The New Hellenism
By Crispin SartwellJuly 21, 2023
Analytic philosophy itself had been a response to a previous professional crisis of academic philosophy that arose in the early 20th century, a new direction for the discipline sometimes referred to as the linguistic turn. Addressing the anxiety that 19th-century philosophy (dominated by Hegelianism and Kantianism) was uselessly metaphysical and lacked criteria of truth or plausibility, the great 20th-century figures, partly through the logical analysis of language, succeeded in laying out an arena in which professional competence could be demonstrated, relevant skills were well understood and broadly shared, and specialists could emerge in subdisciplines of the field, as they had done in the sciences. By 2000, philosophers were spending their whole careers in the contemporary technical literature on the free will problem, or on the late thought of Michel Foucault, or on what recent results in modal logic indicate about whether we can speak sensibly about the future.
It seemed more like filling in the corners than answering the Big Questions. Incremental progress was made in a variety of areas (metaethics, for example), but the insularity kept narrowing the audience. The writing, too, had grown far from the swaggering confidence and consciously shaped, stylish prose of a Bertrand Russell or a Jacques Derrida, toward a professionalized language suitable for academic journals and hence for helping anxious junior professors attain tenure.
Starting around 2010, however, there was a striking change, surprising to someone trained in the 1980s. Some philosophy professors began to write a lot more personally; they tried to show how philosophical ideas had affected and might affect their own lives. Some started writing what came to be thought of as philosophical self-help: for instance, how William James dealt with his debilitating depression and how you can too, or how a dose of Stoicism can make you less miserable. They started, as well, trying to write for general audiences, addressing the most urgent contemporary issues as they emerged, and teaching classes that would draw students from every major.
Such figures as Agnes Callard, John Kaag, Clancy Martin, Skye Cleary, Justin E. H. Smith, Kieran Setiya, and Costica Bradatan, I would say, are far more conscious and better writers than the professors of my generation who may have been their teachers. They are far more accessible writers, but more than that, they are literary stylists, still-emerging or mid-career literary stars. I don’t think you could have said that of any of the professional philosophers who, like me, are currently in their sixties. The new philosophers have, as well, returned systematically to various aspects of the history of philosophy that the 20th century tended to neglect as it drove itself forward into scientific-style progress.
As the new movement emerged, essays and even whole books were arriving of a sort that had hardly existed before. Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story (2016), in addition to being published by a top trade press (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), framed personal and intellectual histories with a deft writerly craft that made it a pleasure for nonphilosophers to read. It was a true-life romance, a coherent narrative, and an excellent treatment of American pragmatism, among other things. A couple of years later, Kaag was “hiking with Nietzsche,” in a book that combined travel writing, memoir, and eternal recurrence of the same into a most readable philosophy. He made the project of understanding Nietzsche a positive pleasure, though the book was also very much about Kaag facing his own darkness.
Or consider Callard, who’s probably got a more interesting, intense, and bohemian personality than anyone else who emerged in academic philosophy in the 1980s or ’90s. A classical scholar who seemed to be gearing up to teach ancient philosophy at the University of Chicago and publish her work in academic journals for the rest of her life, she has instead gained considerable attention in broad literary and intellectual culture of a kind that philosophers of the previous few decades rarely did. It’s hard not to be engaged by Callard’s rollicking prose and the surprising ideas it expresses. In The New York Times, she published essays such as 2022’s “If I Get Canceled, Let Them Eat Me Alive”:
What should my friends do if I am being canceled?
A decade ago, when I was a nonpublic philosopher writing only for a small group of academics, it would never have occurred to me to ask myself this question. But things have changed. These days, anyone with a public-facing persona must contemplate the prospect of having her reputation savagely destroyed.
She has more than faced that down, as essays by her and portrayals of her in places like The Point and The New Yorker make abundantly clear.
