Sunday, March 7, 2010

From philosophy to misosophy

Thomas Sowell writes, at the beginning of his new book Intellectuals and Society:

Intellect is not wisdom. There can be “unwise intellect,” as Thomas Carlyle characterized the thinking of Harriet Taylor, the friend and later wife of John Stuart Mill. Sheer brainpower – intellect, the capacity to grasp and manipulate complex concepts and ideas – can be put at the service of concepts and ideas that lead to mistaken conclusions and unwise actions, in light of all the factors involved, including factors left out of some of the ingenious constructions of the intellect. (p. 1)

So what is wisdom? The ancients and medievals distinguished between theoretical wisdom and practical wisdom. To take them in order, at the beginning of the Metaphysics, Aristotle tells us that wisdom – the subject matter of metaphysics – “is knowledge having to do with certain principles and causes” (982a), in particular the “primary things and the causes.” (982b) “For it is through them and from them,” he continues, “that the other things are known and not the latter through the underlying things. And the most fundamental of the sciences, more fundamental than that which subserves it, is that which discerns for what end each thing must be done. And this is the good for each thing, and in general the best in all natures.” (982b) He adds that such wisdom is sought “for its own sake” rather than “utility” (982b) and that there is something “divine” about it, especially insofar as “god is thought to be among the causes for all things.” (983a)

Theoretical wisdom, in short, is (a) central to metaphysics, (b) to be sought for its own sake rather than utility, and involves knowledge of (c) the ultimate causes of things, especially (d) their “ends” or final causes and (e) their divine source. Practical wisdom for the ancients and medievals is prudence, in the sense of the habitual choosing of those means best suited to realizing the ends nature has set for us as human beings.

Philosophy for the ancients and medievals just is the “love of wisdom,” where wisdom is understood in these senses. How different from “philosophy” as understood by the moderns! With Bacon, Descartes, and their successors, final causes are thrust aside, and utility – knowledge as power, and in particular power to realize, not the ends nature sets for us, but whatever ends we happen to have – takes center stage. The horizons of metaphysics shrink, and its very legitimacy is often called into question. The still-confident theism of the rationalists gives way to the more hesitant theism of the empiricists, then to the weak-tea religiosity of Kant and the idealists, before theism finally ceases to be a central feature of mainstream philosophical thinking altogether by the 20th century. The climax of this long decline is the eliminativist denial of meaning or purpose of any sort whatsoever, and a proud, stubborn ignorance of what the great theists of the past even said. We are left with “philosophy” as the very negation of wisdom as understood by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (and indeed by most philosophers historically, as David Conway shows in The Rediscovery of Wisdom). Philosophy as, in effect – and not to put too fine a point on it – misosophy, the hatred of wisdom.

When the fundamental premises of the moderns’ intellectual project – the denial of final causes and of essences – ultimately entail the rejection of the very presuppositions of rationality and morality (see the post on eliminativism linked to above, and, for the full story, The Last Superstition), it is no surprise that intellect and wisdom so frequently come apart in the ways recounted in Sowell’s book (as they did not typically come apart in ancient and medieval thought). Indeed, it is inevitable that they will come apart. The modern intellectual is (to paraphrase General Russel Honoré) metaphysically “stuck on stupid.”

23 comments:

Doug said...

Brilliant post - thanks for that!

Warren said...

Chesterton: "In so far as religion is gone, reason is going."

Ilíon said...

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit.

Wisdom is knowing to not put a tomato in the fruit salad.

;-)

D∂v¡Ð said...

I'm just beginning to read TLS to prepare for going to college this Fall to begin my journey to the priesthood.

Is there a connection to the modern philosophical attempt (i.e. personalism, la nouvelle théologie) to make thomism relevant to the modern world that is actually somehow making it into misosophy? A heterodoxy perhaps?

Anonymous said...

The modern intellectual is (to paraphrase General Russel Honoré) metaphysically “stuck on stupid.”

Again, Dr Feser cannot resist his juvenile drive to call those with whom he disagrees stupid. When will he realize that this sort of childishness, which is rampant in TLS, reveals more about his wisdom than those he criticizes?

Ilíon said...

And, seemingly, Anonymouse cannot resist the unmanly drive to passive-aggressive kvetching.

Edward Feser said...

David writes:

Is there a connection to the modern philosophical attempt (i.e. personalism, la nouvelle théologie) to make thomism relevant to the modern world that is actually somehow making it into misosophy? A heterodoxy perhaps?

Well, I wouldn't go that far, certainly not in every case. But well-meaning folks with otherwise traditional ideas are, in my view, sometimes insufficiently attentive to the deep incompatibilities between classical and modern assumptions, which leads to superficial attempts at harmonization. The result is often imprecision or ambiguity rather than outright error or heterodoxy.

