

predecessors in Egyptian culture

Syrian Babylonian culture and then its

successors in terms of medieval European

art and then Renaissance and early

modern art he developed a theory about

how the evolution of human consciousness

through a successive series of stages

and the

creasing rationalization and

self-consciousness of the human mind

would be reflected in changes in

artistic styles and in the aesthetic of

a civilization so you know that's an

example of how philosophical thought

also takes the form of aesthetics mm-hmm

now Hegel is someone who would have

analyzed these changes in our aesthetic

style in terms of more fundamental

changes in the structure of cognition he

was a rationalist where is somebody like

Nietzsche argues that ultimately our

fundamental criteria for developing new

systems of knowledge and our judgments

about how to live in ethical life and

the changes in our fundamental values

ultimately are based on aesthetic

intuition mm-hmm regardless of which of

these views is correct

in either case both Hegel and Nietzsche

are philosophers because they understand

the integral relationship between art

and science and politics between truth

beauty and justice well now in the last

50 years

amongst the I'm guessing forty to fifty

thousand professional philosophers

surely there must be some who have this

same view who are embodying the the true

spirit of philosophy as it was

originally conceived I mean I consider

you such a person you know I think that

we certainly in the West and much of the

history of philosophy is coextensive

with the history of Western you know

intellectual life mm-hmm we in the West

are facing a grave civilizational crisis

and i think you could see that crisis in

terms of the disintegration of

philosophy so the question of whether

our civilization survives and can

undergo in other Renaissance is to some

extent the same as the question of

whether philosophy has in if you

hmm well I would imagine that pretty

much every University in the world has a

philosophy department sure it does but

you know again as opposed to my field of

study parapsychology where there none

yeah but as with the decline of the

Roman Empire you know late years of the

Roman Empire we saw a proliferation of

philosophical schools the at the Kurian

school of stoic school and so forth so

you had academic institutions mm-hmm

which taught philosophy but the question

is did they really produce philosophers

and I I would say I mean I'm not the

first person to observe that you had a

decline in real philosophical thought in

the late Roman Empire and it priests

aged are you know are collapsed into the

Middle Ages mm-hmm and it took hundreds

of years for philosophy to be

revitalized well there is sort of the

old saying regarding medieval

philosophers that they spend all their

time trying to contemplate how many

angels could dance on the head of a pin

that's right I would say in the medieval

period the center of philosophy moves

from Europe to Iran to the Persian eight

world and to some extent also to

northern India people like abhinavagupta

in northern India demonstrate an

extraordinarily wide range of thought

and fundamental questioning in all areas

including aesthetics and in Iran you see

some significant efforts of political

philosophy that's grounded in ontology

and epistemology during the medieval

period and people like Farabi al farabi

or al biruni the problem with abu rayhan


or abu nasr Farabi is that they tend to

have a view of wisdom

that's perennial list they believe in an

eternal unchanging storehouse of truths

which once its

locked by any given sage can simply be

dispensed to the followers of that sage

through their diligent apprenticeship

and study under him and that's a view

that's held today by some philosophers

it is a for example I mean the most

recent major so-called philosopher who

held that view as Julius Avila Italian

philosopher of the mid 20th century who

wrote many many books in various areas

including aesthetics and politics not

just you know ontology mm-hmm but see

the problem with Julius Avila or someone

like Rene going on who are in this line

that goes back to Farabi and Moroni is

that they don't have any sense the

discoveries are being made or that there

are that there's a a burden to challenge

established truths and consequently open

up oneself up to the possibility of

revolutions not just in the structure of

knowledge but in the structure of

society and in political systems but the

idea of a primordial tradition or a

perennial philosophy in modern times I

interviewed Houston Smith recently

deceased to my thinking a great

philosopher a specialist in the world's

religions and he felt that there was a

common thread that ran through all of

the world's religions and and mystical

traditions and I think Aldous Huxley

yeah a very talented novelist felt the

same way yeah and Farabi takes this to

the extent of saying that essentially in

one of his texts he argues Plato and

Aristotle are saying the same thing and

that any differences in their

metaphysics or in their political

philosophy are simply questions of style

and expression

I think that's absurd it's patently

false and the reason Pharma B wants to

believe this is because to him

uncertainty would itself be a refutation

of somebody status as a knowledgeable

individual or someone possessing wisdom

right but si philosophy is not the

possession of wisdom it's the love of

wisdom and I would say the Promethean

impulse that we associate with bold

scientific exploration and discovery is

actually the most characteristic feature

of philosophy it's what has survived in

science from philosophy and if one lacks

that one is not a philosopher every true

philosopher is a Promethean in some

sense what do you mean by Promethean

someone who challenges the established

order someone who challenges the

established cosmos of thought and who

reexamined what human nature is in a way

that even courts the possibility of

