Wisdom, Not Mere Love of It

Wisdom, Not Mere Love of It


There are different strains of public philosophy, one of which is bringing philosophy to bear on social and personal issues. The idea is that philosophers, qua philosophers, have something distinctive and helpful to contribute to public discourse. W.V.O. Quine, writing in 1979 in the Long Island newspaper, Newsday, seems to disagree:

The student who majors in philosophy primarily for spiritual comfort is misguided and is probably not a very good student anyway, since intellectual curiosity is not what moves him. Inspirational and edifying writing is admirable, but the place for it is the novel, the poem, the sermon, or the literary essay. Philosophers in the professional sense have no peculiar fitness for it. Neither have they any particular fitness for helping society get on an even keel , though we should all do what we can. What just might fill these perpetually crying needs is wisdom: sophia yes, philosophia not necessarily.

That appears towards the end of the brief essay, entitled “Has Philosophy Lost Contact with the People?” It was a response to a piece by Mortimer Adler, also in Newsday (if anyone has an electronic version of this, please send it to me).

This piece came to my attention via a post by Andrew Taggart, in which he also mentions comedian Craig Ferguson’s interview of Jonathan Dancy, in particular Dancy’s line: “As a philosopher I’m not in the business of telling people how to live; I’m in the business of trying to understand something… Most moral philosophers are singularly ill equipped [to tell people how to live their lives].”

Another type of public philosophy involves getting the public to do, or at least understand, philosophy. Quine comments on this, too, unsurprised and unbothered by the disconnect between academic philosophy and laypeople:

Not all of what is philosophically important need be of lay interest even when clearly expounded and fitted into place. I think of organic chemistry; I recognize its importance, but I am not curious about it, nor do I see why the layman should care about much of what concerns me in philosophy.

So, there are supply-side and demand-side problems for public philosophy, according to Quine.

There have been some recent posts here advocating for more public philosophy (e.g., Sinnott-Armstrong, Kirkman). Are they too sanguine?

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