A Little Meta-Philosophy

Given that breaking down the word “philosophy” into its Greek roots implies “love of wisdom,” it makes sense to emphasize wisdom over mere cleverness, as did Plato in his famous dialogues. At the risk of sounding clever myself, the recursiveness of the formula “it would be wise to value wisdom over cleverness” lends emphasis to its self-apparent truth. Unfortunately, recursive formulas contain very little definitional content due to their circularity. To shed light on the distinction between wisdom and cleverness I could just refer you to Plato, but perhaps I can take a little stab at it here.

The literature of the game of Chess relies heavily on a similar distinction between “strategy” and “tactics.” Strategy generally refers to long-term goals, whereas tactics are the means of achieving them. So a strategy might be expressed verbally like so:

“Given that Black’s pieces are currently gathered on the Queen side and are thus not able to quickly come to the defense of the Black King, and given the weakness already existing in the pawn structure of the Black King’s castled position, White should adopt the strategy of attacking on the King side after making appropriate preparations such as stabilizing the center, opening lines, and concentrating attackers near the King. If this strategy succeeds it will become possible to break through the King’s defenses and achieve checkmate.”

Notice that in the description of the strategy there are few specifics: only some generalities about the state of the Black position. “Stabilizing the center” is a sub-strategy, based on established general principles, which should make the success of the large-scale strategy of the King side attack more likely. The specific method of stabilizing the center, perhaps pushing a pawn from e4 to e5, or trading pawns on d5 before planting a knight on e5, falls into the realm of tactics. But judging which of the two methods is better is still a strategic question. Opening the ‘h’ file by advancing the pawn to h5, with the White Rook behind it, then exchanging on g6, maneuvering the White Queen to h3 after the Rook has been moved to h6, etc: these are tactical maneuvers serving a strategic goal. The final combination to break through the Black defenses, perhaps involving sparkling sacrifices of material to finally trap the Black King in a mating net, these are the culmination of strategy by tactical means.

We can summarize the distinction between strategy and tactics as follows: strategy is “general” or abstract, tactics are “specific” and mechanical. The soundness of a tactical “trick” is not just in the achievement of its mechanical purpose, but even more importantly, whether the achievement of that tactical effect succeeds in bringing about the strategic goal. All the brilliantly clever tactics in the world are worthless if the strategy they serve is based on the wrong values. In philosophy, we must be clear on what the purpose of philosophy itself is — in human and social terms — before launching into the fancy footwork of clever arguments, or our entire mission will fail.