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Can the "love of wisdom" be turned into something bad? Were there evil philosophers in the past?

I was recently reading a book about the dark side of psychology, how people use psychological tricks to manipulate others. Does philosophy have a "dark side"?

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    I think it would be useful to place a psychology book details (title,author,link) here. May 31, 2012 at 4:02
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    @defaultlocale: "Verbotene Rhetorik: Die Kunst der skrupellosen Manipulation" (in german) by Gloria Beck
    – draks ...
    Jun 4, 2012 at 19:41
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    BTW, the "darkest" use of psych I've seen is shown in this YouTube clip is.gd/wIxrdW, but there has to be much worse. It's a safe bet that today most of "dark-side psychologists" (whether "most" is with respect to numbers of people or to dollars spent) are employed in marketing and advertising, a massive industry that gets paid well for researching and finding every button of our psychology that they can push to get us to give them money. The public doesn't mind. I haven't yet met, face-to-face, anyone who believes that such tactics work on him/her. We all hail from Lake Wobegon.
    – kjo
    Jun 5, 2012 at 12:32
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    I don't think this is a very good question, it incites too much opinion on who was good and bad. For me the evil philosophers were Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche. The good Aristotle, and Rand. I find few philosophers good. I think this thread should be closed.
    – John Tate
    Jun 7, 2012 at 3:15
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    Philsophy is already bad. Rotten to the core. Modern philosophers are, with few exceptions, either disregarding all cognitive science, very narrow literary analysts or mathematicians in denial. Mostly, I think that LukeProg is right in this article. My 2 cents. Jan 27, 2013 at 16:39

10 Answers 10

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The problem with your question is that "love of wisdom" does not truly characterize most contemporary philosophers: for the vast majority of them, philosophy is how they make their living, irrespective of what drew them to the field in the first place (which could have very well been "love of wisdom"). Earning money from philosophy does not automatically condemn it to the "dark side". Nevertheless, it certainly serves as a foothold for corruption that is, not present in the "love of wisdom" formula. This is so, by definition, since, IIRC, this formulation was originally coined (as φιλοσοφία) to draw a distinction from the "sophists", who earned money from their wisdom (as teachers, coaches of rhetoric, advocates in court, etc.).

But ignoring this somewhat technical point, your question reminded me of a New Yorker cartoon showing three guys in business suits standing around a desk, and one is asking the other two

Do you think now that we're doing fewer illegal things we can scale back the legal department?

(The above quote is verbatim, so searching for a sufficiently long substring of it, enclosed in double quotes, turns up the accompanying image, as of the time of this writing.)

This cartoon, it seems to me, packs a lot more truth than the average cartoon, or even the average New Yorker cartoon. In any case, it comes to mind whenever I hear of a "staff ethicist", or when some venture proclaims that their proposed budget includes the salary for an "ethics team", or a business schools trumpets the fact that its students are required to take a class in ethics, etc. I have never seen one such arrangement that seemed anything more than a fig leaf for the sake of PR. To the extent that the real function of such ethicists is not to ensure their employers, or future graduates, behave ethically, but rather, to provide PR cover, in one way or another, for ethically questionable conduct, I would say this represents a good candidate for Dark-Side philosophy.

(Of course, it is a standard Philosophy 101 exercise to defend the possible merits of such arrangements, but I find such arguments too implausible to be convincing. For example, one can imagine, at least in principle, that a sufficiently determined and quixotic staff ethicist may succeed in getting his/her employer to choose a more ethical course of action, but this is plausible only in those cases in which such a choice has absolutely no negative impact on the bottom line. I happen to think that situations like these are too rare in practice — if they happen at all — to balance the "darkness" of such ethics-for-hire situations.)

An even better example would be the use of ethicists to devise moral justifications for unsavory activities such as torture, bombing of civilian areas, political assassinations, etc. I can't give concrete examples of this, but I would be surprised if it never happened. (Certainly, something like this has happened in recent US history if we replace "moral" with "legal". Since very few US citizens seem to perceive any difference between "legal" and "moral" (or "ethical"), and therefore, one may argue that, in such cases the lawyers involved are playing the role of ethicists, this situation comes very close to the one I mentioned before. Admittedly, though, this more properly falls within the category of the Dark Side of the Legal Profession, which not only deviates from the focus of your question, but for which finding examples is like shooting fish in a barrel.)

