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Question of the Month
Who Is The Worst Philosopher?
Each answer below receives a book. Apologies to the entrants not included.
This is a difficult question as ‘the worst philosopher’ is liable to be considered not a ‘true’ philosopher at all!
It may be best to make clear the qualities of ‘great’ philosophy, in order to shed light on the worst kind of philosophy, and consequently apply these weaknesses of thought to a specific individual, who then would seem ‘the worst philosopher’.
Firstly, they should lack the high standard of critical thinking marking great philosophy. The work of a poor philosopher is liable to consist of unclear and indistinct ideas, and obscure, confused, overly-abstracted arguments, making it difficult or impossible to understand and evaluate. This contrasts with great philosophy, which, although it may deal with complex ideas and themes, is always based upon distinct, clear ideas which are subsequently built upon. Philosophy should never be overly rhetorical, or full of unnecessary arguments, hyperbole and oversights. Furthermore, a great philosopher always recognises their influences, paying close attention to and acknowledging the ideas of their predecessors and contemporaries, even if contrary to their own viewpoint. The philosopher who thinks their philosophy wholly original is usually being dishonest and is almost certainly wrong. However, a great philosopher’s ideas must be highly original nevertheless; developing and expanding on existing ideas in a decidedly innovative and momentous way. Most philosophers will never be as original as, say, René Descartes; but the philosopher whose ideas consist wholly of a hotchpotch of other peoples’ – or, worse, are derived from just one thinker – is a bad one.
To summarise: the worst philosopher’s ideas would constitute the worst of philosophy: lacking in analysis, disordered, prone to exaggeration, unimaginative, unoriginal, hardly philosophy at all.
So, who is ‘the worst philosopher’? It is difficult to say, as there are so many poor ones from whom to choose, and the decision will reflect your own personal interests and perspectives. But I would suggest Ayn Rand (1905-1982), whose endorsements of ethical egotism and laissez-faire capitalism are formulated in the overused, hubristic and indolent arguments characteristic of the worst of what can, at a stretch, be called ‘philosophy’.
Jonathan Tipton, Preston, Lancashire
My first impulse is to stab a sacred cow: Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). He tended to work from a position of fancy and romanticism, thinking that he was more ready for action than he really was. The accusation of fantasy stands to reason, given how sickly he was: think his ‘Will to Power’ and his ironically quoted-to-death epithet, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” However, my adverse sentiment towards him has more to do with his many fans whom I have encountered on message boards: those basement übermenschen. Every time I encounter someone who tags their belief system with the prefix ‘anarcho-’, I think of Nietzsche, cringe, and start digging my trenches. It always feels like someone embracing the radical strictly for the sake of the radical. But perhaps this has more to do with the fact that, as easy as he is to read, Nietzsche is equally easy to misinterpret. The next logical choice, being a source of Nietzsche’s fancy, would be Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), for his Social Darwinism. But Spencer is too discredited to be worth wasting this opportunity to internationally air my contempt. Therefore I would turn towards a more recent expression of Spencer’s Social Darwinism: Ayn Rand . I do so because she has been a major influence on our social, economic, and political life; and she did so by appealing to the same fancy as Spencer and Nietzsche. Even worse, she attempted to drape that fancy in an erroneous appeal to the scientific method. As far as I can tell, her ‘Objectivism’ consisted of talking about facts (something we can all agree exist), then translating this into questionable causal connections about general matters of the human condition. Her argument boiled down to: ‘1+1=2: so laissez faire Capitalism is the only means by which humans can achieve their full potential’. It’s as if we’re supposed to be so impressed by her getting the ‘1+1’ part right that we should accept the latter claim as having the same status. We can achieve our true potential only by using our talents to make things better for everyone, not through the corporate servitude she promoted.
D.E. Tarkington, Bellevue, Nebraska
If by worst philosopher you mean the one whose ideas are furthest from the truth, a strong candidate must be Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753). His key notion was that nothing exists except insofar as it exists as an idea in some mind. I have never been able to make any sense of this. Some of his modern disciples (like Bob Berman and Robert Lanza in their book Biocentrism, 2010) do seem to hold that the Moon’s existence literally depends on people looking at it. Meantime, Berkeley posited that ultimately it’s in the mind of God that everything exists. Yet the mind of God does not exist.
If, however, by ‘worst philosopher’, you mean the most pernicious, that’s surely Friedrich Nietzsche . Of course that does not refer to everything he wrote and others may have spouted worse vileness. In Nietzsche’s case, though, his perniciousness is leveraged by his outsized influence. Nothing so atrocious has been so widely read. My own humanist philosophy centers on the utilitarian concept of the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s not a moral absolute, but a guideline: striving for more happiness and less suffering in the world. By this reckoning, every human life counts. Nietzsche’s thought is directly contrary: the greatest good for the greatest individuals, all others be damned, subservient to the ego of the heroic übermensch or ‘Superman’. Nietzsche had contempt for the mass of humanity. It is one thing to vaunt virtuous human qualities such as courage and strength; quite another to claim that only certain lives have value. How does one make that portentous differentiation? Nietzsche’s particular criteria are highly dubious. Indeed, one can argue that his übermensch is actually a criminal deserving punishment. Nobody should be allowed to condemn as worthless a whole class of human beings. That’s exactly what the Nazis did in their campaign of slaughter. Nietzsche, fittingly, was their pet philosopher.
I prefer the humanistic thinking of T.H. Huxley (1825-1895), who said our aim should be not to play out Darwinian survival of the fittest, but to fit more of us for survival.
Frank S. Robinson, Albany, New York
Judging philosophical ideas and thinkers as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is an abyss even Nietzsche wouldn’t be keen to stare into. The yardstick for separating good philosophical thinkers from bad isn’t just sitting there waiting to be discovered. It certainly can’t be based on right or wrong theories: how are Kantian ethics any truer than utilitarianism? Controversy can’t be an indicator of quality, any more than cordiality. Judging philosophers seems like a lost cause – until you discover those who threatened the very foundation of the discipline, and eventually, of knowledge, and Moritz Schlick (1882-1936), leader of the Vienna Circle, is a prime example. Responsible for the Logical Positivist movement, the group of philosophers he led attempted to curtail the criteria of what was considered ‘meaningful’, and hence worthy of pursuit. Surely an offense like this shouldn’t be pardoned.
At the base of logical positivism was the Principle of Verification, which says that only ideas capable of empirical verification are worth contemplating, or indeed, meaningful. Although a seemingly noble attempt to make better use of human time and effort, such stern conditions of meaning not only invalidate centuries of quality work contributed by exceptional thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, or Kant, but also throw out entire branches of philosophy, such as theology, ethics, and metaphysics, as ‘speculative trash’. For any naturalists feeling smug here, however, the implications go far beyond philosophy, into science, where for instance, theories relating to quantum entanglement, dark matter, and M-theory would have to be thrown out if they cannot be shown to be empirically verifiable. Social sciences such as psychology and sociology would soon follow suit… leaving a void in the very foundation of knowledge, to the point where observation and experimentation of any kind would become impossible. Fortunately, the theory proved to be self-contradictory, with the Principle of Verification itself being not quite empirically verifiable. This crucial drawback not only establishes the idea as a complete failure, but also establishes Moritz Schlick and his dour band of companions as narrow-minded and unimaginative thinkers.
Shail Thakker, Edgware, London
There he sat night after night,
Enrobed in rustic country clothes,
Dreaming by a German fire,
In wooden hut, one man alone:
A king upon an Alpine throne –
The greatest thinker ever known.
Or was he? For though he wrote in gilded rose-tipped prose
And probed the heart of Being,
It was the cold, aloof, unfeeling being, himself – Heidegger
– he chose.
This man as the Nazi rector is more revealing:
He did not deny, denounce, nor denigrate
History’s most anti-life:
And there his grand undoing lies
Like an existential hunting knife.
For it’s all too dark, and all too true
As the voice from out the forest cries:
‘Philosophy ends and thinking fails
When the human in us dies’.
Bianca Laleh, Totnes, Devon
Since philosophy is the love of wisdom, the worst philosopher would be the one whose philosophy resulted in the greatest folly, which may be measured by human hurt. There are, unfortunately, numerous candidates for this dubious distinction, but my vote is for Karl Marx (1818-1883). Marx’s philosophy led to the totalitarian communist regimes of Russia, China, and other countries, and so to the mass killings of more people than even fascism. Then Russia and its satellite countries had to abandon it, and China has had to greatly modify it. Further, Marx claimed that his theories were scientific and thus capable of predictions, but his mistaken predictions were so numerous that there is not space in this little essay to list them.
The foundation of Marx’s thought was his philosophy of history, and it was here he made his fatal error. Briefly, his theory was that the means of production of goods and services determined human history. History moves by an inexorable process that divides societies into classes that must struggle against one another. Marx’s good news is that the process must end with no social classes, and peace and justice for all. This theory is a materialistic determinism: according to this view, our ideas do not influence the process. And by ‘our ideas’, I include all of our art, customs and manners, moral principles, religion, laws, political organization, and philosophy. In other words, according to Marx, our lives are a macabre dance where human agency is a delusion.
I believe the opposite is the case. Humans are born curious. The evolutionary advantage of curiosity is that it enables learning to adapt to the world; and in our case, to greatly change it for our benefit – including our political and economic systems. In fact, after Marx, we’ve greatly changed capitalism, and accommodated within it some socialism. This is why Marx’s predictions were wrong: he denied the efficacy of human agency in history. There was no place for it in his inexorable historical process. And there is no worse philosopher than one who believes that wisdom is impotent.
John Talley, Rutherfordton, North Carolina
I nominate John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) as the worst philosopher. One of his rare critics was the American economist Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993), who noted that while a small public library could be filled with books lavishly praising Keynes’ ideas, the number of critical works could be counted on one hand. Keynes’ magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), is a convoluted thicket of supercilious jabs and straw-man arguments; I further nominate it for Worst Book Ever Written. I read it all though, and have no reason to doubt Hazlitt’s assertion, made in The Failure of the New Economics: An Analysis of the Keynesian Fallacies (1959), that he was “unable to find in [that book] a single important doctrine that is both true and original.”
Keynes’ ‘insight’ was that in the fable of ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’, Aesop had got things backward. It was the ant who was impoverishing the world – by saving some of his earnings! The grasshopper, singing all summer and living from hand to mouth, was the more economically responsible citizen. Saving bad: spending good. This idea has now been accepted as gospel by almost all the economists and governments of the world.
Keynes’s popularity is based not on originality or on truth, but on his telling everyone what they want to hear: workers should spend everything they earn and never suffer a pay cut; governments should borrow money and print it too, in order to keep everyone at ‘full employment’. Keynes is less a philosopher than a guy who shows up with a bag of cocaine and says “Let’s party!”
Paul Vitols, North Vancouver, British Columbia
If this question ‘Who is the worst philosopher?’ had not been prefaced with ‘out of the famous thinkers of history’, the logical answer might have been, whoever came up with this question, because, lacking a definition of terms, it is fundamentally meaningless. Does it mean, which philosopher do you or I most disagree with? That doesn’t define who is the ‘worst’ philosopher; merely which philosopher’s ideas you find most unconvincing. So followers of Ayn Rand will automatically nominate Karl Marx; and Marxists are likely to nominate Ayn Rand (or possibly Karl Popper). Or does it mean, which philosopher do you find most morally objectionable (never mind what you think about their ideas)? In that case the Nazi Martin Heidegger is likely to show up high on the list.
Still, in an attempt to answer both questions, I will offer two nominations. For muddled thinking, I would suggest René Descartes (1596-1650), simply because his physics – the famous vortices – is not only nonsense, but based on no scientific evidence. For his sheer hypocrisy, I propose Seneca the Younger (4BC-65AD), who preached stoicism while making a fortune and enjoying the luxury of Nero’s court – and, I would argue, only relapsed into stoicism by committing suicide when he couldn’t find any alternative.
Martin Jenkins, London
Those Who Turn Away
Talented thinkers through the ages:
Some fail, and some fail to try.
We focus on the former,
Yet no one asks the latter why.
So who is the Worst Philosopher?
My brother John is a candidate strong.
And, no, I do not stereotype him,
So please don’t just say I’m wrong.
A double first at Oxford,
Laser physics is his thing.
Science gives him answers:
Philosophy’s praises he does not sing.
Yes, he’s a Doctor of Philosophy,
Although on him the irony is lost.
He says rationality is his god.
Philosophy? “No return, there’s only cost.”
His advice helped win a Nobel,
A successful professorial hit:
“Why sit and wait,
When you can get on with it?”
But thinking about thinking
And taking the measure of measure? –
All best left to others;
Those circles give no pleasure.
Science can help with consciousness
And what is meant by life,
But philosophy deserves distain:
“Who needs the angst and strife?”
His dot-com career was fortunate,
Though he treats this view with scorn.
“The internet needed fibre optics.
Fast transmission, even if for porn”
So the Worst Philosophers
Are not the ones who try,
But the ones who turn away
And do nothing but decry.
Glen Reid, Royal Wootton Bassett
Next Question of the Month
The next question is: What & Why Are Our Human Rights? Please give and justify your answer in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Email the Editor. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 10th February 2020. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. Submission is permission to reproduce your answer.