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The Philosopher as Spy

Agent Peter Rickman reports back.

Defining philosophy is difficult and controversial, not least because it claims the privilege of determining its own rules. An indirect approach of comparing it to other activities, to seek parallels and analogies might therefore help. We might consider the philosopher in different roles – as joker, as actor and – in this article – as spy.

I might be suspected of, uselessly, trying to explain what I know by what I don’t. After all I am not, and have never been an actor, standup comedian or spy. However while the image of philosophy is elusive those of the activities I have mentioned are clear-cut and fairly noncontroversial. Furthermore, once I focus my mind on their images I detect traces of acting, joking and spying in my philosophic pursuits.

Without first hand knowledge of spying and conceding that fiction often distorts reality, we can agree on two defining characteristics. Firstly, spying seeks knowledge which is not only hidden but secret. In other words there are not only obstacles to knowing, but these obstacles are there by design. A library search is not spying even if the material sought is hidden in badly catalogued archives.

The other defining characteristic of spying is the use of subterfuge such as disguising one’s identity or aim. This covers beside spying ‘proper’ industrial espionage and even the case of sociologists, psychologists or anthropologists posing as innocent visitors, fellow employees etc., but excludes spinsters alleged to be spying on their neighbours. There is no disguise and little subterfuge. We know who is watching and may see the curtain twitch, nor is what is observed invariably secret. The curious watcher may merely learns that the new neighbour is rich or tends to get home late.

However, before we can fruitfully consider in which way philosophers are like spies we need to explore further what is involved in being a spy. We must note first that spying, though the professional occupation of a small minority of specialists reflects universal human interests and propensities. This is evidenced by the enormous popularity of spy thrillers and the interest aroused by books and newspaper articles about actual spying.

The desire to learn what is hidden, to become party to a secret is virtually universal and already very evident in children. It inspires gossiping, solving crossword puzzles and other kinds of puzzles, reading ‘inside stories’ or accounts of scandals. It also provides the impulse for scientific research. More complex and intriguing is the problem of accounting for disguise, of wearing, as it were, a mask, entering seriously into a contrived role, living a lie.

Moralists and philosophers through the ages – recently, existentialists in particular – have preached the importance of “being oneself” or “being true to oneself”. Does this undermine the point I am trying to make? I certainly do not wish to challenge the ideal put forward or the fact that it has enjoyed such widespread support. But then why should it be necessary to stress that we should be or become, what in a trivial sense we inevitably are, unless there were temptations and pressures in the opposite direction?

We can distinguish between the very obvious reasons for philosophers to use disguise from more profound reasons they share with the rest of mankind. The reasons why philosophers might be shy about their profession are not far to seek. They have frequently been persecuted. Socrates was put to death, Plato had to extricate himself from Syracuse; Descartes left his native country for the freer climate of Holland. Spinoza was excommunicated by his own community and did not dare to publish his main work in his lifetime. In totalitarian countries this persecution continues to this day but in the rest of the world we are less likely to be physically threatened. Instead we tend to be despised, marginalised and considered useless. Among the victims of university cuts philosophy departments and philosophy teachers have been prominent.

So there has been a general retreat from the proud and confident self-assertion of philosophers such as Plato or Hegel. Locke described himself as an under-labourer and his activity as picking up pebbles on the beach. Others sought shelter under the authority of science, claiming either to be scientists or serving them. More recently it has become fashionable for them to pose as lexicographers or grammarians. As language is both important for and characteristic of human beings it appears useful and respectable to pose as guardians of language, clarifying concepts, pointing to misuses and tracing intellectual worries to linguistic confusions. We can then claim to be respectable academic specialists who are no danger to society, not the gadflies which Socrates thought it proper for philosophers to be. We can claim a right to making a modest living by performing a limited and skilled task outside the layman’s range.

However, to explain the philosophers impersonations simply as responses to the layman’s mistrust and the malice of authority would trivialise the issue, because there is a more general human tendency towards acting, roleplaying and dressing up. One of its functions (particularly obvious in children) is exploration. By projecting ourselves into different roles we extend our imaginative grasp.

Another function is escape. We are all imprisoned in various ways. To start with, we are prisoners of irremovable conditions. If I am white, middle aged and male I cannot actually escape these defining limitations. A place is assigned to me in the order of things for life. I am also imprisoned by the character I have developed, the career I have chosen, the relationships I have committed myself to. With every additional choice we make the walls of the prison house are closing in. These constraints are not as irremovable as the first set. I cannot change my age or race, but I can learn to be more generous, desert my wife, change my job and abandon longstanding friendships, but none of it is easy.

