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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Fiona Woollard
Fiona Woollard
6 years ago

I think philosophers do have something distinctive and useful to add to public discourse. First, we are – or are supposed to be – skilled at reasoning and uncovering flawed reasoning. These skills can be applied to any argument.

Second, Dancy’s comment about the aims of moral philosophy may fit his type of moral philosophy but doesn’t match vast swathes of moral philosophy. Applied moral philosophers are skilled thinkers who spend lots and lots of time thinking about abortion or famine relief or equality or, the list goes on. If we think there is any point in thinking about these issues, how could applied moral philosophers not have something to contribute?Report

Carl Brownson
Carl Brownson
6 years ago

The idea that one who finds spiritual comfort in philosophy must not be motivated by intellectual curiosity is a false dichotomy. The satisfaction of intellectual curiosity *is* a spiritual comfort, for me at any rate, and I suspect for most people genuinely addicted to philosophy. I mean ‘spiritual’ in the loosest sense, in the sense in which an atheist like me can find the needs of his ‘soul’ satiated.

On this as on so many other things, I think more and more lately that Quine needs to go the way of the dodo. Do we still have to take “On What There Is” seriously, for instance, after the last fifty years of metaphysics have shown how bankrupt it was?Report

Mike Austin (@michaelwaustin)
6 years ago

On a certain conception of philosophy, then the thoughts expressed by Quine and Dancy make perfect sense. However, on a more Socratic view, the cultivation of wisdom is not merely for the sake of understanding, but for determining how we ought to live. If we opt for this latter view, and seek to cultivate the intellectual and moral virtues that are necessary for it, then we do have something of value to say to our students who are seeking a good and fulfilling life, and to the culture at large. I for one have never seen philosophy as merely the pursuit of understanding, but as a wisdom-discovering enterprise that has something very positive to contribute to individual and social flourishing. When I have ventured into the realm of public philosophy, in both speaking and writing, it seems to me many are interested and appreciative of what this type of philosophy can do as a means to these ends.Report

Matthew
Matthew
6 years ago

It strikes me, reading this Quine extract, what repeatedly strikes me in actual discourse with philosophers. They seem utterly bewildered, and chalk this up to the idea of their being a special case (a professional philosopher), thinly disguised as the special case of philosophy per se. No, philosophy is about the world, and the shuffling of feet toward very haphazard notions of bringing philosophers into some sort of public discourse speaks volumes about how important philosophers are. Could this be different in the future? Looking around, I wouldn’t think that’s likely.Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

Unless we regard professional philosophy as a mere personal indulgence, of no value to people beyond professional philosophy, we had better ask ourselves what good our work is to people beyond professional philosophy. Why should people like me be paid to do philosophy if our ideas never leave philosophy departments?Report

