The Abuse of Philosophy

I imagine most readers have moments like the one I had earlier this morning: you’re engrossed in a book and then the author makes a remark, or several, that requires you to put the book down, take a few deep breaths, and practice the loving-kindness meditation or the tranquil-mind meditation, or have a drink—whatever it takes to calm your jangled nerves—before you can begin reading  again.

It happened to me while I was reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.  His very interesting book investigates the foundations of moral psychology, as seen from the perspective of an empirically minded social psychologist.  As its title suggests, Haidt has organized his presentation around the promise to explain the deep divisions between the way that conservatives and liberals view the world. So far, the book is a remarkable synthesis of fascinating research and reflections from many fields, and the gist of the emerging argument is both thought-provoking and persuasive.

So why did I have to put this good book down and take a few deep breaths? I was getting irritated to distraction by Haidt’s astonishingly glib attitude toward philosophy. (Actually, by now I shouldn’t be astonished; I have dozens of otherwise fine science and math books on my shelf that are marred by this same unintentionally glib attitude.)  I had almost put the book down when Haidt was confidently informing his readers that Socrates and Plato were “rationalists” (whatever that is), and that as such their notions of morality were wrong—as the clever empirical experiments of cutting-edge scientists like himself were showing. But I’m used to this sort of cartooning of philosophers, so I just sighed and soldiered on, determined to put up with him calling my philosophical friends “rationalists” in exchange for what insights he had to offer. But when he said, simply, that Hume was right and Plato was wrong about morality . . . well, that’s when I had to put the book down.  The temerity! Where in the world had this social psychologist come by his authority to judge amongst the philosophers, especially when it was obvious he had no idea what Plato was up to?

Now I agree with Haidt that the straw-man rationalist he describes is wrong about morality, and later on when he’s discussing Kant and Bentham’s rationalist philosophies there’s more man and less straw being criticized. But how does Haidt know Socrates was a rationalist, when Socrates never wrote his philosophy down? As for the Socrates he finds in Plato’s dialogues, two obvious points are worth making.  First, a careful reader would be hard-pressed to pull any coherent doctrine, much less a “rationalist” doctrine, from the speeches of the Socrates found in the dialogues—as a review of the scholarship would make evident. Second, the Socrates of the dialogues is a character in a dramatic work of art; this is not the historical man himself.  (Haidt appears not to recognize either of these points.) That many well-educated readers overlook these, um, complicating facts in their drive to reach simple conclusions does not make them any less true.

But even if we can’t know that Socrates was a rationalist (whatever that is), surely Plato was!  In fact, Haidt’s confidence that Plato is a rationalist is equally misplaced. He might have doubted it if he’d thought to wonder why a rationalist—as Haidt understands this term—would write dramatic dialogues rather than treatises.  Again, like Socrates, Plato also never wrote his philosophy down. In his Seventh Letter, Plato says this straight out,

For this reason anyone who is seriously studying high matters will be the last to write about them and thus expose his thought to the envy and criticism of men…. And if he has committed these serious thoughts to writing, it is because men, not the gods, “have taken his wits away.” (Letter VII, 344cff; the last phrase is from the Iliad, 7.360.)

One needn’t be acquainted with the Seventh Letter to doubt that whatever Plato’s philosophy may be, it can’t be reduced to scientific-style rationalism.  It’s enough to notice that Plato wrote dramatic dialogues, and that nowhere in these dialogues does a character named Plato speak up and offer us his philosophy. These facts put the reader on notice that Plato’s writings cannot be reduced to one “ism” amongst a crowd of competing “isms” from which our empirical psychologist can browse until he finds one that fits (Hume) or runs afoul (Plato) of his own hypotheses. Yet one can hardly blame Haidt, for there are many professional philosophers who also haven’t noticed that attributing doctrines to Plato and Socrates is, generally speaking, a fool’s errand.

Haidt abuses philosophy, and Plato in particular, by misinforming his readers about what Socrates and Plato thought.  Thus he unwittingly perpetuates a meme as false as it is familiar.  Of course, Haidt isn’t doing philosophy, and nothing he says about philosophy is material to his core argument. That’s why, although he abuses philosophy, this doesn’t undermine the merits of his book. Which is why, after a few deep breaths, I picked up his book and continued reading.

But why does he bother with philosophy at all? Partly it’s because he wants to give his reader a historical and theoretical backdrop that he mentions Plato and Socrates and other philosophers.  For this purpose what a great philosopher actually thought doesn’t really matter; instead, certain catch-words that have come to be associated with them serve as meme-cartoons that represent basic attitudes. For example, Haidt represents the contrast betweeen reasoning and intuition by contrasting Plato and Hume. Haidt can then report that Hume was right to call reason the slave of the passions, while poor benighted Plato and Socrates were wrong to think that reason should rule. The resulting cartoon serves its purpose, which is to connect his work with a popular, if cartoonish, opinion about what some philosophers thought.

Knowing all this, and knowing thus that the abuse is unintentional, why do I have to stop and take a few breaths when I read such authors distorting and abusing philosophy? Why do my hackles go up? Why do I find myself muttering, if I had a dollar for every time …. In short, why can’t I just be reasonable?

Ironically, such heated, moralizing responses are explained by Haidt’s own research, for the loyalty/betrayal pair is one of his foundations of morality. I’m being loyal to my philosophical friends: friends stick up for friends and their hackles go up when their friends are abused.  Haidt can appreciate my spirited irritation, for he recognizes that the antagonism that divides good people often stems not from hatred of the other per se but rather from the desire to shore up and serve the interests of one’s own tribe. Groups gain cohesion by being united against a common enemy. This loyalty promotes cooperation, but at the price of promoting division as well, as social psychologists are beginning to understand. Finally, Haidt can also appreciate my complaint about his blithe presumption to judge philosophy. For another foundation of morality is what he calls the “authority/subversion” pair. As a scientist, he has presumed he has the authority to judge how well or poorly the philosophers understood the matters he’s investigating.  Naturally, as someone who loves philosophy, I question his authority.

Apparently good people aren’t just divided by politics and religion; they may also be divided by philosophy and science—by anything, in other words, that also unites (some of) us.

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2 Responses to The Abuse of Philosophy

  1. Dad says:

    I, who know nothing about your specialty, am amply gratifide by your spirited response and explanation of your reaction. I am also pleased to understand it even better by having gotten far enough in your book that your response is understandable to this old mind.

  2. Pingback: The Search for the Academy (or, the Idleness of Philosophy) | Idle Speculations

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