Thursday, June 16, 2011

Boethius on What a Philosopher Is

On my bedstand right now: a textbook on cosmology and Boethius's Consolations of Philosophy (which I'd never properly read through before). Lots of interesting stuff in both, but I thought I'd share a passage from Boethius that jumped out at me:

[A man] had insultingly attacked a man who had falsely assumed the title of philosopher, not for the practice of true virtue but simply from vanity, to increase his own glory; and he added that he would know he was really a philosopher if he bore all the injuries heaped upon him calmly and patiently. The other adopted a patient manner for a time and bore the insults, and then said tauntingly: "Now do you recognize that I am a philosopher?" To which the first very cuttingly replied: "I should have, had you kept silent." (524 CE/1918, trans. Stewart, Rand, and Tester, p. 221).
This characterization of a philosopher as someone who practices virtue and, especially, who patiently bears injury, is not of course unique to Boethius but seems to have been common from the ancient period at least into the Renaissance. Today, however -- at least in the circles I frequent -- "philosopher" means something more like "person who teaches in a philosophy department".

Implicit in Boethius's conception of philosophy is an intimate connection between intellectual reflection of a certain sort and a particular type of lived moral practice. On the contemporary conception, intellectual reflection and personal moral practice are much less tightly linked -- even (one might argue) wholly orthogonal. It's worth considering the merits and demerits of this changing conceptualization of the nature of philosophy.

One wedge into the issue is this: What is it to have a moral belief? Is it just to be disposed to say certain things? Or is it -- as I think -- to be disposed more generally to steer one's life in a particular way? If the latter, a philosopher's moral attitudes and her moral behavior may be less distinct than those philosophers who would prefer not to subject their personal lives to moral scrutiny might like to think.


Anonymous said...

Philosopher-as-moral-paragon is a myth in service to the ruling class. Practicing philosophers are technicians, like all other professionals.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Some technicians benefit from their techne. The plumber can fix her toilet. What are the philosopher's tools good for?

Anonymous said...

A philosopher is not limited to any definition put from outside, and he is sometimes not limited by it.

J.R. said...

This post reminded me of a quote from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics:

"Since the branch of philosophy on which we are present engaged is not, like the others, theoretical in its aim- because we are studying not to know what goodness is, but how to become good men, since otherwise it would be useless - we must apply our minds to the problem of how our actions should be performed, because, as we have just said, it is these that actually determine our dispositions"

Before continuing the quote I will break in with a quick comment. Ethics for Aristotle (as I have read him) is a practical endeavor. The final line of the previous quote illustrates A's idea that one's moral character is developed in practice, not in study. Similarly a doctor's virtue (in an Aristotelian sense) is developed in practice. Yet no one would ignore the fact that technical education in both these fields is important.

A continues:
"Now that we should act according to the right principle is common ground and may be assumed as a basis for discussion. But we must first agree that any account of conduct must be stated in outline and not in precise detail, just as we said at the beginning that accounts are to be required only in such a form as befits the subject matter. Now questions of conduct and experience have as little fixity about them as questions of what is healthful; and if this is true of the general rule, it is still more true that its application to particular problems admits of no precision. For they do not fall under any art of professional tradition, but the agents are compelled at every step to think out for themselves what the circumstances demand, just as happens in the arts of medicine and navigation." (1103b26-1104a11)

Sorry for the length, but I think the full context is helpful.

It seems, going off of Eric's question that the philosopher's tools would be good for determining how to act while considering the circumstances. Certainly A's ethics isn't "ethics" in its most modern sense, but I think we can gain a lot from the idea that philosophy helps us understand morality, but action is equally important in our moral education. It seems like technical knowledge can lead to action, which can lead to habit, which by Eric's proposed definition establishes moral beliefs. However, modern philosophy tends towards the theoretical. For A we must not only learn the general structure of moral virtue (means between extremes for him) but also how to apply these ideas to the complexities of actual life. I think philosophy has strayed from this a bit, but I still think moral philosophers in many cases are better equipped because of their technical knowledge.

I think these Ancient dudes were on to something.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

J.J.: Thanks for the interesting post! I agree about Aristotle. The Stoics too, of course!