I’ve always been fond of the model of “applied philosophy” Martha Nussbaum so ably examined in what remains for me her best book, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (1994). She quotes the following from Epicurus: “Empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sickness of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul.” The elimination of human suffering on the one hand, and the achievement of human flourishing (eudaimonia) on the other, are in effect two sides of the same coin. For the Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics, notes Nussbaum, “philosophy is above all the art of human life.” The medical analogy central to this conception of philosophy plays an intriguingly similar role to the very same analogy used in Buddhism (and the approach to ‘the emotions,’ what for the Buddhist falls under the larger rubric of ‘mental afflictions,’ is in many respects the same as well). “Empty and vain” is any philosophy, on this account, not conceived along the lines of an “art of human living.” Philosophy understood as centrally concerned with ethically normative “ways of living” is of course likewise found in classical Chinese worldviews (Daoist, Confucian…) and Indic philosophical schools that grew up within religious traditions (Nyāya, Vaiśesika, Sāmkhya, Yoga, Mīmāmsā, Vedānta, Jaina, Buddhist, and Cārvāka).
John M. Cooper (and after Pierre Hadot) has recently characterized all of classical Greek philosophy in much the same manner: “In antiquity, beginning with Socrates…philosophy was widely pursued as not just the best guide to life but as both the intellectual basis and the motivating force for the best human life….” For the details, see his Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus (2012).
I complete the picture with Nussbaum’s introduction to the Roman Stoic, Seneca: “According to this account, philosophy is still a compassionate doctor, administering to urgent human needs. ‘There is no time for playing around,’ says Seneca, attacking philosophers who devote their careers to logical puzzles. ‘…You have promised to bring help to the shipwrecked, the imprisoned, the sick, the needy, to those whose heads are under the poised axe. Where are you deflecting your attention? What are you doing?’ And yet, this compassion is combined with a fundamental respect for the integrity of the reasoning powers of each person. The patient must not simply remain a patient, dependent and receptive, she must become her own doctor.”
Perhaps needless to say, most contemporary professional philosophers do not imagine this to be the kind of philosophy they practice. Indeed, I suspect a very, very small number (if any) of contemporary philosophers, especially the academic sort, come close to exemplifying, or even aspiring to the therapeutic model. The asymmetric role between the philosopher and pupil or physician and patient, is sometimes thought to necessarily involve some sort of immodesty or lack of humility. But there’s nothing intrinsic to the therapeutic model, any more than a physician well-versed in the arts of healing, that entails or implies immodesty of any kind: epistemic or otherwise. As the therapeutic model involves something on the order of “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” the philosopher’s life is one of ongoing lessons in humility, like the ideal doctor, the philosopher never fails to learn from his patients, nor does she forget to practice daily self-examination (a more humbling exercise is hard to imagine). And let’s not forget that Socratic humility, such as it is, was hardly perceived as such by those of his time, hence the Apology, the false accusations, Aristophanes’ portrait of Socrates, and so forth. Modesty on Socrates’ part did not preclude his commitment to living according to philosophical standards of courage, justice, piety, and temperance, did not prevent the deference to his daimon….
The therapeutic model is exercised in the first instance on an individual basis, not at the collective level, as Nussbaum says, therapeutic arguments, like medical treatments, are directed at the health of the individual. Consider too, and by way of analogical example, Grant R. Gillet’s remarks, speaking both as a neurosurgeon and professor of biomedical ethics in his invaluable book, Bioethics in the Clinic: Hippocratic Reflections (2004): “Hippocratic practitioners clearly need to cultivate certain virtues. They need to be trustworthy and committed to discovering and respecting the patient’s real interests. They must appreciate widely different life stories and the role illness in these stories. They must then incorporate their clinical learning into practicing the art of medicine, systematically incorporating scientific and therapeutic developments. This requires empathy and humility, and a right use of their powers as healers so that they can participate in liberating their patients from affliction. They must have a number of traits: imagination, self-criticism, generosity of spirit, loyalty, justice and patience, even irony. And in all of this they must cultivate their own growth as people so that they become more complete in their ability to help those who turn to them.” Just so….
The resurrection of the notion of “intellectual virtues” or regulative or virtue epistemology is an attempt to formulate in today’s terms and under contemporary conditions an idea whose origin lies in classical Greek philosophy. In other words, epistemic modesty in particular or philosophical modesty in general bespeaks the sort of humility that is the opposite of vanity and arrogance, and is incarnate in the therapeutic model as exemplifying the care, concern, and attentiveness that eludes the immodest, the vain, the arrogant. This is the converse of that species of self-importance and individual and group flattery one finds in academic circles routinely rewarding (by salaries, titles, awards, praise, etc.) the talented, the skilled, and the accomplished, routinely obsessing over citation numbers, attainment of tenure, individual and departmental prestige, funding and grants, leaving the stamp of one’s mental products on disciples, on one’s field, and so on.
Finally, I should add that I don’t envision philosophers, professional or otherwise, being accorded any special status or privilege in public or political fora, their views filtered through participatory and deliberative democratic methods and processes along with the views of their fellow citizens (which does not mean their contributions might not be unsettling or that their engagement might come at great risk to themselves: witness Jan Patočka in the former Czechoslovakia or Rudolf Bahro in East Germany, or Buddhist monks and nuns in Tibet, or…Socrates in the agora).