Matt LaVine
Matt LaVine
6 years ago

Myself and my friend Matt Chick have responded to EXTREMELY similar claims from Kripke in our “The Relevance of Analytic Philosophy to Personal, Public, and Democratic Life” (Essays in Philosophy, Vol 15, Issue 1, Article 10). That said, I want to add a few things here.
(1) I’ve got to be skeptical of an anti-foundationalist, radical empiricist who stipulates from the armchair that students who get into philosophy for some reason other than intellectual curiosity are going to be bad philosophy students. This is especially the case given that spiritual comfort and moral improvement have been what motivated the likes of Socrates, Plato, Augustine, Al-Kindi, Princess Elisabeth, Leibniz, and on and on. This passage doesn’t make me skeptical that philosophy has “any peculiar fitness for helping society get on an even keel”. It makes me skeptical that Quine had any peculiar knowledge about philosophy or its history outside of his brilliant work in logic and the philosophy of science.
(2) The second passage seems just as problematic. It seems to me to misunderstand the nature of chemistry, the nature of philosophy, and the link between them. (We’re obviously going to run into some troubles because Quine sees no relevant distinction between chemistry and philosophy, but I think a point similar to mine could be couched more carefully in Quinean-acceptable terms.) On the first front, chemistry (and empirical science, generally) comes up with results that can help the public without them realizing it. This is why empirical scientists can be doing their jobs well while working on things that the public doesn’t think is important. Its importance for the public can be there without the public being aware of this. Philosophy is not in the realm of the tangible, though. The products that philosophers come up with are new ideas, theories, concepts, etc. For philosophy to be doing its job, then, there needs to be an awareness of its products and their potential.
(3) Again, I get pretty skeptical of Quine’s real motivations here when he says things way beyond what he needs to. He says that he doesn’t see why the layman should care about what he’s doing in philosophy. Surely his point was only supposed to be that the layman doesn’t NEED to care about his work for Quine to be justified in continuing it. That he stated this in the stronger form just makes me feel like he’s saying he doesn’t really care at all about the layman. Because surely Quine recognizes that there are implications of his views that layfolks WOULD care about if they were properly introduced to them. But, given that this is the case and that the methodological constraints of professional philosophy are less strict than other disciplines, why would we not want to try to get layfolks on board? I suppose Quine could say that this is only necessary if the things we’re working on could have some practical importance to layfolks. But even Quine’s narrow view of philosophy has this potential. Quine thinks that the theory of induction and epistemology are one and the same thing and that they constitute the main branch of philosophy (Preface to “Philosophy of Logic”). One of the very first things we teach when we teach induction is to avoid hasty generalizations. Hasty generalizations are at the heart of much racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, etc. thinking. So obviously we CAN be doing a HUGE public service with our philosophizing and teaching of philosophy. Given that we can, what’s keeping people from saying we should do this more? I really don’t get the hesitation.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

Wow. And people complain about articles in the New York Times’ “Stone” column. It’s got nothing on this rubbish. How does one infer from the fact that a student studies philosophy for spiritual comfort that they aren’t *additionally* motivated by intellectual curiosity? What possible reason could one have for assuming that good philosophy students are always or primarily moved by intellectual curiosity?

Anyone with any teaching experience knows good students who are motivated by grades, parental and peer pressure, narcissistic perfectionism, economic insecurity, or financial ambition, as much as by intellectual curiosity. Books have been devoted to the fact that a sizeable percentage of Ivy League students are of this type. Those of us teaching outside of top schools also know that being motivated by curiosity and is a luxury of privilege, one few of our students have. In any case, *my* best philosophy students aren’t motivated in either of these ways. They’re motivated because they find the questions important, and because they care about the answers to those questions, not because they’ve found a glorified crossword puzzle to solve.

Dancy’s comment is strange at best: as if it goes without saying that living one’s life well has nothing to do with “understanding something.” One of the great disappointments of “public philosophy” is discovering that so many philosophers, when they begin to speak outside their area of expertise, are astonishingly poor reasoners. And of course it ignores the context in which we ask if moral philosophers have some value in the public sphere. Who’s the competition? Philosophers are hardly not *singularly* ill equipped to tell people how to live their lives, when they are predominantly given instruction on how to live their lives by algorithms, CEOs, politicians, priests, and cable news.Report

JT
JT
6 years ago

Alternatively, does any member of any academic field qua member of their field have “something distinctive and helpful to contribute to public discourse” so as to help “society get on an even keel”? Are the concerns of any academic field important to the layperson, whose interests and concerns are construed in the way implicit in the Quine quote? I suspect that the answer to both is ‘No’. And I suspect that this says more about these questions than it does about the relevance or merits of the various pursuits of the academics viz. those of the layperson.Report

JDRox
JDRox
6 years ago

I’m honestly torn about this, but I think people are being much too harsh on Quine.

First, Quine of course admits that people can have multiple motivations for studying philosophy. He’s specifically talking about people who study it *primarily* for spiritual comfort. And it *is* rather hard to see how people who are doing that are likely to be good at it, since such motivated reasoning can and does sometimes conflict with the direction of the evidence.

Second, the benefits of studying organic chemistry and other sciences for the uninitiated can’t be what justifies their study, since for most of human history those benefits were paltry indeed. What great benefits did the study of anything bring the common people before, say, 1770? Note that I’m not saying there were none, but I am saying that there weren’t many–the average person in 1770 was living a life pretty similar to the life of an average person in 1670 or indeed 1270.

