Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 14, September 2001: "The dark side of philosophy" (pizza & philosophy series)


Pizza 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?

While 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?

While 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 (“duty ethics”).

Since 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?

If 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 bed 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 these sorts 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.

And 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.

The 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.

Along 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.

If 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: "Of Terror and Insanity" (This is a special edition of this column)

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2001