From philosophy to misosophy

Thomas Sowell writes, at the beginning of his new book Intellectuals and Society:

Intellect is not wisdom. There can be “unwise intellect,” as Thomas Carlyle characterized the thinking of Harriet Taylor, the friend and later wife of John Stuart Mill. Sheer brainpower – intellect, the capacity to grasp and manipulate complex concepts and ideas – can be put at the service of concepts and ideas that lead to mistaken conclusions and unwise actions, in light of all the factors involved, including factors left out of some of the ingenious constructions of the intellect. (p. 1)

So what is wisdom? The ancients and medievals distinguished between theoretical wisdom and practical wisdom. To take them in order, at the beginning of the Metaphysics, Aristotle tells us that wisdom – the subject matter of metaphysics – “is knowledge having to do with certain principles and causes” (982a), in particular the “primary things and the causes.” (982b) “For it is through them and from them,” he continues, “that the other things are known and not the latter through the underlying things. And the most fundamental of the sciences, more fundamental than that which subserves it, is that which discerns for what end each thing must be done. And this is the good for each thing, and in general the best in all natures.” (982b) He adds that such wisdom is sought “for its own sake” rather than “utility” (982b) and that there is something “divine” about it, especially insofar as “god is thought to be among the causes for all things.” (983a)

Theoretical wisdom, in short, is (a) central to metaphysics, (b) to be sought for its own sake rather than utility, and involves knowledge of (c) the ultimate causes of things, especially (d) their “ends” or final causes and (e) their divine source. Practical wisdom for the ancients and medievals is prudence, in the sense of the habitual choosing of those means best suited to realizing the ends nature has set for us as human beings.

Philosophy for the ancients and medievals just is the “love of wisdom,” where wisdom is understood in these senses. How different from “philosophy” as understood by the moderns! With Bacon, Descartes, and their successors, final causes are thrust aside, and utility – knowledge as power, and in particular power to realize, not the ends nature sets for us, but whatever ends we happen to have – takes center stage. The horizons of metaphysics shrink, and its very legitimacy is often called into question. The still-confident theism of the rationalists gives way to the more hesitant theism of the empiricists, then to the weak-tea religiosity of Kant and the idealists, before theism finally ceases to be a central feature of mainstream philosophical thinking altogether by the 20th century. The climax of this long decline is the eliminativist denial of meaning or purpose of any sort whatsoever, and a proud, stubborn ignorance of what the great theists of the past even said. We are left with “philosophy” as the very negation of wisdom as understood by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (and indeed by most philosophers historically, as David Conway shows in The Rediscovery of Wisdom). Philosophy as, in effect – and not to put too fine a point on it – misosophy, the hatred of wisdom.

When the fundamental premises of the moderns’ intellectual project – the denial of final causes and of essences – ultimately entail the rejection of the very presuppositions of rationality and morality (see the post on eliminativism linked to above, and, for the full story, The Last Superstition), it is no surprise that intellect and wisdom so frequently come apart in the ways recounted in Sowell’s book (as they did not typically come apart in ancient and medieval thought). Indeed, it is inevitable that they will come apart. The modern intellectual is (to paraphrase General Russel Honoré) metaphysically “stuck on stupid.”

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