Third, I take it that Quine’s point isn’t that *no* ordinary folk are interested in philosophical questions at all, it’s just that most are not *very* interested, or only interested in certain very specific questions that many philosophers do not work on. I mean, if philosophy is important (to the folk) at all, then the questions about modality and modal reasoning that Quine was interested in are important, since modal reasoning is very common throughout philosophy. But non-philosophers are just not that interested in modal reasoning. Indeed, lots of philosophers don’t have any particular interest in studying modal reasoning!

Finally, it seems to me that Quine’s description of philosophy describes the situation with, say, English pretty accurately. Does everyone here think that there would be something wrong with English professors focusing their attention on “great books” that few ordinary people care about rather than *Twilight* or *50 Shades of Grey*? If not, what is the disanology with philosophy professors studying things that most ordinary people don’t care about?Report

ordinal
ordinal
6 years ago

At the end of “Morality: its Nature and Justification,” Bernard Gert wrote that philosophy could clarify our understanding of morality, but could not deepen our compassion for the most deprived persons in society. Only art, literature and religion could deepen our compassion toward others, according to Gert.

“A Critical Preface to Philosophy,” an introductory philosophy text remaindered at the Barnes and Noble Sale Annex, advanced the thesis that philosophy concerned reflection on either certain basic unverifiable-in-principle presuppositions indispensable for rational discourse, or reflection on “…the ends toward which human life is directed.” The disjunction was apparently needed so that the question of Socrates, “how should we live?” would count as a philosophical question.Report

Joseph S. Biehl
6 years ago

There is, I think, much to what Quine says here. Much that interests and preoccupies the professional philosopher has little to do with the pressing business of life and so can be thoroughly ignored by the wider culture (as it mostly is). Might the non-philosopher be made to appreciate that some of this work is, in fact, relevant to them, as Matt LaVine suggests? I’m certain of that. But I don’t think all of it can be made so, and this is the realm of ‘philosophy for philosophy’s sake,’ where what drives it are the interests and abilities of the professionals themselves. In this regard, professional philosophers are akin to Civil War reanactors, or Dungeon and Dragons addicts: they are playing a game – albeit a very difficult and conceptually challenging game, but a game nevertheless. That isn’t to denigrate what they do; there is nothing problematic, in itself, with such conceptual games. But rarely can we talk about things in themselves, without reference to anything else. Philosophy’s position in the academy is growing ever more tenuous, and philosophers cannot expect that public or private largesse will continue indefinitely. That is why it behooves those philosophers whose work does impact society – which is, I think, the bulk of their work – not be shy in bringing it to society’s attention. So long as the perception remains that philosophy is aloof from the concerns of the everyday, the more endangered it will become.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

Quine’s statement comes from a position of privilege within the profession. At my university I could never make a statement like that, because it would be used to justify cutting my department. Here’s to the privileged few and their musings on philosophy’s relevance!Report

G Felis
6 years ago

I think Bertrand Russell’s discussion of this very subject in “Philosophy for Laymen” is far more thoughtful and enlightening than Quine’s or Dancy’s.
http://www.users.drew.edu/~jlenz/br-lay-philosophy.htmlReport

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

I think there are at least there different issues here that need to be distinguished.

First, there is whether philosophy has value when it serves no purpose other than increasing the philosopher’s understanding. I say that it does have such value.

A second issue is whether philosophers have a duty to share their ideas with the public. I say that they do, since it is selfish to keep something valuable to yourself. This duty could lapse if the public cannot be interested, but the mere fact that they are not interested is insufficient. If we have something valuable to share, we have a duty to make every effort to interest them.

A third issue is whether professional philosophers have a special duty as professionals to share their ideas with the public. I say that there must be such a professional duty, since people aren’t paying us to benefit ourselves and there is no reason that they should. Producing ideas for ourselves or other professional philosophers is not a professional end. Our professional end is to provide ideas to people outside professional philosophy.Report

JDRox
JDRox
6 years ago

Greg Littmann writes, “people aren’t paying us to benefit ourselves and there is no reason that they should”.