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  • "Sufficiently quixotic" - lol! I guess it has to do with varying levels of introspection among otherwise equally intelligent people.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 25 at 10:35
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I think you are mixing methodology and substance.

There are a variety of psychological techniques that can be used to persuade people of things, independent of what those things are. These techniques can be subdivided along lines such as rhetoric and logic, and naturally philosophy has a great deal to say about them-- Aristotle and Plato each wrote on this very issue.

It seems to me that what you claim are the Dark Sides of religion are, in fact, simply two techniques from among this set, and are not specific to religion at all.

Now, in order to evaluate the question "Were there evil philosophers in the past?", we first need to determine what would make a philosopher "evil" for the purposes of this question-- would an "evil philosopher" be one who uses manipulative techniques to persuade people (regardless of the content of the philosophy), or would an "evil philosopher" be one who persuades people of "evil" content, regardless of the means of persuasion?

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    hmmm, I think I thought more about an "evil philosopher" to be one who persuades people of "evil" content, so it should not be regardless of the content of the philosophy
    – draks ...
    Jun 4, 2012 at 5:35
  • Maybe we could use a few people who selfishly solved global warming, cured cancer, ended gridlock in the Senate, brought about world peace... "Who is John Galt"?" That's a good Jeopardy question.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 5 at 11:55
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Where the psychological tricks of religious fanatics are the dark side of psychology, the religious fanatism itself is the example of the dark side of philosophy.

Note the leftist fanatism of Pol Pot, which was based on the base of his philosophy knowledge he gained on Sorbone, the vision of totalitarian regime from Platon's The state.

The nazist ideology with their mystic explanation of civilization counting back to Atlantide is one of the darkest pages.

In my opinion, the Dark Side of the Philosophy is the darkest one.

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  • It's worth mentioning Hegel in the same category as Platon when it comes to the dark side. Many of Hegel's writings are glorifying colonialism and even providing its intellectual framework. May 31, 2012 at 18:50
  • @Raskolnikov Hegel really sounds a good example. Thanks.
    – draks ...
    Jun 3, 2012 at 20:56
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Does philosophy have a dark side? Can the "love of wisdom" be turned into something bad?

  • Yes, ...

Breaking The Rules of Engagement

  1. It's when philosophers are using their reasonable thinking, high accuracy and ability to see something with clear distinction to support their:

    • Intolerance to ethics
    • Irrelevant adjustment
  2. It's when philosophers have no ability to see something with clear distinction and trying to:

    • make definition
    • make relational understanding
  3. It's when philosophers having reasonable thinking but they will not be open minded.

  4. It's when philosophers will be open minded, but they don't have enough ability to think reasonably.

Wise & Unwise

These things gradually will lead philosophers to:

  1. Irrelevant domination
  2. Improper placement
  3. Imbalance.
  4. Indeterminacy

And, one or several of these is enough to make philosophers closer to or having their own dark side for their own selves or for others.

  • Philosophers have obligation to try strongly to act properly, better and better, because Philosophers (silently or not) are true leadership (on their own fields, whether they are graphic designers, programmers, engineer, etc) for their selves and for others.
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  • @draks, Hi thanks for bringing up the question
    – Seremonia
    Jul 24, 2012 at 6:42
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I stumbled on this post when I googled the dark side of philosophy. Having some major existential battles and looking for like minded thoughts. Closest IV come so far so here is my 2 cents.

I believe the dark side of philosophy is a much more internal struggle. Philosophy opens your eyes and changes your perspective on the world and yourself. It makes your question everything. And it should. But the shadow that follows behind is long. Casting doubt on everything you percieve, every emotion you feel. And that ambivalence can be maddening.

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  • Great point. But eventually the shadow passes and you see everything clearly. It's just that the objective of putting everything to rights has to go. "From the crooked timber of humanity..." and all that.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 25 at 10:43
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  • Heidegger, still trumpeted as one of the greatest philosophers of "authenticity", supported the Nazis at his University.
  • Marxism has been used to legitimate many atrocities.
  • The Nazis did famously develop their ideas from e.g. Nietzsche.
  • You have e.g. Rand's legitimation of selfishness and unfettered capitalism.
  • Plato supported slavery.

