Recently I argued that philosophers aspire to possess four virtues: rigor in argument, reason-responsiveness in dialogue, humility in commitment, and insight in belief. [*] In all things philosophical, the philosopher tries to avoid being like King Lear — i.e., someone who asserts without argument, responds to reasons with evasions, is incapable of intellectual change, and believes only in what is expedient or socialized into them. In a subsequent post, I argued that you could build a taxonomy of philosophical archetypes by classifying the philosopher according to the virtues they exemplify.
Those posts attempted to think about the ideal character types of some excellent philosophers. I did not make many specific references to the contemporary institution of philosophy, or to the great lumpenprofessoriat that staff university departments across the world. But, actually, it is misleading to characterize a discipline by showcasing its best members; not every golfer is Tiger Woods. Philosophy is not just a scholastic curio bequeathed to us from a bunch of dead icons. Philosophy is a living practice, performed by real people, and done for a point. The point of philosophy is personal growth — to try to become wiser, and to live better lives.
So I would like to start to set the record straight, just in case the record needed straightening. I’d like to use the ‘four virtues’ framework to talk about the self-image of philosophers in general, both professional and otherwise. In particular, I would like to articulate some of the different ways that philosophers have thought that their education helped to affect their development as persons. In this, my aim is both critical and reverential. Each metaphor describes a disposition or skill-set that is evenly balanced between virtues and vices. [**]
The point can be made clearest by drawing analogies to people and practices that we are already acquainted. In this post, I examine four metaphors for philosophers as people: you can think of philosophers as intellectual detectives, as rational therapists, as curious children, or as devil’s advocates. I might examine other metaphors in a future post, assuming readers do not heave this post overboard as they would a dead sailor at sea.
I think I can see why Wittgenstein loved detective stories. On some occasions, I am tempted to think of the philosopher as a kind of intellectual detective. Like storybook gumshoes, the philosopher has a problem to solve, and has to rely primarily on their wit and sense of reason to come to a solution. Like the detective, the philosopher needs to have a healthy acquaintance with forms of reasoning in order to try to resolve their problems — namely, the use of deduction and inference to the best explanation.
Although he never explicitly compares the philosopher to a detective, I think the following passage from Barry Stroud [***] gives expression to the general idea:
“The philosophers I admire most possess [a] kind of acute sensitivity to philosophical difficulties. They are open to potential philosophical riches, and they find them, in what look to most of the rest of us like very unpromising places. And, what is equally important, those philosophers I admire most know how to keep searching when they know they haven’t really found the right thing yet. This is not the only kind of philosophical ability there is… but for me, those I most admire have a firm foothold in reality and a “nose” or feel for real problems, along with the patience to unfold the detail of what has to be overcome to achieve the kind of understanding that can mean the most to us.”
This analogy gains strength when we think about how some epistemologists think in earnest about philosophical problems. The philosophical detective has a few intuitive questions — a few real hum-dingers, a pocket full of paradoxes — and she believes that any philosopher that is not attempting to find the correct answer to these questions is not doing philosophy at all. The detective wants to actually get to the bottom of philosophical worries, and not just settle for a lingering sense of satisfaction with basking in the aura of the big questions. And many of the greatest philosophers of our time have arrived at systems of intuitions which indicate that finally, at long last, the great questions have either been solved or mooted.
The detective metaphor is a healthy source of motivation for the independent thinker. If you think you have good reasons to believe you have arrived at the truth, then there is usually no fault in saying so. The truth is out there and sometimes the truth is frickin’ awesome.
But, that having been said, the metaphor of the intellectual detective is sometimes misused when it only serves as a smokescreen for dogmatism. The author linked [here] is right when he makes just this narrow point. On occasion, students of philosophy will sometimes treat the informal fallacies as if they were falsity-detectors, divining rods which lead the philosopher to strike pay-dirt. But actually, any competent teacher of logic will tell you that a skill for critical thinking does not by itself confer the expertise to determine which conclusions are true and which are false. Rather, part of the value of critical thinking is that it helps the good-faith reader and listener to figure out for themselves how they stand in relation to arguments put before them.
