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Hume seemed to prove that we are not justified in believing our inductions. Popper, who is very popular among scientists, thought that statements are only ever falsified. Moral error theorists say anything goes. While these sorts of positions aren't generally held, at least in that form (Popper tried to add 'corroboration', the claim that a theory is closer to the truth than falsified and uninformative statements, just never believed they were true or likely to be true; Hume said we should follow habit anyway), is philosophy bad for your health?

Are these isolated cases (we would starve to death if we lacked a nuanced understanding of Hume) or is a lot of philosophy like this?

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    Honestly was just making a joke. To address your question though, I don’t see how any of what you said implies philosophy is bad for your health. I think you should expand your post a bit Aug 30, 2023 at 0:12
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    Your question amounts to "is misunderstanding a philosophical theory bad for you?". Obviously, yes, it's better to understand something than not understand it. Yet no more no less in the domain of philosophy than any other.
    – armand
    Aug 30, 2023 at 2:03
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    One can't rule out bad effects on people from philosophy. But on balance, provided one doesn't take it too seriously, I would say that the effects are beneficial. But then any philosopher would insist that it all depends on what you see as a benefit and what you see as a harm. Many would suggest that one might change one's criteria after doing some philosophy. So it's hard to give a definitive answer. But that's philosophy for you.
    – Ludwig V
    Aug 30, 2023 at 9:51
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    The more powerful something is, the more helpful and harmful it is. The key is defining 'help' and 'harm'.
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 30, 2023 at 10:24
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    Can we get an opinion from Socrates?
    – workerjoe
    Aug 30, 2023 at 14:58

11 Answers 11

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Can particular kinds of philosophising have disastrous consequences? Yes, and sometimes they have. Especially when they have been the motivation for extreme political movements.

Can philosophising lead to extreme skepticism, melancholy, despair and sometimes suicide? Doubtless it has.

On the other hand, philosophy has achieved great things too. It has spawned all kinds of knowledge and fields of study. It encourages critical thought. It teaches us to question, to doubt and to challenge. It encourages us to examine how we live and to ask how we can live better.

As to the issue of taking philosophical ideas too literally or too seriously, Hume has the answer for that:

Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since Reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

  • David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature, Book 1. Part 4. Section 7.
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    Re your quoted Hume's "after three or four hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther", maybe this is the reason why he's not the first rate and foremost philosopher?... Aug 30, 2023 at 4:28
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    I rather like Hume. His views on many issues seem rather extreme, but his philosophy acts as a kind of reference point that you can measure other positions against. The same might be said of Quine and William James.
    – Bumble
    Aug 30, 2023 at 5:35
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    Right. Everyone should keep in mind Rule Number 6: "Don't take yourself so goddamn seriously!"
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 30, 2023 at 10:20
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    @DoubleKnot I think Hume should be rated in the top 5, certainly top 10 of the most important philosophers of the history of philosophy overall, and I am sure that many well-read philosophers will agree.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Aug 30, 2023 at 15:33
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    @DoubleKnot: I don't think it can be argued Hume is any less than a first rate philosopher - most people don't realise he also made his living as a first rate historian in addition. His plain language, humility, & humanistic approach to philosophy are exactly part of the value of his ideas. Have you ever read the accounts of him on his deathbed? aeon.co/ideas/… He was not just a man of ideas, but a superlative example of how to live, & die, in philosophy.
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 30, 2023 at 15:56
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is philosophy bad for your health?

It's fairly rarely bad for your health. Anyone skilled in reasoning can construct an argument in favour of just about anything.

But it's very frequently bad for the health of everyone around you. Philosophy was and is the cause (or at least the justification) of every religious crusade or conflict, every act of terror by the Catholic Inquisition or Mayans or Daesh or Al Shabab or Khmer Rouge. It was and is the cause of death or lasting injury for women needing abortions in many countries around the world, where prepackaged reasoning derived from a holy text is used to quash reasoning from observable evidence or from compassion. It was used to justify the slave trade, and European colonisation, and Jim Crow laws, and South African apartheid, and the stolen generation in Australia, and the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, and Section 28 in the UK.

If you can make people believe things about other people who look or think differently to yourself, and those things are not true, then you can do a great deal of harm - and not coincidentally, build yourself a lot of personal power. Philosophy can be really good for your health - but at the cost of really bad outcomes for the people you other in the process.

