There is a long tradition of ridiculing philosophers, such as Aristophanes’s The Clouds, which mocked Socrates, one of the first philosophers who actually called himself a “philosopher.” This tradition has been waning over the last couple thousand years. Although philosophy has been at the forefront of many of the greatest intellectual advancements, many people no longer have any idea what philosophy is at all, and you can’t ridicule things you’ve never heard of. Philosophers have been marginalized to the point that few even know what they are.
I will discuss the following:
- Some of the achievements made by philosophers.
- How philosophers have been ridiculed and despised.
- How philosophers have been marginalized.
1. Some of the achievements made by philosophers.
Philosophers enjoy philosophy primarily because it is an fulfilling intellectual activity that is worthy in its own right. Philosophy is valuable because it provides us with knowledge, helps us develop unusually powerful abilities to reason, and it helps us improve ourselves. However, one of the other reasons that philosophy deserves respect is because of the great achievements of philosophers. For example:
- They developed formal logic, which is used to reason properly, to make computers, and to advance the field of mathematics.
- They developed the reasoning and method that lead to natural science.
- They developed ethics to help people live better lives.
2. How philosophers have been ridiculed and despised.
Philosophers have been ridiculed through comedy, despised by the public, and criticized by intellectuals. However, philosophers have now been marginalized to the point that they are almost totally ignored. The public ridicule of philosophy was much more common during the Roman empire than it is today. At that time citizens would often go to see famous philosophers as an entertaining spectacle, much like a carnival side show. Philosophers were seen to be out of touch with reality, but still worth a watch.
The comical ridicule of philosophy was originally found in Aristophanes’s The Clouds, but it has continued and can even be found in some British comedy routines. For example, you might want to take a look at Monty Python’s International Philosophy World Cup and Philosopher’s Song. A more contemporary example would be Bill Bailey’s skit, Anyone Can Be A Philosopher. Comedic ridicule is often met by philosophers with open arms because its one of the few times in their life that anyone even mentions philosophy.
Philosophers have been ridiculed for being out of touch with reality, deceivers, totalitarians, heretical libertines, and godless heathens. They have been ridiculed by the public, religions, scientists, and even other philosophers. Some of these charges are more justified than others.
Are philosophers deceivers?
Philosophers are thought to use arguments to trick people into believing certain things. Back when Socrates started doing philosophy there were a group of educators called “sophists” who taught people how to argue to persuade and manipulate others. Socrates thought that it might be possible to use arguments to find the truth rather than to manipulate others. However, people didn’t know the difference. If arguments are used to deceive, then why should we think they could be used to find the truth? Many people thought that Socrates was just another sophist and “philosophy” was mere “sophistry.”
Even now people who know nothing of philosophy despise it without even knowing it. Many people are able to provide good philosophical reasoning without actually studying philosophy. Even children ask good questions, such as “Where did God come from?” When a person hears a philosophical “question,” “argument,” or “criticism,” there is a good chance that they will have a negative reaction. This sort of behavior is taken to be rude to say the least. To question, argue, or criticize is taken to be insulting. To have an argument or debate is considered to be part of a hostility.
Why are questions, arguments, and criticisms taken to be insulting?
First, because they are often taken to be forms of manipulation. People argue all the time and their arguments are often manipulative, just like the arguments given by sophists. People still don’t know the difference between sophistry and philosophy, so they often take all arguments to be disrespectful.
Second, because Americans are taught that their opinions are equal to everyone else. No one is better than anyone else, and everyone has a right to their own opinion. This is often taken literally as legitimization for dogma and close-mindedness. If my opinion is equal to everyone else’s, then I might as well believe whatever I want.
Are philosophers deceivers? No. They really do think that some knowledge can be gained through arguments. This is proven through the contributions of philosophy, such as modern science. We are able to argue that a “hypothesis” is probably true if it has sufficient success in scientific tests. Good arguments are possible, and we can learn to “think for ourselves” to find out what is probably true. I wrote a great deal about this in my ebook, How to Become a Philosopher.
However, philosophers can deceive themselves. Self-deception is a common problem for everyone. Almost everyone thinks, “I am more moral more than most people,” but that certainly can’t be true about everyone. Karl Marx, for example, thought that philosophers are used by the wealthy to help justify the status quo and keep the masses satisfied with their unfair lot in life. Marx might admit that many philosophers are sincere in their praise for the status quo, but philosophers are biased because they tend to have a pleasant lifestyle.
Are philosophers totalitarians?
