janitors in the Crystal Palace

I am going back to Critchley’s book Continental Philosophy for a second read. I’m not a philosopher so it takes time to sink in.

In this passage from early in the book Critchley describes how in the 17th century philosophy became a handmaid to the newly dominant pursuit of science. The original Greek conception that knowledge and wisdom were part of the same comprehensive, civic, good living enterprise, was upended by science which valued knowledge – episteme – over the love of wisdom. Plato’s queen of the sciences, philosophy was left to mop the floor.

The question is what does the subjugation of wisdom and the favoring of knowledge leave out? What is the implication for our lives?

Here is Critchley’s description:

In a science-dominated world, what role does our professional philosopher assign to philosophy? This can in part be answered by recalling the Greek word for knowledge, episteme. Philosophy becomes epistemology, the theory of knowledge. That is, it is overwhelmingly concerned with logical and methodological questions as to how we know what we know, and in virtue of what such knowledge is valid. Philosophy becomes a theoretical enquiry into the conditions under which scientific knowledge is possible. In the scientific conception of the world, the role of philosophy moves from being, as it was for Plato, the queen of the sciences, where theoretical knowledge was unified with practical wisdom. It becomes rather, in John Locke’s formula at the beginning of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1689, an under-labourer to science, whose job is to clear away the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge and scientific progress. Philosophers become janitors in the Crystal Palace of the sciences.

Simon Critchley, Continental Philosophy, The Gap Between Knowledge and Wisdom, p 4-5, Oxford

2 Comments so far
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ThIs is an issue I work with on a regular basis. I define philosophy as the willingness to embrace uncertainty and the will to ask questions. Philosophy is not accomplished to make us certain. Rather, we philosophize in order to experience our uncertainty, to explore the boundaries of our situation.

Obviously, scientists, theologians, and artists do something similar. They each must face uncertainty and ask questions. But when they do, they are participating in the great endeavor of philosophizing. As they arrive at answers, establish real certainties and take up strong convictions, they narrow their questions to the conditions of their specific object: empirical, ideal, and aesthetic objects respectively.

Philosophizing always becomes the servant of science, religion, or art whenever each participates in the narrowing of the world to one kind of certain object. I think Simon captures this very nicely with the janitor metaphor. Likewise, when theology is ascendant philosophy becomes a handmaiden. And with art, a panderer.

Comment by Keith Wayne Brown

Beautifully put. I’m interested in the Greek ability to have both knowledge and wisdom and to sidestep the narrowness. Life is better when philosophy is not a handmaid; when science and knowledge do not dominate in the way they do today. I’m going to use coromandal to go through the book – I believe Critchley makes the case for rebalance.

Comment by Peter Rudd

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