Ragged Clown

It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing…


Most philosophers are wrong

I recently completed the Open University’s module A222 Exploring Philosophy and a prospective student from another class asked me what it was like.

  • Is it about the knowledge of the great philosophers?
  • Or is it about ‘doing philosophy’ and demonstrating one’s own ideas?

It is very much the latter. There’s hardly any memorisation of facts and most of one’s grade seems to come from explaining an idea clearly and making a good argument for or against it regardless of whether the conclusion of the argument is correct.

Most of my essays took this form:

  • Explain what X is.
  • Explain what Philosopher Y said about X.
  • Explain why Philosopher Y is *wrong about X.
  • Guess what Philosopher Y might say about my argument.
  • Explain why Philosopher Y is still wrong.

Fortunately, the great philosophers were mostly wrong so there is a lot to work with!

* You can argue that they were right about X too of course but that’s boring. And you can still get a good grade without introducing any original ideas, but that’s boring too.

I especially liked that we were encouraged to disagree with both the great philosophers and with our tutors. As long as you make a good argument, you can agree or disagree. It’s all good. It’s hard to imagine another class like that. I’ve just started my next class about the Classical World and I doubt that I’d get a good grade for arguing against my tutor’s explanation for Achilles’s long sulk in the Trojan War but in philosophy, it’s expected.

Looking back at the philosophers we studied, I wonder if they were chosen specifically because they were so wrong. Let’s look at a few examples…

John Locke (1632-1704) believed that someone continues to be the same person if and only if they have the same memories. If your 40-year-old self doesn’t remember what your 15-year-old self did then your 40-year-old self is no longer the same person.

I think Locke was wrong.

Continuity of memory is not a reliable way to determine whether someone is the same person. People lose memories for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes they lose them temporarily and recover them later. Does this mean that they were briefly a different person? Sometimes we forget some memories but remember others. Does that mean we are a little bit the same? Of course not. Derek Parfit would disagree but he is wrong too.

Locke was wrong

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said that doing something right simply to feel the warm glow of satisfaction of doing the right thing has no moral worth. Conversely, striving to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing is morally valuable even if your efforts will inevitably come to nothing.

I think Kant was wrong.

Doing something that makes the world better has moral value whether or not it makes you feel good, whether or not it follows your conception of duty and doing something that you know to be futile has no moral value either way.

Kant was wrong

René Descartes (1596-1650) believed that we are made of two distinct substances—the body is made of material stuff and the mind is made of immaterial stuff. Furthermore, the immaterial stuff is the part that constitutes the ‘real you’ because we can imagine what it is like to live without a body but we cannot imagine not being able to think.

I think Descartes was wrong.

There is no immaterial substance and the mind is simply what the brain does.

Descartes was wrong

John Rawls (1921-2002) argued that people with natural talents or with a natural tendency to work hard do not deserve to be rewarded for their talents or tendencies because, ultimately, they acquired their talents and tendencies through the luck of genetics or their upbringing and no one deserves to be rewarded simply for being lucky.

I think Rawls was wrong.

I think people who work hard deserve to be rewarded.

Rawls was wrong

Not every philosopher we studied was wrong about everything but most were wrong about most things. Was this just a big coincidence? Or did the course designers deliberately choose philosophers who were wrong so that we could argue against them?

The module that I studied, A222, has come to the end of its life and will be replaced next year by a brand new module: Investigating Philosophy. I’ve heard complaints that the topics in A222 were too far from our everyday lives and that the new module should be made more relevant to what’s important in the modern world. I also heard that one of the chapters in the new module will be on the Philosophy of Race. This troubles me a little.

The genius of A222 is that we were encouraged to challenge any argument that we thought was wrong whether the argument was made by a fellow student, a tutor or the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. Will people be so willing to speak up on a fraught topic like race?

To be clear, I think race is an important topic and should be addressed by philosophers but I predict that there will be much less arguing against Martin Luther King and Ibram X Kendi than there was against René Descartes and John Locke and a lot of the pedagogic value will be lost.

In one of my online tutorials in my first module, A111 — Discovering the Arts and Humanities, my tutor had us discuss the famous Heineken adverts from the 70s and 80s (“Heineken refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach”).

A quick refresher: this was from a golden age of advertising where most adverts were clever or funny or both. The Heineken adverts each had a protagonist struggling with a personal problem until they drank a can of Heineken and the beer made everything OK. In the ad that we watched, a blues guitarist struggles to write a blues song while his life falls to pieces in the background.

The reaction from the class was immediate, loud and angry.

“That’s racist”.

I tried to argue that the ad should be interpreted in the context of the other ads in the series and, and, and… but my argument was going nowhere and I was shouted down. It was impossible to have a discussion on such an emotional topic.

I’m too afraid of being on the wrong side of an argument about racism so let me try a topic less fraught. My next module, A113 — Revolutions, had a unit on sexism in the music industry in the 1960s.

According to our textbook, girl bands in the 1960s had their images controlled by their record companies. They were made to all dress the same.

Why were girl bands made to dress alike?

Individual girl performers lost their personal identities. According to the textbook, female artists never became famous in their own right, only as members of a group…except for the ones who did.

Nobody even remembers Diana’s name

Female artists were discouraged from playing instruments. This held them back so it was hard for female artists to be successful. At best, they were relegated to being a backup singer in a male band.

Janis could never make it on her own

And, finally, female artists were only allowed to sing about love and their subservient role to their boyfriends. In summary, all the evidence was cherry-picked to make a political point and none of the arguments would last five minutes in a philosophy class.

Girls bands only sang about love

Now, of course, there is and was an incredible amount of sexism in the recording industry, especially in the 60s, but the point is that the textbook did a terrible job of making that argument and it would have taken a brave, brave student to argue the opposite case. But that wasn’t a philosophy class. That was a Teach People How Sexist The Recording Industry Was In The 1960s class.

I wonder what arguments newbie philosophy students will make in a class about race. I expect them to be too afraid to argue at all. Safer to just agree.