Many people think that their right to their own opinion means that no one should criticize them, but philosophers are willing to criticize the beliefs of others. Philosophers make it clear that some beliefs are better than others. Some beliefs are irrational—there is simply no good reason to believe it, and there’s a lot of good reason to deny it. For example, it is irrational to believe that “1+1=3.”
Philosophers can’t force people to only have rational beliefs. That would be totalitarian. However, there is nothing wrong with letting other people know when their beliefs are irrational or dangerous.
Of course, we can be too pushy if we try to make people listen to our criticisms and arguments. If people don’t want to argue, it is often wrong to continue to argue after they request for it to stop.
Are philosophers totalitarians? For the most part this is just a misunderstanding of “philosophy.” It is true that philosophers are “authoritative” in that their opinions tend to be superior to other people’s, but that doesn’t mean philosophers are “authoritarian.” That’s not to say that no philosophers have ever endorsed totalitarianism. Marx might argue that many philosophers are biased and willing to defend the status quo, even if they live in a totalitarian state. Additionally, Karl Popper argued that some philosophers seemed to endorse totalitarianism. (This is partially because not all philosophers agree with democracy.)
Moreover, many philosophers have been misused by totalitarians. For example, Marx was taken by the Soviet Union to help justify their totalitarian regime despite the fact that Marx’s idea of communism was nothing like that of the Soviet Union. This is much like how wars are often justified in the name of God (or religion) despite the fact that God has nothing to do with the war.
Are philosophers heretical libertines or godless heathens?
Many philosophers disagree with the status quo and mainstream beliefs, but that doesn’t mean that philosophers are immoral. Philosophers can sincerely disagree with the status quo based on their own arguments and the evidence at hand. (This is the opposite issue that Marx talked about. Philosophers have been criticized for both defending the status quo and rejecting it.)
Have any philosophers been horrible people? I don’t know of any philosopher who has justified the most horrific crimes, but they are sometimes silent on important political matters when they should probably be outspoken critics.
People in power have often felt threatened by certain thoughts and beliefs of others, which lead to the illegitimate persecution of philosophers, scientists, and other intellectuals. Those who felt threatened by philosophers often charged the philosophers with being heretics (or immoral for other reasons), and the persecution has come in the form of various threats and punishments. Socrates and Galileo are probably the most famous examples.
Some philosophers have said absurd things, which could be taken to be shocking and “heretical,” and this could be caused by being out of touch with reality. Philosophers often dismiss a truth if it is difficult to justify in words. Most people don’t worry about justifying all of their beliefs to others. I know that “1+1=2,” but I don’t know how to prove it to anyone else. That doesn’t mean that my belief isn’t justified—it just means that I don’t know how to explain why it is justified. However, there are some philosophers who have rejected truths, such as the existence of morality, minds, or mathematics, because they don’t know how to explain how such things could exist. Some of the best examples of these eccentric philosophers are found before Socrates:
Philosophers often dismiss a truth if it is difficult to justify in words. Most people don’t worry about justifying all of their beliefs to others. I know that “1+1=2,” but I don’t know how to prove it to anyone else. That doesn’t mean that my belief isn’t justified—it just means that I don’t know how to explain why it is justified. However, there are some philosophers who have rejected truths, such as the existence of morality, minds, or mathematics, because they don’t know how to explain how such things could exist. Some of the best examples of these eccentric philosophers are found before Socrates:
- Democritus thought that only atoms exist, so minds and morality are sorts of illusions.
- Parmenides thought that you couldn’t get being (something) from non-being (nothing) and concluded that movement (and change in general) are therefore impossible.
When philosophers come up with such absurd conclusions based on their arguments, other philosophers will often declare the arguments to be providing “reductio ad absurdum” arguments.1 (In other words, the argument proved itself to be irrational.) The common result of such absurd conclusions is cognitive dissonance—the conclusions will not be internalized. The philosopher will not take her own conclusions very seriously and will live life as a fairly normal person. (The alternative is to become a fanatic.)
Are there any good criticisms of philosophers?
People familiar with philosophy are often unsatisfied with the discussions of their contemporaries. There are at least four common criticisms of philosophers given by intellectuals that are legitimate. One, philosophers need to examine their own biases. Two, philosophers have often kept their philosophy to books rather than applying it to life. Three, philosophers need to take a look at the big picture. Four, philosophers need to have high standards for themselves.