I don’t understand this. As far as I can tell, I’m paid to teach my students well, be on a bunch of committees etc, and to raise (or maintain) the status of my university by doing good research. If my research really just benefitted me–if the profession thought it was crap but I loved it, then I agree: we’re not being paid to do *that*. But Quine’s research, for example, was very well regarded by the profession. So I’m having trouble seeing how Quine wasn’t doing what he was being paid to do.Report

Avi
Avi
6 years ago

Someone will hopefully correct me if I am not recalling accurately, but somewhere (perhaps in an interview) Quine maintained that logic and epistemology, like physics, were pure theoretical inquiries undertaken out of intellectual curiosity, whereas ethics and political philosophy were best understand as analogous to engineering. Just as engineering draws on knowledge from pure science in order to solve specific human problems, so too ethics and pol phil draw on pure theoretical philosophy as well as psychology and other relevant sciences in order to address practical problems.Report

Beau Madison Mount
Beau Madison Mount
6 years ago

I think it is worth noting that the impression of Quine’s views that many people seem to have drawn on the basis of the quoted paragraph — that he saw no value in attempts by professional philosophers to engage with non-specialist audiences, or vice versa — is not borne out by his career, which included a very large amount of writing aimed at the educated general reader.

For instance: “The Ways of Paradox” and “Foundations of Mathematics” appeared in *Scientific American*; “On the Application of Modern Logic” was broadcast on the radio in Berlin; “Necessary Truth” was a lecture for the Voice of America; “Things and Their Place in Theories* began as an article in *The American Scholar*; moreover, *Theories and Things* also contains (as well as the response to Adler) reviews from the NYRB, the TLS, and the *Washington Post*; *Methods of Logic* is an undergraduate textbook; and so on.Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
6 years ago

Academics are paid in part to produce a body of knowledge that belongs to all of humanity. This has value as a sort of collective accomplishment, and is compatible with laypeople being uninterested in the vast majority of this knowledge. Do the laypeople care about the specific particles produced by a specific sort of collision? No. They want the big picture. It’s the same with philosophy. There are a few big picture issues that people might be interested in, and we should do a better job at trying to distill rigorous work on these issues into a form that is fit for the layperson’s consumption. But this is not the inherent purpose of academic research. Moreover, there are certain issues that might sound interesting to some laypeople (e.g. “Is there really vagueness in the world, or is vagueness merely a product of language?”) that would pretty much be impossible to present in a non-technical way.

That being said, there are specific issues in ethics and politics that philosophers are obligated to intervene in publicly, simply because we are experts on these issues. Note, however, that the reasons for this obligation are not consumerist. Part of the role of the academic is to give expert testimony when public issues arise that call for it. This is not the same as an obligation to produce work that the average person can consume. To be sure, we should definitely try to do the latter when it is feasible, but it is not part of our obligations as academics and is not nearly as important as getting involved in public debates.Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

JDRox, I’d like to reply to three points. Firstly, people are not paying professional philosophers to benefit each other, nor should they. Secondly, that we are rightly paid for our teaching and service doesn’t in itself justify paying us for research. Thirdly, that our research generates “status” for the university is not an end in itself. I put it to you that the justification for funding philosophical research is that we provide important ideas to people outside the profession.Report

JDRox
JDRox
6 years ago

Greg Littmann: I think we agree on points 1 and 2. As far as point 3 goes, I agree that raising the status of my university isn’t a real end in itself. But from the university’s perspective, it is a component of what keeps them afloat. To be honest, I don’t think my own university cares much about my research at all, but that’s because it’s kind of a crappy university. In any case, the administrators here have never expressed any sort of expectation that my research should be benefitting the masses.Report

Beau Madison Mount
Beau Madison Mount
6 years ago

I’m very unclear, Greg Littman, about the sense in which you’re using ‘justify’. Is the claim that it’s morally impermissible to pay philosophers for pure research? Or that no one can ever has adequate reason to pay philosophers for pure research? Or merely that philosophers are in fact never paid for pure research, but only for activities useful outside the profession? (I think all these claims are false, but they’re false for different reasons.)Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

Beau Madison Mount, I’m not claiming any of those things. There’s nothing wrong with conducting pure research as a professional activity. After all, pure research can benefit people outside professional philosophy either by filling them in on things they want to know or by contributing to research that can be applied (possibly in ways that can’t be predicted until the research is conducted). Problems only arise if we forget that the point of professional pure research is to benefit people outside the profession.Report

Beau Madison Mount
Beau Madison Mount
6 years ago

I didn’t formulate that very well. Let’s use the term ‘research*’ to denote pure research that lacks plausible practical application (in the ordinary sense of ‘practical’) and is not of significant interest to nonspecialists. A lot of things that academics (not just philosophers) do count as research*: a great deal of set theory, some highly speculative aspects of theoretical physics, the history of Byzantine coinage or the details of the administrative structures of Ming dynasty China, and so on.

