Egyptian Priests and German Professors: On the Alleged Difficulty of Philosophy

By Protevi, John | Philosophy Today, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Egyptian Priests and German Professors: On the Alleged Difficulty of Philosophy


Protevi, John, Philosophy Today


We all know philosophy is difficult. Conceptually, physically, emotionally, politically, financially difficult. Heidegger found it easy to talk about this difficulty, and it appears as a major theme of the hermeneutics of factical life. The predecessor to fundamental ontology, it provides the framework for Heidegger's reading of Aristotle in GA 19 Platon: Sophistes.1 Now, in the hermeneutics of factical life philosophy is the articulated self-grasp of existence, a difficult "counter-ruinant motility" [gegenruinante Bewegtheit],2 while in GA 19.14, sophia appears as a difficult "counter-movement" [Gegenbewegung] (98) to the movement of worldly concem. As so? hia, and as articulated self-grasping existence, philosophy is a difficult countermovement.

Let us not minimize the differences between these two philosophic counter-movements. No small part of Heidegger's brilliance lies in the temporal interpretation of the Greek sense of being that isolates a specific feature of the Greek mode of production, i.e., the vision of the architecton to the eidos as driving beyond the flow of nows to the constantly present appearance.3 The notorious "metaphysics of presence" thence arises through the unthematized transfer of this sense of being to all regions of beings, including Dasein. The unthematized Greek sense of being as presence explains why, Heidegger claims, Aristotle privileges sophia (tarrying with the constantly present archai) over phronesis (selfrelated, self-revealing insight into the concrete changeable situation, an insight conditioned by the prior goodness of the phronimos). This Aristotelian hierarchy is overturned in Being and Time, where anticipatory resoluteness as Dasein's self-related and self-revelatory insight-allowing self-grasping existence to articulate itself as fundamental ontology-is privileged over any "intuition" of the constantly present, so that the question of being is now to be pursued by the heir to phronesis, not sophia, as the proper relation to being. Heideggerian difficulty is ontological difficulty.

Despite these differences, though, philosophy as counter-movement, either as sophia or as the articulated self-grasp of existence, is born from the struggle of movements, movements that, having bracketed locomotion, are better seen as modes of the temporalizing of Dasein. To use terms finally codified in Being and Time, Dasein's temporality is a motility, Bewegtheit, not a motion, Bewegung. The Heideggerian difficulty of philosophy is the difficult struggle to give oneself the proper temporality.

For Aristotle, on the other hand, one of the difficulties of philosophy is winning its place in the political time/space, where power works on bodies other than those of the philosophers, forcing them into the production of surplus time. This free time, which one cannot give to oneself, but which has to be given by others, was so obviously the sine qua non of sophia for the Greeks that the tradition has blended their word for such politically-spatially, bodily-given free time-schole, leisure-with the very activity we philosophers carry on today: "scholarship." This link is so firmly embedded in our academic culture that we even go so far as to call the financial package that provides the necessary leisure for young philosophers "a scholarship." Scholarly leisure, then, is the difficulty of philosophy faced by the Egyptian priests Aristotle refers to in the beginning of the Metaphysics. There he tells us that after those arts related to the necessities of life, non-useful studies, e.g., mathematics, were first developed where leisure was allowed (ekei gar apheithe scholazein; Met 1.1.981b25; cf. 1.2.982b23), that is, among the priestly class in Egypt.

Philosophical difficulty for Aristotle consists in part then in the problem of leisure faced by the Egyptian priests, that is, negotiating the political time/space to be in position to receive the gift of time free from the worry for the care of the body-the procurement of food, shelter, and clothing, as we enumerate them. …

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