To be a philosopher you need only three things - Gillian Rose

To be a philosopher you need only three things

“To be a philosopher you need only three things” is a beautiful challenge from Gillian Rose (see below) to those who think they are already philosophers, and to those who might be intrigued by the idea of becoming more philosophical in their lives. She writes

What do you need to be a philosopher? You discover that you are a philosopher: it is not something you ever become.

Not a logical mind, not argumentative brio: philosophy is a passion. Discover this passion as a lover and witness of Socrates. Read the Platonic dialogues, PhaedrusPhaedo, and the Apology, and you will fall in love with Socrates. You imbibe his frenzy, the madness of love inspired by Aphrodite and Eros. You feel you can reach out and touch the feathers that grow again from the roots all over the surface of the soul to ascend to divine beauty.

To be a philosopher you need only three things. First, infinite intellectual eros: endless curiosity about everything. Second, the ability to pay attention: to be rapt by what is in front of you without seizing it yourself, the care of concentration—in the way you might look closely, without touching, at the green lacewing fly, overwintering silently on the kitchen wall. Third, acceptance of pathlessness (aporia): that there may be no solutions to questions, only the clarification of their statement. Eros, attention, acceptance.

Gillian Rose, Paradiso, 2015:45

The final paragraph of this quotation above could give hope to anyone who finds themselves thinking about things and asking questions often to the annoyance of friends and family. ‘You think too much’ people say to you, and yet you know that you can’t help it. The thoughts are taken from a book by a British social theorist called Gillian Rose, and in many ways it gives some insight into the way she thought about her life and work just before her death from ovarian cancer at the age of 48.

To be a philosopher you need only three things - Gillian Rose

Rose (1948-1995) was a lecturer in sociology in 1974 at the School of European Studies at the University of Sussex, and later Chair of Social and Political Thought at the University of Warwick until her death. For those interested in reading more of her work, the task is daunting. Her books are not easy. She favoured the severe style, one that deliberately makes us work hard and offers no short cuts or easy summaries. 

But the books Love’s Work (first published in 1995) and Paradiso are autobiographical and written during her time with cancer. They do speak differently to her other books and they ar in that sense more ‘readable’. They make for a good entry point for anyone new to her work. 

The quotation above comes from Paradiso, published shortly after her death. It comes from an essay called ‘Dr Grove or Goodness’. If you want to read something short by Rose, try this essay. In its brevity it nevertheless speaks of several rich ideas and themes.

Let’s think briefly about each of the three things.

To be a philosopher you need only three things – eros

First, ‘to be a philosopher’ is, she suggests, probably not to be one! It reminds us of Immanuel Kant, a great ‘philosopher’, who warned us that since ‘philosophy’ is only an idea and nowhere exists, so, ‘We can only learn to philosophise, that is, to exercise the talent of reason, in accordance with its universal principles’ (Critique of Pure Reason, A838/B866). Perhaps the greatest philosophising non-philosopher was Socrates who told us that the only thing we could know was that we didn’t know anything for certain at all. Rose would have us fall in love with Socrates rather than be ‘a philosopher’. 

To be a philosopher you need only three things – attention

Second, we can however, learn that we are already philosophical. This means recognising that you already have a particular kind of character. You have curiosity. You have managed to retain curiosity about the world despite the schooling that tries to prevent it, despite the workplace that punishes it, and despite the leisure industry that does everything it can to distract you from questions by the immediate gratification of desires that it has created for you. 

To be a philosopher you need only three things – acceptance

Third, you find that you are philosophical if, like Socrates, you don’t try to close down questioning by holding to fixed answers. Can you watch as a question opens up and develops, much as a seedling opens up and develops into a flower that blooms. Can you let the question and curiosity have lives of their own, without them being grasped and mastered by the knowledge of them, the complete answering of them, that will end them.

Final thoughts

If you are prepared to let curiosity have its own life, and if you are prepared to let questions live unmastered by answers that would close them down, then Rose suggests you are becoming acquainted with one of the most ancient philosophical ideas, that of aporia. When you reach an aporia, it seems as if there is no path that you can take. It seems as if you have reached a dead end. Here Rose sets us the most difficult of challenges. Can you accept that perhaps philosophical thinking isn’t about finding answers that close down, but rather about keeping questions open and trying to understand them better? The obvious question is, what does that achieve? Surely the world needs answers to its questions? If that’s the question you are now left with, how you respond to it will reflect the extent to which you agree with Rose’s difficult ideas on what it is to become a philosopher…

Nigel Tubbs