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 Dangerous philosophers

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nordmann
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PostSubject: Dangerous philosophers   Tue 21 Feb 2012, 14:50

It is difficult to appreciate, given our tendency to regard philosophy these days as a dry academic pursuit of no great relevance to everyday life, just how radical and dangerous philosophers have been judged in the past. Socrates provided a classical model for many who followed, and though execution through voluntary hemlock ingestion may not have proved a popular method of eliminating them from society, various other methods have proven equally effective in the meantime, from burning alive to social ostracisation. Victims en route, or atleast authors whose works were labelled as "dangerous philosophies" have included such eminent and diverse thinkers as Plato, Galileo, Freud, Erasmus, Nietzsche, Rand and even - would you believe - C.S. Lewis, who was actually sentenced to death in absentia in Albania (a country which idolised Norman Wisdom, though that's by the by).

What I have been wondering is whether our blasé attitude in western society these days towards philosophers' influence could well be misplaced, and that everyone else has been correct to see these people as valid threats - be it to the particular interests of the ruling elite or even to society as a whole. Whatever the perception of the nature of the threat must it not be true that at least some of these peoples' published views were indeed dangerous, and that some of that danger may even linger still in relation to our own societies? And if so, who would you list as top of the danger pile?
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PostSubject: Re: Dangerous philosophers   Tue 21 Feb 2012, 16:51

Possibly Adam Smith. It is said that Maggie Thatcher carried a copy of The Wealth of Nations in her handbag. In that same tome he both praises then later decries 'the division pf labour.' Upon such rocks have the theories of economics been built. The many philosophies of economics seem to have got us all in quite a muck-sweat now.
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Temperance
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PostSubject: Re: Dangerous philosophers   Tue 21 Feb 2012, 19:17

Wittgenstein could be a bad bugger when crossed. He once went for Sir Karl Popper with a poker:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wittgenstein's_Poker

I don't think philosophers are dangerous in themselves; it's usually the disciples who cause all the trouble.

I suppose Nietzsche is the obvious, but probably unfair, choice for a dangerous thinker. But for me personally the existentialists of the 20th century have a lot to answer for - all that indifferent universe stuff. Not even Sartre himself could cope with it. He said, "That God does not exist, I cannot deny; that my whole being cries out for God I cannot forget."

And the awful Derrida, whose ideas have been described as the intellectual equivalent of crack, apparently spent the last decade of his life fretting about religion. I actually find the conclusion he came to before he died as strangely comforting rather than dangerously frightening: "Religion*," he declared, "is impossible without uncertainty."

I think, by religion, he meant *spirituality*, not the lunacy of organised religion.
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PostSubject: Re: Dangerous philosophers   Wed 22 Feb 2012, 09:05

"Derrida is only to be derided" as RD Laing once remarked. Like Laing, I cannot see how such a reactionary thinker obsessed with context could ever be considered "dangerous", merely a nuisance.

Smith, I agree, is a good candidate, if only because his theories have been used as justification for such extreme economic policies - and not necessarily "right wing" policies at that. Keir Hardy, for example, never doubted Smith's assertions regarding economic return and used them to justify his own vision of a socialist Britain and how labour should be rewarded within it. Quite a degree away from what Thatcher used them for. For sheer manipulability therefore Smith must rank as dangerous - he provided rather indiscriminate ammunition for various ideologies (and ideologists).
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PostSubject: Re: Dangerous philosophers   Wed 22 Feb 2012, 12:46

Quite an interesting - and short - piece here. I wonder if the supposed influence of Nietzsche on the development of the Nazi party has indeed been exaggerated? I knew Hitler admired Nietzsche, but I had no idea that it seems likely that AH "never actually read any of his work."

http://philosophy-compass.com/2011/01/19/can-philosophy-be-dangerous/

The philosopher's sister, Elizabeth, did her brother no favours if she really did edit and distribute his writings "in such a way as to intellectualise her own rabid anti-semitism."

