Intellectual Virtue for the New Year

I often launch my freshmen philosophy classes with a discussion about this painting, The Death of Socrates, by Jacques Louis David:

Socrates, philosophy, intellectual virtue

I write a quotation from Socrates on the board:

“Philosophy is preparation for death.”

What do you think this could mean? One answer is that philosophy, literally the “love of wisdom,” is a lifestyle that helps you live a life you won’t regret in the end. To love wisdom and pursue truth, even to the point of sacrificing other important things, fosters human flourishing and happiness. Another way to describe the goal of this pursuit is intellectual virtue. So, if you’re looking for a developmental goal for the New Year, consider a pursuit of intellectual virtue.

“Intellectual virtue” strikes most of us as an unfamiliar concept. We typically conceive of intellectual development as reading a book or taking a class. Perhaps sharpening our mental skill. But the pursuit of intellectual virtue transcends these things. It isn’t just about doing the right things; it’s about becoming the right sort of person. We want to become people who love and pursue truth and reason.

How do we cultivate intellectual virtue? Here are a few suggestions.

Four Ways To Cultivate Intellectual Virtue

 1.  Take time to push past easy, quick answers.

investigate, intellectual virtueBe more skeptical. When you read/watch/listen to a news story, blog post, sermon, or editorial on an important topic, don’t immediately accept what you consume as true and good. Notice I said “important topic.” We don’t have time to hunt down the truth on every question. But for weighty matters, we ought to invest a little extra time to at least google opposing views and critiques. Action point: the next time you read an article on some controversial or new viewpoint, use Google to find a critique of it or check Snopes to see if it is a hoax.

2.  Be less opinionated.

Instead of fighting on every hill, pick your battles more carefully. Hold your beliefs more humbly and ask others about their views and the reasons behind them. Find out why some good, intelligent people disagree with you. This will help your pursuit of truth. Action point: the next time you feel the need to fight over an idea, step back and listen instead. Wash, rinse, repeat.

3.  Be more charitable toward other’s views.

listening, intellectual virtueResist the urge to caricature those who disagree with you. When you talk about opposing views, paint them in the best possible light you can. If you critique a view, critique the most reasonable version of that view, not a straw man. Aristotle said that the mark of a mature mind is the ability to consider a view without accepting it. Action point: Google an article or essay defending a view you disagree with and read over it carefully, trying to see their side.

4.  Believe Courageously

We know about physical courage–running into the burning building to save someone. But do you practice intellectual courage? Sometimes intellectual virtue requires us to take a position that is unpopular, perhaps contrary to what our peers or loved ones hold. It takes courage to switch, in the face of new evidence, from a position you’ve held for years. Action point: Ask yourself, “Am I open to evidence against a dearly held belief, and would I be willing to change my view even if it upset those around me?”

Further Resources

If you’d like to explore this topic more, here are a two books and a website:

Philip Dow, Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Virtue Development (IVP Academic, 2013).

Jason Baehr, The Inquiring Mind: On Intellectual Virtues and Virtue Epistemology (Oxford University Press: 2011). 

3 thoughts on “Intellectual Virtue for the New Year

    1. Good question. Off hand, I’d say maybe the ones that are most likely to have consequences that might directly affect someone’s life. Angrily debating whether Trump is a qualified president seems inconsequential — if you persuade someone of your view, nothing really happens. But if you’re arguing whether some religion is true, or whether some moral decision about to be made is the right one, this could seriously affect someone’s life. You could prevent harm to someone by speaking up. But even then, its easy to get too focused on details. If you find yourself getting emotional about EVERY argument, then it might be safe to err on the side of stepping away from the battle.

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