education philosopher

What is Philosophy Good For? Wisdom or Knowledge?

Posted in Philosophy, Teaching by KevinCK on July 8, 2011

What is philosophy for? What can it, and can it not, be expected to do? I have been thinking about these questions a lot lately. First, I will be teaching a class this fall to undergraduates regarding ethical and legal issues in education; I want to make sure I use philosophy to good effect and know I will have at least some students with (good, bad, or other) expectations for a philosophy course. Second, with all the emphasis on data-driven research, we philosophers of education (and other fields) sometimes feel like we’re on the defensive, having to justify ourselves in ways that other researchers don’t.

Well, recently I stumbled on a really interesting answer to the questions of what philosophy is for and what it can, and cannot, do. Richard Taylor’s essay “Dare to Be Wise” (Taylor 1968) has a bold, but satisfying, thesis that philosophy has taken a mistaken direction in questing for philosophic knowledge:

I shall maintain that there simply is no such thing as philosophical knowledge, nor any philosophical way to  know anything, and defend the humble point t hat philosophy is, indeed, the love of wisdom (615).

I want to briefly rehearse Taylor’s argument before discussing why I see his view as a very ennobling one for philosophy. Briefly, in suggesting that philosophy is not about knowledge but wisdom, philosophy does not try and be as other disciplines, but offers something that is more unique that other disciplines can’t as adeptly provide. And, of course, I also happen to think Taylor’s argument is basically true.

Taylor starts with Socrates and the Greeks (Stoics, Epicureans). He suggests that the works that they produced and what they (likely) saw themselves as doing was offering wisdom rather than knowledge. Knowledge is the search for what can be demonstratively proved and is true in a factual sense. Wisdom is a deep acquaintance with a problem, sensitivity to its subtleties and parts, and (possibly) an acquaintance with possible-rules-of-thumb-type answers. While this may be a bit of oversimplification, think of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as the quest for moral wisdom and Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals as the quest for moral knowledge; in the former case, Aristotle thinks through some moral problems and reasons about some overall possible solutions that are subtle, flexible, and not considered to be ‘true’ in any provable sense. Kant, on the other hand, had it as his mission to discover via reason a moral imperative that could be proved every bit as true as a law of physics, and that was invariant to circumstance, social convention, etc. (Where Taylor may miss the mark about the Ancient Greeks is with Plato, who conceived of the philosopher as the one who could, via reason, attain the truth in the midst of those who saw only appearance.)

Taylor also questions whether there is a unique method to philosophy that can yield true answers to questions. Doubtless, philosophers have toolkits; we use logic, dialectical discussion, the Socratic method, etc. But do these things yield true answers, or just interesting ones? To me, part of the problem is that philosophy deals with so many questions where it is ambiguous what would even count as proof of a statement’s truth. How does one prove that it is right to pay one’s debts even when they are incurred in moments of weakness or lack of meaningful choice? How does one prove that we are not determined in our actions, but are actually free at least to some degree? Many of philosophy’s attempted proofs amount to little more than appeals to intuition, highly speculative counter-factual or possible-worlds “proofs,” or quibbles about differing definitions of words (what do we mean by ‘free’ and is there one correct definition)?

And, long and short, if philosophy is to stand and fall based on its ability to yield true philosophic knowledge, then quite honestly, philosophy is hopeless. In science, questions are talked about, falsifiable and corrobarable hypotheses are made, experiments are designed, and over time, consensus on one answer is built. But says Taylor:

It is perfectly commonplace to find philosophers who meet and talk daily, customarily read and discuss each others’ work, who have abundant time to acquaint each other with their fruits of their inquiries and the foundations upon which these rest, and who yet agree upon absolutely nothing of a philosophical nature (618).

I don’t want to make it sound like Taylor is just down on philosophy. He was a philosopher and, by all accounts, one deeply passionate about his field. The point of the article is not to denigrate philosophy, or set lower standards for it, but to try and rehabilitate it. It is quite common for people to come away from philosophy, see its lack of ability to generate consensus and “true knowledge,’ and write it off as dead or a purely intellectual exercise with no hope of doing anything productive. But maybe that is not because our standards are too high, but that our standards are just plain wrong.

