Philosophical Malpractice

Holt and McGinn

Philosophical Malpractice

Holt and McGinn

Philosophical Malpractice
New books dissected over email.
Sept. 16 1998 3:17 PM

Holt and McGinn

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You know, I hadn't really thought about it before, but you're right; Jesus wasn't all that virtuous either. Not only did he do those unedifying things you mentioned, He also petulantly cursed (and caused to wither!) a fig tree for its quite understandable failure to bear fruit out of season. What's worse, he founded the papacy by making an unforgivable pun: "Thou art Peter, upon this rock I will build my church."

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But you are overlooking an elementary point of logic. Vice is the contrary of virtue, not its contradictory. Not-virtuous does not imply vicious, any more than not-white implies black. When I observed that Socrates did not lead an exceptionally virtuous life, I was not thereby displaying an "intolerance of vice" as you claim. Being a fop about town is not vicious. I am all for enjoying life, especially in its high and low forms. I am just not willing to call that "virtue."

I do agree, however, that a "philosophy of living is not needed to secure a worthwhile life." In fact, I would go further: a philosophy of living can positively blight one's existence. In a way, the point is obvious. What will the deliberate pursuit of perfection turn one into? A prig and a bore. What will the deliberate pursuit of happiness turn one into? A joyless hedonic calculator. What will the deliberate pursuit of ironized originality turn one into? An ectype of Andy Warhol.

But consider a real-life example. The most ambitious collective experiment in philosophical living undertaken in this century was, I think it is safe to say, Bloomsbury. Virginia Woolf might have gone overboard when she claimed its formation marked a "change in human nature," but the circle did put its stamp on contemporary morals (right down to Vanessa Stephen's sperm-stained dress). Bloomsbury had a philosophical guru--who also happens to have been the founder of modern analytical philosophy. That, of course, was G.E. Moore. Moore was worshipped by the Bloomsburies. Lytton Strachey exulted in the "passionate incandescent purity of his thought," and Virginia Woolf declared his moral eminence to be "comparable to that of Christ or Socrates."

Now, Strachey, the Woolfs, the Bells, the McCarthys, Grant, and the rest of them were not philosophers themselves, but they were intelligent people. They read their ten pages of Moore every night, pondered the fresh and irresistible logic, and imbibed his conclusions: that certain states of mind--friendly affections and the contemplation of beauty--were the only things in the world that were intrinsically good and hence worth bothering about. (How did Moore know this? By direct intuition.) These states of mind were not associated with action or achievement; they had nothing to do with the traditional social virtues of charity or patriotism or self-sacrifice. (Hence E.M. Forster's absurd remark, "If had to choose between betraying my friend or my country, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.") Applying Moore's philosophy to their lives, the Bloomsburies aimed (in Russell's words) at "a life of retirement among fine shades and nice feelings, and conceived of the good as consisting in the passionate mutual admiration of a clique of the elite."

Empirically, the results were disastrous. Strachey ended up artistically constipated, which he blamed on Moore's philosophy. Virginia Woolf came to a sticky end. Keynes at least had the sense to renounce this philosophy of life, remarking years later "how wholly oblivious Moore managed to be of the qualities of the life of action and also of the pattern of life as a whole. He was existing in a timeless ecstasy." And Moore himself? According to Alan Watkins, who lodged with the Moores in their dotage, the philosopher spent his days pottering around the garden, knocking over flowers with his walking stick--a rather unplatonic way of contemplating beautiful objects.

But perhaps one shouldn't be too hard on philosophers. After all, that was a time when psychiatrists were still trying to cure neurotics by operating on their noses.

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Jim Holt writes about science and philosophy for
Lingua Franca and the Wall Street Journal. Colin McGinn is professor of philosophy at Rutgers University and author, most recently, of Ethics, Evil, and Fiction. This week they discuss...