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    a sad but somewhat satisfying answer, thanks
    – user67521
    Aug 30, 2023 at 8:58
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    @ScottRowe "The more people learn, the less they tend to agree with each other" That's not really true though. The more people genuinely know, the more they agree. The disagreements only happen on the bleeding edge, on the fractions-of-a-percent cases. To say otherwise is not just wrong, it's literally Asimov's original example of "wronger than wrong". :)
    – Graham
    Aug 30, 2023 at 10:51
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    @ScottRowe ...Philosophy itself is just the toolbox to create both good and bad arguments, but the issue is over-reliance on philosophy (through religious arguments derived from a text whose truth cannot be questions) compared to observed evidence. The movements about thinking for oneself are called the scientific process and humanism, and they're doing pretty well - but religious ignorance is still all too alive.
    – Graham
    Aug 30, 2023 at 10:54
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    The lack of self-awareness in this answer is pretty impressive.
    – Mutoh
    Aug 30, 2023 at 13:38
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    @ScottRowe ... The issue with those irrational ideas though is that before they eventually fail, they can do massive damage to society and to individuals.
    – Graham
    Aug 30, 2023 at 15:16
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Philosophy is, roughly speaking, a tool for refining how you think and what you believe.

If you think that thinking more and "better" is good, then philosophy would be good, in principle. I'm sure you could find many people who'd say philosophy was a good thing for them.

Consider the example of science, which came from philosophy, and has proven to be immensely helpful.

Of course, tools can also be misused or otherwise cause harm.

I don't think taking philosophy "too literally" would be misusing it. If you leave it as idle isolated speculation, that can't really be all that useful. There might however be some harm in taking some ideas too literally (or perhaps rather not considering them within their proper context).

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Philosophy in the strict sense means love of wisdom. Wisdom is classically taken to mean the knowledge of the highest causes, by which a wise person can judge and measure inferior causes. That can't possibly be bad for you as a whole, as this definition entails that you need wisdom to choose what's good for you. Without a standard by which you can choose wisely, the best you can do is choose good by accident, and you'll probably not even recognize it as good (indeed, you may think instead that an evil was actually a good and vice-versa).

And, of course, it depends on what you mean by health. Just like the human body can destroy parts of itself for the sake of the whole (e.g. apoptosis, which when failing can cause cancer), if there are aspects of humanity over and above the body - the soul - then choosing good doesn't always guarantee your bodily health. For example, it could be that starving is better than acquiring food immorally. Your body won't be very well off and for that reason such a choice could be said to be "unhealthy", but the "health" of your soul will be guaranteed, and if the latter truly is more important then you can be said to be better off this way, which is not too dissimilar from undergoing chemotherapy or amputating a gangrenous limb. This is why Socrates preferred to die than betray his principles by escaping from prison.

Much of modern "philosophy", if not almost the entirety of it, has been more like anti-philosophy than philosophy per se. When you effectively deny that wisdom is possible (for example, by arguing that "good" or "truth" are illusions or that human reason itself is never justified) you're undermining the whole point of the philosophical enterprise. If you try learning philosophy only from authors of the past 500 years it's likely you'll only end up further from wisdom than when you started - as you yourself seem to be noticing from the hesitance in taking them seriously enough.

Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality; to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense. Each started with a paradox; a peculiar point of view demanding the sacrifice of what they would call a sane point of view. That is the one thing common to Hobbes and Hegel, to Kant and Bergson, to Berkeley and William James. A man had to believe something that no normal man would believe, if it were suddenly propounded to his simplicity; as that law is above right, or right is outside reason, or things are only as we think them, or everything is relative to a reality that is not there. The modern philosopher claims, like a sort of confidence man, that if once we will grant him this, the rest will be easy; he will straighten out the world, if once he is allowed to give this one twist to the mind.

-- G.K. Chesterton, "Saint Thomas Aquinas"

The examples of "philosophy" which you provided will surely be bad for you one way or another, even if only by making you a little insaner. Good philosophy, however, can only make you better, even if at the expense of lower goods. If you truly want to learn what philosophy has in store for you, I recommend The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius.