            Rather than see philosophy as a yielder of knowledge, it may be best to see it as a bestower of wisdom. Here’s how Taylor describes it:

What is the wisdom that philosophers, by their very name, are supposed to prize above every earthly honor or possession? It is, I think, what Aristotle referred to as the exercise of ‘theoria,’ which is a unique capacity of men and one which alas! more or less slumberes throughout the lives of most of these, including even some who are learned… Essentially it seems to me to be this, the power of seeing those things, great and small, needed for that kind of inner and outer life that Aristotle likened to the life of the gods, to which the eyes of most men seem closed. And philosophers, some of them, have certainly had this. It can, in fact, be claimed to be almost their unique possession, the one thing which they, more than any others, have really offered to the race of men” (625-626).

This elucidation is a bit vague, so let me come in behind it. When I personally think of philosophy as wisdom, I think of David Hume. Yes, Hume was part of the enlightenment, but I don’t read him as trying to offer knowledge. Rather, he tries to offer an appreciation of the human condition via an introspective ability that we second to none and an uncompromising reality in description that didn’t try to prove as much as share. If one reads Hume as an attempt to prove something, one comes away pessimistic, because all he seems to prove is that much that we don’t often think of as complex (ideas about causation, our moral landscape, the existence of god) is more bizarre and intricate than we thought.

            But maybe Hume is best read as not trying to offer a proof of anything, but trying to offer us a deep appreciation of our peculiar human condition. And to me, this is what the best philosophy does. Most of the philosophers I myself am most attracted to – Michael Oakeshott, Isaiah Berlin, William James, David Hume – were the ones that often stopped short (deliberately so, often) of trying to give us knowledge. If anything, many of these thinkers succeed only in explaining to us why, in our human condition, knowledge about certain things may be impossible. But that doesn’t mean that their writing is meaningless; what it does (and this is where I think they bestow wisdom rather than knowledge) is get us  to appreciate the sheer complexity of the questions, talk us through some possible ways we can make sense of the questions, and offer up at least a few potential solutions to them that may stop short of finality, but at least get us thinking for ourselves.

            I know it sounds vague, but that is what I think Taylor means (or at least what I read into him). Of course, it is also this very idea, of philosophy as complexifier rather than solver of problems, that drive many people away from it. We all knew (or maybe were) the person who took a philosophy class only to walk away disappointed that it only made us more confused than when we came to it. But, at least to me, that is what makes philosophy both thrilling and qualitatively different than other disciplines. (I think it is also why many disciplines got their start as parts of philosophy; because,  like no other discipline, philosophy is good at highlighting the potential avenues for future research because of its sensitivity to what the problems are.) Yes, disciplines that strive to answer questions are important. But, the idea of wisdom as a heightening of sensitivity to problems, their nuances, and how to think about them even when no solution seems likely, is also necessary. And that is where I think philosophy is indispensable.

            And this is what I will try to impart to my students. In other classes, we might talk about problems only to find out what the solutions are. Philosophy will not be like that. Here, we will talk about some questions that may not appear to have ready solutions (what should you do in such-and-such an ethical dilemma where more than one possible course seem correct, etc?). Where in other classes, our goal is to simplify (as the entire reason for finding an answer is to reduce a problematic situation to an unproblematic resolution), in our class, we will consider things in all their complexity, even when doing so brings out the complexity of what once appeared simpler.

And I hope I will not lose them when I do this. Right or wrong, we live in a world where utility is largely measured by ability to resolve issues and solve problems, rather than ability to provide richness and call attention to nuance. No doubt, the ability to solve problems and resolve issues has indubitable merit. But, like Taylor, I think philosophy has made a mistake in trying to model itself after the scientific disciplines that actually do this, rather than maintaining and “selling” their unique ability to bestow wisdom.

Richard Taylor, “Dare to Be Wise,” The Review of Metaphysics 21, no. 4 (June 1, 1968): 615-629.

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