(I personally don’t want to say that this doesn’t benefit people outside the profession, because I think one derives benefit simply from being part of a world in which human beings acquire and record knowledge about these things, even if one never learns about it and it never has any impact on one’s daily life, but I assume you’d contest that claim.)

Is your view that it’s wrong to pursue research*? That it’s wrong to pay people to pursue research*? That it’s morally licit to pay people to pursue research* but a bad idea? That, in fact, people are never paid for research* but only for research that isn’t research*?Report

Anon Grad
Anon Grad
6 years ago

Littleman

“A third issue is whether professional philosophers have a special duty as professionals to share their ideas with the public.”

Isn’t this called “teaching”?Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

Beau, I’m not clear on what counts as “plausible practical application” or “significant interest” to non-specialists. All of the examples you gave of research* strike me as not research* on the grounds that they may have important practical applications or be of interest to non-specialists. I wouldn’t want to see any of these abandoned. Rather, I would want researchers to ask themselves what the practical applications might be and how to supply information to non-specialists. It is certainly possible in principle that a subject an academic wants to pursue could be a waste of public money, but I suppose that is something you would agree with.

You are correct that I don’t believe it is a benefit to people just to share the world with other people who know things. It strikes me as akin to being poor but having the satisfaction of knowing that other folks have money.

Anon Grad, yes we have a duty to teach. It doesn’t not follow that by teaching, we have discharged our duties.Report

Michael Shepanski
6 years ago

@Avi

To my knowledge, normative epistemology is the only branch of philosophy that Quine has linked to engineering, and that was more than an analogy.

In his “Reply to Morton White” (Hahn and Schilpp: _The Philosophy of W. V. Quine_, 1986) he wrote “For me normative epistemology is a branch of engineering. It is the technology of truth-seeking, or, in a more cautiously epistemological term, prediction.” In _Pursuit of Truth_ (1990) he wrote “… normative epistemology gets naturalized into a chapter of engineering: the technology of anticipating sensory stimulation.” In his “Comment on Haack” (Barrett and Gibson, _Perspectives on Quine_, 1995) he refined the view a bit: “[The purposes] of the science game are understanding, control of the environment, healing, and, in some cases, mental exhiliaration, pride of achievement, and even fame, if not fortune. Prediction is only occasionally the purpose.”Report

Michael Shepanski
6 years ago

/Of course/ philosophy has something to contribute to public discourse. We don’t need to stretch very far to reach the public’s curiosity, because it is already reaching towards us. Three examples:

1. Some percentage of the population has always been spontaneously curious about questions of the “How do I know I’m not a brain in a vat?” variety, but how many of them have any idea that philosophy got somewhere on that in the 1980s?

2. In cutting-edge science –or popularizations of it, at any rate– questions are often raised about whether some new theory is empirical enough. (E.g. the “inflation” theory in cosmology, or the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.) It looks to me like people are hungry for a clarification of “empirical enough”.

3. As more people depart religion, there is public anxiety about what’s left of morality: is there still a structure that lets us debate moral questions, or it all sludge and sentimentality now?

My opinion is that we can serve the public best by showing them solutions to problems like these, i.e. scratching actual itches.

The hard part is to get far enough into these topics to provide solutions, within the concentration span of a public that doesn’t want to take a degree course. That will entail sacrifices: bypassing many of the “merely of historical interest” theories, stepping over fine distinctions, simplifying terminology. And yes, there will be a loss of rigour. So here’s the deal: we provide solutions, and just a sketch of the working — which is exactly the same deal you get in popularized science.

That’s my own plan anyway. If you click on my name above it will take you to my new blog, where work has begun.Report