NYT’s New Blog on Philosophy and the Philosopher’s Leisure of Time

Great news for philosophy and public life: the New York Times has a new online blog on philosophy, moderated by Simon Critchley of the New School for Social Research. The first edition just appeared, and in it Critchley looks to Plato’s Theaetetus to ask, “What is a philosopher?”  The interesting answer is that a philosopher is one who takes time to think about things whereas other busy professionals try to take as little time as possible to do any one thing, just rushing through so as to get as much done as possible, and in the process becoming all gnarled up.

Socrates says that those in the constant press of business, like lawyers, policy-makers, mortgage brokers and hedge fund managers, become ‘bent and stunted’ and they are compelled ‘to do crooked things.’ The pettifogger is undoubtedly successful, wealthy and extraordinarily honey-tongued, but, Socrates adds, ‘small in his soul and shrewd and a shyster.’ The philosopher, by contrast, is free by virtue of his or her otherworldliness, by their capacity to fall into wells and appear silly.”

I like the general distinction, but at the same time am aware of how the academic system robs even we supposedly otherwordly philosophers of the leisure of time. There is a constant pressure to rush through things to get things done.

I have a way of working that tries to thwart this pressure.  I have a very long “to do” list. Under the subheading of philosophy, are ten items. Two have to do with a book project, two are articles I need to finish writing, two are reviews of others’ books,  one is a book I’m reading out of my own philosophical interest, and the rest are about courses I’m preparing.  If I’m interested in checking something off, it’s a hell of a lot easier to move over to another part of the list and get my passport renewed than finish a book proposal.  Under that mindset, I will spend most of my time doing inconsequential and unsatisfying things. So instead, I strive to make sure I spend X amount of time on any one thing.  I aim to spend some fixed amount of time, even if it’s just 20 minutes, on any given project. When I sit down with that book or that paper, there’s a kind of leisure involved.  I’m not trying to hurriedly get this thing done.  I have the leisure of time, no matter that it’s a mere 20 minutes to read a bit of my current favorite book, Michael Naas’s Derrida From Now On.  For those 20 minutes, that’s all there is.  I’m not worried about finishing; I’m thinking about the sentence before me and I’ll pause to write a note to myself about how what he is saying intersects with something I’ve been working out on another project. For that bit of time, I am not in a rush. When the timer goes off (yes, I resort to such a thing), I may press it for another twenty minutes, and then again, and again, all afternoon long.

One doesn’t have to have a Ph.D. in philosophy to pursue one’s work this way, or so I would think.  (And I think this is part of what Critchley is suggesting.) Could other jobs be done this way?  Not in most jobs where the bottom line is the bottom line.  But the most productive and creative organizations seem to have something like this mentality built in, just like Google’s policy of having its employees work on something of personal interest for a certain amount of time per week.  Take the time; see what emerges.  Hmm, that might be gmail, or google books, or google earth, or something even more astounding.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. May I just contribute briefly, that there may be some very strict parameters, in terms of definition, in place here when employing the words “professional” philosopher. In my estimation, unless we are strictly addressing a very specific current state of affairs within a very specific professional ambition, the role of the Ph.D. can actively transcend academia. An ethicist, for instance, may apply his knowledge to a variety of professional spheres outside academia, while allowing herself all the leisure time necessary outside of that role to conduct personally motivated philosophical research, writing, and other projects. Our “otherworldliness” in fact seems to a degree better constituted by seeking these much more organic roles, rather than assuming we must all necessarily follow the tenure track. McAfee’s strategy seems effective for her, the timer however would certainly suffocate for me any sense of freedom or leisure. It is perhaps a larger project involved in limiting what we take on that may better affect qualitatively, as well temporally, what we do decide is worth our focus. Just a thought.

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