IS KANYE WEST A PHILOSOPHER?

One of my professors at Oxford used to say “the beginning of wisdom in philosophy is to learn not to jump straight in to answering questions but to begin by questioning the questions themselves.” Granted, this is exactly the kind of saying that tends to give philosophy a bad name, but we’ve got to side with him in this case.

What is a philosopher?

As you might expect, philosophers can’t even agree on this. Here’s a selection of definitions that have been proposed over the years:
  • A lover of wisdom
This is the definition you get by analysing the etymology of the word. ‘Philo’ is Greek for love and ‘sophos’ is Greek for wisdom. Ergo, a philosopher is a lover of wisdom.

I think this is an overly-romantic definition for what is often, in its current guise, a thoroughly unromantic discipline. When I hear the word ‘wisdom’ I think of an old woman who knows what’s important in life. She’s got a healthy sense of perspective and is untroubled by small anxieties or ambitions. She probably lives on a beach.

Compare that picture to one of a young post-grad sweating it out under the lights in the university library, tearing his hair out about the best way to start his essay on whether four-dimensionalist theories provide a satisfactory solution to the problem of temporary intrinsics. He probably hasn’t called his mother in a while.
  • A questioner of assumptions
This definition is not so easy on the ear but it is more accurate. I’d say all philosophers are involved in the business of questioning assumptions. They ask things like, ‘What do you mean when you say A causes B?’, ‘In what way does Ben deserve to be punished?’ and ‘What does it mean to know that apples are red?’

But this definition is imperfect because questioning assumptions is only part of the brief. You’re only a philosopher if you try to answer those questions. More importantly, though, you’re only a philosopher if you fail. If you succeed then your question was answerable, and if your question was answerable then you’re a scientist.
  • A conceptual engineer
Here’s the one philosophers tell their relatives at family reunions, trying to lend the subject a bit of prestige-by-association. It’ll impress them as long as they don’t ask too many questions, otherwise the whole conceptual edifice comes tumbling down.
  • An asker of big questions
Give a philosopher this definition and she’ll ask ‘What is a big question?’ which may or may not itself be a big question. In any case, philosophers ask small questions too, like ‘How many grains ofsand do you need to stack up before you have a heap?'
  • "A philosopher is a person who knows less and less about more and more until they know nothing about everything."
Honestly, this is probably the best of the lot. But philosophers take themselves quite seriously and wouldn’t like it.

What philosophers can agree on, though, is that this man is one of them:


Socrates. In fact, most philosophers agree that Socrates is the philosopher. Perhaps the only true philosopher who ever lived. The philosopher that every other philosopher dreams of being. The philosopher that divided the entire field into pre- and post-Socratic philosophy. In the words of one of his contemporaries, a man “so bizarre, his ways so unusual, that, search as you might, you’ll never find anyone else alive or dead, who’s even remotely like him.” In Nietzsche’s words, “the turning point, the vortex of world history.”

So is Kanye like Socrates?

He certainly thinks so. ‘See Me Now,’ a bonus track on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, contains the lyric: “I’m Socrates but my skin more chocolatey.”


Now it’s easy, especially if you don’t like Kanye, to dismiss this as unthinking braggadocio. It’s easy to see Socrates as just one more name to be added to the ludicrous roll-call of previous comparisons: Shakespeare, Da Vinci, Picasso and God among them. Especially since Socrates is a famous figure and the sound of his name chimes well with ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘aristocracy’ in the line before. But we’re trying to be philosophers now, and if there’s one thing that’s true about philosophy it’s that things aren’t allowed to be easy. So let’s look a little closer.

Socrates was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived around the 5th century BCE. Unlike your garden-variety modern philosophers, however, he was part of no university and he wrote no books. Instead, he did his philosophising al fresco, which is a kinder way of saying that he harassed people in the street. Think of him kind of like a charity collector, except instead of money he was flagging people down in the name of wisdom.