The use of our imagination in daydreaming, impersonation and identification with heroes of literary works, provides an escape which is at the same time an enrichment of our grasp on life. The pleasure we get from identifying with great lovers, masterspies, heroic cowboys etc in books or on the stage and screen, and the way we imagine ourselves into such roles in our daydreams is so familiar as not to need expanding. People travelling among strangers, going on holidays or cruises on their own are often tempted to assume or pretend to a personality and a life not their own. For a brief time, an isolated episode of their lives, they are ace pilots not commercial travellers, single not long-married, well to do not poor etc. They take a holiday from their normal life and indeed their normal personality. But are they in fact not themselves or do they perhaps experimentally extend the range of their own personalities?

This I suspect must be one attraction of being a spy. No doubt a variety of motives may be at play: patriotism, an ideological faith, a longing for adventure or money but there surely must be a specific attraction for the extraordinary conditions under which a man has to live a lie. The friends he makes, the lovers he acquires, his neighbours or business contacts, none are to know his background, past, true beliefs or even character. He will ultimately betray people who trust him. All for the sake of acquiring some secret knowledge.

Having suggested what is involved in spying and what makes it more than the highly specialised occupation of a small minority, we can turn to the relevance for philosophy.

The insights sought by philosophy are undoubtedly hidden, for why else should efforts be needed to gain them? But in what sense are we looking for what is secret? The idea of secrecy involves someone deliberately hiding something, usually in his own interest. In this sense states keep their military preparedness secret, or religions and societies their doctrines and rituals. In a literal sense there is no one – philosopher or nonphilosopher – who contrives to keep the information, skills or practices sought by philosophy secret. The forces obstructing or withholding insight are not persons or collections of persons, they are trends embodied in our culture and mechanisms within our own minds. Cultural systems have a built in resistance to too close a look at their own presuppositions, at beliefs and practices taken for granted. Individuals are reluctant to think afresh instead of following well-trodden paths, to question their beliefs or look critically at their behaviour. This is not total blindness: an inkling of something there is present and we are dealing with what the Christian calls “the sin against the Holy ghost”, or Sartre “bad faith”. It is this which is shrouded in secrecy. This is why the philosopher is suspected or even persecuted and may seek disguises which suggest that what he is doing is harmless.

However, impersonation not only serves the philosophers’ safety but also the positive unveiling of the secrets sought. What is at issue is the attitude one takes towards oneself. Selfknowledge involving critical awareness of one’s own presuppositions and beliefs, whether personally acquired or received from one’s culture, is considered of utmost importance by philosophers but it carries with it the danger of mistaking, as Dilthey put it, one’s corner for the world.

It is one of the characteristics of philosophy to produce bold, often fruitful, hypotheses which go far beyond the available evidence. Plato, for example, observing that tools, bodily organs and craftsmen serve functions, conjured up the idea that the whole of reality was functionally organised. Such speculation, though clearly unscientific, has sometimes blazed the path for science. The range of insights and fruitful theories produced by men such as Plato or Spinoza, on the basis of personal experience, is truly amazing.

But this is also where the danger lies. Speculation based on personal introspection can be narrow and distorting. A man despondent for personal reasons may all to easily paint a pessimistic picture of reality. Thinkers such as Heidegger or Sartre convey a grim vision not only of the modern predicament but of man’s general condition which reflects their own temperament and the experience of war and defeat which they shared. Love and joy may be just as valid as points of departure for generalisation about human life, as death and anguish.

This is where the importance of entering imaginatively into alien lifestyles of pretence and donning a mask come in. Literature is one door to such widening experience. This is not just the pleasure of adventure – though we crave for that too – but it is a vital learning process. Shedding what we habitually are and entering seriously on a course of impersonations we may discover secrets hidden from us before.

The philosopher as spy, may thus claim to be driven by curiosity, love of adventure or escape, but he is also serving a higher interest. When he dissembles as in Socratic irony, the guardians’ noble lie and the comedy of Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms, he is only false to himself or his friends in the service of truth.

© P. Rickman 1991

Peter Rickman is a Visiting Professor at The City University in London, and has written lots of books.

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