Philosophy: Useless knowledge or key to virtue?

In the fifth Discourse of The Idea of a University, Newman identifies a tension basic to philosophy’s self-understanding since the beginning. On the one hand, he quotes Aristotle and Cicero to the effect that true knowledge is its own end, and so is properly “useless,” a good for those who possess it apart from any external goods it might secure (5.3-4). And yet on the other, “The professors of this Liberal or Philosophical Knowledge…have ever been attempting to make men virtuous; or, if not, at least have assumed that refinement of mind was virtue, and that they themselves were the virtuous portion of mankind. This they have professed on the one hand; and on the other, they have utterly failed in their professions, so as ever to make themselves a proverb among men, and a laughing-stock both to the grave and the dissipated portion of mankind, in consequence of them” (Idea of a University, 5.7).

 

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