The pursuit of wisdom

Ross asked:

I have a question . Why has modern philosophy abandoned what was the goal of ancient philosophy namely the pursuit of wisdom? Is this a weakness in modern philosophy or were the ancients misguided?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I ask you a question in return: What is wisdom? Maybe you tend, like many people, to think of a grey-bearded old fogey who utters mysterious mantras or is steeped in religion but inclined to an unorthodox point of view? Well, its etymology points to “wis”, derived from the old German “wissen”, which denotes the capacity to think and explain, as well as “witz”, in English “wit”, which used to mean sharpness of intellect. If you are familiar with Shakespeare, you’ll know that this is how he used the word and so did all writers before the 19th century.

This doesn’t leave much room for the prejudice in which you indulge. I can’t see Kant or Hegel, even Heidegger and Wittgenstein having abandoned wisdom. But maybe your real concern is the university circuit and the thousands of academics who write papers and combat each other’s “position” on one or another trifling issue, and otherwise teach the subject in the same way as a physicist or anthropologist or economist would deal with it – facts, doctrines, histories, theories and an undue emphasis on fads and fashions, while you feel that you’re missing out on what is supposed to be “wise” about all this. Unfortunately this is a perspective as old as philosophy itself. Even Thales and Pythagoras, or Plato and Aristotle had their commentators back in the ancient days, some of them far from embracing wisdom, but preferring scurrilous argumentation.

No, there is nothing new under the sun in this respect. What has changed is methodology. Beginning with Galileo in the age of Shakespeare, science began to develop a predominantly empirical, factual, experimental and probative methodology of exact knowledge; and if you look at this closely, you will quickly understand that this comprises a division in the area of “wis”-dom which grew to question features of our existence that cannot be encompassed this way. In spite of which, science has in recent times moved increasingly into research that is intrinsically closed to “factual” theorising; but its prestige in our modern world has burgeoned to such an extent that we are totally intimated and most reluctant to rebut its incursions into such matters as life, mind, art, spirituality etc., as if they were amenable to the same methodology (not to say technology!) that gave us computers, atom bombs and contraceptive pills.

In sum: It is not the case that philosophy has abandoned wisdom; simply that men endowed with wisdom are harder to breed in an environment dominated by the sciences and to some extent by the prior needs of educational curricula. Hence the weakness you perceive can be put down simply to the swings and roundabouts which affect all human activities over time – after all, we haven’t had a second Shakespeare for a few years either, and if Einstein had been born in 1564, he would have been unemployable!

One thought on “The pursuit of wisdom

  1. philo-sophy is translated as love of wisdom, but the 7 sages or wise men were seasoned and widely traveled and experienced, not thinking stay at homes.

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