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Folly’s Interpersonal Dimension


Folly is an under-explored vice, despite its common occurrence and close relationship to core aspects of practical rationality (phronesis) and the good life. This paper develops an account of folly as a subspecies of imprudence and distinctive source of wrongdoing, with a special focus on its relational, social or inter-personal aspect. Drawing on Rotenstreich’s historically-based account, folly is defined as a form of practical irrationality resulting from closedness to the world. I expand Rotenstreich’s view and depart from him on two key points. First, I argue that folly should be cleanly differentiated from stupidity (idiocy, dumbness). Second, I show that the wrong in folly—i.e. the harms it involves intrinsically, as opposed to as a matter of causal consequence—is partly obscured by Rotenstreich’s exclusive focus on the fool as an isolated individual agent. When, instead, we consider folly as a pathology of interpersonal relations, it reveals itself to be a vice which infects and undermines human relationships of love and care, and thus to be a serious threat to living well or human flourishing in almost all of their forms.

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  1. Author’s transcription from televised footage of the hearing.

  2. See Mulligan (2009, 2014, 2016) for an exposition and development of Musil’s idea of “intelligent stupidity.” Engel (2016) and Golob (2019) both draw inspiration from Mulligan’s work and depart from it. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pressing me to clarify the relationship of my work to this related project.

  3. See also his comments that: “truth and knowledge, if they are to be defined and to be subject to positive conditions, are one, whereas error, mistakes, and failures to know are diverse and multifarious. As all the literature on Gettier counterexamples shows, there are endless ways of going wrong or not satisfying the conditions of knowledge, although these conditions are supposed to be unique…” (Engel 2016: 196); and “Wits, bullshitters, and epistemic fools are everywhere. The utter diversity of these characters seems to defy generalization” (Engel 2016: 212).

  4. See also Engel (2016: 216) and, on epistemic indifference (idem: 211-220).

  5. Thus: “For Kant stupidity is a disease of determinative judgement, an inability to go from universal to particular. I will now argue that stupidity is rather an inability to go from particular to universal and a resultant inability to develop the required concepts.” (Golob 2019: 567).

  6. See also Mulligan (2014: 78), Mulligan (2016: 122), Engel (2016: §2, and 35) (for the explicit contrast); and Golob (2019: 562).

  7. If it helps the reader, they can substitute dumbness for stupidity throughout. My reason for resisting such a substitution is cultural: “dumbness” sits easily in American English and German as a general term for idiocy. To a British ear, however, it carries as aspect of muteness and quietude which strains against my view of folly as involving busyness (active engagement with the world). And just as the ethical fool is characteristically busy rather than immobile, the epistemic fool often has a lot to say—even if they struggle, or refuse, to really mean anything by it. (On this last point, see Engel (2016: 22–26) for the connections between folly and being a bullshitter.).

  8. It may be an advantage of the ethical approach that it allows us to approach the concept of folly free of some of the intellectualist and rationalist tendencies which hamper earlier theories of stupidity. See Engel (2016: 204 ff) for a criticism of such approaches.

  9. Thanks to Saja Parvizian for pointing this out to me.

  10. Rotenstreich (1985: 100–101) extracts from Erasmus the ideas that: fools are ruled by passion rather than by reason; and that because fools are immersed and absorbed in themselves, they—perhaps uniquely—experience a radical freedom from fear, and can access forms of (spiritual) self-enjoyment and self-satisfaction unavailable to those who are fully open to reality. The latter claim is compelling and deserves a response, although I cannot offer one here.

  11. As I note above, Musil also insists on this point (as do all the virtue epistemologists following him)—see Mulligan (2014: 78ff).

  12. There are different ways to come at this point, but Schopenhauer’s account is illuminating. He saw that “…hastiness is a manifestation of folly because it attempts to impose on the course of events that which is not germane to it or that which only a future course of events will make feasible.”, so that while the fool is quick to act, it is actually “the refraining from intervention” which most often reflects prudence (Rotenstrich 1985: 102).

  13. I would interpret cases such as Stanovich’s (2009: 8–10) example of the great mathematician, and foolish investor, Paulos in a similar way: folly can be a “domain specific” failure in prudence because defects of the ego (unhealthy forms of self-relation) can be domain specific. This is a predictable result of our complex, and often compartmentalized or fragmentary, sense of self.

  14. Throughout his paper, Rotenstreich treats stupidity and foolishness as equivalent terms. This tracks natural language to an extent, but it strikes me as potentially misleading because it ignores the primary sense of “stupid” as dumbness marking simple lack of mental capacity. Rotenstreich clearly means to limit stupid to the sense of “incompetent at attaining one’s ends” (i.e. to coincide with imprudence). Thus, his assertion that the fool “deserves our negative evaluation”, is clearly not meant in the spirit of blaming someone for a brute incapacity (“You’re bad because you have a limited intellect”), which I reject as confused. In what follows, I substitute his “stupid(ity)” for “folly”, “foolishness” and “being a fool” so as to keep the terms cleanly separated.

  15. O’Neill (1985) provides a well-illustrated overview of the forms of such irrationality (see Section 2).

  16. This is also reflected in the grammatical simplicity of the Japanese language: fluency consists primarily in ever-deepening understanding of tone, intonation and idiom, and a sensitivity to the social-context-bound conversational implicature within which these all operate (independently and through interacting) to create meaning.

