Perfect Timing!
Charles Taliaferro and Eric Erfanian

“Wisdom” is a term that is doing a great deal of work on our campus recently. The Department of Philosophy at St. Olaf College recently debated for an hour whether we could get away with claiming that the chief goal of our department is the cultivation of the love of wisdom. Wisdom cannot mean simply reflection, because (presumably) it is always good to be wise, but not always good to reflect. If our building is engulfed in flames, it would not be wise to spend time reflecting on the nature of fire. It is also not plausible to think that wisdom is humility because one can be quite humble and not at all wise. One might be very humble and yet utterly muddled about the meaning and consequences of one’s action and so on. And merely knowing how to live life well cannot be the whole of wisdom, for one might know how to live well but not even try to do so.

The prestigious Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy characterizes a wise person as someone who has extensive factual and theoretical knowledge, knows how to live well and is good at such living, and has very few unjustified beliefs. We might question what kind of factual and theoretical knowledge is involved, but for present purposes, we will assume that this definition is right (and perhaps it is good that a definition has some vagueness) and simply try to be helpful in highlighting one aspect of the love of wisdom and higher education: the cultivation of a wise philosophy of time.

Let’s start with a philosophy class and then branch out. We believe that a significant lesson for the student to learn, and for the professor to learn or re-learn, is what subjects and arguments are worthy of their time. Any given investigation will have to involve decisions on when to linger on counterarguments and objections. When is it safe to move on in a debate about a particular virtue or a problem in the theory of knowledge or an account of whether the scientific method is the most reliable means for settling questions about the nature of reality? We suggest that one of the most important results of a good education is developing a talent or art of recognizing when you or others are in danger of ignoring or denying some evidence because it conflicts with your predetermined ideas. So much of philosophy involves identifying when an argument simply misses the point (ignoratio elenchi or, in less pedantic language, when you have a red herring), and when a wise inquirer should sit up and take notice of a compelling line of reasoning. Being able to weigh arguments takes time, and one of the things a professor can do is to put on display the claim at hand and do a little heavy-lifting himself. That is, there is great virtue in a professor actually thinking, rather than merely acting out or repeating what has been worked out in the office, with her or his students and vice versa. This way, one may actually observe the difference between authentic, measured reflection and the converse.

In the classroom, we lead by example, and send clues to students as to how they should cultivate a wise philosophy of time. Some of them may be obvious, like a warning when the allotted time for an exam is about to expire. But some of them are more subtle; we must be careful to distinguish between a rushed approach to a problem and the brevity of deep wisdom. When rushed, we risk students thinking it is permissible to deal with caricatures of positions (so-called straw-men or an Aunt Sally). If students were to reject the brief yet wise words of Epictetus, who reduced his whole philosophy to two words (“Sustain, abstain!”) in the same way, they might miss out on a very important lesson.

At the heart of cultivating a wise philosophy of time lies the ability to distinguish between symbols of wealth and wealth itself. As the philosopher Alan Watts points out, we are in no short supply of seconds, minutes, days, or millennia—after all they are merely a method of measurement held in common by all civilized societies. They have the same kind of reality (or unreality) as the imaginary lines of latitude and longitude, but the things they represent—the moments spent with loved ones or students in the classroom, or the boundaries of a beautiful land with abundant natural resources—are in limited supply and of real value. By recognizing this fact, we can avoid what we like to call “chronic disappointment.” That is to say, by expecting only as much as our wealth at hand can provide, we avoid over-devoting our time to ­symbol-manipulation, for example by re-arranging all the emails in our inbox, and can focus our real, limited amount of time on building relationships with our students and colleagues instead. And this is a lesson not easily learned; with constant pulls for our attention it is often difficult to focus on what should be focused on, and what should be let go.

Perhaps teaching the proper use of time and attention is more easily appreciated in a philosophy course rather than history or mathematics, because (according to some) its results are less definitive. For example, a course in philosophy might seek to answer the question of when one moment ends and another begins. But then again, all the other disciplines are built on what might be considered a philosophy of history, philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics, and so on. For example, when does one number end and another begin? So, in each discipline there are moments to seek to cultivate a wise lingering over the arguments and frameworks that define the different branches of higher education. Neither of us have a great deal of tolerance for silence in the classroom, but one of our colleagues is brilliant at using silence to highlight the significance of a question and the importance of students thinking it through for themselves. As a result, Jim Ferrell of our History Department is able to ask a question to some twenty students and then wait for up to twenty minutes if necessary for a reply. Maybe with enough blood pressure medicine, it would be possible to emulate him, but we admire this practice of wisely using time—and silence—in higher education.

We have not tried to lay all the cards on the table. We have only tried to unpack a tiny bit of what might be involved in the role of wisdom in higher education. Now, this is not what might be called “time management” in the market place—though that topic and practice is interesting, practically and philosophically. In his massive 2007 book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor has done an important study on how our view of time in the West has shifted from the sacred in the medieval era to the secular in modernity, and much of this shift does involve pressure from economic forces. We are suggesting that how we treat each other in the classroom itself involves important lessons about values, what to linger on, and what to pass over. Lest this be too abstract still, we point to one concrete result of trying to use time wisely in the classroom: this article. One of the results of seeking to linger wisely together, as professor and student, over the ideas at hand is the opportunity for collaboration. That is, in fact, what you are reading, a co-authored contribution of a professor and student thinking, as best we can in the time we have, about how to use time wisely in higher education.


Charles Taliaferro, professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, is the author, co-author, or editor of seventeen books, but also of seven articles or chapters co-authored with students. Eric Erfanian is a senior philosophy and ancient studies major at St. Olaf College.

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