On Fri, Dec 25, 2009 at 17:47:20
John asked this question:
If Philosophy is the study of wisdom then why is it studied by so few people?
Could it be that, 'Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise'?
Are there political reasons why wisdom should be avoided in the UK in particular?
The serious study of philosophy as opposed to the recreational or dilettante reading of philosophy books leads to a kind of understanding and knowledge which has gone under various names, one of which is 'wisdom', although for me the term is a bit too general to convey the special kind of wisdom derived from philosophy.
Who'd want to be wise? The unspoken premise of John's argument is that the wisdom to which the study of philosophy leads is a good thing, something which many persons would want, or are capable of wanting. But as John observes, relatively few actually seek it.
Why is that?
John offers two possible explanations. The first is one I have considered before. The kind of understanding which the philosopher seeks doesn't necessarily make you happy or content. Would you consider taking a course in philosophy if you suspected that it would disrupt your blissful existence? Maybe, maybe not. This is the famous conundrum considered by John Stuart Mill in his book Utilitarianism: Which would you prefer, to be a pig satisfied, or Socrates dissatisfied?
The second explanation, however, is more sinister. Could it be that the political establishment in the United Kingdom has a vested interest in stifling the academic study of philosophy? Last week Lord Mandelson, announcing cuts in UK government funding for universities urged universities to consider two-year rather than three-year degrees, and to offer degrees with a stronger vocational component. Recently, the Department of Philosophy at Liverpool University, where the highly respected Philos-L electronic list is based, narrowly escaped the threat of closure.
The justification for the threatened axe in Liverpool's case was that the Department despite an excellent teaching record failed to meet publication targets. Well, what do you expect if members of staff are encouraged to bury their heads in Augustine and Plotinus rather than pursue the latest exciting developments in cognitive studies and artificial intelligence?
It's a sorry state of affairs. But a sinister plot?
As I read John's question, there is a suggestion that the government prefers to see an electorate dumbed down with iPhones and Facebook. But then again, that's a charged levelled at capitalism generally. The UK is not unique.
There is something else. This country, which has produced great philosophers of the likes of Locke, Berkeley and Hume, has a strangely cool attitude to purely intellectual pursuits. Pursuit of knowledge or wisdom for its own sake is not a bad thing, provided that it is moderated by a healthy dose of common sense. The belief that it can be unhealthy to allow too much concentration on philosophy too young is reflected in the attitude of Oxford University which does not permit undergraduates to pursue a Philosophy as a single BA (you have to take it with Politics and Economics, or Physics, or Psychology and Physiology, or Classics).
I would seriously question the wisdom of pursuing a Philosophy as a single subject BA, especially in the present economic climate. What's the hurry? You will be a better philosopher if you take the time to acquire knowledge in other fields. Which reminds me: the motto of the Pathways PhiloSophos web site is,
Philosophy is for everyone and not just philosophers.
Philosophers should know lots of things besides philosophy.
Yes, philosophy is for everyone. Not everyone has the taste to go into it that deeply. But even those that do, would benefit from combining their philosophical passion with more practical pursuits.
Who am I to say? For the last 14 years, I have supervised the studies of students taking courses at the Pathways School of Philosophy. The vast majority of my students have established careers in areas as diverse as medicine, IT, business, scientific research, law. My students are highly knowledgeable and highly articulate a far cry (I'm sorry to have to say) from the typical undergraduate who has gone straight from A-levels onto a BA course.
It is generally accepted that you can't acquire wisdom from study alone. Age and experience have their part to play. To be worldly, and to be knowledgeable about philosophy would be the ideal.
For me, however, it is something else. As I joke to my teenage daughters, 'I dropped out in 1970 and never dropped back in.' I don't own a car (can't afford one), don't go on holiday. I have one pair of shoes (black) because I can't see the point of owning more. I am interested in various things, guitar music, web design, computers, photography, but these are just distractions in between bouts of philosophizing. I don't have the taste for much else.
Would you want to be like me? Frankly, for most persons, the kind of life I lead is not one that I would recommend. It wouldn't be wise.