Sunday, March 30, 2014

Why Patience is Always a Virtue

I'll be presenting a paper thus titled this coming weekend in Bowling Green Kentucky at the KPA. These ideas will be familiar to regular visitors here. Here's the abstract:
ABSTRACT: It is sometimes suggested that traits commonly regarded as virtues are not in every instance virtuous. On such views, these traits are not univocally good: one might possess too much courage or too much patience. Such talk has a natural feel — “be patient, but not too patient!” — but it conflicts with traditional ways of thinking about the virtues. In this paper, focusing on the case of patience, I illustrate a way of resolving this conflict that accords with the spirit of the traditional approach — in particular with the thought that the virtuous traits are themselves always good. That means, for example, that patience is always a virtue, and that one cannot be “too patient,” even though those claims seem to conflict with other rather ordinary ways of thinking and talking about patience. The approach illustrated herein can also be applied to similar conflicts and disputes about other virtues.
Comments welcome. I'm hard at revisions and re-writing of the book manuscript, which is a challenge in part because I'm generally trying not to copy and paste from these various papers and presentations, in an attempt to write in a way that is as non-technical as possible (for me and my aims, at least). I hope, however, to merge key ideas in many of these shorter papers into some kind of a journal article (or two) that will hopefully complement the book, and build on some forthcoming book chapters that are also about patience.


  1. I’m not sure if or how this could help, but one thing I’m curious about is how you understand the difference between arguing with a philosopher and arguing with an ordinary language user. I’m thinking in particular about the difference between arguing with someone who proposes a theory and someone who is simply going about their business. It seems that yours is of the latter sort, and I wondered how you thought this affects what you are doing.

  2. That's a wonderful question, Reshef, and I worry that my answer is going to be stupid or trite. I think it's true that when I'm writing, especially on the manuscript (perhaps less so in this and other papers, since I'm discussing technical theories and definitions sometimes), I try to make a mindful effort not to get "bogged" by theory. This may strike some as irresponsible. And the resulting writing may still not be the sort of thing that appeals to the masses (or whomever buys bestsellers, let's say). I'm starting to think about (and pass around) book proposals, and so this issue of "audience" is one thing I think about here: who is my audience? I'd like to say that I'm trying to address fellow philosophers who also go about human business, and people who go about their business but are also interested in philosophy. Your question comes as I am working on a central chapter of the book, totally re-working it, and really trying, in a sense, not to give a theory in the sense of providing THE account of what patience REALLY is. You get this sort of thing all over the place, with other virtues, with happiness, and so forth. Now, if "theory" means "a way of looking at things," then I can hardly avoid theorizing. But I find myself constantly and increasingly aware, in my work on virtue ethics, that there are a bunch of different ways that the virtue language operates, and my Wittgensteinian sympathies lead me to think that philosophy can't police language in a way that eliminates some of these ambiguities. Rather, philosophy can expose them, and can also point out that some ways of talking or thinking about courage or patience (etc.) are "deeper" (i.e. point to something more remarkable that we should value and pursue) than others. Thus, in the paper above, we could say that the sort of patience that is always a virtue relies on a "deeper" sense of patience. In some contexts, we might call it "true" patience. (Compare to what Aristotle thinks of as genuine courage and states that resemble courage, but which he wants to distinguish from the state that is always--and perhaps by definition--virtuous.)

    I'm rambling and dancing around a bit, so let me sum up. I try to avoid thinking there's a hard line between the philosopher and the ordinary language user. I try rather to think simply about the distance between highly technical language and everyday language, and try not to speak too technically when I can avoid it. Because I want to write a book that non-specialists can read, too.

    But on the other hand, to the extent that philosophy is like poetry (cf. the recently translated essay by Simone Weil that Duncan recently mentioned on his blog), there may be a different distinction between philosophical language and ordinary language that needs to be addressed here. (I'm not sure that you had this in mind.) Here the issue isn't a distinction between theoretical language and non-theoretical language, but rather between language that pushes on conceptual boundaries that often govern ordinary talk. In the book, I emphasize a suspicion that our thinking about what patience is (or what we can talk of as involving patience) is rather narrower than how the concept has functioned in the past. In that respect, in seeking to see what "deep" patience might be, I'm trying to push on some of those narrower boundaries, in an attempt to retrieve a broader way of thinking about patience that remains, so I argue, of great value (for reasons of both theory and practice, as it were).

    1. "but rather between language that pushes on conceptual boundaries that often govern ordinary talk" AND language that takes the boundaries (say, of convention and common use) totally for granted. (Sorry about that, and for the length of my reply.)

  3. What I had in mind was a question about how to begin to philosophize. Or what permits philosophy; because it sometimes feels as though we need permission. I take it that we already have permission to philosophize when we are responding to a philosopher who is already doing it. In such cases we can assume permission. But it seems that we want, or rather need, to be able to do it even if no one did before us—even not as a response to someone else’s philosophy. We want to do more than what Wittgenstein recommends in Tractatus 6.53: “to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science—i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy—and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions.”

