janitors in the Crystal Palace

I am going back to Critchley’s book Continental Philosophy for a second read. I’m not a philosopher so it takes time to sink in.

In this passage from early in the book Critchley describes how in the 17th century philosophy became a handmaid to the newly dominant pursuit of science. The original Greek conception that knowledge and wisdom were part of the same comprehensive, civic, good living enterprise, was upended by science which valued knowledge – episteme – over the love of wisdom. Plato’s queen of the sciences, philosophy was left to mop the floor.

The question is what does the subjugation of wisdom and the favoring of knowledge leave out? What is the implication for our lives?

Here is Critchley’s description:

In a science-dominated world, what role does our professional philosopher assign to philosophy? This can in part be answered by recalling the Greek word for knowledge, episteme. Philosophy becomes epistemology, the theory of knowledge. That is, it is overwhelmingly concerned with logical and methodological questions as to how we know what we know, and in virtue of what such knowledge is valid. Philosophy becomes a theoretical enquiry into the conditions under which scientific knowledge is possible. In the scientific conception of the world, the role of philosophy moves from being, as it was for Plato, the queen of the sciences, where theoretical knowledge was unified with practical wisdom. It becomes rather, in John Locke’s formula at the beginning of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1689, an under-labourer to science, whose job is to clear away the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge and scientific progress. Philosophers become janitors in the Crystal Palace of the sciences.

Simon Critchley, Continental Philosophy, The Gap Between Knowledge and Wisdom, p 4-5, Oxford


hemming and hawing
February 14, 2011, 5:03 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , ,

In a competitive world, it’s a liability to be thoughtful.  Takes too much time.  People are cleaning up and moving on while you’re still wrapping your head around and making sense of and coming to grips with.  Shall we stop the world and let you off?  And how do you propose to fill out your timesheet?

Here is a teacher who demonstrates to her class the difference between mere mental strength and mental character.  The former computes and then decides – done.  The latter negotiates a treacherous terrain:  weighs conflicting options, hems, waits patiently, debates internally, haws, recalibrates biases, welcomes uncertainty.  And it ends with wisdom.  It’s a good definition, and – because of its difficulty – a better way to practical strength of mind.

Ms. Taylor was always reminding the class of how limited her grasp of any situation was. “Sorry, I get distracted easily,” she’d say, or, “Sorry, sometimes I jump to conclusions too quickly.” In this way, she communicated the distinction between mental strength (the processing power of the brain) and mental character (the mental virtues that lead to practical wisdom). She stressed the importance of collecting conflicting information before making up one’s mind, of calibrating one’s certainty level to the strength of the evidence, of enduring uncertainty for long stretches as an answer became clear, of correcting for one’s biases. As Keith E. Stanovich, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, writes in his book “What Intelligence Tests Miss” (2009), these “thinking dispositions” correlate weakly or not at all with I.Q.

David Brooks, Social Animal

beasts and lunatics
September 19, 2009, 11:15 am
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

Here is a quotation from Critchley’s Continental Philosophy in which he gives a kind of primer description of each of a half dozen or so significant 20th C European (non British) philosophers.

Critchley establishes a dialectic:  that an emphasis on knowledge leads to scientism and turns us into beasts and conversely an emphasis on wisdom rejects scientism, introduces obscurantism and turns us into lunatics.  But his broader point is that the Continental philosophers instruct us to return to searching for the meaning of life – by way of wisdom – and conversely to resist the reductive nature of mere knowledge.

My contention is that what philosophy should be thinking through at present is this dilemma which on the one side threatens to turn us into beasts, and on the other side into lunatics.  This means that the question of wisdom, and its related question of the meaning of life, should at the very least move closer to the centre of philosophical activity and not be treated with indifference, embarrassment, or even contempt.  The appeal of much that goes under the name of Continental philosophy, in my view, is that it attempts to unify or at least move closer together questions of knowledge and wisdom, of philosophical truth and existential meaning.  Examples are legion here, whether one thinks of Hegel on the life and death struggle for recognition as part and parcel of the ascent to absolute knowing; Nietzsche on the death of God and the need for a revaluation of values; Karl Marx on the alienation of human beings under conditions of capitalism and the requirement for an emancipatory and equitable social transformation; Freud on the unconscious repression at work in dreams, jokes, and slips of the tongue and what that reveals about the irrationality at the heart of mental life; Heidegger on anxiety, the deadening indifference of inauthentic social life, and the need for an authentic existence; Sartre on bad faith, nausea, and the useless but necessary passion of human freedom; Albert Camus on the question of suicide in a universe rendered absurd by the death of God; Emmanuel Levinas on the trauma of our infinite responsibilities to others.  This list could be extended.

-Simon Critchley, Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford