By Paul So
When I first encountered philosophy, I thought it involved improving one’s spiritual life by providing some insightful and useful instructions. So it is unsurprising that I imagined a philosopher to be a wise and noble sage who utters koan-like statements that will eventually amount to some life-changing insights conducive for practical living. Many people who haven’t had much exposure to professional philosophy seem to hold this view. Call this stereotype the “Noble Sage.”
For Rousseau, the “Noble Savage” is the idealization of an indigenous person, untainted and uncorrupted by civilization’s obsessions over wealth, status, and consumerism. In a similar spirit, the “Noble Sage” is the idealization of a certain type of philosophizing that provides simple, practical, and insightful instruction into living a good life. Such a form of philosophizing is uncorrupted and untainted by speculation, abstraction, and hyper-rationalization.
The Noble Sage has two key characteristics. First, it seems to assume that philosophers (at least in the past) always have played the role of the wise sage. Second, it is shot through with normative claims about how philosophers should play the role of a sage. I think both claims are wrong, which, in this case, is to say that the Noble Sage stereotype is both conceptually and empirically false.
The Noble Sage is out of touch with many living and historical philosophers. The pre-Socratics, medieval philosophers, and 18th century rationalists/empiricists didn’t fit into this stereotype and neither did specific philosophers like Thales, Parmenides, Quine, Leibniz, Hume, and Hegel, all of whom delved into topics that made no contact with the pursuits identified with the Noble Sage.
Moreover, there is some empirical evidence showing that philosophers wouldn’t make good moral exemplars or sages. Moral exemplars are thought not only to teach moral precepts, but also to follow them and set an example, and there is no evidence that philosophers behave any better than anyone else. It is wrong, then, to describe Philosophers as being moral exemplars, as the Noble Sage suggests. At best, they may be more thoughtful about moral issues (as they are with all philosophical topics), even though they are not necessarily moral practitioners.
Second, I think it is wrong to make a certain type of “Noble Sage” philosophizing the standard for all philosophers. Much of what drives philosophy are purely intellectual values, like rationality and charitability. These intellectual values indicate that philosophy isn’t meant merely as a spiritual surrogate or supplement for religion, but is supposed to involve inquiry into foundational issues on reality, self, knowledge, values, and logic. It is primarily a methodical subject.
Many people who discover that philosophers don’t fit into the “Noble Sage” stereotype seem disappointed. They expected some unrealistic standard from philosophers and become disappointed when they see that philosophers sometimes do things that seem boring and mundane. Researching, specializing, editing, publishing papers, and all manner of other academic activities are somehow conceived of as killing philosophy. But in an important sense philosophers have been publishing, editing, and researching for quite some time, long before the subject was professionalized. John Stuart Mill, Kant, Descartes, Spinoza, Marx, and other philosophers all did these sorts of things.
I think part of what makes actual philosophizing unappealing to those who hold the Noble Sage stereotype is that it involves a lot of hard work. It is not the hard work you associate with the self-made man, but rather the kind of hard work you associate with dweebs who spend their time learning technical concepts and jargon. More often than not, such people aren’t perceived as admirable. Perhaps that is changing due to respected nerd-kings like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, but I’m afraid Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg receive respect mostly because they fit into a variation of the self-made man stereotype: the self-made inventors. Historical figures like Thomas Edison, Nicholas Tesla, and Benjamin Franklin fit into this notion as well, and people clearly love these figures. But who cares about the geeks sitting at a table talking about abstract stuff with no intention of creating anything tangible?
You might wonder why I find it important to write this essay about the noble sage? Who cares what a bunch of people on the street think about philosophy. They’re obviously uninformed. The problem is that the Noble Sage is an extremely popular and persistent misconception. The most common response a philosophy major hears after disclosing what he is majoring in is “what is your philosophy?” or “what is the meaning of life?” Moreover, there are some philosophers who seem to fall for the Noble Sage stereotype.
For example, in Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle’s New York Times article “When Philosophy Lost Its Way” they concluded that:
“Lost is the once common-sense notion that philosophers are seeking the good life — that we ought to be (in spite of our failings) model citizens and human beings. Having become specialists, we have lost sight of the whole. The point of philosophy now is to be smart, not good. It has been the heart of our undoing.” (my emphasis)
If this isn’t an endorsement of Noble Sage stereotype, I don’t know what is. I suspect some philosophers are susceptible to this stereotype, because they wish for their role as a philosopher to have more spiritual and existential importance in human existence. So, basically, they covet the role of a priest.
I think this is a wrong way to look at the role of philosophy. I’m not saying that philosophers can’t or ought not fit the noble sage stereotype, I’m just saying we shouldn’t restrict philosophers to this role. I hope I won’t be seen as a Noble Savage of the philosophical community for saying this.