What Philosophy is, and used to be

July 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

If there is ever a good reason why I would not further my education in the field of Philosophy, it would probably be because the field is no longer taught nor practiced the way it was meant to be, in its original conception. Academia seem to be more preoccupied with the history of philosophy, than Philosophy itself.

The late Pierre Hadot, who was a French Professor Emeritus, College de France, compares Philosophy during the Classical period with what it is today, and puts it this way:

“…the conditions of the teaching of philosophy were very different from what they are now. Modern students study philosophy only because it is a required course; at the most a student may become interested by an initial contact with the discipline and may wish to take exams on the subject. In any case it is chance that will decide whether the student will encounter a professor who belongs to a particular “school”, be it phenomenological, existentialist, deconstructionist, structuralist, or Marxist. Perhaps, someday, he will pledge alliegeance to one of these “isms”; in any case, his adherence will be intellectual and will not engage his way of life, with the possible exception of Marxism. For us moderns, the notion of a philosophical school evokes only the idea of a doctrinal tendency or theoretical position.

Things were very different in antiquity. No university obligations oriented the future philosopher toward a specific school; instead, the future philosopher came to attend classes in the school of his choice as a function of the way of life practiced there. Once led into a classroom by chance, however, the student might unexpectedly become converted as he heard a master speak.

This was the story of Polemo, after a night of debauchery, entered Xenocrates school one morning on a dare with a band of drunken comrades. Seduced by the master’s discourse, Polemo decided to become a philosopher, and later became head of the school. No doubt this is an edifying fiction; nevertheless, it could appear to be completely believable.”

Pierre Hadot “What is Ancient Philosophy?” (Translated by Michael Chase)

photo by Samantha Decker

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