Ever since I left behind the high arrogance of my teenage years, I have valued wisdom over intelligence. This is likely why I’m much more drawn to the ancient conception of philosophy as a way of life than to the modern conception of philosophy as an exercise in argumentation.
Consider, for example, the criteria that Colin McGinn associates with those who are best at the activity or skill of what’s known as doing philosophy: “cleverness, ingenuity, argumentative power, intellectual penetration, insight, polemical punch, sheer philosophical IQ” along with being “so sharp, so intellectually resourceful, so outright brilliant (outrageously so).”
That’s all fine for the modern-day sophists who inhabit academia, but I’m not impressed. As I see it, the purpose of philosophical knowledge is not intellectual jousting, but living well. That’s why philosophy in its original sense meant the love and practice of wisdom.
Now, I happen to think that exposing yourself to the great philosophical thinkers and traditions helps you to succeed more fully at the task of living a complete human life. Yet one needn’t study philosophy in order to attain a fair measure of wisdom: instead, you need to have some experience of life, reflect on that experience, and use the resulting insights to guide your choices and commitments. But perhaps that’s too democratic for elitist philosophical experts, eh?
Based on the aforementioned criteria, Colin McGinn has also argued that the greatest philosopher in history is none other than … Colin McGinn! In the comments section to the post where he makes that claim (perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek), he states flat-out that “Philosophy is not a practice (ethical disposition); it’s an intellectual subject.” If that is so, then perhaps doing philosophy has nothing to do with living a good human life.
Although these two viewpoints might seem to be worlds apart, I think we might be able to find a middle ground. After all, at least a few of the great philosophers have remained aware of the practical importance of wisdom while pursuing foundational insights in philosophical theory. In that rarified group I’d include the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Chuang Tzu, Spinoza, J.S. Mill, William James, and George Santayana. How did they do it? That’s a subject for another post…