Or consider Clancy Martin, who has written astonishingly personal and intense book-length essays on both love and suicide (“My first attempt to kill myself was when I was a child,” begins a recent essay on the right to end one’s own life). The confessional tone of Martin’s work is anything but gratuitous, however. Even if that sort of memoir has also been in fashion outside philosophy, it is directly connected to the most traditional and deepest philosophical questions. The sort of revelations that Callard and Martin give about themselves might, if made public, have ended an academic career in the mid-1990s. But today, they are central to motivating traditional philosophical questions anew.
The new philosophy, then, is partly encompassed and explained by wider cultural and literary developments. Memoir and personal essay were dominant literary forms by the 1990s, of course; this led to some widely admired masterpieces, such as Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club (1995), which often focused on the author’s struggles with addiction and mental illness and the ways these were ameliorated or overcome, at least enough to write the book. Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) showed that a high-end intellectual approach to self-help could land on bestseller lists, and it gave everyone, even younger philosophers, a template: “How [Insert Your Favorite Philosopher Here] Can Change Your Life.” Each such foray was an assertion that philosophy wasn’t merely an intellectual exercise or an abstract pursuit of truths at the highest level of generality, but something potentially useful, even “life-changing.”
These figures often demand that we think about ideas as serious practical matters, matters of life and death. Indeed, Costica Bradatan’s Dying for Ideas (2015) focused on “the dangerous lives of” thinkers such as Socrates, Hypatia, Giordano Bruno, Thomas More, and Jan Patočka who did just that. This is definitely not the way 20th-century geniuses like Saul Kripke or Jean Baudrillard conceived the task. But the intellectual life as a source of sanity as well as suffering, a scene of heroic self-overcoming or self-affirmation, is just how the ancient philosophers Epicurus and Epictetus, for example—the so-called “Hellenistic” philosophers—conceived their purpose, as Pierre Hadot argued in his sneakily and steadily influential 1995 book Philosophy as a Way of Life. One useful way to think of these developments, in other words, is as a new Hellenism.
As they reconsider the history of philosophy, the new philosophers have ignored the 20th century completely, with a couple of exceptions: the existentialists (explored in multiple dimensions by Cleary in particular) and the pragmatists (brought back into the fold by Kaag and others). These are schools that later professional philosophers found almost embarrassing for the sheer fact that they had evident practical implications. Indeed, the existential and pragmatist philosophers themselves insisted on that: their philosophies were not supposed to be confined to the ivory tower. That is one reason they were unfashionable in 2003 and are fashionable in 2023.
But the new philosophers also turned back toward the whole history of philosophy, and also to some extent toward non-Western philosophies, to find material that was useful for their new, practically oriented projects. This, too, was a rather remarkable shift, as analytic philosophy in particular, long dominant in the United States and United Kingdom, had on principle largely ignored the history of the discipline in its attempt to redefine it as a contemporary quasi-scientific academic field.
In effect, every aspect of philosophy is being transformed or reimagined today, just as Epicurus produced letters or Epictetus aphorisms rather than Aristotelian treatises on logic. The basic forms are not the 20-page journal article with 123 footnotes or the bristlingly dry and difficult 400-page monograph, one-third of which is “scholarly apparatus.” Rather, what you get from Agnes Callard or Justin Smith is a sharp, unexpected 2,500-word essay in a blog or newspaper.
One of the shaping influences on the development of public philosophy, the personal/philosophical essay, and intellectual self-help was the New York Times philosophy column The Stone, originally dubbed a “blog” when it arrived in 2010, just in the nick of time. Edited by Peter Catapano, with professorial assistance and inspiration from Simon Critchley, it gave philosophers access to a very large audience. In 2010, every American professor, more or less, read The New York Times, and by a couple of years later, every American philosophy professor, more or less, read The Stone every time it appeared. At first, it featured eminent figures such as Arthur Danto and Martha Nussbaum, but as the column went on, it cultivated younger and less well-known voices as well.