Edward Feser said...

Anonymous,

Try to be less literal-minded. I've made it clear many, many times, in TLS and elsewhere (including in many previous posts), that I don't think everyone who disagrees with me is "stupid," and indeed that there are thinkers with whom I disagree profoundly from whom I've learned much. The point of the "stuck on stupid" remark is -- obviously, to a fair-minded reader of this blog -- to convey in a colorful way the idea that the basic metaphysical assumptions modern intellectuals take for granted have consequences which (from a classical philosophical POV, anyway) are absurd and indefensible and which will inevitably manifest themselves to some degree or other in the work of such intellectuals. But it does not follow -- and I was not saying -- that everything modern thinkers say is just "stupid" or otherwise without any value.

Anonymous said...

"to convey in a colorful way the idea that the basic metaphysical assumptions modern intellectuals take for granted have consequences which (from a classical philosophical POV, anyway) are absurd and indefensible"

So, according to Dr Feser, the overwhelming majority of philosophers and scientists wallow in absurdity. Meanwhile, he and his like minded fringe dwellers, posses The Truth.

Is that how it goes?

(Of course there is nothing wrong with defending a position you believe is correct. Or of pointing out errors you perceive in others. Rather it is your infantile certitude. It is unbecoming of a professional philosopher.)

Ilíon said...

It takes a profound fool to assert that certitude is infantile.

Matt Beck said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mpresley said...

Smart and wisdom have never been necessarily associated. In my experience it is often just the opposite. For instance, I've always wondered why Communism is so attractive to many otherwise intelligent people. Barring the suggestion (which may in fact be true) that these folks are closet totalitarians, I believe it is due to leftist writers whose theoretical style of writing may appeal to certain intellectually oriented readers. But thinking in theory, or thinking abstractly, never made much sense to the real Communists, men like Stalin and Mao--criminal thugs who laughed at and badly manipulated those who were divorced from reality but could always debate theory with anyone willing to listen.

Edward Feser said...

... juvenile drive... childishness... like minded fringe dwellers... infantile... unbecoming...

You forgot "Cancel my subscription!!"

Crude said...

Far be it from me to defend the man on his own blog, but...

Anonymous' reading of Feser is uncharitable even once the dramatics are removed. Feser doesn't say "I alone possess The Truth" - he's had positive things to say about neo-platonists, about atheist philosophers, and others who would certainly have views divergent from his own. He's even pointed out how even among "thomists" there's a number of different views and approaches. He's argued that the modernist project of materialism lacking teleology and final causes collapses into absurdity when consistent. That leaves us with a number of philosophical contenders, and Feser has said as much in past posts.

Second, come on. Feser is certain the materialist project is absurdity and doesn't hide it? Boo-hoo. His arguments on that front are compelling, and the now and then surfacing of someone like Rosenberg just drive the point home. If the worldview of most philosophers and scientists truly does collapse into absurdity, so much the worse for most philosophers and scientists. Why should the criticisms be muted? Some weird worry that the best and brightest will be hurt when the monocles pop out of their eyesockets in shock?

Finally, getting all worked up over the "certitude" Feser has - even if it were a fault - is silly, considering the "certitude" exhibited by the very academics he criticizes, despite the glaring problems in their views. I have to wonder if Anonymous finds them equally distasteful, or if they get a pass.

Put simply, if your complaint is theatrics and unbecoming certitude, you've got vastly bigger (and more excessive) fish to fry than Feser, anonymous.

Anonymous said...

"So, according to Dr Feser, the overwhelming majority of philosophers and scientists wallow in absurdity. Meanwhile, he and his like minded fringe dwellers, posses The Truth."

Cut the double standard. This is not an academic research journal or a professional paper, it is a blog. While very many of the things Ed writes are intellectual and good, valid arguments, this is also a place to vent occasional frustration at what he perceives as wrong with the world. Considering the ignorant garbage spewed on Richard Dawkins' website or other "freethinking" sites around the blogosphere, it's positively tame. If you're going to whine and cry about it, then just stop reading it.

Daniel Smith said...

The first "Anonymous" said:

"So, according to Dr Feser, the overwhelming majority of philosophers and scientists wallow in absurdity. Meanwhile, he and his like minded fringe dwellers, posses The Truth."

Here, in a nutshell, is the liberal method of argument: tear down your opponent without addressing his arguments.

He's not attacking Dr. Feser for his rationale or for his logic, but rather for (in a whiny voice) "how he makes me feel".

Anonymous said...

News flash: The majority of scientists and philosophers can be wrong. Moreover, they can fall hook-line-and-sinker for bad arguments and shallow intellectual fads. Looking at the track record of recent philosophy, what on earth makes you think otherwise? Ask yourself: How many intelligent, competent, and respectable academic philosophers from the last century fell for one or more of the following: phenomenalism, behaviorism, emotivism, logical positivism, ordinary language philosophy, eliminative materialism, social constructivism? Is the picture getting clearer?

