Does Philosophy Make Us Better People?

Does Philosophy Make Us Better People?


Someone posted at the Philosophy Metametablog recently the following excerpt from an interview with Nicholas Rescher (Pittsburgh) conducted by Charlie Hobbs (Texas State) and published in Kinesis which seems worth discussing, particularly in light of all of various recent issues in the profession (though note that the interview was conducted in 2004).

Hobbs: Is there something about doing philosophy that makes us better people?

Rescher: One would like to think so, but I don’t think this is in fact the case, and, well, there are two aspects to it. One is that people are drawn to philosophy often as not, not by sympathies, but by aversions, that is to say the motivation is not so much to build forward something that they see as simply positive and to be approved of, but one goes into to because one wants to set people straight because one thinks they’re being wrong-headed and doing things that don’t make any sense, so that there is often in the motivation to go into philosophy a somewhat negative view of what others are doing. Moreover, of course, philosophy is sort of often practiced as an adversary procedure. We do in fact help others by criticizing and by trying to pick holes in what they’re doing. That is a way of being helpful. It does help to eliminate problems and strengthen their case and so on, but it does create sort of non-cooperative frame of mind that doesn’t tend to socialize people. Moreover, academic life doesn’t really socialize people. In more business oriented things, you have to live with people. You have to get on with them, whereas in academic life there is a tendency to go our own way. We have our own little range of concern, and we stick with it. We have the security of tenure, so we don’t have to worry about staying on good terms with our colleagues. I think the nature of academic life and the nature of  philosophical interaction is such as really not to give much positive reinforcement to the affective, positive, sharing, interactive side of humans. So, no, I don’t think so, certainly not philosophy as a professional activity. It’s an interesting question. If you look at philosophers, as opposed to people picked on any other basis, have they been better people? Well, there aren’t any outstandingly bad guys among them, I guess. I can’t think of a philosopher-serial-killer or something of that nature.

(Art: Still, a sculpture by Rob Mulholland)

guest
15 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
karl
karl
6 years ago

Louis Althusser killed his wife…Report

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
6 years ago

“One is that people are drawn to philosophy often as not, not by sympathies, but by aversions, that is to say the motivation is not so much to build forward something that they see as simply positive and to be approved of, but one goes into to because one wants to set people straight because one thinks they’re being wrong-headed and doing things that don’t make any sense, so that there is often in the motivation to go into philosophy a somewhat negative view of what others are doing.”

This doesn’t ring true for me, personally. It sounds true of my first years within philosophy, but not of my reason for entering the discipline. I entered it, personally, because of my love for physics and because of some remarks by Stephen Hawking: “Up to now, most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what the universe is to ask the question why. On the other hand, the people whose business it is to ask why, the philosophers, have not been able to keep up with the advance of scientific theories.” I applied to St Andrews for the joint program in philosophy and physics because I hoped to help bridge the gulf between philosophy and physics. I bet that lots of other philosophers entered the field for similarly positive reasons. This might mean perceiving a gap in the literature but it doesn’t necessarily mean perceiving anything in a particularly negative light. I know this is only a small part of what he says, and much of it sounds right, but I think this part is important. Lots of students in introductory courses see philosophy as without positive purpose, overly focused on the negative. I think this is how introductory courses often go, but it isn’t how I see myself as a philosopher and I don’t think it is a very good way to think about the field.Report

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
6 years ago

Also, a helpful link for those who don’t know about Eric’s work on this: http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2013/01/07/168650666/new-year-s-resolutions-need-more-than-good-intentionsReport

Tom Cochrane
6 years ago

I assume the question is about becoming morally better. I went into philosophy because I wanted to find out about things. Despite that, it might have made me morally better. Most plausibly it helps me to tolerate differences of opinion. Generally seeking the broadest perspective probably helps people not to get trapped in short-sighted tribal sympathies.Report

ejrd
ejrd
6 years ago

I’m going to post only to express a deep and general skepticism about our ability to introspect our own betterness. Whether or not philosophy has made you better ought not be determined by whether or not you think it has. That seems like a recipe for a terrible data set. Rescher has, at least, proposed several important situational features common to philosophical climates that may impact us for the worse (perhaps in ways we cannot introspect).Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

As in the case of claims that literature morally improves, I’m wary of any claim that this is generally true on the individual level. I suspect the study of either rarely directly improves the morality of the student for the simple reason that I think we tend to self-select influences that reinforce our moral prejudices and because we are good at, and philosophers especially good at, using reason to protect our prejudices rather than overcome them.

