Recently I was debating with others the proposition that solving social problems in games enhances one's ability to solve real-world problems (my view was the negative: many excellent strategic gamers consistently make spectacularly foolish personal decisions in real life). This seems to generate the question: "Do philosophers have a better track record of making successful personal decisions than the average minimally-thinking individual?"

In college, I had a professor who was both a devout Jew and a Kant scholar. Kant, you may know, was pretty anti-Semitic, which wasn't uncommon then, of course. I asked him how he handled that. He said to me, "One wouldn't expect a geometer to be a triangle" by which, I take it, he meant that someone who can think profoundly about moral questions need not be very good at putting theory into practice.

And why, pray tell, can’t one expect someone with philosophical insight always to do the best? Socrates assumed that once we knew what we should do, we would automatically act as we should. His student Plato disagreed– as did most philosophers since him. We have other sources of motivation besides knowledge of what is best. As Plato put it, we have certain appetites– whether natural or acquired– that are insensitive to considerations of what is best and we have emotional responses that aren’t perfectly calibrated to our view about what is best. For this reason, even if I believed that it would be a bad idea to give in to this temptation, I might still have appetites or emotions that over-power my better judgment.

Jyl's response (in addition to reminding me why I could neveridentify with Socrates) suggests that philosophers are pretty good atworking out what they ought to do, or what is best, in daily life, butthen get over-powered by their appetites, to use Plato's term. I'm surethat happens sometimes, but here's another part of it. Like many areasof inquiry, philosophy often adopts a divide-and-conquer strategy. It'stoo difficult to gain a sharp understanding of mostthings that come our way on account of their sheer complexity.Often, if progress is to be made at all, it's by trying to isolate themany components that make up whatever one's trying to explain. (This issometimes what gives philosophy its air of abstractness orout-of-touchness with "real" problems. It's also what makes it easy togo off the rails in philosophy, for the concepts it seeks to teaseapart are often not happily separable.) A philosopher who achieves somegreater understanding of one strand of the complex whole might not beparticularly well equipped to work out the implications of this knowledge once thefloodgates are opened to the complexities of real world problems. Justas the greatest physicist might have a difficult time predicting wherethe leaf will fall, so the greatest of philosophers might stumble indetermining how best to live his life.

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