Can studying philosophy make you a better person?

One of the many people who is considerably smarter and more productive than I am is Eric Schwitzgebel, whose writes the blog, The Splintered Mind.  One of Eric’s many research interests is the question of whether there is any empirical connection between studying ethics in a contemporary college or university and the improvement of one’s character.  So far, the evidence is that the academic study of ethics does not make you a better person.  This is disappointing, but I wonder whether we should find it surprising.

Historically, the study of philosophy has been intended to make one a better person.  I am often surprised by how often people are surprised by this.  One frequently hears from Sinologists and philosophers — particularly those trained on volcanic archipelagos — that the difference between Chinese philosophy and Western philosophy is that the former emphasizes becoming a better person and solving social problems, while the latter is concerned only with purely theoretical truth.  This is perhaps true of what most of academic philosophy has become in the contemporary West, but it is certainly not true as a historic generalization.

In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is presented as asking questions such as “What is courage?” “What is justice?” because knowing the answer will make us better people.  In addition, Plato’s Seventh Letter makes clear the ethical motive behind his philosophizing:

And I was forced to say, when praising true philosophy that it is by this that men are enabled to see what justice in public and private life really is. Therefore, I said, there will be no cessation of evils for the sons of men, till either those who are pursuing a right and true philosophy receive sovereign power in the States, or those in power in the States by some dispensation of providence become true philosophers. 

The authenticity of the Seventh Letter has been challenged, but even if it is not by Plato, it is by an ancient Platonist, and represents what must have been one common understanding of Plato’s project.

Turning from the pagan world, we find that the relationship between Christianity and philosophy has been complex.  St. Paul warned, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8).  Paul obviously sees philosophy as potentially having a negative effect on one’s character  But as any careful reader can see, this statement is ambiguous.  Is Paul warning against all of philosophy, which is intrinsically “hollow and deceptive,” or is he warning against one degenerate kind of philosophy? Most Christians have thought it was something more like the latter.  Typical is the view of St. Anselm, whose motto was “Fides quaerens intellectum”:  Faith seeking understanding.  This, too, is subject to multiple readings, and no Christian could consistently hold that only those intelligent enough to understand philosophy could be saved.  However, the majority view has been that, since God created us as rational creatures, erroneous philosophical views have a bad influence on us and correct views have a good influence.

Of course, those knowledgeable about the Confucian tradition will be aware that it understands learning as having an ethical focus:  

Imagine someone who recognizes and admires worthiness and therefore changes his lustful nature, who is able to fully exhaust his strength in serving his parents and extend himself to the utmost in serving his lord, and who is trustworthy in speech when interacting with friends and associates.  Even if you said of such a person, “Oh, but he is not learned.”  I would still insist that it is precisely such qualities that make one worthy of being called “learned.”  (Confucius:  Analects 1.7, Edward Slingerland trans.)

Now, does Schwitzgebel’s research show (or at least suggest) that Platonists, Christians, Confucians and others have been wrong in thinking that philosophy can improve one’s character?

Consider how we teach philosophy in a contemporary college or university setting.  (1) Students are generally 18 to 22 years old.  (2) They are admitted to the class based largely on their own choice.  Professors cannot refuse students admission to the class if there are spaces available, nor can they eject students from the class for anything other than extremely disruptive behavior.  (3) The student’s personal life is none of the professor’s business, unless the student chooses to share information.  (When a student does share personal information, it is generally in the context of attempting to justify a request for a special favor, such as turning in an assignment late.)  (4) Professors are expected to grade students solely on their academic abilities, such as vocabulary, memory, logical reasoning skills, and writing style. 

Contrast the preceding with what advocates of ethical education recommend.  (1) In Book I of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes,

Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on social life; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend on time, but on his living, and pursuing each successive object, as passion directs. For to such persons, as to the incontinent, knowledge brings no profit; but to those who desire and act in accordance with a rational principle knowledge about such matters will be of great benefit. (W.D. Ross, trans., slightly modified)

Plato agreed.  For both of them, one needs to be raised in the right habits, and have experience of real life problems, before one can appreciate the insights of philosophy.  Aquinas went as far as saying that one couldn’t really begin the study of philosophy seriously until one was 50.  (Ironically, that is the age at which he died.)  Confucius’s view initially seems very different.  He says of himself, “At fifteen, I set my heart upon learning.”  However, he describes the process of ethical education as continuing throughout one’s life:  “At thirty, I was firmly planted. At forty, I was free of doubts.”  And so on until, “At seventy, I followed what my heart desired without overstepping the bounds” (Analects 2.4, my trans.)  And remember that “learning” for Confucians is not in any way limited to the study of books and theories.  The later Confucian Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) made the process more explicit.  He proposed that at the age of eight students should begin the Lesser Learning, an education in basic skills like reading, writing and arithmetic, along with training in good habits and etiquette.  Only the promising students would go on to the Greater Learning, where they would learn the philosophical basis of the values they had started to internalize:  “Lesser learning is the direct understanding of such-and-such and affair. Greater learning is the investigation of such-and-such a principle — the reason why the affair is as it is” (Chu Hsi, Learning to Be a Sage, trans. Daniel K. Gardner, p. 90).

(2)  In classical ethical education, a student was expected to make a commitment to become a better person, and held accountable for failure to live up to this commitment.  The ancient Confucian Mengzi (Mencius) said, “There are many techniques of instruction.  My scorning to instruct someone is also a means of instruction” (6B16).  In the Confucian tradition, the student learns from the instructor’s refusal to take him as a student that he is not sufficiently serious or committed.  If the potential student changes and becomes committed, the instructor will accept him.  If the potential student does not change, there is no point in trying to instruct him.  I don’t think this would fly with a contemporary Dean, though.

So why doesn’t the contemporary study of ethics improve character?  (1) The students are too young and inexperienced about life to benefit from the study of philosophy.  Philosophy is about the why, not the what, and college-aged students don’t know the what very well yet.  (2) Students take ethics classes without demonstrating any commitment to becoming a better person, and without any penalty for failing to manifest a commitment.  (3) The instructor is institutionally forbidden from inquiring into attempting to influence the student’s personal life, where most of his or her character will be manifest.

About The Doc

"The Doc" is a professor at Vassar College (USA). However, the views expressed in his blog and comments are not necessarily those of Vassar, its administration, or other employees, none of whom bears any responsibility for his opinions.
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One Response to Can studying philosophy make you a better person?

  1. I think in the Western philosophical tradition, it is only with Nietzsche-Heidegger, the philosophers who finally articulated a way out of purely academic philosophy, that the concept of “ethics” and the concept of “ontology” are really connected at the very root of Being. Whereas for the Western philosophical traditions rooted in epistemology — as most soft rationalists today seem to be — since ethics is a kind of knowing, it does not necessarily imply change in Being. This is what differentiates them from their Eastern philosophy (and postmodern philosophy) counterparts, as the author observed at the outset of this article.

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