So there's a mix of "dark" philosophers, philosophies, and abuses of philosophy.

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  • Hopefully AI will not come with all that baggage.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 25 at 10:44
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Good science is that knowledge that holds consistent empirical truth (e.g. g=9.8m/(s^2) at sea level). Bad science is what is contradictory, or holds knowledge that does not describe nature (e.g. g=44.8/(s^2) at sea level).

Same happens for philosophy. Good philosophy is that which holds metaphysical + empirical truth (in simple words, science is knowledge related to experience, philosophy is a superset that includes experience + metaphysics). Bad philosophy is that which holds inconsistencies.

Now, there's no evil science or evil philosophy: knowledge is just an asset that individuals use to do good or bad, same as a screwdriver. Is there an evil screwdriver? No. Either it does what screwdrivers do, or either it does not. But in any case, there are no evil screwdrivers, evil science or evil philosophy.

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  • "Where do they put bad light? In prism!"
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 25 at 10:46
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  1. Heidegger WAS a member of the NAZI party, not a supporter;
  2. The NAZI’s ideas from Nietzsche and been bastardized by his sister and her husband, as a way to gain favor with Hitler;
  3. Ayn Rand was NOT a Philosopher, per se, as much as she was just a Capitalist-Author; and
  4. Plato recognized Slavery in a form in his thought-experiment, “The Republic”, however, Greco-Roman Slavery is a totally different model than the Slavery of the Ante-Bellum Southern United States (and I say this as an African-American); You need to journey beyond your simple Googling, and actually put in some real study to get to any kind of actual Truth, which you can’t get with a simple web search.
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  • Perhaps we should say that there is no bad Philosophy, just bad people? Or: there are non-introspective, powerful, manipulative people?
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 25 at 10:58
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What is evil? It's something of a recreational problem in philosophy, defining it. Here are some takes:

I would note that evil has become a special category in the Christian world, in relation to the problem of evil, and the genre of philosophy attempting to address it, of theodicy. I would say a coherent picture of how the term evil is used, is, bad that has no redeeming qualities, things which cannot be understood or integrated into a larger picture as good or worthwhile, bad that is not motivated by any positive ends. That is a pretty high standard, and tends to focus on random death or suffering of the innocent, such as young children. It would be hard to apply to anyone we call a philosopher, as they must be seeking truth or wisdom to qualify.

Who is a philosopher? I am surprised no one has mentioned Machiavelli:

"Hatred is gained as much by good works as by evil. One change always leaves the way open for the establishment of others. Men should be either treated generously or destroyed, because they take revenge for slight injuries - for heavy ones they cannot." - from The Prince, published after his death, and widely considered scandalous and immoral at the time

Machiavelli is described as the founder of political science (eg in the Wikipedia article about him, which also says "He claimed that his experience and reading of history showed him that politics have always been played with deception, treachery, and crime."). His picture of truth, is what we now would call realpolitik. He understood the world as shaped by powerful men, and clearly got a kick out of advising them how to achieve their goals, and saw their achieving them as having net-positives. We can understand that now as a 'game theory' perspective, that stable and resilient systems and equilibria will result from pursuit of self-interest of the powerful. Much of human life though is about stopping situations from decaying into stable lose-lose equilibria, by supporting less stable equilibria - the social contract can be understood as this (see Is the tyrannicide perpetrated by William Tell morally legitimate?).

Plato, Hobbes, Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, could all be said to have cases to answer for things many people argue as evil, like slavery, moral-nihilism, and advocating propaganda, greed, selfishness or self-absorption. But were able to maintain a pretty high opinion of the virtue of theirselves and their work.

Probably the meaningful dangers of philosophy are getting too good at justifying or arguing for what we already want to do, without reflecting on those impulses themselves. Hume's 'Is-Ought' distinction relates to how our reasoning doesn't end with shaping our impulses, but begins with what they already unreasoned are. