How to judge a philosophy

In case you ever need to.

I want to communicate to the simple guy. Someone who doesn’t even know the word ‘philosophy’,” says NXIVM’s arrogant little leader on a video. He is trying to say that he wants to talk to the commoners, the stupid people, the ones who are not at such lofty intellectual heights as himself, or his followers. To people so stupid they don’t even know the word ‘philosophy’.

The only takeaway from his approach is that he is condescending. And that is all I need to know about a thinker and whether I want to hear his little opinions. Whether he is a brand name philosopher or a disgusting sex perv who started a cult.

But what NXIVM’s tiny but condescending leader accidentally gets right is that everyone has a philosophy. Not just acknowledged philosophers, but even the small guys who supposedly ‘don’t even know the world philosophy’. It is just that non-professional philosophers pick up the fragments of their guiding principles unthinkingly and from intellectual garbage that is blown their way by the wind of media and society.

We pick up our ideas and thoughts as we go, we hear and internalize fragments of systems of ethics and philosophy randomly. And then we let those random pieces of garbage invisibly rule our lives.

Students who are into philosophy (and don’t just take Philosophy 101 at the first year at uni) desperately try to keep up with all the thinkers that came before them. And it gets more difficult by every passing century. In the end, if they are not cautious, they will end up treating philosophy as a memory game, trying to remember who said what, and where any particular idea came from. And they will use this knowledge to point out that others don’t know who said that opinion first. In other words, smart boy signaling.

Some philosophy students distill things they have read into their own, mongrel philosophy. And only a very few actually reach the point where they put aside their books (after they’ve read them) and start building their own system of thinking. And that is a shame.

It is also a boon for con artists who are in the business of selling pseudo-philosophy to people who are hungry for knowledge but who are not supposed to be seeking once they are out of college. I blame the stupid idea that all of a person’s education should take place at once, at the beginning of his life – and once he is in the hamster wheel of life he is not supposed to learn anything anymore.

But people do learn all the time. And if we take away structured learning they will just soak up things from mass-media and from opinionated acquaintances. They reach the point in their lives when they have checked all the boxes, they have a spouse, a house, a car, a dog, children – and they they are left alone in an intellectual vacuum thinking ‘is this all?’

Or worse. They don’t reach that point in their life and keep failing – and then they seek advice. And turn to… Well, whoever offers catchy sets of opinions to them. Religions, self-help opinionators, ideologies and cults soak them up and offer them an outlet where they are allowed to keep thinking. Sort of. Because in the end those are just indoctrination mechanisms that install their own doctrine in seekers’ minds. And they do that to harvest the seekers’ resources.

But those who want to skip the part where others tell them what to think about the world – they need a basis on which to evaluate all those opinions they read in philosophy textbooks.

Here is one way to evaluate them.

Is this philosophy condescending?

Every philosophy stands somewhere on the question of anthropomorphic optimism versus anthropomorphic pessimism as long as it is about humans, even if it is not aware of it.

So the question is, how does it regard people? How does that dude whose opinion this philosophy is regard people? (It is important to keep it real – these are just opinions, even if some of them have become revered and their creator a brand name, whose mentioning serves to silence dissent.) Is this philosophy humane, inhumane, or anti-human?

Condescension is the most prevalent one. Just like the little NXIVM dude, who found it in his (very short) self to look down on everyone, many philosophers condescend to their subjects they are thinking about. And that leads to vile conclusions – that are nonetheless popular with the subjects it condescends to because they tend to side (in their own minds) with the powerful, not with themselves. It is easy to miss that a philosophy condescends to you when you are a fan of the philosopher. Again, it is worship, not thinking.

But condescension is ALWAYS wrong. Here is why.

People are full of statements like ‘people are such and such’. When you challenge them, they specify that ‘the majority of people are such and such’. And it leads to endless debates about the approximate proportion of people who are such and such and since that can’t be ascertained – to nowhere. (See the next point.)

In this case, are people (many of them, most of them, some of them, the majority of them, etc., blah-blah) good or bad? Trustworthy or not? Evil or well-meaning? Smart or stupid?

The answer is always: it depends.

It is rare that someone is so set on one end of the scale that he cannot be nudged. Dead set on being good or evil. Always trustworthy or never. Always intelligent or always irrational.

We are conditional good.

In the third season of the existential sit com The Good Place the heroine decides to live a good life. She keeps her word, she helps others, returns the lost wallet, etc. Then one day she accidently bumps a parking car and because no one is around, she leaves her number. She could just drive away, but she is trying to be good. Her reward? She gets sued for giving a whiplash to the person who wasn’t even sitting in the car when she bumped it.

She gets angry and decides that being good is thankless and dysfunctional. She would have been happy to be good if only she knew that other people would react in kind. And quite possibly, the same thing is true for many others. In fact, that was the case when researchers tested a bunch of people whether they are free loaders or cooperators. The majority turned out to be neither. It was conditional cooperators: they would have done the nice thing happily if they knew others would do the same. Because people know that that is the world worth living in.

In a way we are stuck in prisoner dilemma with virtually everyone else alive today, we never know how the others will react. Most people would be very trustworthy and cooperative and helpful and trusting vis-à-vis people he knows are deserving and won’t abuse his trust.

Conditional Morality And Cynicism In The Authoritarian Mind

The same stands for intelligent – but for a slightly different reason. People react to how they are perceived. Even if they protest against it, it impacts them. So when they are constantly treated as vile idiots by producers, media workers, and other people – they will end up with a lesser view of themselves and of other people. Because we often express these opinions about other people. If you listen to people, it is as if 8 billion smart, intelligent, and rational individuals would live on this planet – all surrounded by 7.99999 billion idiots.

No, People Are Not Stupid

The list continues…

5 more ways to evaluate a philosophy

BTC – 1CXq3Bddt8WphouL91GTAFBXcvbsh5T49D

5 thoughts on “How to judge a philosophy

    • no, I meant the subtitle “In case you ever need to”, given that everyone encounters philosophies 24/7, so you’d better do that pretty often.

      I’m even more offended now that you imply I don’t know where the cover gif is from 😜


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