However, I do think it’s plausible that both philosophy and literature might have moral benefits on a broader cultural level. They enhance our opportunities to encounter and compare more views, attitudes, values, and arguments, enabling us to be more moral than we would otherwise be by increasing the options we would otherwise consider. The cultural effects of philosophy and literature can counteract our self-selective prejudices. I suspect the average philosopher is more improved by alternative views they encounter in the world–among friends, family, peers, society–than the arguments and topics they study.

Carolyn, I don’t want to contradict your personal experience, but I do think that the Rescher’s statement is it least in principle compatible with such experiences, since it may not be about conscious reasons. In my own case, my conscious decision to pursue philosophy was also quite different, but it’s possible that those weren’t my only motive, that I was “drawn”–to use his language–without realizing it on an emotional level by certain “sympathies” and “aversions.” It feels good to be right; it feels good to win arguments and, along with that, it feels good to see other people as wrong. I hope as a philosopher I’ve developed some control over those sentiments, but they might play a role.

Tom, as a philosopher teacher, I hope that tolerance of different opinions and independence from tribalism is a benefit of studying philosophy, but I honestly don’t feel certain that it’s true, and I’m not sure how I would determine that. I suspect, first, that it’s self-selecting: a person who can’t tolerate different opinions will be miserable studying philosophy. Second, I wonder if philosophers are just better at rationalizing away or failing to see the degree to which we’re tribal, since the tribes we serve aren’t the obvious ones, and are tribes that pride themselves in cloaking their deep convictions with sophisticated philosophical arguments.Report

Terence Blake
6 years ago

I began philosophy because I read things like Bertrand Russell’s ON DENOTING and SENSE AND SENSIBILIA, extracts from Whitehead’s PROCESS AND REALITY, and Nietzsche’s TWILIGHT OF THE IDOLS when I was 15 and I thought philosophy was beautiful, the reasoning, the concepts, the worldviews, the diversity. This impression has never left me. I later came to see philosophy as important for my individuation, so I don’t know if it makes people better, but I would say that it makes people “meta-better”, i.e. more individually developed both in their good and in their bad traits and responses. An egoist with a rich articulated and intellectually refined mental world will still be bad news, and they will sometimes be worse than an egoist (or fascist or toxic partner) without such enrichment, but they will be meta-better for the same reason. And ditto for the philosophically enriched altruist.Report

dmf
dmf
6 years ago

Important here I think to be mindful of the difference between knowing about (which academics are often well trained in) and knowing how (a largely lacking aspect of education in the humanities). Would be a very different (and much more demanding) form of paideia that would allow people to cultivate their ways of being in the world.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

“Well, there aren’t any outstandingly bad guys among them, I guess. I can’t think of a philosopher-serial-killer or something of that nature.” — Yeah NO. I can name one philosopher who has allegedly been diagnosed as a “psychopath with homicidal tendencies,” and another who allegedly sexual abused a minor for years. Both are current members of the discipline.

For those who think the ability to reason makes folk good, here’s a one-question quiz:

Which of the following two quotes is from Martin Vanger, the serial rapist and killer in the late Stieg Larsson’s novel The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, and which one is a quote from an email sent by a prominent moral philosopher to a graduate student who criticized him for using deception and lies to persuade young students 30-40 years his junior to have sex with him?

(a) “You have an advanced case of the occupational disease of self-righteousness which affects many ethicists and preachers: you make strong moral judgments of others that far outstrip your understanding. And it’s especially scary because your eclectic choice of moral rules is untempered by any effort on your part to try them on for size.”