What about Marx? The lone poster after the article poses an interesting question when he/she asks whether Marx could be held responsible for atrocities committed by, among others, Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler. As the poster points out, "They all owe an intellectual debt to Marx, and at least three of them were avowed Marxists in the formative part of their lives."
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PostSubject: Re: Dangerous philosophers   Wed 22 Feb 2012, 17:41

It is not what they say, it is how the 'lunatic fringe' interpret it, in many cases. Look at the trouble that Jewish Fella has caused over the last 20 centuries - preaching 'Love' and 'Peace', indeed! Dangerous nonsense, that has needed a lot of 'sensible chaps' over the years, to tell us who we have to love and be peaceful to, and who we need to burn at the stake to prove it!
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PostSubject: Re: Dangerous philosophers   Wed 22 Feb 2012, 21:44

My last candidate is plural actually - the unseen political party people in UK who have taken it upon themselves to mould educational philosophies to suit party manifestos. In the last 42 years there has been too much of it, too often and damaging. I once took on the Chief Inspector at a conference. Had I not been an overseas private course member my fellows said I would have lost my job - but that they thought I was right. Since then I have since been proved right in a very serious matter about which it is too late to do anything.
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PostSubject: Re: Dangerous philosophers   Thu 23 Feb 2012, 08:37

@nordmann wrote:
"Derrida is only to be derided" as RD Laing once remarked. Like Laing, I cannot see how such a reactionary thinker obsessed with context could ever be considered "dangerous", merely a nuisance.

Derrida has indeed proved himself to be a "nuisance" - but a benign one perhaps? I agree that properly understood he is not the dangerous "pernicious nihilist" his critics claim him to be - a thinker who "threatened the very foundation of Western society and culture" - but I really don't think we should dismiss him with the the supreme sneer of "reactionary thinker". Could it possibly be that he has actually been a force for good in a mad and aggressive world?

I don't claim to understand Derrida (or any other philosopher for that matter) "properly", but it seems to me that if he was right when he said that truth and absolute value cannot be known with certainty - that they must forever elude our grasp - then that means we should surely be a little more humble, and recognise the unavoidable limitations and inherent contradictions in the ideas and the norms that guide our actions. We should be constantly questioning and revising our ideas about ourselves *and* about other people and their ideas.

It *is* a mad world, my masters - always has been - mainly because it's full of people who believe that they alone have the "truth" - people who, as Giraffe has pointed out, claim to know for certain that their way of thinking (whether religious or not) must be the only way, and that they know (guided by the incredibly useful "Holy Spirit" or its equally dangerous secular equivalent - utter conviction) how to interpret the Word or the words. "True" believers - the fundamentalists - be they "religiously" or politically (often one and the same thing, of course) inclined - are the ones we have to fear. They are the men - always have been - who threaten at regular intervals to tear our world apart.

Derrida was/is a nuisance because he was suggesting a very difficult alternative - tolerance - a philosophy that urges us to embrace uncertainty and asks us to respect people whom we don't understand and whom we don't particularly like. Accept that there could be another point of view. In a complex world isn't wisdom knowing that we don't know - keeping the options open? (I come unstuck, though, when I think - could the fundamentalists have a point? - no, definitely not! )

Keep the options open? Love - or at least try to understand - your enemies? Not a new idea, certainly - it's been said before - by many different philosophers.


PS Tolerance is not to be confused with that woolly, half-baked liberalism that comes from not really giving a toss about anything any more.

PPS Machiavelli was perhaps the most dangerous philosopher of them all - because he was a realist? He would shake his head at all this idealistic nonsense and say, "That's all very well, my dear, but if you wish to survive in this world..."
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: Dangerous philosophers   Thu 23 Feb 2012, 17:27

Machiavelli proved dangerous not because he came up with anything new, or even anything resembling a coherent philosophy, but because he provided a convenient rubber-stamp of credibility for an impressively wide range of activity which hitherto had been judgeable only against one standard - a moral one controlled by the church. When even the church of the day was behaving in a rather reprehensible way by this standard it was necessary for some other set of criteria to become available by which political activity could be assessed without that exercise straying into morality. Outside of China, Machiavelli and the rapid dissemination of his treatise provided this. The danger lay in the licence this then afforded political players, a lot of which was in fact quite un-Machiavellian in its nature (we still employ the term incorrectly by and large) but which had been "enabled" as valid alternatives due to his work.

I agree also that a philosopher's true danger to society is actually often one posed by his acolytes, or subsequent interpreters. But this is a phenomenon normally associated with a philosophy which fails to answer all the questions it itself poses. Christianity, not really a philosophy in any case but a blending of several with religious overtones, was always going to be a prime candidate for this. In more recent times the same could be said of Marx once the "ism" had been applied to his name. This happened during his own lifetime and caused him much anguish as it simply proved that he had failed, as stated above, to provide comprehensive or comprehensible answers to the questions he had raised about societal imbalances caused by its control under capitalist principles. His famous disavowal that he himself was a "Marxist" was designed to hilghlight this, though by the time he made it so many others reckoned they knew Marxism better than Marx that it went unheeded.