Even more embarassing, the fatal flaws in these views were, in almost every case, pointed out right from their very beginnings. And those who pointed out these flaws were often dismissed, ignored, ridiculed, and consigned to the margins. The current situation is no different with respect to contemporary scientism and naturalism in Quinean garb. The only serious question is how long they can keep the charade going. Really, anon, why give a fig what the majority of philosophers think about any topic of importance?

Anonymous said...

Wow. Seems like I struck a nerve.

What did I say that gave the impression that the majority of philosophers and scientists cannot be wrong? Of course they are! And any worth her salt is sure to know that.

My point is that Dr Feser constantly refers to those he disagrees with as idiots, and doing so will tend to harm himself more than those he attacks.

Forget Feser for a moment. What if there were a Physics professor that taught at a community college in Mississippi, and maintained that quantum mechanics was wrong, his theory was right, and anyone that did not realize the obviousness of this was an idiot.

Now it may be the case that he is correct about his theory. But he is almost certainly wrong to call all those that disagree with him idiots. And if he wishes to engage with the academic community, he ought to behave in a way such that he is not dismissed as a crank.

This is not the only place Feser calls his opponents stupid. He does so in the last line of his book.

So it is a pattern. A pattern of behavior that seems to me exceedingly immature for a professional person.

Another pattern is that Feser seems incapable of realizing when he has made a poor judgement call.

Flood said...

Much as I like the whole A-T metaphysical picture, what still puzzles me is the epistemology of natural ends - how do we figure them out? Clearly we know some, but how certain can we be about our judgments? The consequences of rejecting essences and final ends is clear enough, but I would like to investigate how we come to know the final ends in the first place. Clearly it must be something more than simply observing regularities and declaring them to be 'normal', and from normal declaring them to be the true ends. We could, in certain situations, be dealing with great deception, or a highly abnormal sample base from which to draw out judgments.

Edward, can you suggest any reading (perhaps from your recent Scholastic bookshelf posts) on this question?

Edward Feser said...

My point is that Dr Feser constantly refers to those he disagrees with as idiots

Just ain't so, pal. Come back when you're ready to attack something other than a straw man.

What if there were a Physics professor that taught at a community college in Mississippi, and maintained that quantum mechanics was wrong, his theory was right,

And when you do, bring a good analogy with you.

Edward Feser said...

Flood,

That there are essences and final causes in general is something which, we A-T types would say, is revealed by metaphyscial analysis. But the essence any particular thing has, and the final causality it manifests, cannot be determined by metaphysical analysis alone or from the armchair. It requires careful attention to the relevant empirical sciences. (Anti-essentialists often assume that we essentialists think this stuff can be determined a priori -- something that is obviously implausible -- but nothing could be further from the truth, at least as far as A-T specifically is concerned.)

So, the answer is: It depends on the specific subject matter. If you look at old Neo-Scholastic works on psychology, for example, you'll find that they often devote a lot of space to empirical psychology, biology, and neuroscience; Neo-Scholastic books on philosophy of nature often devoted significant space to physics; and so forth. I'll be getting to various specific recommendations as the "recommended reading" series of posts progresses.

As far as the general question is concerned, though, as always I recommend Oderberg's Real Essentialism, since it gets into many specific empirical issues -- especially where biology is concerned but with respect to other areas of empirical science as well -- in the course of defending general A-T essentialism.

anon said...

Anonymous 5:53 said

“Wow. Seems like I struck a nerve…”


Ed Feser said

“’My point is that Dr Feser constantly refers to those he disagrees with as idiots’

Just ain't so, pal. Come back when you're ready to attack something other than a straw man.

‘What if there were a Physics professor that taught at a community college in Mississippi, and maintained that quantum mechanics was wrong, his theory was right,’

And when you do, bring a good analogy with you.”

I believe Anonymous has read my mind with all the points he has made throughout this combox.

Anonymous, whatever you say now, your next response from Ed is going to be an order to go away.

Woppodie said...

"I believe Anonymous has read my mind with all the points he has made throughout this combox.

Anonymous, whatever you say now, your next response from Ed is going to be an order to go away."

What else would you have him do? Write up a defense of his polemic tone and qualify it by saying that it is only intended for the so called new atheists, while saying he respects certain other ones?

About the last comment he made in this post, I think he meant "stupid" as the opposite of wise, as opposed to "stupid" as the opposite of inteligent, as he made distinct in the beginning. Therefore, that point would stand looking from his metaphysical view. However, you have shown that you cannot rise above him by responding to his points at all, even with polemics.