  17. Our idiom identifies the skill or ability of social reading as an achievement. The Japanese, in contrast, simply expect it of themselves and mark, rather, the deficiency or failure in this capacity.

  18. About half came from bible-belt Christian communities, and an even larger proportion came from communities who would go on to overwhelmingly vote for Donald Trump (an infamous climate change “sceptic”) in the 2016 Presidential election.

  19. As a reviewer pointed out, if the speaker’s intention was to shock a single person in the audience into real action (so he didn’t care about the crowd) then perhaps it wasn’t a complete failure. Indictments of folly depend on fine-grained judgments about a person’s aims: to know that someone is being foolish, we may need privileged insight into their specific motives and intentions. This is also reflected in the complexity of the Lear case (below). I take this to be a general feature of judgments about purposeful and intentional action qua action done under a (range of) description(s).

  20. Kant (2015: 24, 73) sees discretion as the penultimate, third phase of education. In a contemporary, Western education it would be taught at around high school or college age, in the phase of schooling where skills of independent judgement are encouraged. It combines: abilities in critical, lateral thinking and informal logic; “field-tested” or applied knowledge gained through experience; and the social skills required to flourish in a civic community. This phase is followed by moral education, a lifelong task which is almost impossible to complete (just as moral purity is virtually impossible to attain).

  21. See also Kant’s comment that “…education must also supply a person with discretion, so that he may be able to conduct himself in society, that he be liked, and that he may gain influence.” (Ibid.: 25).

  22. She calls “the person whose virtue is limited to doing conventionally the right thing” the “learner”, the clear implication being that this is not an adequate state of being for moral adults.

  23. Dorothea’s mistake also causes considerable harm and suffering: she bears the crushing disappointment of a lonely life married to a boring, old and washed up academic; and he is married to a wife who comes to disdain his life’s work, and does not love him. It is hard to read the novel without becoming deeply frustrated, even angry, at her folly.

  24. Harriet Taylor is, of course, the exception which proves the rule here. But Casaubon is no J.S. Mill; he is a pseudo-intellectual and failed academic, who Engel (2016: 215) rightly brands an “epistemic Pharisee”—a particular variety of fool.

  25. The account of folly developed here bears many of the hallmarks of Freudian narcissism.

  26. Such moral realism also, I think, applies to our relation to the ideals, values and projects which give our lives meaning—those normative commitments and cares which Charles Taylor (1989: 93) calls our “constitutive goods.”.

  27. Murdoch takes this idea directly from Weil (see Murdoch 2001: 34).

  28. I use “self-love” broadly here: as Swanton (2003) shows, Murdoch’s thinking here contains distinct aspects of both self-love and self-respect. Her detailed analysis of Murdoch's conception draws on illuminating parallels with the ideas of self-love and self-respect as they appear in the thought of Nietzsche and Kant (respectively).

  29. Thanks to Cora Diamond for this example.

  30. I here rely upon, and endorse, the reading of Lear developed in Cavell (2015)—I develop that reading and apply it to a topic in moral-psychology in Holiday (2018).

  31. I suspect that we could also find folly at the heart of Othello (the folly of looking for grounds to trust) in Macbeth (the folly of thinking that we can live without a past) and other tragedies.

  32. Seeing Lear in this way helps to clear up the central interpretative puzzle of why Lear so easily accepts the obviously hollow professions of love offered to him by Goneril and Regan. It would be a mark of tremendous credulity to take their words as heartfelt expressions of love, and although Lear is a fool, his intelligence is too clearly displayed elsewhere in the play to be viable as an explanation here. The brilliance of Cavell's reading is that it allows Lear to see Reagan and Goneril’s words as disingenuous and empty, just as Cordelia, Kent and we do. He accepts them as fit payment for their inheritance because they are precisely what he was after: falsifications of love that will (forever) allow him to hide from the real thing (Cavell 2015: 61–62).

  33. Thus, Cordelia’s failure to profess her love is seen as a repudiation of his authority, a cruel and embarrassing refusal to do her father’s bidding.

  34. See also Amery (1980: 6–7 and 96). Intellectual, spiritual and moral isolation is a major theme in Améry’s work. It is explored in Brudholm (2008) and Howland (2015).

  35. Thus, Cordlia’s claim that she is “Unhappy” (King Lear, 1.1.93) carries the sense of an awful helplessness: she is pained by her impotence in relation to helping her father. Holiday (2018: 85–86).

  36. Anthony and Cleopatra is concerned with this such transcendence, made possible for two extreme egoists by their love. Thanks to my father for pointing out this connection.

  37. An interesting discussion of the therapeutic power of such experiences can be found in Player (1997).

  38. This would be no surprise to Rotenstreich’s historical sources. It echoes Aristotle’s convictions in the importance of friendship, and the necessity of social and civic life to moral virtue; it reflects Kant’s sense that discretion has its home in civil society and a life with others; and it follows Hegel’s sense that we access reality through a spiritual community of Reason.


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Thanks to the members of the South Carolina Society for Philosophers, who heard an early version of this paper as the Presidential Address of the 2019 annual conference, and gave some very helpful comments on it. Help on this manuscript was also received from Garland Shrader, Bernard Holiday, Cora Diamond and Saja Parvizian.

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Holiday, D.A. Folly’s Interpersonal Dimension. J Ethics 26, 295–317 (2022).

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  • Folly
  • Vice
  • Imprudence
  • Moral psychology
  • Virtue ethics