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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Professor Plum
Professor Plum
4 years ago

It seems like you have a very specific kind of philosopher in mind. I suppose I’d want an avuncular (or non-male equivalent) grad advisor to manifest the virtues you list, but that’s because of what is involved in excellence in mentoring graduate students, not because those qualities are required for philosophical excellence. Nietzsche, I take it, would exemplify few of the virtues you list, but he still strikes me as someone who flourished as a philosopher. It takes all kinds, and people’s list will tell us far more about their biographies than about philosophical excellence.

I would say curiosity, independence, tenacity, and a certain kind of restlessness are most important.Report

Mark Alfano
Reply to  Professor Plum
4 years ago

For Nietzsche, the chief philosophical virtues were curiosity, creativity, a sense of humor, intellectual courage, and the pathos of distance (a kind of refined contempt). Justin is not a Nietzschean, as far as I know, but his difference from Nietzsche is smaller than you suggest.Report

Scott Clifton
Scott Clifton
4 years ago

Humility, even under this description, may be a virtue of philosophers, but it won’t lead to flourishing as a job candidate in philosophy.Report

Another Perspective
Another Perspective
4 years ago

Your list of virtues seem to me like moral virtues for a good person – a person who “plays well with others.” Alas, I can’t help but doubt not only whether they are are all philosophical virtues, but also wonder whether some of them might even be philosophical vices. By and large, the best philosophers and scientists in history do not seem to me to have been those that “play well with others.” Indeed, many of them do not seem particularly humble or charitable to the received doctrines and figures of their time, or gracious to those they were critiquing. Instead, these thinkers boldly, creatively–and often ruthlessly–challenged the status quo. When I look at Plato, Leibniz, Locke, Kant, Neitzsche, and Wittgenstein–or, in science, at Newton, Darwin, Einstein, etc.–I see a very different virtues than the ones you describe: I see boldness, independence, creativity, and *pride* in pushing the envelope far beyond what was considered acceptable or “known” at the time.Report

recent grad
recent grad
4 years ago

A willingness to change one’s mind.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

That’s a good list but I think that the two central ones a charity and skepticism. If you can deal with claims and arguments with charity and skepticism, maybe you can get closer to the truth. Most bad philosophy, it seems to me, stems from a lack of one or both.Report

Heath White
Heath White
4 years ago

Justin, I think this is a great topic. I have a half-written paper on this question.

I think that basically any ordinary moral virtue has an intellectual application. The Platonic Big Four, for example:
* wisdom – ability to make the right judgments on the basis of the evidence before one. Note that, rightly understood, this will subsume all or nearly all other virtues, at least as applied to research.
* justice – treating one’s interlocutors fairly (including the “principle of charity”); also students
* courage – willingness and ability to overcome fear and other negative emotions in the pursuit of truth. (Unlike you, I think, I’m not willing to rule out “danger.” I sometimes tell students that if philosophy has never made them afraid, they are not doing it right.) Lots of sub-virtues here: perseverance, patience, dealing with discouragement, etc.
* temperance – willingness and ability to overcome temptations and distractions of various kind in the pursuit of truth. Sub-virtues include ability to choose intellectual work over lots of other attractive options of varying degrees of worth (e.g. surfing the internet); ability to find important questions in the midst of a forest of tiny questions; not defending things because they make you feel goodReport

DocFE
DocFE
4 years ago

As Bertrand Russell said, in paraphrase, a uncompromising search for the truth and a everlasting concern for the suffering of mankind.

For me, searching for truth, for the morally correct way to live, and a willingness to entertain all points of view without judging them for anything other than are the true/false or right/wrong, in short the ability to be objective.Report

JCM
JCM
4 years ago

Asking what the virtues we *do now* hold most central is not going to be of much interest to a lot of people when the challenging nature of present times lies in that philosophy is *changing*, and in particular that it is changing in such a way that oppression (across gender, race, etc.) is becoming more visible. This is because the change in the nature of philosophy may well necessitate a corresponding change in its virtues. We should thus be asking what virtues we should hold most dear. In particular, I would be astonished if a philosophy in which keeping oppression visible is a central value would not also be one in which mindfulness of oppression, or more generally mindfulness of one’s positionality (in the sociological sense) is not a central virtue.

In one sense this point is elementary: I’m saying that we have to separate descriptive and normative inquiry. But this is not all I’m saying–and it’s more than elementary in a way which embodies mindfulness of oppression, because it’s excavating a fallacy through noting the inherent conservatism of your whole post. Viz.:

You are admirably trying to bring us all together after the bad blood of l’affair récent. But you try and bring together people who make politics absolutely central to philosophy–feminists, identity-politics people, etc.–with people who consider it an application of abstract debates–Leiter and his ilk–by adumbrating a list of virtues that (a) is supposed to be something we all already possess, and (b) doesn’t make politics central.

