Virtues of Philosophers: Humility, Curiosity, Charity, Courage, and Grace

What are the virtues of a philosopher?

I won’t pretend this is an uncontroversial question, but I leave aside the tasks of defending it and arguing for particular specifications of its concepts. What I have in mind are aspects of character in virtue of which philosophers are able to do whatever it is they are supposed to do, well—especially in light of the fact that we usually do philosophy through interactions with others (if not in person, at least in text). I am hoping that at least some people reading this have at least a rough sense of what I’m asking about.

I don’t think there is only one good answer, or even one good kind of answer, to this question. I’m going to give an answer, but I don’t claim that it is complete and I don’t claim that it is novel. Nor do I pretend that I exemplify to any noteworthy degree any of the qualities I refer to in answering it.

I ask the question because I think that during challenging times it can be useful to remind yourself of how you’d like to be. And I place my answer before you all now with two thoughts in mind. The first is that many of you, trained and socialized into the profession of philosophy as I was, will recognize in my answer a familiar ideal, and that the collective reminder to think about these virtues might help the lot of us, maybe just a little, with recent and ongoing challenges. The second is that some of you might disagree with my answer, and I might learn that I’m missing something important.

So, here are five virtues of philosophers. I’ve put them somewhat aphoristically, in the hopes that that leaves room for you to fill in the details in ways you think best, and that other people besides philosophers find them of interest (they may be virtues for other academics, too, but I will let others be the judge of that).

  • Humility – knowledge of the limits of one’s knowledge, including one’s knowledge of those limits
  • Curiosity – the propensity to be dissatisfied with one’s lack of understanding, but not discouraged by it
  • Charity – the disposition to first seek the wisdom in what others say
  • Courage – the strength to not mistake uncertainty for danger
  • Grace – gratitude to those who help save us from ourselves

Comments welcome.

Jose Dávila, “Joint Effort”

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