political upheaval yes being the Greek

Titan who challenged the authority of

Zeus by bringing fire to humanity

Prometheus who is a rabble against the

world order of Olympus mm-hmm I think in

a sense every legitimate philosopher has

to be that mm-hmm well coming back to an

earlier point about euston smith's

notion of the primordial tradition he

was referring I think only to religion

not necessarily to science at all and I

think Aldous Huxley meant the same and

the perennial philosophy I know that

there are postmodern critiques of that

idea and they suggest that well we can

never know that all the Mystics are

saying the same thing or not because

every mystic is speaking in a particular

cultural language that we from our

distance will never quite fathom the

problem with this position that you're

attributing to Houston Smith and then

these other perennial lists who

predominantly concern themselves with

sages and religious prophets yeah is

that religion is not distinct from

philosophy nor is it safe from

philosophy you can't and the other thing

is those perennial lists in the field of

comparative religion or philosophy of

religion or whatever you want to call it

tend to see philosophers who are not

sages or mystics

as subordinate to the ones who are

mm-hmm where is what I would say is that

going all the way back to Plato and some

of the pre-socratics like Heraclitus

philosophers have challenged the

religious establishment of their own

time almost inevitably and certainly

Nietzsche is another example closer to

our own time the religious ideals of any

society are not safe from philosophers

this is why actually jean-jacques

Rousseau argues that the persecution and

execution of Socrates was justified he

as a defender of democracy and of the

legitimacy of the general will in any

society argues that to the extent that

philosophers are tolerated they should

be forced to keep their more

controversial views private and not to

express them in the public sphere

because Rousseau recognized rightly that

philosophers are in a way inherently

cosmopolitan they are citizens of the

cosmos in the true sense of the word and

they own no allegiance that you can take

for granted to any political system to

any state or to any established

scientific paradigm well I think if you

look at the history of philosophy there

are many many examples where

philosophers come into conflict with

political authorities of every stripe I

seem to recall there was one Chinese

emperor who executed every philosopher

in the kingdom and it's not the only

place where that happened mm-hmm so in

general political establishments are

threatened by philosophy and religious

establishments to go back to what you

were saying about Houston Smith and the

other perennial as' and comparative

religion the the problem with them is

that they are trying to bring about

peace and harmony between all of the as

they put it world religions by making

the false claim that these religions all

are grounded on the same set of

fundamental claims or are ultimately

different expressions of the same

worldview where

that the job of a philosopher who has

proper discernment is to distinguish

between various world religions where

they are really saying different things

and to challenge all of them and to

guide humanity spiritually not just

scientifically or politically well

that's a tall order remember that in the

Republic Plato suggests that the

philosopher Kings ought to be the people

designing the religion of the commoners

and so this goes back to the concept of

the noble lie in the Republic Plato

recognizes that the rank and file of

society Mass men requires something like

religious belief in order to secure

social stability and yet he saw the

Homeric Olympian religion of his society

as something detrimental to the

development of the ethical fabric of

children the ethical fiber of children

so he suggested that the philosopher

rulers of the state ought to craft a new

religion which consists in a sense of

noble lies but these noble lies do

constructively guide masses of people

toward the cultivation of true virtues

mmm-hmm now Plato also as I understand

it had various other rules for the

philosopher Kings that separated them

from the masses of humanity as I recall

they couldn't have children or maybe

they they live communally so that they

couldn't they their kingship wouldn't be

inherited that's right and they were not

allowed to hold any property including

wives who are their property or since he

viewed women as being capable of leading

as philosophers as statesmen you could

say the women weren't allowed to have

husbands that were their property and

in general to put it in contemporary

terms these people would not have had

private bank accounts there's real

significance of this is that it suggests

right at the beginning of philosophical

history that the philosopher is in a way

not an ordinary human being

and although Nietzsche you know in a

sense is the inversion of Plato hmm when

you look at his thought from the

metaphysical or epistemological

standpoint Nietzsche says the same thing

for Nietzsche the philosopher is the

harbinger of the Superman of a posthuman

condition so I think that this is a

legitimate observation I would argue you

could even see this in Hegel Hegel's

concept of the evolution of human

consciousness toward a utopian society

implies that the mind which is capable

of scoping out that whole evolutionary

history in advance is already in a sense

at the end of history and thinking

backwards from it that's not an ordinary

human being no that's a para

psychological concept I I would agree

actually yes and you know a lot of

people in academia filter Hegel's

parapsychological writings when they

teach Hegel but Hegel wrote a great deal

about telepathy and precognition and

clairvoyance well perhaps we should

close on that note it's been a

fascinating conversation Jason thank you

so much I really enjoyed it thank you


and thank you for being with us