Philosophy is a Gamble

Philosophy really is quite a gamble. It seems to me that out of the few people who really commit themselves to studying it, a majority seem to end up committing themselves to falsehoods so obvious and laughable that no intelligent person would ever have been tempted toward them apart from the influence of philosophical training.

Some of those people who accept pseudo-philosophical absurdities would of course look right back at me and make the same accusation about my views, no doubt — but I won’t argue the question right now, because even if they’re right it just further emphasizes the point I’m trying to make.

Philosophy can be one of the best things for a person, but it can also be a poison. In fact, it’s probably a poison for everyone who studies it, and it only becomes a medicine for a small number, and even then only belatedly.

I think the reason for this is twofold. By learning especially about fallacious thinking, we begin to see that many of the ideas we have accepted (however traditional or progressive) are ideas we and our friends hold for completely thoughtless and indefensible reasons. So then we start to jettison some of the beliefs that make us part of a community, that have for our entire lives connected us to our friends and acquaintances and loved ones.

But then over time, as we get even better at argumentation and at recognizing fallacious patterns of thought, we get particularly annoyed at one group or another, perhaps the conspiracy theorists on the right or the leftists who want so much toleration that thought becomes impossible (and both groups can indeed be pretty intolerable at times!), or perhaps some other group entirely. We start seeing all the time how deeply fallacious their whole approach to the world is, and so we almost unconsciously begin backing ourselves into agreeing with the other extreme, identifying ourselves by way of the group that we hate and refute, because we feel that there’s nothing so philosophical as rejecting what is refuted, and we think that’s all we’re doing, especially since we spend so much time and brain-power refuting the opposite team.

In this way, an improved skilfulness in argumentation can lead us eventually to identify ourselves with a way of thinking that has itself no non-fallacious grounding, and once we are there, we are more unshakeable in our unreasonable convictions than we were before we studied philosophy! We are able to pick apart or mock any attempt to show that our own position is indefensible, and we are at all times proud to be so resolutely opposed to a group of people who hold such inane beliefs. And so, through philosophy we are in danger of ending up holding a less reasonable approach to the world than we had before, and holding it more tenaciously and skillfully than we had ever held our original beliefs.

At the end of this path, we have accepted the necessity of holding fallacious views, and we have accepted the defensibility of holding views that may seem absurd to everyone around us, and we explain the reason for our chosen views (fallaciously, of course) by always trying strenuously to show how people who hold the opposite views are inescapably stupid and self-contradicting and philosophically defenceless and morally stunted.

That is quite an unphilosophical and unenviable conclusion to the journey that began with such high hopes. It truly is heart-wrenching to see, every time. And yet, it is not an unusual conclusion to the story, in my experience, and I think the Athenians themselves might have observed a similar sort of phenomenon taking shape among the young people associated with Socrates.

Philosophy must be preserved, for reasons I’ve reflected on elsewhere. And yet we must remember too that it really is most of the time a dangerous, deadly thing, even when it is somewhat tempered by the prudential formulations of philosophy’s public face.

I like to recommend philosophy, but I honestly do feel a sort of dread about the ways it can affect people. Ultimately, however, I think that when philosophy has a corrupting influence, it is because it was too small a dose. To delve deeply into philosophy for a few years and then stop, can lead to terrible maladies. The remedy is to fall back in love with philosophy, not as a weapon for advancing our favoured perspective but as a quest for something outside ourselves which is always partly beyond us.

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