A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Socrates Café`, by Christopher Phillips, a look at what happens when you bring philosophical power to the people.
and philosophy make for a good combination. You might want to try it sometimes.
I occasionally have these evenings of food for the brain and the stomach with a
few friends, some of them actual philosophers, some simply willing to explore
and question whatever topic was chosen for the gathering. These discussions
occasionally offer me the launching point for one of these columns, as in the
case of the “Red or Blue?” one on the rationality of preferring harsh truths
to pleasant lies (Rationally Speaking n. 9, April 2001). Recently our
group met again to discuss what one could refer to as “the dark side of
philosophy.” The starting question is simple: if philosophy is, as the ancient
Greeks called it, the “love of wisdom,” should we expect practicing
philosophers to be—on average—more wise than the layperson?
the question smacks of intellectualism of the worst sort, it does make sense.
After all, we do expect medical doctors to know more about medicine and
scientists to know more about the natural world than the average Jane, so why
not philosophers? Ah, but of course this is the crux of the problem: does
philosophy yield knowledge in a sense comparable to the one that we
associate with medicine or science?
most people would be skeptical of the claim that there is such thing as
philosophical knowledge, many philosophers (and some well-informed outsiders)
seem convinced that the notion is not entirely ludicrous. For example, it is
common to encounter ethicists who believe that not only philosophy as a
discipline, but humanity at large have actually made progress in their view of
morality, with the current “advanced” notions being virtue ethics (derived
from Aristotle), utilitarianism and some neo-Kantian version of deontology
this is not the focus, but the premise, of this column, let us assume for the
time being that in fact philosophy provides at least in some sense knowledge of
a variety of subject matters, and let us spotlight ethics in particular. Then we
can proceed to ask if philosophers—on average—are more ethical than the rest
of us. When I asked the question to my philosopher friends they couldn’t avoid
a sarcastic smile, as if the answer were clearly negative. Was it just modesty,
or can we find factual evidence for this startling result?
we look at modern biographies of some major philosophers, we do not find much to
rejoice. Bertrand Russell was known to write love letters to one mistress
immediately after getting out of the bad of another one. Then again, Russell did
defend a very liberal conception of love and human relationships, so at least he
was not being incoherent. Wittgenstein had a bad temper and once hit a young
girl until her nose bled because she didn’t understand logic. Such teaching
methods would not be condoned today, but Wittgenstein was a logician, not a
moral philosopher. Even if one is willing to condemn this sort of actions, this
hardly amounts to an indictment of the teachings of philosophy, not any more
than discovering that your doctor smokes or eats triple cheeseburgers can be
used as an excuse for dismissing his counsel on diet.
yet there is worse. Examples of philosophers who have broken friendships over
ideological differences (like Camus and Sartre), or actively supported evil
political systems (like Heidegger and Nazism) are not that difficult to find. On
the other hand, it is also true that these cases certainly do not characterize
the profession as a whole, and that surely equally misguided choices can be
abundantly found among non philosophers. Furthermore, counter-examples of
virtuous (or at least coherent) philosophers are also not rare. In modern times,
the behavior of ethicist Peter Singer comes to mind. Singer is one of the
founding fathers of the animal liberation movement and, accordingly, is a
vegetarian. He also maintains that we are ethically bound to share our wealth
with the less fortunate, and puts his money were his mouth is by giving away to
charities 30% of his academic salary. I am not suggesting that Singer’s ideas
are to be embraced wholesale, but surely he cannot be accused of not trying to
live by his own philosophy. Indeed, the philosopher par excellence, Socrates,
died at the hand of the Athenian state in order to remain coherent with his view
of justice. It would certainly be interesting to conduct a sociological study
among philosophers to see how many actually try to put into practice their own
teachings or those ideas that they consider as the best that philosophical
inquiry has afforded humanity.
real dark side of philosophy, as is the case for science, is largely outside the
control of philosophers (or scientists). I am referring to the inappropriate use
that ideologues and demagogues make of philosophical doctrines (or scientific
discoveries) largely, though not necessarily entirely, without the help of the
philosophers themselves. Perhaps the best example is the association between the
Nazi political movement and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. While
the latter’s ideas about individualism and the power of the “super man”
may hint at a superficial relationship with Hitler’s madness, it turns out
that even a cursory reading of the philosopher shows that he was adamantly
opposed to militarism, nationalism and dictatorships—nothing could be further
from the structure of the Third Reich.
similar lines, of course, it is common knowledge that most prominent communists
have been more Marxists than Marx (just as some evolutionary biologists are more
Darwinists than Darwin). Very few philosophers have ever attempted to translate
their theories into political realities, Aristotle’s nurturing of the young
Alexander the Great and Plato’s plans of influencing the tyrant of Syracuse
being among the scarce examples, and little or no harm has ever derived from
such utopian attempts.
there is a dark side to philosophy, therefore, it is the same dark side of
science and possibly of other human endeavors: it consists in the
misappropriation by shrewd politicians of whatever can help their own aims, and
in the fact that the rest of us let them get away with it for some time out of
ignorance and apathy. That is why it is so important for everybody to learn
about philosophy and science: their consequences are too grave for being left in
the hands of the experts or in those of the dishonest.
Next Month: "Heart disease and the myth of individual
How Are We to Live?, by Peter Singer. A philosopher who puts his money where his mouth is.
“Love of Wisdom” page, where you
can find my own philosophical speculations…
Philosopher’s Magazine, which
recently published a special feature on the dark side of philosophy.
The Society for Philosophical Inquiry, established by Christopher Phillips to bring philosophy to the masses.
Skeptic & Humanist Web