On knowledge and wisdom

And where philosophy fits in the picture

Is philosophy an activity justifiably associated with the best minds or is it only a dignified way of wasting time and energy? Is it a useful exercise or a mere hobby for those with nothing better to do? The answers to these questions can be in the affirmative as well as in the negative depending on what one means by the word ‘philosophy’. Those who do not appreciate the use of the word in distinct shades tend to accuse those who do of having an ambivalent, sometimes even a contradictory, stance on philosophy. This author has frequently found himself on the receiving end of this accusation; quite unfairly so, as he proposes to demonstrate in what follows.

Take professional philosophers first, who are considered by many to be the wisest of human beings, capable of a level of intellectual activity beyond the wildest dreams of the ordinary mortals. It is in this spirit that Ludwig Wittgenstein had asked Bertrand Russell to help him decide whether his intellect was first-rate (in which case he should pursue philosophy) or just average (in which case he should devote himself to the less mentally demanding field of aeronautical engineering instead). Russell told Wittgenstein that he could only advise him one way or the other after he had read something penned by the latter. Wittgenstein apparently wrote something in response to this, which he sent back for Rusell’s perusal. Russell is on record that the very first sentence was enough to tell him that Wittgenstein’s was an intellect of the highest order, which he ought to dedicate to the service of philosophy. It is hardly surprising that, as a group, professional philosophers have always had a rather high assessment of their intelligence. But they are also considered by many others, who do not answer to the description of philosophers, to be the embodiment of wisdom and grey matter.

Yet, at the same time there is no dearth of those who view professional philosophers as those who lack common sense; the ‘professor’ types who are rarely good at anything practical; those who tend to forget when and where they last placed their reading glasses. This is a bunch, they claim, that is either still trying to settle (in vain) the issues that their colleagues took up twenty-five hundred years ago or (worse) have given them up as unsolvable, turning their attention progressively to increasingly trivial hair-splitting. These critics have a point; endorsed by no less than Alfred Whitehead (a philosopher of no mean pedigree himself), who observed that all of Western Philosophy was but a footnote to Plato. It is also true that philosophy as a discipline has had to lose ground continuously; first giving up trying to figure out the riddle of existence, then the problem of knowledge, contenting itself with the question of language for a while, before finally settling for the post-modernism mumbo-jumbo. So much for professional philosophy.

There is, however, a very different shade in which the word is used, that is philosophy in the broader sense. In this shade, everybody ought to be a philosopher. Every thoughtful man, at any rate, is. A philosopher in this sense is a sensible, pragmatic and phlegmatic individual. He subscribes to a consistent world-view and is not given to whims and lights of fantasy. In the face of anything that life throws his way, he remains as equanimous as is humanly possible. He is neither depressed when things do not go his way, nor is overjoyed when he happens to find success. He accepts his mistakes and focuses on correcting his course of action instead of blaming everybody else. When he finds himself in a hole, he stops digging. He is reasonable and responsible enough to be mindful of the consequences of his thoughts and acts. He knows that while logic is a great tool to highlight any contradictions in his analysis, it can never bring in any new information. He realizes that knowledge beyond reasonable doubt is the highest a man could aim for, and that it is futile to run after certainties in anything outside mathematics. Could anything be more precious than the gift of philosophy in this sense? A philosophical man is therefore no doubt a wise man.

What about professional philosophers though? No doubt, they have a lot of information about many things. But are they truly as enlightened as some believe them to be? Returning to Wittgenstein and his first line that had so impressed Russell, in case you were wondering as this author did for a long time. Unfortunately, Russell took that secret to his grave. One can, however, imagine what that could have been like by considering the very first line of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus – the first (and the only) work Wittgenstein published in his lifetime. The statement reads: ‘The world is everything that is the case.’ The next six statements are these: ‘The world is the totality of facts, not of things.’ ‘The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.’ ‘For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.’ ‘The facts in logical space are the world.’ ‘The world divides into facts.’ ‘Each item can be the case or not the case while everything else remains the same.’ He goes on, but you get the picture. So, are professional philosophers so wise and intelligent after all? Well, you decide!

Hasan Aftab Saeed
Hasan Aftab Saeed
The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at www.facebook.com/hasanaftabsaeed


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