Now, if you were going to write for The Stone, you had to accept certain baseline realities (I know them from personal experience). For one thing, you had to write in such a way that the average New York Times reader could immediately see what you were saying. You had to find a topic that would “hook” people: a philosophical question raised by a news story, or something about a contemporary figure or film. And, pretty quickly, you had to give readers something to take away: a concise nugget of useful truth or an intriguing question that needed addressing. You were not going to do what you may well have done in your last five academic papers, for example: quibble with one of your fellow specialists about the interpretation of some figure or passage on whom or which you specialize.
All the people I mentioned above wrote essays for The Stone; all of them are in one or more of the three anthologies of the column that have been published (the column itself, alas, is no more as of 2022). Catapano helped shape many of the essays, and perhaps their writers as well, not in the sense of altering the experiences or assertions they encompassed but rather in processing academic language into felicitous prose, and in working patiently with the authors to shape a voice true to themselves but also effective on an opinion page. The Stone continued to publish many senior figures, but younger ones who enjoyed this editorial process came back again and again. The Stone developed talent, in other words, and others who never wrote for it learned from reading it how to write like people contributing to it. Writing instruction was never part of graduate training in philosophy in the late 20th century, but Catapano taught many lessons if you read carefully.
The Stone crystallized developments that were already in process. It didn’t invent the personal essay, the professorial opinion essay, or the how-X-can-change-your-life concept. But it encouraged, gave an outlet to, and shaped the ways these developments have proceeded. And proceed they have. Now philosophers such as Justin E. H. Smith, who is about as rocking a writer as you can find inside or outside philosophy, sound pointedly contemporary. And in their tone lies a commitment to engagement: to provoking and enlightening a wide readership.
This, it strikes me, is a—or perhaps the—question for the new philosophy: how intellection can be integrated into life. The ideas of William James or Simone de Beauvoir might really help you figure some things out in your life and become less miserable and improve your relationships. Self-reflection goes better in the company of world-champion self-reflectors: Pascal or Montaigne, Nietzsche or Kierkegaard. I think that epistemology might have some interesting things to say about internet disinformation, for example, or about the effects of racial violence on knowledge. Philosophers of this century have been intent on proving philosophy’s usefulness in such projects.
But as my undergraduate professor in ancient philosophy asked about the old Hellenists, they may have written lovely prose, better than Aristotle, but did they make any progress on philosophical questions? People probably felt better after they read Zeno of Citium or Lucretius, but did they go beyond Plato and Aristotle on the nature of truth, goodness, justice, and beauty? Or was the Hellenistic era, in that sense, a period of decline? My professor meant this as a rhetorical question. He took the answer to be obvious. And, though he perhaps underrated some Hellenistic philosophers, and very much underrated the project of learning to live a decent or tolerable life, the question of disciplinary progress as traditionally understood is a valid one.
I imagine that as Catapano and Critchley conceived The Stone, they weren’t thinking about how to start a new style or period or school of philosophy but about how the existing insights of the discipline could be used to address contemporary issues in a way that newspaper readers would find both absorbing and useful. Still, it’s worth asking whether the work of the new philosophers is doing much to advance the projects of philosophy as traditionally understood. Perhaps it’s a little hard to imagine, from here, how to surpass Wittgenstein or Derrida, and that would be an awful lot to expect from Kaag or Callard. That’s what the Hellenists sometimes thought about themselves as well, as did Thomas Aquinas, or the Confucianists and Taoists of the Han dynasty: how can we ever surpass the greatest thinkers of the past?
Then again, these new ways of writing and of using philosophical ideas are only getting started. They may well have significant implications about the nature of knowledge or the free will problem, come to think of it. Perhaps the personal and the public will provide essential routes of progress for traditional questions, or will lead to new sorts of answers. But maybe that hasn’t quite happened yet. Either way, however, and even as philosophy as an academic discipline is again endangered by budget cuts and considerations of prestige and practicality, there is no doubt that the new philosophy has brought in its train a much-needed renewal of urgency, energy, and sense of practical purpose. And it certainly brings the field some much better writing and some much more pleasurable reading.
Crispin Sartwell’s most recent book is Beauty: A Quick Immersion (Tibidabo, 2022).
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