When I lived in Toronto, the subway commute was generally unpleasant. The Toronto subway was decorated with advertisements for a sketchy new-age institute that branded itself as a school of Philosophy. I experience similar feelings of grouchitude when I walk into a bookstore and notice that the Philosophy section is invariably bookended by sections on Religion and Spirituality. Any student of analytic philosophy will reliably try to avert their eyes when exposed to commercial efforts that conflate philosophy and spirituality, else be forced to suffer through the minor indignity of being audience to false advertising.
Well, whatever. To some extent, the philosophical tradition has it coming. One of the worst kept secrets in analytic philosophy, and philosophy in general, is that part of the point of learning philosophy is to learn how to cope with living. When conceived in this way, the philosopher functions as a kind of rational therapist, who attempts to persuade people to accept palliative insights. With few exceptions, modern professional philosophers are generally quite lousy at providing such consolations. (It is instructive that De Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy ended with two 19th century philosophers, both of whom were by reputation inconsolable.)
But even so, this is not a reason to disbelieve that many philosophers throughout history have done what they do in order to learn how to live in the right kind of way. And on some occasions, the enterprise can be productive. After you read Nietzsche, Arendt, Russell, Nussbaum, or JS Mill, you may come away a different kind of person. Anyone who receives a philosophical education without reading and reacting to any of these figures is someone who has received an education unfulfilled. Certain strains of philosophy have been influential as vehicles that help to live the everyday life: for example, according to its adherents, the technique of cognitive-behavioral therapy owes a debt to the writings of the Stoics.
This is not necessarily to suggest that even the best rational therapists are always good at it. I might as well share a personal anecdote to illustrate the point. We all have difficult times in our lives, moments where we look for guidance and for wisdom. One night, after a stressful day, I laid in bed, shivering from melancholy. Thinking he could help, I plucked a copy of Meister Eckhart‘s writings from the shelf. Eckhart was a Dominican philosopher with a (mostly deserved) reputation for deep, probing insight. I am not much of a believer in the divine, but occasionally Eckhart is able to pin down an idea with such honesty that it is difficult not to admire him.
So I opened the book to a random page. I read this passage:
All that [perfect detachment] wants is to be. But to wish to be this thing or that — this it does not want. Whoever wants to be this or that wants to be something, but detachment wants to be nothing at all.
Increasingly, professional philosophers will try to paint themselves as expert reasoners, capable of handling difficult problems using sophisticated logical techniques. But this is a feature of the modern academy. In the past, it was more often said that the philosopher is like a curious child, constantly engaged in dialogue, asking questions that others think too obvious to contemplate.
Consider: Why is there something rather than nothing? If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and good, why is there evil? These are highly general, entirely reasonable questions, and you do not need any special authority to ask them. All you need is humility, and to seek to persuade others to be humble in kind. Socrates is maybe the most obvious example of someone who pretended to be a curious child, a patient rational inquirer who was given to constant self-effacement when interrogated. The Socratic Method is also meant to be intellectually egalitarian: hence, the intuitions of Socrates and the slave child Meno are supposed to be on the very same level.
There is nothing wrong with approaching a subject afresh, as if you were the first Martian anthropologist put in charge of understanding the people of Earth. Actually, there is quite a lot that is right with this approach.
But the trouble with innocence is that there is only a finite supply. When the would-be philosopher has thought about some subject matter for a significant length of time, they must either claim that they have found a special form of expertise, or else persist in assuming a pretence of innocence and hope no-one will see behind the ruse. Nietzsche may have been a mean old man, but he puts the point in an amusing way: “What’s attractive about looking at all philosophers in part suspiciously and in part mockingly is not that we find again and again how innocent they are… but that they are not honest enough in what they do, while, as a group, they make huge, virtuous noises as soon as the problem of truthfulness is touched on, even remotely.”
