Four kinds of philosophical people

We’ll begin this post where I ended the last. The ideal philosopher lives up to her name by striving for wisdom. In practice, the pursuit of wisdom involves developing a sense of good judgment when tackling very hard questions. I think there are four skills involved in the achievement of good judgment: self-insight, humility, rigor, and cooperativeness.

Even so, it isn’t obvious how the philosophical ideal is supposed to model actual philosophers. Even as I was writing the last post, I had the nagging feeling that I was playing the role of publicist for philosophy. A critic might say that I set out to talk about how philosophers were people, but only ended up stating some immodest proposals about the Platonic ideal of the philosopher. The critic might ask: Why should we think that it has any pull on real philosophers? Do the best professional philosophers really conceive of themselves in this way? If I have no serious answer to these questions, then I have done nothing more than indulged in a bit of cheerleading on behalf of my beloved discipline. So I want to start to address that accusation by looking at the reputations of real philosophers.

Each individual philosopher will have their own ideas about which virtues are worth investing in and which are worth disregarding. Even the best working philosophers end up neglecting some of the virtues over the others: e.g., some philosophers might find it relatively less important to write in order to achieve consensus among their peers, and instead put accent on virtues like self-insight, humility, and rigour. Hence, we should expect philosophical genius to be correlated with predictable quirks of character which can be described using the ‘four virtues’ model. And if that is true, then we should be able to see how major figures in the history of philosophy measure up to the philosophical ideal. If the greatest philosophers can be described in light of the ideal, we should be able to say we’ve learned something about the philosophers as people.

And then I shall sing to the Austrian mountains in my best Julie Andrews vibrato: “public relations, this is not“.

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In my experience, many skilled philosophers who work in the Anglo-American tradition will tend to have a feverish streak. They will tend to find a research program which conforms with their intuitions (some of which may be treated as “foundational” or givens), and then hold onto that program for dear life. This kind of philosopher will change her mind only on rare occasions, and even then only on minor quibbles that do not threaten her central programme. We might call this kind of philosopher a “programmist” or “anti-skeptic, since the programmist downplays the importance of humility, and is more interested in characterizing herself in terms of the other virtues like philosophical rigour.

You could name a great many philosophers who seem to hold this character. Patricia and Paul Churchland come to mind: both have long held the view that the progress of neuroscience will require the radical reformation of our folk psychological vocabulary. However, when I try to think of a modern exemplar of this tradition, I tend to think of W.V.O. Quine, who held fast to most of his doctrinal commitments throughout his lifetime: his epistemological naturalism and holism, to take two examples. This is just to say that Quine thought that the interesting metaphysical questions were answerable by science. Refutation of the deeper forms of skepticism was not very high on Quine’s agenda; if there is a Cartesian demon, he waits in vain for the naturalist’s attention. The most attractive spin on the programmist’s way of doing things is by saying they have raised philosophy to the level of a craft, if not a science.

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Programmists are common among philosophers today. But if I were to take you into a time machine and introduced you to the elder philosophers, then it would be easy to lose all sense of how the moderns compare with their predecessors. The first philosophers lived in a world where science was young, if not absent altogether; there was no end of mystery to how the universe got on. For many of them, there was no denying that skepticism deserved a place at the table. From what we can tell from what they left behind, many ancient philosophers (save Aristotle and Pythagoras) did not possess the quality that we now think of as analytic rigour. The focus was, instead, of developing the right kind of life, and then — well, living it.

We might think of this as a wholly different approach to being a philosopher than our modern friend the programmist. These philosophers were self-confident and autonomous, yet had plenty to say to the skeptic. For lack of a better term, we might call this sort of philosopher a “guru” or “informalist“. The informalist trudges forward, not necessarily with the light of reason and explicit argument, but of insight and association, often expressed in aphorisms. To modern professional philosophers and academic puzzle-solvers, the guru may seem like a specialist in woo and mysticism, a peddler of non-sequiturs. Many an undergraduate in philosophy will aspire to be a guru, and endure the scorn from their peers  (often, rightly administered).

Be that as it may, some gurus end up having a vital place in the history of modern philosophy. Whenever I think of the ‘guru’ type of philosopher, I tend to think of Frederich Nietzsche — and I feel justified in saying that in part because I guess that he would have accepted the title. For Nietzsche, insight was the single most important feature of the philosopher, and the single trait which he felt was altogether lacking in his peers.

Nietzsche was a man of passion, which is the reason why he is so easily misunderstood. Also, for a variety of reasons, Nietzsche was a man who suffered from intense loneliness. (In all likelihood, the fact that he was a rampant misogynist didn’t help in that department.) But he was also a preacher’s son, his rhetoric electric, his sermons brimming with insight and even weird lapses into latent self-deprecation. Moreover, he is a man who wrote in order to be read, and who was excited by the promise of new philosophers coming out to replace old canons. In the long run, he got what he wanted; as Walter Kaufman wrote, “Nietzsche is one of the few philosophers since Plato whom large numbers of intelligent people read for pleasure”.