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  • "making you a little insaner" yes good phrase, thanks
    – user67521
    Aug 30, 2023 at 15:15
  • You seem to only describe philosophy as not common-sense. Without a clearer picture of what it's for & what it does, we can hardly point to what doingvit well means. You intimate that it builds from contradictions, but I think you could gave more fully developed why we do that & what positives result, to give a full answer
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 30, 2023 at 16:23
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    @CriglCragl where did I describe philosophy as "not common-sense"? I defined philosophy as love of wisdom, wisdom being the knowledge of the highest causes. But I criticized modern "philosophy" (notice the quotes) as being philosophy in name only, because they inevitably deny "wisdom", "love", "knowledge", "cause", and even "highest", making such systems anti-philosophical. It's anti-philosophy which I put in opposition to common sense. So, if anything, it would be more accurate to charge me of describing philosophy as common sense.
    – Mutoh
    Aug 30, 2023 at 16:42
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    @CriglCragl either way, indeed I didn't specify what "doing well" means. Finding it out is the whole point of doing philosophy, which goes beyond the scope of the question. As to not be too tiresome, I'll simply say the book I recommended at the end of my answer can be a good starting point.
    – Mutoh
    Aug 30, 2023 at 16:53
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Bad philosophy does lead to despair, poor mental health, and occasionally mass murder. See Heidegger's participation right up untill the end of the Nazi regime in the work of the Academy for German Law, presided by Hans Frank, a body that wrote the racial laws. So Heidegger contributed to the Holocaust, and not by chance but by philosophy.

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The question might be restated as: "Does philosophy just give you more rope in which to hang yourself?"

The answer is yes and no. It gives you the rope, but it also gives you the scissors.

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There doesn't seem any reason to think philosophising is bad for health.

I'm sure there are problems with workaholics and addicts, whose health suffers from over-exertion on philosophy or neglect of other duties, but this isn't a problem particular to philosophy - other kinds of human activity suffer these maladies.

Others have also mentioned the adverse consequences of philosophy, but this is typically the consequence of philosophy that is defective in quality, it's not the endpoint of all philosophical work.

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Philosophy is a way of understanding: it's active and open-ended. When we decide that we have understood — given up the active search and settled into passive knowledge — we stop doing philosophy. At that point we have a belief system, or even a dogma. Belief systems and dogmas can be hazardous in some cases (though generally they aren't), because they are intrinsically inflexible. They are the proverbial 'hard place' we get smacked into by the 'rock' of reality.

Honestly, this is like asking whether breathing is bad for you. normal breathing is fine, and you can develop it (as athletes and certain monastics do), but if you try to force it into a particular pattern you risk headaches, fainting spells, blood clots... Philosophy and breathing are things we do naturally, and they only become problems when we try to force them into unnatural forms.

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  • It's only like asking whether breathing is bad for you if philosophizing is to you like breathing ;-). Sep 1, 2023 at 10:59
  • @Peter-ReinstateMonica: Yes. But everyone philosophizes to the extent they the wonder things like: What's the right thing to do? Where am I going with my life? Who am I and why am I here? Philosophy is as natural as breathing. Not everyone can philosophize the way that Michael Phelps swims, obviously, and not everyone can swim the way that philosophers philosophize, but... Sep 1, 2023 at 17:44
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Anything taken too literally can be hazardous. On some level, I think it's fair to say that language and philosophy have a relationship that always requires some interpretation, especially when philosophy is expressed in "bite-size" quotes and the likes.

As an example, it could be my personal belief that "there's no such thing as a free lunch". That's a shorthand for a wisdom more profound, perhaps the notion that everything should be viewed as a sort of social transaction or something similarly recompiled from that phrase. However, of course, it's easy to imagine someone else taking that statement too literally and doing something harmful to themself as a result. I think the more condensed a philosophical concept or idea is expressed in, the more care it takes to unwind it at an appropriately high level of reason.

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When this question is asked we have to mention Paul Feyerabend's essay

Die Wissenschaftstheorie — eine bisher unbekannte Form des Irrsinns?1

The title alone makes mentioning it mandatory (I admit I have never read it).

Feyerabend, coming from Popper, became more radical and provocative in his philosophy to a point of "anything goes" ("rain dances have the same validity as weather forecasts"). It is clear that a dogmatic thinker will feel much more secure than somebody who questions the very foundations of modern thinking, thusly pulling the rug from under his own feet, so to speak.

Feyerabend is also an example that one can suffer indirectly. The Wikipedia article reports:

During the years following the publication of Against Method and the critical reviews that followed – some of which as scathing as superficial – he suffered from bouts of ill health and depression.

He seemed to be happy towards the end of his life though, not least because he appears to have found true love. Philosophy is only bad for your health if you focus too much on it.


1 "Philosophy of Science — a hitherto unknown form of insanity?"

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I would suppose that phobia/rejecting philosophy is worse for you. Imagine someone who didn't believe anything with the whiff of conceptual analysis or philosophical terminology.

That would make for bad decisions, if not ethic etc..

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