To think through difficult issues philosophically often means making an attempt to dump one’s prejudices as far as it is possible, and to let inquiry guide you to the right solution. But the elimination of prejudice must not come at too high a cost. The elimination of prejudice should not be used as grounds for undermining a capacity for good judgment.
Finally, I’d like to consider the likeness that some philosophers have to devil’s advocates.
When we hear that term, the position sounds, well, devilish and contrarian. But actually, it is not so simple as all that. The devil’s advocate is a colloquial term used to describe the position of being appointed by the Catholic Church to argue a case against the canonization of would-be saints. For a long time, the official title of the devil’s advocate was “Promoter of the Faith”. The task of the devil’s advocate is not to formulate a consensus opinion, or even to speak from honest conviction. Instead, the devil’s advocate is supposed to cast doubt on the proffered argument in a rigorous way.
Devil’s advocates are intellectual attorneys at heart. They are people who are annoyed by salespeople who only give one side to the story, and who want to hear the other side before coming to judgment. In their way, they are motivated by a kind of charity: they want to hear the strongest case that can be made for the other team, so that the final synthesis does not end up being dull and short-sighted. Devil’s advocates are not as interested in getting at the facts of the matter (like the intellectual detective), or exploring the mystery of life (like curious children), as much they are interested in getting an alternative point of view out there. Like the contrarian, the devil’s advocate is motivated in reaction to other peoples’ arguments. But unlike the contrarian, the devil’s advocate actually has an intellectual spine. They can put forward an argument that holds together on its own merits.
The devil’s advocate is, at the end of the day, a kind of sophist. In principle, the sophist is the arch-enemy of the philosopher, and the accusation of a would-be philosopher of “sophistry” is supposed to be a slap in the face. Hence I would wager that consensus opinion in professional philosophy would have it that the metaphor of ‘devil’s advocate’ is a truly degenerate metaphor. The worry is that if we accept that the devil’s advocate is doing philosophy, then it would signal that the discipline is hopelessly corrupt.
But it would seem that professional philosophy does not practice what it preaches. The fact of the matter is that many undergraduate philosophy programs primarily teach their students to be able to think on either side of an issue, and to argue for it in a critical way. Moreover, the ability to think of opposing arguments is exactly one of the skill-sets that are used to sell students on the practical value of an education in philosophy. So, to the extent that one believes that the value of philosophy consists in its ability to produce a supple mind that is able to think around curves, one is saying that the value of philosophy is in its value of teaching how to be a devil’s advocate. If philosophers are to be more honest, and more coherent, they must be able to come to terms with the fact that the devil’s advocate is not necessarily doing bad philosophy.
I do think that there is a problem with this kind of sophistry, but the problem is not that the position of devil’s advocate is essentially corrupt or degenerate. Rather, I think one ought not be satisfied with advocating for the devil, unless it is as a means of first advocating something that really matters — for the truth, or for the good, or whatever. In other words: anyone who is satisfied with a life of being a devil’s advocate, is someone who is settling for philosophical mediocrity. But while the charge of mediocrity is a potent one, it does not uniquely belong to the devil’s advocate. After all, as a matter of fact, I have already shown that the accusation of mediocrity can be levelled against every single one of the metaphors in this post. For a good enough definition of ‘mediocrity’ is, “Someone who is split equally between virtues and vices” — as they all are.
[*] The first post received a welcome debugging from Eli Horowitz over at Rust Belt, whose focused attention forced me to think about how I can improve the presentation of the argument I’m trying to make. Still, whatever its faults, I think the basic thrust of the first post was defensible. And the second post received attention from diverse quarters, so I guess I got something right (or at least got something wrong in an interesting sort of way).
[**] It is easy to sell philosophy by characterizing it in terms of one kind of trope or another, or to mock philosophers for their ostensibly unearned pretentions. By looking closely at each metaphor, and finding the imperfections of each, we are in a position to appreciate the best philosophers as ones who cannot easily fit into a caricature.
[**] Hat-tip to my friend and colleague Olivia Sultanescu for the quote.