On Forbidding Philosophies

On Forbidding Philosophies August 9, 2014

Recently a friend wrote me, a little embarrassed. This friend is a relatively recent deconvert from Christianity and he had a confession to make. He’d been reading a certain philosopher who I don’t happen to have any use for personally and he was liking it. He didn’t know what to do. So I gave him my wisdom from 18 years of continuous study of philosophy–keep reading that philosopher!

Who cares if I don’t like him, if our mutual friends don’t like him, or if other atheists or famous intellectuals don’t like him?

I understand my friend’s worry. He’s only just now disentangled himself from a complicated nest of fallacies and false authorities. He’s newly sensitized to the dangers of woo and pseudoscience passed off as ideas of equal footing to real science. He doesn’t want to be misled again, go down more dead ends, or wind up bewitched by another charlatan.

And, yes, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone who cannot tell the difference between a pseudoscientist and a real scientist just try to “assess for themselves” the empirical facts about issues that are scientifically settled or issues where having a qualified disagreeing opinion would require an extraordinary education first.

Not all ideas are created equal or deserve equal time. And not everyone is equally correct to everyone else.

But if what you’re looking at is a widely read, influential, or, at least, adequately published or accredited philosopher or philosophical school, even one that has fallen into ill-repute because of some allegedly great error or tendency towards confusion, then just read if it interests you. Try on their way of thinking. If they make claims that are empirical in character, by all means go scrupulously double check their facts, check with real scientific literature or expert historian opinions, etc. And of course read other philosophers’ criticisms of them.

But whatever you do don’t underestimate the value of “wrong” philosophies and trips down philosophical “dead ends”. Philosophical schools are not neatly dividable into “right” ones and “wrong” ones. Whatever criticisms I might have of particular views I think are deeply problematic, any well developed philosophical tradition has its own share of resources to be plundered. In my post In Defense of the Principle of Charity and Reading Dead Philosophers Charitably I pointed out that historical philosophers preserve for us alternative perspectives that have the potential to fill in our own time’s blind spots and correct for our own over-corrections against previous eras’ errors. And as I pointed out in my post Don’t Think of Philosophies As Diametrically Opposed, it’s a big mistake to read philosophical systems or traditions or even just books, articles, or blog posts looking to make a simple up or down verdict of true or false, right or wrong, good or bad. After I deconverted it still took me years more before I could break out of that dualistic good vs. evil mindset. Don’t tell yourself “These are the philosophers who are wrong wrong wrong don’t touch them!”

I’m much less worried about someone reading a wrong philosopher or philosophical school and being woefully misled than I am worried about them being exposed to too little philosophical diversity, such that they myopically overestimate the value of any given philosopher or philosophical school and they miss all the value of other schools of thought and all the corrections those other schools of thought provide for their pet one. The correction against bad philosophy is not stigmatizing some philosophers as “bad” philosophers and heroizing others as correct. The best thing to do instead is to habituate people to reading widely, and with both charity and suspicion, so that both will help the truth become visible.

Incidentally, recently in the atheist community there’ve been some high profile controversial suggestions that we should agitate against Philosophy of Religion being taught in secular university or by religious people. I think that’s remarkably wrongheaded. My piece from February on the value of Philosophy of Religion and what its proper questions are already spelled out my thoughts on why and how we should do Philosophy of Religion, so I’ll just refer you there if you’ve not seen that. I am even teaching an online Philosophy of Religion class starting in September. I think there’s a lot of value in addressing the subject and doing it better, rather than abandoning it entirely due to the manifest flaws in how its typically carried out at present. To my own comments in that previous post, let me just add a helpful remark Dan Linford made on Facebook (publicized with his permission):

Let’s suppose that we knew, for certain, that every religious idea ever produced was false. There is no God, there is no Thor, there is no after life, no souls, etc. On down the list of possible religious ideas and one by one they are all demonstrated, definitively and without question, to be false.

There would still be relevant questions left over in philosophy of religion. That’s because a big part of what philosophers are concerned with are the concepts themselves. Given that we know all of these things to be false, what is the best argument for their falseness? Why do people disagree on these things so often? Can we make sense of these ideas or are they not even truth functional? What sort of language are religious utterances? What is the best interpretation of what various historical figures thought? Why were they so convinced of things which we now know to be false? How did we come to understand those ideas to be false and how is that justified?

Each philosopher and philosophical school has a point of contact with reality. You will learn far more by trying to find that point of contact than by dismissing everything they say whole cloth because of what you blow up to be The One Obvious Fatal Error. You will also learn far more by learning to read philosophers with a willingness to ask their questions rather than your questions. If you pick them up and say, “This is what I’m concerned about, this is how frame the question” and only look for them to answer you on your terms you will learn less than if you try to understand their questions, adopt their frame, and see what it shows you. There may be much more there to challenge your own frame and to alter your own questions, if you adopt that mindset.

And there may be more there of straight up direct use to your existing questions and frames if you don’t let superficial differences in language or framing or categories obscure your deeper room for agreement. And, whatever is wrong and worth opposing in their system will become clearest when you’ve taken the work to first charitably understand what is of value. When you truly understand the pros in their way of thinking, then you can make much more penetrating and precise criticisms of the cons. And, most importantly of all, you can come away having absorbed the valuable things they had to teach you so your own views are that much stronger. There are some philosophers I feel a profound affinity with because they understand, articulate, and vindicate aspects of my own thinking which are core to it—and yet I share numerous substantive disagreements with them. And that’s great. 

We need to escape our brain’s simplistic tendency to want to oversimplify things into dichotomies of absolute good and absolute evil and instead be willing to encounter each particular as idea, group, tradition, or person as a mixture of affinities and differences to ourselves.

This is why I love studying all of philosophy. Every major school of every historical period, every one of the numerous philosophical paradigms that flourished in the 20th Century. They’re each a vantage point on the world. Some of it I read less now or find very little of value in now—but I appreciate that in other periods of my life, when the time was right, each was indispensable to my intellectual growth to the point where I am today. Some the effect on me was more poetic or literary or “spiritual” than helpful in technical terms. Some just taught me a new feeling and sensitivity and attentiveness that required more technical support to be properly of philosophical value.

But, at the end of the day, you can list all the major philosophers or philosophical schools I have ever read and I owe them each a distinct and significant debt. I can only personally spurn and disparage some philosophers, or whole schools of philosophy, when I’m feeling surly and self-assured because I’ve already gotten from them what they had to teach me and now I find them boring and see it as too easy to focus on their glaring flaws. But that’s just ingratitude and myopia.

Your Thoughts?

Incidentally, I will be teaching a huge panoply of philosophers’ ideas this semester as part of my live, interactive, online philosophy classes, held over Google Hangout and requiring just a once-weekly 2.5 hour commitment. Check out each course offering, find times, and even self-register, all by clicking on the banners of the classes that interest you:



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