Given free rein I’m sure you can come up with some pretty challenging ideas. The mind is a wonderful thing, explaining the world and imagining new ones. Philosophers are supposed to help us do the former, but plenty of them get into territory that seems more appropriate for the latter.
Here, in no particular order, are 10 philosophers who thought themselves into some pretty tight corners.
1 – The Gulf War Did Not Take Place
There are plenty of people who wished that Gulf War hadn’t taken place, lots of them took to the streets to protest about it. Lots more wish it had been prosecuted differently. But French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, titled a book The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.
Baudrillard a poststructuralist – if you want to get involved in the confusing maze of philosophical schools – in fact, he was post a lot of things. His main concerns were technology and media. He argued that modern life is so complicated and we have so much information available to us that any real understanding of it is impossible. Instead we live in a world of signs.
Baudrillard’s argument about the Gulf War is not only philosophical but also political (he could be very anti-American). He did not argue that nothing happened in 1991 but that what happened was not a war but was only presented as a war.
American military superiority over Iraq was so massive, he argued, that Saddam Hussein could have no chance of defeating the Allies. The Allies themselves, he argued, were dropping thousands of tons of bombs just to prove that there was someone to fight, even though they did not really fight them in any real sense. At the end of the war Saddam remained in power – nothing had happened, there had been no war.
He was also very anti-Saddam though, listing his atrocities and the lack of action those who should have been outraged take against him as a result, concluding: “the 100,000 dead will only have been the final decoy that Saddam will have sacrificed, the blood money paid in forfeit according to a calculated equivalence, in order to conserve his power. What is worse is that these dead still serve as an alibi for those who do not want to have been excited for nothing: at least these dead will prove this war was indeed a war and not a shameful and pointless hoax…”
Baudrillard was and is controversial, politically and philosophically, if you find his views absurd you are not alone.
2 – Killing babies isn’t as bad as killing grown ups
Peter Singer is that rare thing, a famous modern philosopher. Like many of the people on the list that’s because he has said something that newspapers can represent as outrageous and disgusting. Often, that can be a misrepresentation of a philosopher’s views. However, in the case of Stringer it’s hard to find a way round the fact that he has said that baby killing isn’t as bad as killing other humans.
Singer is a big guy in philosophy, he’s a professor at Princeton, and not shy of publicity. His field of specialty is ethics, or what’s right and wrong. He’s done some very admirable things – arguing that it’s immoral for people to die of poverty when some are very wealthy for example is easy, but Singer actually donates a quarter of his salary to charities that tackle that poverty.
He is a utilitarian – a major and popular way of looking at the world – and it’s here that he finds the arguments that make killing a newborn less repugnant (he is an opponent of the death penalty for example) than killing anyone else.
The popular view tends to disagree violently with Singer on this one. Newborn babies because of their innocence and inability to protect themselves are considered special cases and their killers treated with even more opprobrium. Singer argues that (he is also pro-abortion) newborn children are yet to possess the things that make us really human (“rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness”) and therefore can’t really feel that they would like to go on living. Killing someone who wants to go on living is worse.
There has been a long held belief in many societies and most religions (though it’s been honored more in theory than practice as any quick look at world history will tell you) that human life is sacred and protecting it is our highest duty. Singer disagrees and this leads him to some controversial views – check out his thoughts on bestiality too.
3 – The objects which don’t exist, but which do exist
Alexius Meinong’s philosophy has been described as “unique”, which is one way of looking at it.
He was particularly interested in ontology, which is the philosophy of being and reality, and it is in this area that his most famous work was done and we find the non-existent objects which are his craziest belief.
It’s a little unfair to say that Meinong believed in the golden mountains, unicorns or chocolate teapots actually wonder the earth. However, he does argue that because such things – you’re always thinking of golden mountains, I can tell – can be the subject of thought they do have a sort of existence. These are called “intending non-existent” objects. Meinong called them “homeless” objects and some say they live in “Meinong’s jungle”.
Some subsequent philosophers have had a bit of a go at Meinong, but others, including the great Bertrand Russell liked most of what he did. He still has followers to this day.
4 – Time is an illusion
J. M. E. McTaggart is the man we have to thank for idea famously completed by Douglas Adams with “lunchtime doubly so”.
McTaggart was a fairly classic British academic philosopher, working at Cambridge and focusing his work on Hegel, the great German philosopher.
His most famous work though is 1908’s “The Unreality of Time”. Time is a slippery concept at the best of times, not made any easier by a quick (quick is good) look at quantum physics.