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“He has the pride of Lucifer.” — Russell on Wittgenstein

Some philosophers prefer to strike out on their own, paving an intellectual path by way of sheer stamina and force of will. We might call them the “lone wolves“. The lone wolf will often appear as a kind of contrarian with a distinctive personality. However the lone wolf is set apart from a mere devil’s advocate by virtue of the fact that she needs to pump unusually deep wellsprings of creativity and cleverness into her craft. Because she needs to strike off alone, the wolf has to be prepared to chew bullets for breakfast: there is no controversial position she is incapable of endorsing, so long as those positions qualify as valid moves in the game of giving and taking of reasons. She is out for adventure, to prove herself capable of working on her own. More than anything else, the lone wolf despises philosophical yes-men and yes-women. She has no time for the people who are satisfied by conventional wisdom — people who revere the ongoing dialectic as a sacred activity, a Great Conversation between the ages. The lone wolf says: the hell with this! These are problems, and problems are meant to be solved.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a lone wolf, in the sense that nobody could quite refute Wittgenstein except for Wittgenstein. The philosophical monograph which made him famous, the Tractatus, began with an admission of idiosyncracy: “Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it—or at least similar thoughts.—So it is not a textbook.—Its purpose would be achieved if it gave pleasure to one person who read and understood it.” He was a private man, who published very little while alive, and whose positions were sometimes unclear even to his students. He was an intense man, reputed to have wielded a hot poker at one of his contemporaries. And he had an oracular style of writing — the Tractatus resembles an overlong Powerpoint presentation, while the Investigations was a free-wheeling screed. These qualities conspired to give the man himself an almost mythical quality. As Ernest Nagel wrote in 1936 (quoting a Viennese friend): “in certain circles the existence of Wittgenstein is debated with as much ingenuity as the historicity of Christ has been disputed in others”.

Wittgenstein’s work has lasting significance. His anti-private language argument is a genuine philosophical innovation, and widely celebrated as such. As such, he is the kind of philosopher that everybody has to know at least something about. But none of this came about by the power of idiosyncrasy alone. Wittgenstein achieved notoriety by demonstrating that he had a penetrating ability to go about the whole game of giving and taking reasons.

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“Synthesizers are necessarily dedicated to a vision of an overarching truth, and display a generosity of spirit towards at least wide swaths of the intellectual community. Each contributes partial views of reality, Aristotle emphasizes; so does Plotinus, and Proclus even more widely…” Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies

Some philosophers are skilled at combining the positions and ideas that are alive in the ongoing conversation and weaving them into an overall picture. This is a kind of philosopher that we might call the “syncretist“. Much like the lone wolf, the syncretist despises unchallenged dogmatism; but unlike the lone wolf, this is not because she enjoys the prospect of throwing down the gauntlet. Rather, the syncretist enjoys the murmur of people getting along, engaged in a productive conversation. Hence, the syncretist is driven to reconcile opposing doctrines, so long as those doctrines are plausible. When she is at her best, the syncretist is able to generate a powerful synthesis out of many different puzzle pieces, allowing the conversation to become both more abstract without also becoming unintelligible. They do not just say, “Let a thousand flowers bloom” — instead, they demonstrate how the blooming of one flower only happens when in the company of others.

The only philosopher that I have met who absolutely exemplifies the spirit of the syncretist, and persuasively presents the syncretist as a virtuous standpoint in philosophy, is the Stanford philosopher Helen Longino. In my view, her book The Fate of Knowledge is a revelation.

A more infamous [example] of the syncretist, however, is Jurgen Habermas. Habermas is an under-appreciated philosopher, a figure who is widely neglected in Anglo-American philosophy departments and (for a time) was widely scorned in certain parts of Europe. True, Habermas is a difficult philosopher to read. And, in fairness, one sometimes gets the sense that his stuff is a bit too ecumenical to be motivated on its own terms. But part of what makes Habermas close to an ideal philosopher is that he is an intellectual who has read just about everything — he has partaken in wider conversations, attempting to reconcile the analytic tradition with themes that stretch far beyond its remit. Habermas also has a prodigious output: he has written on a countless variety of subjects, including speech act theory, the ethics of assertion, political legitimation, Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, collective action, critical theory and the theory of ideology, social identity, normativity, truth, justification, civilization, argumentation theory, and doubtless many other things. If a dozen people carved up his bibliography and each staked a claim to part of it, you’d end up with a dozen successful academic careers.

For some intellectuals, syncretism is hard to digest. Just as both mothers in the court of King Solomon might have felt equally betrayed, the unwilling subjects of the syncretist’s analysis may respond with ill tempers. In particular, the syncretist grates on the nerves of those who aspire to achieve the status of lone wolf intellectuals. Take two examples, mentioned by Dr. Finlayson (Sussex). On the one hand, Marxist intellectuals will sometimes like to accuse Habermas of “selling out” — for instance, because Habermas has abandoned the usual rhythms of dialectical philosophy by trying his hand at analytic philosophy. On the other hand, those in analytic philosophy are not always very happy to recognize Habermas as a precursor to the shape of analytic philosophy today. John Searle explains in an uncompromising review: “Habermas has no theory of social ontology. He has something he calls the theory of communicative action. He says that the “purpose” of language is communicative action. This is wrong. The purpose of language is to perform speech acts. His concept of communicative action is to reach agreement by rational discussion. It has a certain irony, because Habermas grew up in the Third Reich, in which there was another theory: the “leadership principle”.” I suspect that Searle got Habermas wrong, but nobody said life as a philosopher was easy.

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Everything I’ve said above is a cartoon sketch of some philosophical archetypes. It is worth noting, of course, that none of the philosophers I have mentioned will fit into the neat little boxes I have made for them. The vagaries of the human personality resist being reduced to archetypes. Even in the above, I cheated a little: Nietzsche is arguably as much a lone wolf as he is a guru. I also don’t mean to suggest that all professional philosophers will fit into anything quite like these categories. Some are by reputation much too close to the philosophical ideal to fit into an archetype. (Hilary Putnam comes to mind.) And other professional philosophers are nowhere close to the ideal — there is no shortage of philosophers behaving badly. I mean only to say something about how you can use the ‘four virtues’ model of wisdom to say something interesting about philosophers themselves.

(BLS Nelson is the author of this article. For more information about him, click here.)

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