Is Philosophy still the Friend of Wisdom?

by Mark Wallace

The Question of the Month in the current issue (March-April 2019; issue 131) of Philosophy Now is “Is Philosophy still the Friend of Wisdom?” I submitted an answer and it is among those chosen for inclusion in the issue. It is perhaps a little strongly worded, having a slight quality of rant about it in the concluding paragraph, but it expresses my essential quarrel with contemporary academic thought.  I reproduce it here:

The word ‘philosophy’ means ‘the love of wisdom’. Wisdom is the possession of knowledge, experience, and good judgement. Yet knowledge itself is only information: wisdom is the use of knowledge to pursue the good life. Philosophy developed historically as a response to life in its broadest sense, and so is a friend of wisdom only when it relates to and affects how we live.

When I look at contemporary philosophy, I am struck by a number of features. Firstly, philosophy is now not merely an activity; it is a discipline. It exists primarily within universities and there only texts which take a disciplinary approach will be deemed worthy of evaluation.

Central to disciplinary philosophy is that it does not respond primarily to any natural or social phenomena. Instead it sees everything through the lens of previous, canonical works, and seeks to move the thinking in these canonical works forward in some way. Instead of the mind and the senses ranging freely over all phenomena in search of wisdom, a very narrow concentration on the texts is demanded. These texts are for the most part very sophisticated. Developing their ideas is usually accomplished by elaborating on their arguments. After a certain point, increases in sophistication come at the cost of a ruthless narrowing of vision. It is impossible for any activity so constrained to retain a supple, open-minded approach to wisdom.

Professional philosophy has now attained such byzantine complexity as to become a sluggish and immobile behemoth that waddles clumsily through contemporary life and only with the greatest difficulty catches a glimpse of any novelty out of its small, bleary eyes. To return to the possibility of a comprehensive view of our circumstances and our world, we need to jettison the academic ideal of theoretical sophistication. Sophistication is not wisdom. On the contrary, the harsh truth is that the advances in theoretical sophistication in philosophy (and other humanities) have rendered them less fit for their purpose of exploring, articulating and promoting the good life. In order to be truly philosophical, that is, to truly love wisdom, one needs openness to experience and to the specificities of each new situation more than one needs any theory whatsoever.

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