McTaggart argued that time should be split into two sets – an A and B series – the first of which is more human the second running in the linear sequence from early to late. As the A series is how we see time and it is incoherent there is no way, he says, we can ever perceive time correctly. Time therefore is unreal.
5 – The Matrix argument
The Matrix introduced some heavy philosophy to an audience of teenage boys. It could only go wrong from there. But apart from inspiring a lot of web silliness, the ideas were good and in fact aren’t that far from the serious philosophy of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom.
Bostrom is a big cheese in the philosophical world and is that rarest of things, a philosopher with a high media profile and even some influence in political circles. Most of his work concerns technology.
What has come to have been known as the Matrix theory is the Bostrom’s “simulation argument”. In it he says that one of these statements (or more) is probably true: We are unlikely to be able to produce genuinely realistic simulations of reality. Any society that does reach that level will not produce many such simulations. We are probably living in a simulation.
He thinks it is quite possible that the simulation is being run from the future and we are essentially existing in a living museum of our present as an entertainment for the future. Aaarrggghhh!
6 – Language means nothing
A lot of philosophy is concerned with language, which is a bit of a pain because it’s also communicated in language. This gives us a problem. The Austrian philosopher, (who spent much of his life in the UK), Ludwig Wittgenstein spent a lot of time on language and argued that language has no real relation to what it describes.
Wittgenstein’s argument is that language is defined only by its use – it is what we say it is. His example was the word “game” – does a serious “game” of chess have the same meaning as a child’s “game”, can we define “game” as competitive when solitaire is just as much a “game” as football. And so on.
However, when you talk about a game with someone they will almost always know what you are talking about. You can examine any number of your daily conversations this way and you should come to similar conclusions – the language you use doesn’t have an existence of its own and even its definitions can be a bit slippery, but we use it successfully none the less.
Words are not what they say they are, they are what we say they are.
7 – Mankind was born in a fish!
Philosophy had to start somewhere and the early Greek philosophers are rightly considered the founders of science. However, as they groped around for understanding of a world with little in the way of evidence they chanced upon some very strange ideas including Anaximander‘s – one of the greatest of the Greek philosophers – beliefs about the origins of life.
There is no doubt that Anaximander was a great thinker and one of the earliest champions of rational thought. We take so much for granted now, but even the simplest principles of thought and science have to be thought first by someone.
Unfortunately this means they sometimes get things wrong. In the case of the origins of human life, Anaximander got it sort of right and spectacularly wrong. He worked out that fish were lower down the scale than humans and from that he philosophized that men lived inside fish until they were able look after themselves – he believed we lived inside their mouths.
While the detail is spectacularly wrong, some have seen the way of thinking as an early groping towards evolutionary thought.
8 – There is no difference between the mental and the physical
William James is one of the prime holders of this belief, though there are many others. The idea is called neutral monism.
Most of us believe in dualism, a separation of mind and matter. Monism opposes this view and argues that there is no fundamental difference between the two – there is only one kind of “stuff” in the world and dividing them into mental and physical is an artificial distinction. Mental and physical should be considered in the same way as a color rather than a fundamental property of an object.
American thinker William James (the brother of novelist Henry James) came up with the best modern definition of the idea in “Does Consciousness Exist?” in 1904 but thinkers from ages past have been classified as neutral monists retrospectively.
Here’s an example of his catchy writing style: “Some subset of these elements form individual minds: the subset of just the experiences that you have for the day, which are accordingly just so many neutral elements that follow upon one another, is your mind as it exists for that day.”
9 – Nothing exists!
When it comes to cool names, the philosopher at the top of the class is probably Gorgias the Nihilist, another of our ancient Greek friends.
Gorgias was actually a travelling and charging philosopher who would set up shop and collect a fee while he answered questions from an audience.
He earned the title, The Nihilist – the Sex Pistols favorite philosophy – because of his believes on existence. These were:
1 – Nothing exists
2 – If things exist it would be impossible to understand that existence
3 – If existence could be understood there would be no way of communicating it
Thanks Gorgias! He did children’s parties too.
10 – We were and should be one sex
Franz Xaver von Baader was a German Catholic philosopher of the 18th and 19th centuries. He was also a successful engineer and his philosophy, which was essentially religious, is notoriously difficult to understand.
This leads us to the androgyny theory. Baader believed literally in angels and the fall of mankind. After mankind had fallen, he believed, the universe was created to allow him to make his way back up to the divine.
Because he believed so literally in the Bible he had to believe that man was made in the image of God and this led him to the idea that man was initially androgynous, of no sex, and this is the true, created image of man. When man makes it back to the divine state then androgyny will return. He also believed that marriage was a way of symbolizing “angelic bisexuality” as we move towards “pure and whole humanity”.