Like charity collectors, Socrates had a tactic for getting what he wanted, a tactic that has come to be known as the Socratic method. This name lends it a lot of intellectual prestige, making it a favourite of atheist fanboys and people trying to distil their philosophy degree into a list of lifehacks. However, it basically comes down to asking a lot of questions, as this extract from Euthyphro shows:

Soc: And what is your suit, Euthyphro? Are you the pursuer or the defendant? 

Euth: I am the pursuer. 

Soc: Of whom? 

Euth: You will think me mad when I tell you. 

Soc: Why, has the fugitive wings? 

Euth: Nay, he is not very volatile at his time of life. 

Soc: Who is he? 

Euth: My father. 

Soc: Your father! my good man? 

Euth: Yes. 

Soc: And of what is he accused? 

Euth: Of murder, Socrates. 

Soc: By the powers, Euthyphro! how little does the common herd know of the nature of right and truth. A man must be an extraordinary man, and have made great strides in wisdom, before he could have seen his way to bring such an action. 

Euth: Indeed, Socrates, he must. 

Soc: I suppose that the man whom your father murdered was one of your relatives - clearly he was; for if he had been a stranger you would never have thought of prosecuting him. 

Euth: I am amused, Socrates, at your making a distinction between one who is a relation and one who is not a relation; for surely the pollution is the same in either case... Mfather and family are angry with me for taking the part of the murderer and prosecuting my father. They say that... a son is impious who prosecutes a father. Which shows, Socrates, how little they know what the gods think about piety and impiety. 

As you can see, it consists of a dialogue between Socrates and a man called Euthyphro. We learn early on in the conversation that Euthyphro has some rather important business to attend to. He’s trying to get his own dad convicted of murder. This shocks Socrates, but not enough to make him forget his one true passion in this life, so when Euthyphro says that he’s trying to get his father thrown in the slammer because it’s the pious thing to do, Socrates sees his opportunity:

Soc: Good heavens, Euthyphro! and is your knowledge of religion and of things pious and impious so very exact, that, supposing the circumstances to be as you state them, you are not afraid lest you too may be doing an impious thing in bringing an action against your father? 

To which Euthyphro responds, foolishly, by claiming to know what piety is:

Euth: The best of Euthyphro, and that which distinguishes him, Socrates, from other men, is his exact knowledge of all such matters. What should I be good for without it? 

Hook, line and sinker. Euthyphro doesn’t know it yet, but this conversation is only going to end one way: with one man feeling very angry, one man feeling very smug and no men knowing any more about what piety is.

Most of the Socratic dialogues follow this formula. Socrates happens upon an eminent member of Athenian society who claims to know the meaning of some concept – justice, love, virtue, etc. Then Socrates asks them questions until they realise that actually they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Now it may not surprise you to learn that Socrates was not well-liked by the people he harassed. In fact, he came to be so despised that the people of Athens had him charged with inventing false gods and corrupting the youth. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. This event is depicted in a famous painting by Jacques-Louis David.


A true philosopher to the very last, even imminent death cannot stop Socrates from yammering on.

Despite the impression you might garner from this painting, Socrates was not a bachelor. In fact, he had a wife, Xanthippe, and three sons. If Xanthippe is depicted in this painting, she is the figure waving goodbye as she climbs the stairs, looking for all the world as if she could not give two shits about the fact that her husband is about to drink poison and shuffle off this mortal coil.

Why the lack of tenderness? Well it might have something to do with the fact that she was reputed to be “the hardest to get along with of all the women there are.” Biographers of Socrates invariably present her as infuriating. In one episode, she is supposed to have taken a cake sent to Socrates and stomped it into the ground. In another, she is said to have poured an entire chamber pot over his head in a fit of rage. Her reputation was such that her name became a byword for fiery women. Almost two millennia after her death, she got a mention in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Socrates passed his own judgement on her when he said, “By all means, marry. If you get a good wife, you will be happy. If you get a bad one, you will be a philosopher.” (These words from the mouth of a man who was literally killed for being annoying. Funnily enough, we never get to hear Xanthippe's side of the story. Go figure.)

