“The best thinking has been done in solitude.” In our technological age of isolation and anxiety, Thomas Edison’s view of the intellectual life persists. Two of the greatest figures in the history of science, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, were both introverts who associated being alone with thinking clearly. The image of the academic secluded in his ivory tower, or the scientist sequestered in her laboratory, looms large in our cultural imagination. With the enforced isolation of COVID-19, the growth of remote working, and the emergence of powerful AI tools like ChatGPT, we increasingly reduce intellectual pursuits to little more than private projects.

It was not always this way. Intellectual friendship—the idea that the best way to think clearly is to think together—has been foundational throughout philosophical history. Plato’s works are presented in dialogue form, suggesting that truth-seeking is communal, cooperative, and best practiced within relationships of friendship and love. (As its Greek root philosophia reminds us, philosophy is the love of wisdom. Aristotle observed that all men desire to know.) For Aquinas, opening ourselves to others is a prerequisite for opening ourselves to the truth: “In order that man may do well, whether in the works of the active life, or in those of the contemplative life, he needs the fellowship of friends.”

Today, how many people think of the intellectual life primarily in terms of fellowship, friendship, and love? Somehow, it has come to be seen in terms of what we know rather than who or what we are—or, as a philosopher might put it, in terms of epistemology rather than ontology. Meanwhile, for those who don’t simply dismiss “intellectual friendship” as a contradiction in terms, other doubts might remain: Is it just about well-meaning but unfocused conversations? Worse still, might it be ideologically self-serving to link the intellectual and the relational?

To address these questions, it is not enough just to describe what intellectual friendship might look like: robust conversation, charitable questioning, and civil disagreement among friends who are committed to truth-seeking. We also need to explain why it matters, and therefore why it offers a compelling alternative to our cultural and individualistic focus on skill acquisition and career advancement. As I understand it, intellectual friendship is central to being human because it means sharing our lives and our loves with our friends, as well as sharing in the highest truths.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

Sharing Our Lives   

According to Aristotle, friends love each other for their goodness and because they desire to live good lives together. This expresses both aspects of intellectual friendship: the pursuit of truth, carried out among friends as an expression of love. To contemplate life’s biggest questions in a spirit of intellectual friendship is not simply to report our ideas or findings: it is also to share something of our own lives and loves. After all, we contemplate truths as persons, bringing our own perspective as a result of standing in unique relation to every issue. In practice, this might mean drawing on family life to help illuminate a text, bringing a sense of urgent existential concern to a philosophical problem, sharing the deepest wisdom of our own religious or ethical traditions, or simply modeling how to live well and grow in virtue with others.

Intellectual friendship, understood as sharing our lives with each other, is more important than ever in light of new AI technologies. Pope Francis recently identified the “sense of limit”—recognizing our human limits and our ability to control the world around us—as critical to navigating the challenges of AI. As part of this, he suggested that education in the use of AI should promote “critical thinking.” This is a worthy goal, and it points to something more fundamental about the intellectual opportunity: it is precisely because teachers and students are persons (not just minds or machines) that, in light of AI tools, we should prioritize the sharing of insights, the modeling of wisdom, and the formation of character. We should restore the human dimension in the classroom and in our intellectual life more broadly.

While AI tools like ChatGPT can generate vast reams of facts and writing, they cannot produce a human understanding of a problem or reading of a text, informed by messy, contingent experiences of freedom, faith, and finitude. Ask ChatGPT to define “family,” and it will generate a form of words from online sources that will be generic and perhaps even objectionable. But it won’t be—can’t be—anything that encapsulates my experience of family: what my wife and children mean to me, and how family life has formed my character, shaped my values, and taught me profound truths about love, care, and dignity.

Nor can AI tools share pathways of what to do and how to live with particular students in need of personal guidance and support. To form someone is to share the way in which something is done. This implies a guiding principle and a course of action, both of which lie beyond the scope of AI technologies. In fact, their limitations demonstrate that the production of essays or the organization of facts—no matter how efficiently performed—cannot replicate patterns of sharing and formation by means of discussions with people who care for us and wish the best for us. 

In this sense, intellectual friendship is deeply reciprocal. Just as we share our own way of inhabiting a problem or investigating a question, so we find ourselves enriched by those around us who share their perspectives in kind. To return to Pope Francis’s concept of limit, we benefit from sharing in the wisdom of others if only because our own understanding of the world is so limited. In many cases, our dialogue partners will see things more clearly than we do, just as our friends are often the best judges of who we are because they know us well. If we struggle to see our own selves accurately, then disembodied AI tools will be even more hopelessly inadequate. Intellectual friendship allows us to discover truths not just about the world, but about our own identities and aspirations as they are represented to us in our relationships with others. As Aristotle observed, a friend is like “another self.”

If intellectual friendship is ultimately concerned with opening ourselves up to the highest truths—seeking to glimpse goodness and beauty as they really are—it will be purposeful and formative in a way that AI systems can never be.


Sharing in the Highest Truths

Intellectual friendship, based on mutual respect and love, motivates us to think as well as we can, to submit our ideas to each other for criticism, and to share something of ourselves, together. But there is one more part of the story. We share with one another not just to deepen our relationships or enhance our intellectual life, although these are worthy reasons. In the end, we practice intellectual friendship so that we might share in the highest truths.

The characters in Plato’s dialogues open themselves to intensive discussion not just for the sake of conviviality, but with the hope of ascending to a clearer view of reality. In the Phaedrus, Plato depicts the human soul as a charioteer, representing reason, and two winged horses, representing the good and bad parts of our nature. The goal of the charioteer is to direct the horses and guide the soul to truth.

If intellectual friendship is ultimately concerned with opening ourselves up to the highest truths—seeking to glimpse goodness and beauty as they really are—it will be purposeful and formative in a way that AI systems can never be. It points to a journey of exploration and meaning, rather than a faceless presentation of random facts and figures. It also envisions a process of formation and awakening by which we develop the discernment, wisdom, and agency to pursue the highest objects, rather than flounder as passive recipients of “content.”

From a Christian perspective, sharing in the highest truth will mean sharing in divine truth. Intellectual friendship, with its dynamics of sharing, modeling, and imitating, provides a kind of preparation for coming to know and love God. Paul identifies the connection between friendship with others and what we might call divine friendship: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” While intellectual exchange with friends can be formative, Augustine’s Confessions reminds us that a restless, inquisitive mind can find its fulfillment in dialogue with God.

But isn’t this model of intellectual friendship open to the charge of ideological conformity? On this point, I would note that intellectual friendship, like any other healthy relationship, requires humility, openness, and the “sense of limit” mentioned earlier. First, when we share something of ourselves with our interlocutors, we offer the gift of our wisdom, traditions, and intuitions. Like all gifts, it is freely given but does not impose specific obligations or commitments on the part of the recipient. It suggests possible ways of thinking and modes of behavior, with the recognition that such possibilities are bounded by human imperfection. Second, a genuine truth-seeker will understand that truth is elusive, surprising, and not easily comprehended. I referred earlier to glimpses of goodness and beauty: in Plato’s chariot analogy, a journeying soul may briefly catch sight of true things, but he notes that all souls eventually fall back to earth.   

Long before ChatGPT, someone who wrote with a quill advised us not to “admit impediments” to “the marriage of true minds.” Today, the impediments are atomized lifestyles, polarized public spheres, politicized campuses, and the misuse of powerful technologies. For true minds to flourish, we must recover a vision of intellectual friendship in which we share our lives and our loves with each other, contemplate the highest truths together, and cultivate the neglected virtues of humility, generosity, and charity.  

Image by Farknot Architect and licensed via Adobe Stock.