Personal biases – I have already mentioned that some philosophers have been criticized for being overly optimistic about the status quo and personal bias is a perfectly legitimate criticism of philosophers. That’s not to say that philosophers are totally irrational. It’s merely to say that philosophers must beware of personal bias and do their best to avoid it.
Applying philosophy to life – Nietzsche found the philosophers of his time to lack personal ambition, to be overlyself-satisfied, and to be overly theoretical. He would have liked them to apply philosophy to their lives and be willing to do something important with their lives apart from writing books.2 This is a legitimate worry. We not only need to know what to believe, but we should try to actually live a good life right now. This is a common problem for philosophers and they should work on this issue.
The big picture – People who are familiar with philosophy are often disappointed that philosophy has become so precise and modest, which requires philosophers to say very little. Instead, they would prefer philosophers be more ambitious and talk about the most important things in life.3 For example, we can’t be very precise about what it means to live a good life, but it is very important.
High standards – Other people who are familiar with philosophy are often disappointed that philosophers are not more precise and careful. They would rather we attain a little bit of absolute knowledge even to discussing imprecise topics. This is a common dissatisfaction from scientists, who want to reject philosophy unless it is as reliable as science.4 This criticism is something that philosophers already strive to avoid, and scientists often don’t understand philosophy well enough to know how high of standards are involved. That said, some philosophers have higher standards than others and all philosophers must continue to strive to have high standards.
In conclusion, there are legitimate criticisms against philosophers, but they aren’t criticisms against being philosophers. They are merely criticisms about not being better. Philosophers are human beings and they aren’t perfect.
3. How philosophers have been marginalized.
Consider some of the ways that philosophers have been marginalized:
- Philosophers are discussed minimally or not at all.
- Philosophy and logic were once educational requirements, but now it’s been removed from high school education. Additionally, it has become a mere “optional elective” at universities.
- Philosophers are considered “useless” and the only career philosophers generally have is to teach philosophy at a university to create more philosophers.
- Philosophers are the closest thing we have to experts in morality, but no one is expected to learn anything about ethics (moral philosophy).
- We have no philosophical, moral, or educational requirements for our politicians despite the fact that they make decisions that affect the lives of thousands to millions of people.
- We have no philosophical requirements for police officers despite the fact that they are expected to carry out one of the most morally relevant professions.
- Many people want schools to teach the religious hypothesis of creationism in science classes, but few want schools to teach philosophical hypotheses in science classes; and even less people want our schools to teach creationism in a philosophy class. (The thought that philosophy could enter the classrooms is almost non-existent.)
- Many people think we need religion to be indoctrinated in schools because it’s the only source of morality possible. (Philosophy is not even taken to be a possibility for a source of moral knowledge.)
- Words, such as “logic,” “philosophy,” “argument,” “criticism,” and “questioning,” are being corrupted to the point that actual philosophical thinking is very difficult. Philosophical thoughts are nearly impossible without the existence of philosophical language.
There is no reason to marginalize philosophy. The only reasons to criticize philosophers is for not living up to an ideal, and to continually try to improve themselves.
Philosophy, rationality, and good thinking has a lot to offer us. It can help our leaders make better decisions. It can help us find qualified leaders. It can help us contemplate the mysteries of the universe. It can help us live more fulfilling lives. Unfortunately, philosophers are an endangered species. Without philosophy we have no way to avoid fanaticism and we will have a higher chance of going to war for the wrong reasons.
Update 10/1/2010 — I added two more ways that philosophy has been marginalized.
Update 10/2/2010 — I added more information about the “persecution” of philosophers” in the section “Are philosophers heretical libertines or godless heathens?”
Update 10/5/2010 — I made a couple minor changes and gave a link to information about “classical education” (education of our past), which required logic and philosophy classes.
1 See Ian Johnston’s “Lecture on Machiavelli’s the Prince” for an example of this.
3 See David Weman’s post, “Analytic Philosophy” for a discussion concerning the importance of “big picture” philosophy.
4 See Massimo Pigliucci’s post, “On the Difference Between Science and Philosophy” and the comments for an interesting discussion on the dismissive attitude scientifically-minded people often have towards philosophy. Sean Wills commented, “I’ve also always been annoyed at what I’d call a sort of scientific chauvinism when it comes to philosophy. There does seem to be this idea among some atheists that philosophy is only one step up from theology, and that its only real use (if it has any) lies in a few limited and ‘practical’ applications.”
Update (7/20/11): Someone pointed out that Socrates wasn’t one of the first philosophers, and I agree. I took that part out.