Thus concludes our brief biography of Socrates. Now we return to the question at hand.

What does Kanye have in common with a man who was widely despised, accused of corrupting the youth and married to a controversial and famous wife? 

Well.

Witty allusions aside, there’s actually a lot going on:

1. A disdain for books.

"Sometimes people write novels and they just be so wordy and so self-absorbed. I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book's autograph. I am a proud non-reader of books. I like to get information from doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life."
– Kanye West

Ah, the quote that launched a thousand whining blog posts. Kanye at his most unrefined? Maybe. But he’s in good company.

“[Books] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
– Socrates, Phaedrus

Socrates thought that the ebb and flow of conversation was a much better way of seeking wisdom than reading books. In conversation your questions can be answered and your objections considered. He was very much a proponent of doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life.

2. A questioning attitude
Socrates wanted to get to the bottom of things, so he asked a lot of questions. He wanted to know what the true nature of justice is, he wanted to know how one should live, and I presume he would have wanted to know how a man can empower himself.


3. The courage to say things that make people uncomfortable
Speaking at his trial, Socrates compared himself to a gadfly and the city of Athens to a horse. Just as the gadfly stings the horse out of its languor, so Socrates stings the people of Athens out of their lazy assumptions. His questioning leads him to reveal a very uncomfortable truth to the good people of Athens: that most of the time they don't know jack squat about what they're talking about. 

Kanye, too, is unafraid to say things that make people uncomfortable. How many other people alive today can say they caused the all-time low point of a presidency?

4. A keen sense of right and wrong
After Socrates was sentenced to death and thrown in prison, his buddy Crito came to visit him with an escape plan. Friends and admirers of Socrates had stumped up the money to bribe the prison guards and the sum was already agreed. All old Socrates had to do was say the word and he’d be home and dry, free to live and philosophise for the rest of his natural life.

Did old Socrates say the word?

Old Socrates did not say the word. Old Socrates did what he was born to do. He asked Crito a whole load of questions. And after all these questions, Socrates was not convinced that escaping was the right thing to do. So he didn’t do it.

Even when it made people angry, even when it was against all self-interest, even when it seemed to defy common-sense, he always did what he thought was right. He was a man who lived and died by his principles.

Like him or not, Kanye is also a man who lives by his principles. He has a keen sense of justice and injustice, of what’s right and what’s wrong, and acts on that sense even when it makes him unpopular. He speaks his mind, even when it gets him in hot water. And he never compromises on his principles, even when he could gain a lot by doing so.

5. An inability to keep their mouths shut

It’s no secret that Socrates could have saved his life if only he’d shut his mouth once in a while. If he’d left alone just two or three of the powerful Athenians he’d harassed in the street, he might even have been well-loved. He could easily have been the lovable old eccentric if he didn’t step too far out of line.

But, of course, lovable old eccentrics are not still written about two and a half thousand years after their death. Lovable old eccentrics do not found entire disciplines.

Similarly, Kanye could easily have been a well-loved artist if he wasn’t so outspoken. If he’d let a few things go, he wouldn’t be such a controversial figure. But then he wouldn't be Kanye.

6. Unafraid to ask for help.
On the 14th of February 2016, Kanye revealed that he was $53 million in debt and reached out to Mark Zuckerberg for help. Never one to do things by halves, he asked for $1 billion. And he did it on Twitter.



Zuckerberg did not give him $1 billion.

When invited to propose his own punishment for his crimes, Socrates suggested to the court that he be sentenced to a wage paid by the government and free dinners for life, which is kinda like saying:



Athens did not give him a wage and free dinners for life.

Conclusion

Like a Socratic dialogue, this post began with a question – Is Kanye West a philosopher? – and examined the evidence. It’s only right that it should end like a Socratic dialogue too: abruptly, and without a clear answer either way.

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