In fact, if one reads Marx now and puts out of one's mind the history of Marxism it all sounds rather tame. The collective principle which was the basis for much of what was most ugly in the Soviet Union (a society Marx could never have envisaged as ready for the developments he forecast) is also the basis for much of what works best in our still largely capitalist society. For this reason I would absolve Karl Marx from any charge of being "dangerous" at all, and until a common definition of what "Marxism" might actually mean is ever arrived at (not looking ever likely at this stage) I would be loath to apply the term there either.
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PostSubject: Re: Dangerous philosophers   Wed 09 Oct 2013, 10:41

Good points there nordmann about Marx. 

Another thing which also ought to be born in mind about the works of Karl Marx is that (contrary to popular belief) he was not the originator of the theories of social difference. Some suggest that this title could belong to Charles-Louis Montesquieu whose De l'Esprit des Lois written in 1748 (exactly 100 years before The Communist Manifesto) began looking at how social institutions differed depending on historical era and geography etc.

An even stronger candidate, perhaps, would be John Millar, a professor of Law at Glasgow University who in 1771 published his Origin of the Distinction of Ranks. Millar looked at 'rank' per se rather than 'class' (which was Marx' interest) and for this reason (rank being a complex issue while class is simpler) Millar is a largely overlooked and forgotten figure in the history of philosophy.

A rediscovery and renewed interest in the life and work of John Millar has arisen in recent years largely thanks to the late George Watson, Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge and his 1998 book The Lost Literature of Socialism.
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PostSubject: Re: Dangerous philosophers   Mon 10 Feb 2014, 11:58

Are all philosophers dangerous? Can trying to read philosophy drive you insane?

I ordered a little book called Plato: A Graphic Guide which arrived an hour ago. I am now more baffled than ever. Two comments (helpfully illustrated with pictures of both Aristotle and Derrida) have baffled me.

Bit about Aristotle: "Aristotle listened to Plato for nearly twenty years  pale and was one of his more argumentative students. He disagreed with many of Plato's ideas. In his Metaphysics he criticized the Platonic Forms for being impossibly transcendent and mystical. He sensibly maintained that Forms and particulars don't exist separately." Aristotle is shown holding an acorn and gazing at an oak tree. He declares:  "Forms are incorporated in individual particulars as potentiality."

Confused? I certainly am.

Bit about Derrida: "Western philosophy since Plato has mistakenly assumed that language somehow mirrors the 'correct meaning' of objective reality. Derrida's criticism or deconstruction of philosophical texts exposes their hidden metaphorical and unconscious beliefs, of which the writer remains unaware.(That I do sort of understand).

Plato was a "logocentric" philosopher according to Derrida, yet Plato himself declared: "One should write, not in books, but 'in the soul'." So does that make Plato more a mystic than a philosopher? Bertrand Russell apparently declared him to be one. Profound confusion here, especially when one reads: "Derrida shows that Plato's own language often works directly against the idea it intends to convey." (Example given is use in The Phaedrus of the word pharmakon which has multiple meanings: remedy, medicine, drug, poison, charm or enchantment.)

Explanations please, preferably in easy Tweet form.

PS Much amused that the Graphic Guide to Plato has a woman, fashionably-dressed in a mini-skirt and black tights - and with a nice hair-cut - wandering around the text. She is clutching a large book and she looks very thoughtful indeed.

Whereas I, alas, really do think I am going mad. Philosophy is definitely not for softies.

PPS Didn't know whether to post this here, or on the Plato thread - thought here - with talk of madness and despair -  might get others into the conversation. But perhaps we have all had enough. Will post something about Mary Queen of Scots now - much safer.

EDIT:



Jacques Derrida in The Postcard   Suspect  puzzles over this very strange image of Socrates who seems to write what Plato dictates - which, so we are told, poses the enigma of the "written speaker". The picture is from a 13th-century English fortune-telling book of all things. In The Phaedrus Socrates condemns writing as an unnatural method of recording knowledge. Philosophy is never "complete" or "finished", but is always in the process of "becoming" which can only be maintained through live conversations. That thought I do like and can understand, even though I have just read it. Truth cannot be found in written texts which seem to claim completion and finality. That's Socrates - and it's pure Derrida too. Also - going back to what this thread is really all about - written philosophy is potentially far more dangerous than live debate: texts can't argue back when they are later misused or misrepresented. "It is written..." pronounced with the full force of "so there is no more to be said on this matter" have proved to be dangerous words indeed - and not just when referring to religious texts, but perhaps - ironically - to those of philosophy too.

I have warmed towards the author of my little Guide to Plato (Dave Robinson) because, in his acknowledgements, he thanks his "long-suffering editor, Richard Appignanesi, who, amongst many other things, knows how to use the comma and the semi-colon." That has made me feel much better.
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