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Sandy Grant dares to doubt them.

“My karma just ran over your dogma.” Every time I see this joke, I smile. You can get it on a mug. I want one. You can get it on a T-shirt. I want that too. The word-play hints that there’s something bad about dogma and that by karma we can overcome it.

Like all good jokes it gets us thinking. What is dogma? Examples can come to mind. You might think of creationism or Communist orthodoxies; but what do these ideas share with other kinds of dogmas? Do we always know a dogma when we see one? And how can we keep them at bay?

Okay, try this: a dogma is a belief that cannot be doubted. To be more precise about usage, it is a belief placed beyond doubt. Yet that short definition belies the complexity of dogma-spotting. Maybe thinking it over a little will help.

First, a few words on features that do not pick out dogmas. A dogma is not just a view you don’t like, or that you think is false, that someone else is passionate about. What does identify a dogma is rather that it is held in a certain way: it is held on authority.

I don’t think this comes down to a dogma being forcibly or otherwise coercively imposed on its adherents. There are all sorts of dogmas that people voluntarily take up. There are also dogmas that started off just as sets of ideas but that adherents turned into dogmas. For example, the acolytes of certain thinkers can deify them, and in so doing they can ruin the undogmatic character of those thinkers’ work. So the point is not that some imperious person decides to make people believe something just on her say-so. It is less about what the authority does, and more about what the dogma-swallowers do.

Yes, the deeper point is about what the believers do: that they hold the beliefs in question on the basis of authority. They do that to themselves. They take an idea to be incontrovertibly true just because it’s the position of some authority they endorse.

Now, we may not always realise when we are doing this. There are kinds of dogmas that we can embrace without knowing we’re doing so. This is because sources of authority include the diffuse forms of social and cultural authority. One of the most insidious dogmas is the belief that the happiest life is to do as everyone else does. Others abound. But if we have dogmas that are part of who we are and our way of life, it will be hard to spot them and give them up. So the plot thickens, as they say: evading dogma is not just a matter of avoiding religious fundamentalists, political parties, and the like.

It Takes Two To Dogma

So a dogma turns on how it is held – on authority. They seem a bad thing on that definition. To accept something just on the basis of authority sounds dire. The author of the dogma does not need to argue for and defend her position to her believers. In the worst case, she can just rely on it being taken to be authoritative by the group. This is grim. To advance a position on the basis that “this is obviously true because I wrote it and you lot accept my authority” is awful. Yet it happens all too often. Academics are prone to it, and can do it when doing public philosophy. But it’s not their fault alone. It’s sometimes not easy to avoid getting set up as an authority, or to deal with expectations that you will act as one. Countless people have been disappointed that I have not given them ‘the answer’ to some philosophical question. Things I might do to encourage people to think for themselves sometimes leave them queasy.

Giving someone dogmatic authority is hardly better. Here I’m talking about features of the source of a claim; for example, seeing its author as ‘an authority’ because he is famous. In so acting I do not properly appraise his claims, or I simply give him too much attention, to the cost of alternative sources.

Let me deal with one possible confusion here. You might reply, what’s wrong with agreeing with other people? We should therefore separate dogma from mere agreement. Dogma does not turn on agreement. It is not just that one is part of a group which endorses particular views. Existentialists are a group of thinkers who believe the tenet that ‘existence precedes essence’. They do not take that, or espouse that, on authority. (In fact for them to do so would be to go completely against their own views.) So it is not just having the same views as certain others. The point is about their basis, about why one holds to certain views. If I accept ‘existence precedes essence’ just because a philosopher I suppose to be authoritative said it, that would be to hold to the claim as a dogma.

Do we always admit to ourselves when we are doing this, though? When I mentioned social and cultural authority as a font of dogmas, I suggested that there can be forms of authority that we fail to recognise. These can produce dogmas we typically choose to go along with, which reside in entire ways of thinking and the multifarious ways these ways of thinking are lived out. This can make their hold especially tenacious. We need to look to ourselves here.

