Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Seven Virtues for Philosophers

I can think of seven distinguishable characteristics of the philosophers I admire. They don’t all exhibit these in equal measure, but a thinker needs to show several, and rank high in at least one of these for me to want to spend much time reading them.

Originality, Learning, Style, Breadth, Vehemence, Subtlety, and Depth. Note that these are virtues of writing, not of living. I trust that it goes without saying that my mention of any philosopher as exemplifying a given virtue does not mean I think this is the philosopher’s only virtue.

I can break these into a Trivium and a Quadrivium. The Trivium is easier to describe:

Originality: Does a thinker offer any promising new approach? (Socrates, Descartes, Locke, Kant, Peirce, Popper, Wittgenstein, Quentin Meillassoux). Obviously this is an ambiguous virtue. No one should strive to be original for its own sake; the novelty in question is a break from received opinion, from the status quo, but for the sake of truth, and not for the sake of notoriety. Hence this virtue must be balanced, in a writer, by

Learning: Are they solidly grounded in the whole—or at least an appreciable range—of what has gone before? (Aristotle, Cassirer, Gilson, John Deely). This is a critical reception, and for the sake, as Aquinas wrote, “not of what men have said, but of the truth of the matter.” Hence it is also ambiguous: erudition prized too highly, by the writer, makes for a diet of footnotes; by the reader, it makes for pedantic objections and missing the forest. To some degree, excesses or deficiencies in either Originality or Learning can be made up for by

Style: How well (elegantly, clearly, or both) do they write? (Nietzsche, Santayana, Graham Harman). Certainly valid and valuable philosophy comes in all packages, and a bristly, bland, or even pop prose style does not mean there is nothing else there. (Consider, for instance, Sellars, or Laruelle, or Dewey, or Peter Kingsley). Philosophy ought not, indeed, spare one the trouble of thinking. But this has become so commonplace that it’s sometimes a backhanded compliment to say of a thinker, “Oh, he writes well…” Well, work can be pleasant, and one would hope that philosophers, as lovers of the Good, the True and the Beautiful, would strive for a little beauty in their books.

Wholly lacking any one of these virtues would be a grave fault, (and no one worth reading does—if you look hard, you can find clear passages in the densest of philosophers—usually where their ideas are becoming clear to themselves). But even all three of these would be insufficient to raise one to the level of upper-drawer philosophy. All the writers I mention above, and many more I admire, also exhibit to varying degrees my


By Breadth, I mean more than just range—I mean the ambition to formulate the grand vision of the Whole. This is not simply a matter of treating a number of different “areas of philosophy,” but of the treatment being coherent and coordinated—even (to use a somewhat loaded word) “systematic.” The paradigmatic modern example is of course Hegel. Among contemporaries—though some are now getting pretty venerable—there is Nicholas Rescher, for instance, or Mario Bunge, or Alain Badiou, or Ken Wilber. When I encounter one of these thinkers, I have all sorts of problems with them, but I am thrilled to meet someone whose aim is to leave nothing unaccounted for. (I considered naming this “Audacity” instead.)

By Vehemence, I mean the energy or urgency with which one formulates ones insights, and the tenacity or faithfulness with which one pursues them, even at the risk of hyperbole. This is the philosophical analogue of the old virtue Courage. The thinker that comes to mind here first is Levinas, but among living thinkers, I can name for instance Daniel Dennett, or Derrick Jensen, or Anthony Daniels, a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple.Vehemence does lend itself to denunciations that such critics love to make (and both Jensen and Dalrymple, I think, consider themselves cultural critics more than philosophers sensu stricto--I do). But there are quieter but no less vehement thinkers: Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, or Peter Singer. Vehemence isn’t a matter of being loud or angry; it’s a matter of drawing ones conclusions in the most stark manner. How much one values it may be a matter of taste—I happen to like it a lot, as is perhaps betrayed by my denoting it Vehemence instead of something milder like Strength or Commitment. This has nothing to do with how much one agrees with a thinker; it’s to do with how starkly they draw their ultimate consequences—how much they compel one to think what is at stake.

By Subtlety, I mean attention to detail and finesse; not mere analyticity, though I do find this characteristic in many analytic philosophers, but also nuance, a sort of feel for lived (and not just dictionary) distinctions. Douglas Hofstadter is a fine example; so too John Schellenberg. My teacher Bernard Harrison has subtlety in spades. Hilary Putnam is the contemporary thinker par excellence here. My two canonical examples are Husserl and Derrida. To some degree, one can see Subtlety and Vehemence as complimentary.

Above all, what one wants in a philosopher is Depth. Plotinus, Maximus Confessor, Spinoza, Heidegger, William Desmond. Depth is the sine qua non and the je ne sais quoi of philosophy, something beyond all the previously mentioned characteristics. In some sense a corollary of Breadth, Depth is an orientation to the hardest questions; a listening, an enormous patience. Aristotle says that philosophy begins in wonder, and I could almost say that depth is sustained wonder: an ability to be continually astonished; a humility in the face of the enormity of the mystery, and a willingness to return to it again and again. It’s the sense that one is
implicated by philosophy; that one hears the Delphic imperative γνῶθι σεαυτόν, gnothi seauton. I hardly know how to describe it; but it is unfakeable and unmistakable.

Incidentally, if I had to name the thinker who to my mind best combines all the above, I would be hard pressed. Merleau-Ponty? Patočka?

But I think I would have to say—at least in the 20th century—Paul Ricoeur. This suggests, by the way, that my Quadrivium, while essential, does not swamp the call for the Trivium. There are broader thinkers (though Ricoeur's concerns are broad), thinkers more vehement, perhaps more subtle even (though I wouldn’t want to bet on that); but Ricoeur has originality, learning, and style, and unmistakable depth.

[Addendum: brief follow-up post here.]

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