Wisdom, love and philosophy

Is philosophy the love of wisdom, or is it the wisdom of love?

Returning to some old notes on wisdom and love in the philosophy, for a class I’m writing. And they still seem relevant to my interests.

Is philosophy the love of wisdom? Or it is, as Levinas says, “the wisdom of love” (or “the wisdom of love in the service of love”)? — Serres, too, argues the latter in his pamphlet En Amour Sommes-Nous des Bêtes?

Aristotle says wisdom begins in wonder (in the senses, in the pleasure of the senses). From there, it moves progressively toward general principles. We start with this and that thing, but we end up with higher-order abstractions and generalities. And this is good and useful stuff. This ascent to abstraction comes from Plato, and is also Diotima’s ladder in the Symposium. My cat is cute and I love him above all other cats. But then I generalise, and I start to see the cuteness in all cats. Next, I see cuteness itself…. and so on up the ladder.

But if this is how the love of wisdom moves, the wisdom of love moves in the opposite direction. It doesn’t see generality, but instead specificity and uniqueness. It starts at the top of the ladder (or wherever it finds itself) and it moves downward. All cats are cute. But my cat is cute in this particular way. And I love this particular cat for the particular way that it is cute. (And I’d be the first to admit that I’d probably love another cat equally, who was cute in another particular way — but each love is based in particularity and specificity).

So question I’m thinking about: which has priority in philosophy? The love of wisdom? Or the wisdom of love? Where do we stand on the ladder? Do we shuttle up and down it? Or is philosophy a matter of standing in two places at once, taking a stand in wisdom and also in love?

There’s that bit in Calvino’s Invisible Cities where the Kublai Khan and Marco Polo are playing chess. The Khan reduces his whole empire to a single square of the chessboard, pushes the abstraction to its limit, and is no longer sure what he has won or lost. The Marco Polo speaks:

“Your chessboard, sire, is inlaid with two woods: ebony and maple. The square on which your enlightened gaze is fixed was cut from the ring of trunk that grew in year of drought: you see how its fibers are arranged? Here a barely hinted knot can be made out: a bud tried to burgeon on a premature spring day, but the night’s frost forced it to desist.” (p. 131)

And as Marco continues to spin tales, the smooth, empty square of wood turns out to contain ebony forests, rafts laden with logs, docks, women who standing at windows and gaze out over the river… in fact, the whole world.

I like the idea that the pursuit of philosophy, or the wisdom of love / love of wisdom, involves being both Marco and the Khan.

See also