Philosophical Dogma

At this point you might be wanting some relief. You may be expecting me to tell you that philosophy is the cure. Sorry, I can’t do that. I don’t think there is a cure, and I certainly don’t think philosophy is it. Dogmas are not just found in ideologies and religions. There are also philosophical dogmas. One of the dogmas of philosophy is that philosophy is not dogmatic. Another is that the love of wisdom is necessary for a flourishing life. That one is a pretty corny sales pitch, if you think about it.

So I think it’s an error to assume that philosophy is the antidote to dogma. Indeed, nothing about philosophy can insulate it from dogma. You might contest this idea with some candidate features of philosophy. How about the medium of philosophy – say, conversation? Surely if we talk with each other reasonably we won’t fall for dogmas?

Can conversation exclude dogma? Dogmas can still happily prevail in conversational form. Their dogmatic character might even be better concealed thereby. Echo chambers are not only found in social media. There’s also nothing to say that conversation is required to banish dogma. An isolated person with no opportunities for face-to-face conversation does not thereby hold all her views as dogmas.

I see no reason to privilege talking shops, then. I’d also add that conversational fora raise troubling issues of who gets to speak, who gets to be taken as an authority, and so on. In any case, reading magazines, books, and so on, and thinking about them, can serve just as well to bounce one out of one’s dogmatic slumbers. So I don’t think the particular medium in which one does philosophy counts much. I think what’s more promising and fundamental regarding dogma-busting is thinking. I can talk with you for aeons, but if I don’t think, I can still cleave to my dogmas. Thinking for oneself then is crucial, and perhaps philosophy can help it along; but there are no guarantees.

Why pick out philosophy here, though? Other things – art, for example – can also get people to think for themselves. But there is something that might give philosophy an edge in the realms of dogma-busting: the philosophical method. I am thinking here of the centrality of argument to philosophy. The presentation of alternate views does not itself weigh their merits. The point is that a central aspect of the philosophical enterprise is to test claims by argument. It matters not whether this argument is done with oneself in thought, with other thinkers (including dead ones) in thought, or in discussion with others, whether mass-mediated or face-to-face.

However, ideas being offered and taken as philosophical does not thereby exclude dogma. Scientific dogmas have the aura of the scientific method. Can the philosophical method – that of argument – also breed dogma? Perhaps. There could be dogmatic forms of argument. There could be a problem of only asking certain questions, or of only asking them in certain ways, that end up colluding with the dogmas of the day.

To sum up then, both medium and method can only be dogma-busting if they deflate the basic problem in dogma – that of setting up authorities, and holding to claims, beliefs and the like on their say-so. Philosophy has a special claim to dish the dirt on dogmas, but can generate its own and is in no sense immune to dogmatism.

Dogmatic Anti-Dogmatism?

In closing, back we come to the dogma-karma joke. ‘Karma’ here serves as a catch-all for the idea of living a stance – that of a destroyer of dogma. What of that?

To take on the pose of a rebel against all dogmas does not avail. Simone de Beauvoir understood that. In her book The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), she said that the surrealist André Breton had become ‘a pope’, the high authority for a new religion of negation and unruliness. This should encourage us to not identify authoritarianism solely with cults, whether religious or intellectual. It also raises the deeper point, that there may be dogmas that have become a way of life for us.

Having the stickers, badges, T-shirts, mugs and the like, we lay claim to a stance of being non-dogmatic. All the same, why do we want them? Although the dogma/karma products make an assertion rather than asking a question, it is a thought-provoking one. It might make those who see it, after they have laughed, at first think “What?” or “WTF?”, or just “I want one.” In time they might think that dogmas themselves are laughable.

© Sandy Grant 2018

Sandy Grant is a philosopher at the University of Cambridge. She recently became the first philosopher to perform at Latitude Festival. She’s writing a book on enjoyment, and tweets at: @TheSandyGrant.

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