Wise Men

2 posts


(Re-post, sort of.)

My activities here are mostly a spin-off of what I said to Macrobius at SI. So without further ado here is an amplification of something I said. This will be my last post for a while.

It is about "wise men".

They are "thinkers", indeed - but not pure thinkers, as I defined the activity of philosophy to be. They are, at the same time, men of action, and men of feeling, and those who combine all three realms - the realm of feeling, and action, and thought. The three are absolutely distinct, or at least we can describe what it would mean for them to be so, even if everything in actual fact is a combination or mixture of the three (in varying degrees).

We can name (at least in the Western tradition):

* Socrates
* Plato
* Meister Eckhart
* Arthur Schopenhauer
* Thomas Reid
* John Ruskin
* Alfred North Whitehead (in various writings e.g. The Aims of Education )
* George Santayana
* Ortega y Gasset
* Miguel de Unamuno

And of course many others - this is a thead for naming them.

Not a wise man himself, but someone who understood what it meant to be so, once said:

This is of course not the naive belief of non-cognitivism in ethics. One first absolutely distinguishes the realm of pure thought (i.e., pure inquiry, carried out indefinitely, which we also call here "science"), from thought that is mixed up with action. Now the latter is not any less important, it simply should not have any pretense to being pure thought. The judgments of the civil engineer, who has to make a certain decision in order to minimize risk and save lives, is mostly that of Action and less of Thought, even if those reasonings are about the same entities of physics as the science itself is concerned with. The pure thinker, or scientist (if "science" is taken to mean the manner of inquiry, rather than the object of inquiry), cannot take note of any such responsibilities, since they would interrupt the autonomous inquiry of science. All obstacles to science are caused by "moral" concerns.[*]

While at the same time (the point of the quoted passage), what we know from instinct or "moral" convention is more certain than pure thought, and one reason is that a conviction that something (like pedophilia) is wrong will be likely more reliable than the kinds of reasonings made in philosophical dialectic. (This is similar to that sentiment in Bertie Russell's My Philosophical Development about the conclusions of empirical "science" being more reliable than the method of doubt itself, by which philosophers use to "doubt" the special sciences.) But the other point is that pure thought makes no claims at all to certainty, or even reliability. The entire attitude of the "scientist" or philosopher is that he is ready to completely dump all of his beliefs and "epxertise" tomorrow once the evidence indicates it. This applies even to mathematics - even if the simplest proofs are all infallible, there is the problem of scale and the possibility that we are all making mistakes in checking the more complicated ones. Science (now synonymous with "pure inquiry") takes all of this into account.

It would then follow that the "wise men" listed above are not pure theorists -- in their sweeping speculations and pronouncements, they are not dispassionately interested in the truth. Insofar as immediate moral concerns are being addressed at all, one is no longer a pure theorist -- one would be subordinating thought to action.

But there is nothing wrong with this at all -- what is wrong is not recognizing the independent status of pure, autonomous inquiry as a distinct activity. But if pure inquiry has its place in the overall scheme, then so does partial inquiry, or the continuous spectrum between Thought and Action (the place in which the "civil engineer" mentioned above occupies). Now these "wise men" can then be seen as engineers of another sort, which is, that they successfully subordinate pure thought to action. They combine what parts of pure philosophy they can with what seems to be of immediate relevance to producing the right consequences in action. As F. P. Ramsey once said (but I don't think with this intention at all), "[p]hilosophy must be of some use and we must take it seriously; it must clear our thoughts and so our actions.". But this simply illustrates how the same activity can actually be regarded (with consequent differences in its development) as either a "technology" or else a pure inquiry (science). Philosophy as pure science, and philosophy as "technology", and as some combination of the two, are all distinct activities.

[*] An example of this is human experimentation and vivisection - this is immoral, but would definitely advance the cause of science. The fear of personal damnation and the social "consequences" of ideas has also kept metaphysics in the hands of the theologians. This indicates, of course, that the ideal goal of the autonomy of science is hardly ever completely realized, even if it is seen a goal at equal footing with action. But there is nothing wrong with this, so far as one takes note of the fact and sees that pure inquiry is being sacrified in favor of something else. In the opposite direction, action involves itself within thought, in the same way that science is dependent upon technology (if only by means of "conceptual devices" or what Leibniz called the ars inveniendi ). There is the question of the "economy of science", and the various strategies by which to proceed. But more than that, there is also the question of ethical problems (e.g., human experimentation) within the pursuit of science.
Niccolo and Donkey