"Philosopher" nearly calls to mind a mythical creature. Too formal a name for a Pokémon, but not specific or serious enough for scholars of a certain reputation. What sort of strange being "loves wisdom?" I believe it worth listing some popular conceptions of a philosopher before turning to Kafka's sketch of one in "The Top." Philosophy is an idea we load with our own assumptions, and it does not look like those assumptions are ever really challenged. To wit: a philosopher could be a scientist. Or a self-help guru. Or a dispenser of mystical, cryptic sayings. They could even be practical! It isn't unphilosophic if someone can tell who's full of it without being cynical about everything.
These are just some common notions about what a philosopher might be. They don't add up in the least, but they give Kafka's funny little story an urgency. The first sentence: "A certain philosopher used to hang about wherever children were at play." The "philosopher" Kafka presents is a crank who we'd consider a creep if he weren't completely harmless. He steals toys from children and gets disgusted with those toys almost immediately after capture. What's urgent about this? Well, whatever Kafka is describing makes some sense to us, maybe more sense than trying to add up a number of conflicting ideas about what a philosopher is. Kafka's "The Top," in full:
The Top (h/t a point of no return) Franz Kafka (translated by Tania and James Stern) A certain philosopher used to hang about wherever children were at play. And whenever he saw a boy with a top, he would lie in wait. As soon as the top began to spin the philosopher went in pursuit and tried to catch it. He was not perturbed when the children noisily protested and tried to keep him away from their toy; so long as he could catch the top while it was still spinning, he was happy, but only for a moment; then he threw it to the ground and walked away. For he believed that the understanding of any detail, that of a spinning top, for instance, was sufficient for the understanding of all things. For this reason he did not busy himself with great problems, it seemed to him uneconomical. Once the smallest detail was understood, then everything was understood, which was why he busied himself only with the spinning top. And whenever preparations were being made for the spinning of the top, he hoped that this time it would succeed: as soon as the top began to spin and he was running breathlessly after it, the hope would turn to certainty, but when he held the silly piece of wood in his hand, he felt nauseated. The screaming of the children, which hitherto he had not heard and which now suddenly pierced his ears, chased him away, and he tottered like a top under a clumsy whip.
The philosopher lay "in wait," hoping to steal a top when it spun. If he caught the top then, "he was happy, but only for a moment; then he threw it to the ground and walked away." This addiction makes him resemble a top himself. "As soon as the top began to spin and he was running breathlessly after it, the hope would turn to certainty, but when he held the silly piece of wood in his hand, he felt nauseated." To not put too fine a point on this, the philosopher totters "like a top under a clumsy whip" when the nausea fully hits.
Some might say the story is simple enough. A person acting crazy gets less than desirable results for their behavior. But this "certain philosopher" acts crazy about a matter regarding knowledge. And their "philosophy," so to speak, is rather precise:
...he believed that the understanding of any detail, that of a spinning top, for instance, was sufficient for the understanding of all things. For this reason he did not busy himself with great problems, it seemed to him uneconomical. Once the smallest detail was understood, then everything was understood...
It's not just a maniac philosopher who believes "the understanding of any detail... [is] sufficient for the understanding of all things." Those of us who consider ourselves normal believe the same thing. Think about all the myths we indulge about self-made men. People who came to the US having nothing, for example, and who built a legacy. They may have had a 3rd grade education, but in addition to hard work, there were little things they understood that proved to be useful for knowing something larger. Or the "farmer-solider" ethic of Roman citizens. That you would be a good farmer, hard-working and obedient to the land, and then a menacing fighter when called to defend it in obedience to your leaders.
These sorts of myths stem from a truth. It is true that knowing a small detail completely can give you an understanding of the whole. There's a reason why scientists examine quarks and other subatomic particles. The connection between them and the beginnings of the universe is direct. You could say the problem of this "certain philosopher," then, is the same as that of a physicist trying to be an engineer. What's observed in a laboratory or in an equation is simply not the same as whatever we experience, and the latter creates not only practical demands, but eventually demands more of theory.
I actually believe the problem might be deeper than even that formulation. Kafka's philosopher is obsessed with spinning tops. The object in motion is useless to him at rest. The symbolism is not subtle. Parmenides wondered if all motion, all change, was illusory, because if things actually are, and being is truth, then all things must be one and unchanging. The problem is that truth has to be static for us to apprehend and use it. So when the "philosopher" grabs a spinning top, he grabs an object that is being-in-motion. An object moving in such a way that it fulfills what it is meant to be. He is trying to grasp a point where knowledge isn't merely doing something, but constituting being in the world. And what he finds is that the moment of victory is a defeat. You can't reconcile what you know of a thing with the thing itself immediately. It takes another sort of knowledge to effect that merger.
Most of us don't bother with identifying what we need to know in order to understand how we know. I mean, when I put it that way, it sounds like life is an epistemological puzzle. It actually is, but we get by because we act like everyone else does. If we didn't, we might find ourselves doing as a "certain philosopher" did. And given that today's my birthday, and I can say I've seen a lot of people get older but not grow up, I can also say this. There's a lot of stealing toys that don't belong to us, taking happiness away from some kids for the sake of something we only imagine.