Joseph S. Biehl earned his B.A. in philosophy in Queens (St. John’s University) and his Ph.D. in Manhattan (CUNY), and he now runs the Gotham Philosophical Society, an ‘idea bank’ for New York City. He is still learning.
What excites you about philosophy?
To philosophize is both to affirm and challenge one’s sense of who and what one is. Philosophy is at once science, art, and neither. The difficulties and disagreements encountered in attempting to define it are mirrored by the difficulty—the impossibility—of defining what it is to be human. Through philosophy we attempt ourselves, probing what it is possible for a human to be. Every effort, every breakthrough, and every cul-de-sac is an expression of humanity.
What are you most proud of in your professional life?
I think philosophy is most effective when made responsive to the confusions and aspirations of particular communities. That’s why I started the Gotham Philosophical Society, so that New York’s philosophers might more effectively collaborate with their neighbors to rethink their city. The will to roll up one’s sleeves comes naturally to those for whom philosophy is a vocation. Like Plato’s philosophers who reenter the cave, or Nietzsche’s Zarathustra descending the mountain, we want to share with others what we have found.
What do you like to do outside work?
I like to play, whether with wooden trains with my three-year-old, or hockey, baseball, and football with my eight- and ten-year-old boys; make dinner and watching a movie with my wife; or have a symposium with my friends where we drink whisk(e)y, solve the troubles of the world, and find joy in the genius of Steely Dan.
If you could have a one-hour conversation with any philosopher from any time, whom would you pick, and what topic would you choose?
I would like to meet Protagoras and hear him elaborate and defend his claim that, of all things, a human being is the measure. Surely he would serve his ideas better than the character named for him in the Theaetetus is permitted to do. Wouldn’t it be something if that long series of footnotes to Plato amounted to the piecemeal vindication of the neglected wisdom of that great Sophist? Sounds about right to me.
What’s your favorite quote?
In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “Self-Reliance”
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