(b) “My actions aren’t socially acceptable, but my crime is first and foremost against the conventions of society… You with your bourgeoisie conventions would never grasp this.”Report

grad
grad
6 years ago

I tend to think that professional philosophy makes people worse nowadays. David McNaughton has a great essay in which he points out that philosophers cannot ruminate on many of the most important features of life if they do nothing but philosophy. If becoming a better person requires experiences of many different sorts–which I think it does–then philosophy likely does not make us better people. (This is admittedly speculative and I would be happy to see empirical data either way.)Report

Clement Loo
Clement Loo
6 years ago

There’s one thing about Rescher’s answer that kind of bothers me. Rescher seems to be assuming that morality and sociability are somehow coextensive or that sociability is somehow important for morality. It seems plausible to me to say that if one interacts with others more often, one might have greater opportunity to act in a moral manner. However, it strikes me that one can be a moral introvert or even a moral jerk. I can’t think of any reason to prima facie doubt that one can have a tendency towards isolation or even a tendency to be hostile yet perhaps act in a manner that consistently maximizes the good, respects the agency of others, or in some other manner that meets the requirements of one’s preferred account of morality.

Now that might actually say something more about myself and my personality than Rescher’s answer but, even if that’s the case, I’ll still ask the question even if philosophy does have a tendency to make us unpleasant introverts – would that be suggestive that philosophy leads us to be either a- or immoral?Report

Manyul Im
6 years ago

That’s really interesting. Rescher’s answer seems to be all about being “better” as being sociable — until the very end when it’s about not being a serial killer! On the other hand, a couple of comment authors seem to take sociability and morality to be the two main alternative framings in which we could consider the question about being a better person. If we take a broader perspective, there might be other ways in which we often judge people to be better people that don’t necessarily fit into those packages. Take being an interesting person, for example. Philosophers are often really interesting because they’re trained to think in ways that are unexpected or innovative. “Disruptive” is a popular term now for something good; I think philosophers are disruptive in that kind of good way — they provoke thinking and rethinking. Not to be too performative but fuck sociability, full speed ahead!Report

P2
P2
6 years ago

Interesting question, Clement. I’m inclined to suggest that sociality *is* important for morality, at least to the extent that being *truly* asocial does entail that one is amoral. Now, clearly, one can be socially competent without being morally competent. For example, many so-called sociopaths are thus. But can one be moral without being social? I’m thinking no.Report

Paul
Paul
6 years ago

“One would like to think so, but I don’t think this is in fact the case, and, well, there are two aspects to it. One is that people are drawn to philosophy often as not, not by sympathies, but by aversions, that is to say the motivation is not so much to build forward something that they see as simply positive and to be approved of, but one goes into to because one wants to set people straight because one thinks they’re being wrong-headed and doing things that don’t make any sense, so that there is often in the motivation to go into philosophy a somewhat negative view of what others are doing. Moreover, of course, philosophy is sort of often practiced as an adversary procedure. ”

Well, sometimes I do like to “set people straight,” but I don’t think that’s the main reason I got into philosophy. I think I got into it in the first place because I was drawn to the values of free thinking and valuing ideas for their own sake. Eventually, I was more drawn to it when I realize how important critical thinking; moreover, I realize how it’s one of the most underrated traits in society. I am also drawn to philosophy because the philosophical problems are just so damn interesting. Perhaps this is unique to my case whereas everyone is drawn to philosophy just to set people straight, but I highly doubt this. I’ve seen too many cases (anecdotal) where people who are into philosophy find it interesting for its own sake.

“Moreover, academic life doesn’t really socialize people. In more business oriented things, you have to live with people. You have to get on with them, whereas in academic life there is a tendency to go our own way. We have our own little range of concern, and we stick with it. ”

The interviewers asked “Is there something about doing philosophy that makes us better people?”, but he never asked “Is there something about doing philosophy *in an academic setting* makes us better people?” Those are two separate questions. Rescher confused the first question as the second question (though I don’t blame him, since doing philosophy is done primarily within an academic setting). I mean, one can do plenty of philosophy outside of academia. If not engage in highly esoteric problems like Sorites Paradox, one could at least use the tools of philosophy to think about any social/political issue like capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, human rights, and such. I think doing philosophy in that sense can still make us a better thinker, but is that the same as making us into a better person. Well, I think becoming a better thinker is part of becoming a better person. Rescher is correct that developing social skills is very pertinent, but developing critical thinking skills is equally pertinent when dealing with really hard problems that just can’t be dealt with by talking your way out of it with your social skills.Report