The problems are obvious: with (b), it’s that you’re coming down on one side of precisely the debate (or one of them at least) at issue. The problem with (a) is that by prioritising the extant you implicitly and subtly resist change, and so again take sides.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  JCM
4 years ago

Doesn’t this vary across areas of philosophy? My most recent research topic has been the relation of black holes to thermodynamics; oppression has not seemed especially salient in that enquiry.Report

Matt
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

Well, I’m not so sure here. While I’m not an expert, my impression is that things that fall into black holes feel very oppressed, or at least pressed upon from all sides, indeed, so perhaps there’s an angle you can draw on here yet, David.Report

JCM
JCM
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

Haha touché. Philosophy of physics rarely impinges on my awareness. The virtue I suggested might need a more abstract formulation (or might be a non-starter), but regardless, the general point stands.Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  JCM
4 years ago

I don’t think Leiter considers philosophy to be primarily about abstract debates. His favourite philosophers include Marx and Nietzsche, and he loathes ‘analytic metaphysics’.Report

SG
SG
4 years ago

I think a good way to think about this is to list philosophers who are the most virtuous around, and to see what they are doing. Take, for example, Eleanore Stump, Alvin Plantinga, Peter van Inwagen, Ernest Sosa, Michael Rea, and Graham Oppy. What do these philosophers have in common? They are all extremely charitable, extremely brilliant, extremely rigorous, and extremely kind. Those are some of their virtues – of course, there are others. But this is one way to think about what the virtues of a philosopher are.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

“Courage – the strength to not mistake uncertainty for danger”.

Wouldn’t mistaking uncertainty for danger be a cognitive mistake, not a failing of character? I would have thought that courage would be the strength to do what one believes to be right, combined with the wisdom not to do so in a self-defeating way.Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
4 years ago

Self-righteousness, indignation, overconfidence, lack of self-awareness, ability to engage in doublethink, mob mentalityReport

Michael Cholbi
4 years ago

Patience, patience, patience: with ourselves, our interlocutors, those we are hoping to educateReport

G
G
4 years ago

Wonder, open mindedness, creativity, a willingness to challenge accepted ideas and frameworksReport

PeteJ
PeteJ
4 years ago

I’d agree with the list but add –

Honesty – not a common commodity
Arrogance – a determination to succeed where so many others fail
Proper Focus – on philosophy and not status
Ruthlessness – being able to throw away favourite ideas that don’t work

The last is the one I might put first.Report

Dale Miller
4 years ago

I was in a committee meeting recently where I noticed the following dynamic at play: A makes a sensible proposal, B suggests a somewhat lame amendment, and A feels compelled to praise the amendment and accept it rather than shoot it down. It struck me that in a group of philosophers no one would have felt any compunction about saying that B’s amendment was a stinker, and I saw this rather as a virtue that many philosophers actually possess, even though 1) I was not (and still am not) sure what to call it, and 2) I’m aware that there’s a thin line between this virtue and a vice that many philosophers also have! I wasn’t A or B in this story, by the way, and after a quick read of the room I decided to bite my own tongue. I’m not sure if this means that I don’t have the virtue or only that I don’t have the associated vice (or don’t have it as badly as some).

A trait that I think philosophers should aspire to, although one that I don’t see as often, is a refusal to make one’s arguments sound any stronger than they actually are.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Dale Miller
4 years ago

Is the word you’re looking for “candor”?Report

Dale Miller
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

I think that’s probably right; that or ‘frankness’.Report

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
4 years ago

I think perhaps “integrity” should be added to the list, by which I mean something like the consistent practice of one’s fundamental values and moral commitments. Integrity undergirds the capacities to admit to being wrong and changing one’s mind and / or behaviour, and the speaking of one’s mind in the face of opposition and / or risk of personal cost.Report

Sarah Free
Sarah Free
4 years ago

After some thought, I think of courage as:

“A tool with which we position ourselves in the world in order to assess and act on situations whose outcomes are uncertain, fearful, or potentially harmful to our personhood or the personhood of others. It involves a willingness to engage in either internal or external confrontation for the sake of full participation in the world.”

Lengthy, but, hey.Report

Dan Dennis
Dan Dennis
4 years ago

A rejection of arbitrariness – so a rejection of the desires, habits, goals, opinions, values etc that one finds oneself with merely as a result of the genes, upbringing, past experience etc. that one chanced to have. And thus a searching for an alternative to the arbitrary.

An unwillingness to settle on, and make do with, that which is merely adequate, satisfactory, comfortable, prudent etcReport

Dan Dennis
Dan Dennis
4 years ago

Hmm. Just noticed that no one has mentioned rationality / a commitment to being guided by reason. Which I take to go hand in hand with the aforementioned rejection of arbitrariness…Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
Reply to  Dan Dennis
4 years ago

Yes. Perhaps all the other virtues and traits could be summed up under ‘Rationality’. It would be rational to be honest, rigorous, courageous and so forth. Thus ‘rational’ philosophy would be the ideal. Regrettably we have labelled one tradition of philosophy ‘rational’ on an arbitrary basis, so the word has largely lost its usefulness.Report

Seamus
Seamus
1 year ago

Patience – the grace to acknowledge that you may need time to properly understand, that your intuitions may not be quickly and easily reasoned and that good answers take time.Report