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Wednesday, 15 January 2014

A Reminder for Self-Doubting Philosophers

What is the value of philosophy? In response to reductive pragmatic critiques of philosophy (“what’s all that insulated ivory-tower hyper-reflective self-indulgence good for?”), here is Aristotle’s deliberation from the Nichomachean Ethics – which I found surprisingly agreeable and unsurprisingly superior to my own deliberations. It is an important reminder to all those who are subject to apocalyptic self-doubt, as I am, in regards to the worth of pure thinking (called various things by Aristotle, including 'intellectual virtue', 'prudence' and 'wisdom', all of which have more specific content). Interestingly, his argument is not the standard, "because without thinking we would never know what the good is in the first place." It is more slippery. Take note.

The Critique:

Here an objection may be raised. “What is the use of the intellectual virtues?” it may be asked. “Wisdom does not consider what tends to make man happy (because it is not concerned with any kind of process). Prudence indeed does this, but why do we need it? Prudence is the faculty which deals with what is just and noble and good for man, i.e. with those things which it is the part of the good man to do; but the knowledge of them no more makes us apter to do them, if (as has been said) the [moral] virtues are habits, than it does in the case of what is healthy and wholesome—healthy and wholesome, that is, not in the sense of conducing to, but in the sense of issuing from, a healthy habit; for a knowledge of medicine and gymnastics does not make us more able to do these things.

“But if it be meant that a man should be prudent, not in order that he may do these acts, but in order that he may become able to do them, then prudence will be no use to those who are good, nor even to those who are not. For it will not matter whether they have prudence themselves, or take the advice of others who have it. It will be enough to do in these matters as we do in regard to health; for if we wish to be in health, we do not go and learn medicine.

“Again, it seems to be a strange thing that prudence, though inferior to wisdom, must yet govern it, since in every field the practical faculty bears sway and issues orders.”

Aristotle’s Rebuttal:

We must now discuss these points; for hitherto we have been only stating objections.

First, then, we may say that both prudence and wisdom must be desirable in themselves, since each is the virtue of one of the parts of the soul, even if neither of them produces anything.

Next, they do produce something.

On the one hand, wisdom produces happiness, not in the sense in which medicine produces health, but in the sense in which health produces health; that is to say, wisdom being a part of complete virtue, its possession and exercise make a man happy.

On the other hand [in the sphere of action], man performs his function perfectly when he acts in accordance with both prudence and moral virtue; for while the latter ensures the rightness of the end aimed at, the former ensures the rightness of the means thereto.

The fourth part of the soul, the vegetative part, or the faculty of nutrition, has no analogous excellence; for it has no power to act or not to act.

But as to the objection that prudence makes us no more apt to do what is noble and just, let us take the matter a little deeper, beginning thus:—

Just as we say that some people who perform just acts are still not just (for example, those who carry out the requirements of the law unwillingly, or through ignorance, or for some ulterior purpose and not for what they are, and yet are actually doing what is right and all that a good man is bound to do); so, it seems, there is a state of mind in which a person can perform the various kinds of act in such a way as to be a good man: that is, when he does them from choice, and for the sake of the acts themselves. It is virtue that makes the choice correct.

In this last paragraph Aristotle makes his strongest point. Rather than finding the worth of virtuous actions to be only in the actions themselves (an externality), he looks for another dimension of worth and finds it in the consciousness of the moral agent: “there is a state of mind in which a person can perform the various kinds of act in such a way as to be a good man.” This “state of mind” is the crux. But what is this “state”? For Aristotle, it is not some “inner kindliness” or “sweet and benevolent disposition” - this is a political philosopher we are dealing with here, after all. So, rather, this state of mind is not within people by nature but is acquired through effortful thought.

Aristotle is suggesting that, without thought (deliberative prudence), individual moral acts are dry and empty, lacking the existential passion that thinking through these thoughts adds. You can be good, but it is better even to think through one’s goodness, to understand it. This is an invisible quality, adding nothing to one’s goodness externally; but, precisely for the reason that it, in its immateriality, cannot defend itself, we must be careful not to forget the worth of its presence. To do so might lead to a facile anti-intellectualism, the kind which thinks it is doing a favor to morality, love and human fellowship by rejecting the distracting complications of cold “theorizing”.

This may be a controversial point, since I know plenty of people who for whom the meaning of religion and the height of spirituality is love and the struggle after justice, both through small and big acts. They say, “kindness, benevolence, and compassion – these don’t need philosophy!”

There is nothing horribly askew about this. It is true that “knowledge without action is useless.” Only, I think when philosophy is done right – and I try to be the first to say (at the cost of exposing my own guilt) that it is often done very poorly, without the end of living a good life in mind at all – it can add immense value to the embodied actions of love and compassion; not the same kind of value as action, of course, but that “invisible value.”

For those of us who have done serious philosophizing, this is self evident. We only need to be reminded. At least, I need to be constantly reminded. I am far too attracted by the quietism of the likes of Wittgenstein, and the various versions of “anti-philosophy” out there. It is too easy to fall into self-deprecation when I realize how irrelevant philosophy is to most people in the world. But, it only takes a little more philosophizing to realize that it is not philosophy but the hypertrophy of philosophy which is destructive and life-sapping. 

And besides, philosophy is here to stay. No one can defend themselves against the question "why don't you philosophize?" without answering philosophically... 

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