    It also seems that there is an ethical issue here. Asking people philosophical questions, or even telling them that they are making philosophical assumptions, can sometimes feel intrusive, uncalled for, borderline ill-mannered. (I sometimes feel like that with students.)

    I’m not sure what all that means. You seem to be aiming your questions and discussion at non-philosophers, or at least at non-professionals. Would you say that we are all, to some extent, philosophers anyway, even if not professional ones, and that’s why (or that’s the extent to which) we have permission to philosophize? (Is this implicit in your talk of how we have “some ways of talking or thinking about courage or patience (etc.) [that] are ‘deeper’”? or in your talk of “language that pushes on conceptual boundaries”?) Or is it that we have permission to bring people into philosophy—force philosophy on them, so to speak, for their own good?

    Perhaps these are really not questions that should bother you. Perhaps you are only aiming at the non-professional philosopher—that is, at someone who is already IN philosophy. And I am not saying there is a problem with that. It’s just that I have this question about the non-philosopher: what could permit me to philosophize with them? Could something permit that? And if people sometimes philosophize, or make philosophical assumptions, without being aware of it, what—if anything—could permit me to point it out to them that they philosophize, and philosophize with them? Or is it that before I do that, I must make them aware of their own philosophizing, or even get their explicit acknowledgement that they are philosophizing?

  4. "what could permit me to philosophize with them?"

    I can't imagine there being just one answer to that question because there may be various reasons for philosophical discussion. Forcing the conversation to philosophy could also be bad for various reasons (wrong time or place, etc.) But forcing the issue might make sense sometimes, too.

    I wouldn't say I'm aiming my questions at non-professionals. Or if I am then there's something odd about taking this paper to a philosophy conference!

  5. When I said what I said about your target audience, it perhaps didn’t come out right. What I meant was that your task is much more difficult than that of someone who is arguing against a theory of patience. There the target is clear. But you are taking on a natural, or ordinary, notion of patience, which is much more elusive. It has no clear boundaries, it is not unified everywhere, it is fluid and changing, it is hard to grasp once and for all. My question is about the right approach, if that is your target—or how to understand your method, your activity, here. Perhaps this would be it: Your discussion is more a participation in an ordinary conversation than an external response to that conversation. – Would you endorse this characterization?

  6. Yes, I would take that on. It was something I had to think about today as I was finding my way to the end of the chapter I've been revising/rewriting that deals with defining patience. I think the last paragraph I composed today is germane to all of this. Just after discussing the merits of a broader definition/conception of patience (that goes beyond a focus on waiting, and characterizes in terms of acceptance of unavoidable or assumed burdens), I say the following:

    "Even so, there is no point in denying that the term patience is used in varying ways in our daily talk, and I think there are limits how useful it is for a philosopher to declare that we ought to use the term in certain ways and not others. The various definitions considered in this chapter indicate different ways of specifying what we might mean in invoking the concept, and it is useful at times to call for precision and clarification of our intended meaning when our words our susceptible to multiple interpretations. If I say that patience is always a virtue and my listener takes me to be claiming that it is always good to wait, then I have not successfully communicated my point to this listener (unless I really meant to say that it is always good to wait—a claim, as it should be clear, that I would not want to make). Patience can mean—and has meant—more than this listener takes it to mean, and by attending to the depth of meaning made available by this broader conception of patience, our understanding of what it means to say that patience is a virtue may be transformed. In adopting and making use of this enlarged understanding, we won’t lose the ability to make sense of what others mean when they speak of patience in more restricted ways. But we might smirk a bit when, as wait to speak to a customer service representative on the telephone, we hear the recorded announcement drone, 'Thank you for your patience. Your call is very important to us.' For we will know that, on the one hand, the fact that we are waiting does not imply that we are doing so patiently and, on the other, that there is more to patience than is captured in such mundane statements."

  7. Thanks.

    Are you also discussing in the book the patience needed to philosophize? It seems as though a special sort of patience is required in philosophy. Just looking at what you wrote in the paragraph in your last response, there is a special kind of worry that seems to be involved in what you do: Will people understand? There is a constant danger of being misunderstood, and a constant need to say things like “I didn’t mean that, but only this.” And there is a persistent worry that even this will not be enough, and that minds will not meet. What you do in this paragraph can thus be thought of as an exercise of patience. – Would you agree? Is a special kind of patience required for philosophy?

  8. Sorry for the non-response until now. ["Thank you for your patience. Your comment is very important to us." ;) ]

    I don't know if a special kind of patience is needed to philosophize as opposed to, say, creating good art or so forth. I might say something about this in the Preface when I write it, but it might just be better to leave it implicit. I do discuss the connection between patience and wisdom in the chapter in which I consider the links between patience and other virtues. There is a draft paper on my webpage called "Patience and Practical Wisdom" that may be relevant here. (It combines elements from a couple shorter conference papers and is going to be part of an edited collection on the connections between moral and intellectual virtues, edited by a philosopher at Western Kentucky University named Audrey Anton.)