I have said in a previous post that philosophy is about gaining actual wisdom rather than merely the search for wisdom. Why is this true? Some philosophers do not agree with this, so a reason is necessary. They disagree because they believe that progress in philosophy is not really possible in a wide sense – even though the problems of philosophy are very real. I suggest that the sort of progress these philosophers are looking for is not necessary for philosophy to give us actual answers to our questions. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that philosophy cannot give us real answers to our questions.

Some philosophers believe that we will be unable to give real answers to philosophical problems because philosophical progress is not really possible. But it is important to explain what is meant by philosophical progress. Philosophical progress could involve a number of things. It could involve using the work of previous philosophers. Let’s suppose that there are some works that everyone needs to consider, and these works are are (potentially) being added to over time. It could also involve following the projects of previous philosophers. Such projects are such general ideas as realism, explanationism and the like. Let’s suppose that there is widespread agreement over the value of at least some projects. That agreement is increasing over time. Finally, we could also consider following the theories of various philosophers. Let’s suppose that we believe that certain theories of various philosophers have achieved widespread agreement over time and such agreement is increasing over time. All of these are various understandings of philosophical progress. The first understanding is definitely true in philosophy. The third is definitely false. The second is true in a general sense and false otherwise. But does this mean that philosophy does not give answers to philosophical problems?

I do not think so. We must first ask why philosophical agreement on projects and theories is not as widespread as it is in science, math or history. Consider that philosophical problems are general. So evidence for philosophy is much harder to get than it is in history, math and science. This difficulty also permits other problems. Sometimes people do not act rationally. There are many philosophers who do not pursue philosophy because of truth, but for other reasons. Since good philosophy requires a devotion to the truth above all else, such people do poor philosophy. It requires such a devotion because of the difficulty of the subject matter. There are also philosophers who are interested in the truth, but have preconceived ideas about what the truth has to be. Rather than allowing the truth to correct to their ideas, they try to force the truth to fit their ideas. Such people misquote and misunderstand other philosophers. They also do not wish to see the truth if it does not agree with their ideas. All of these problems mean that most philosophical work is done improperly. So it is hardly surprising that widespread agreement does not exist. The problems of humanity are most obvious when doing philosophy.

These truths mean that we can still believe that philosophy gives us truths. The truths given by philosophy are hard to get. Only a person who intends to find the truth and values the truth more than his own ideas or opinions will ever find it. This sort of strict requirement is not found in scientific or mathematical work! They only need to value the truth of their experiment. Philosophers can have no such restriction. So although real philosophical progress may be impossible, finding real philosophical truths is not impossible.

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Comments on Philosophy and the Search for Wisdom

  1. Philosophy and philosophers, as such, are being misrepresented here.
    As I understand the view being promoted here, it is held that ‘some philosophers’ believe that the acquisition of wisdom through the study of philosophy is not possible because progress in philosophy, or philosophical thinking, is not possible.

    This claim, used as a premise in what follows, is ill founded.

    Mainstream philosophers are concerned with resolving problems. They hope that by doing philosophy, they will be able to acquire an advanced degree of mental and analytical acuity. In the process, they may also hope that they will be able to advance their understanding of the content of those works which may seek to identify, or discover, precisely what constitutes ‘wisdom’, and what does not.

    To say of even of ‘some’ philosophers that they deny the possibility of philosophical progress is something that I doubt any academic philosopher would put their name to. Such progress is all too obvious even to limited intellects working within the tradition.

    I too agree with the author that the route to wisdom requires a clear grasp of philosophical skills. However, I think this alone will not suffice. Why not? Well, if it were sufficient, then every university philosophy departments around the world would be occupied by some wise people? I do not find that to be the case. Empirical evidence appears to contradict the notion that any sort of study can advance human intellects to claim the platform designated for wise people.

    Experience of the appropriate kind, empathy, sympathy, analytical sensitivity, significance and participation in ethical internalisation , Imagination, creativity, a threshold degree of intelligence, deep reflective capacity, are just some of the qualities that, in my view, would be required to secure some degree of wisdom – since I do not believe that wisdom is an ‘all/or-nothing’ capability.

    As for ‘real answers’, I’m not really sure what those are? Within the domain of philosophical conjecture, philosophers rarely agree on the substantive issues that they development interests in. Each philosopher will take a particular sort of ‘worldview’, within which they would take some aspects of the world to be clearer than others. As for ‘real’ answers… I don’t believe that philosophers take themselves to be engaged in the task of providing ‘answers’ to anybody. Theories, proposals, ideas – yes. Answers? Somehow, I don’t think so…?

    In addition, it might be worth mentioning that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, all denied that they had become wise through their philosophical endeavours… I’ve yet to come across the equal of a Socrates, Confuciusin or Lao Tzu, among any of the universities and places I’ve worked or studied in… but, I agree that doesn’t necessarily mean much. However, it seems to locate the vector of the trajectory of the thinking regarding the sort of individuals we might imagine capable of becoming wise…?

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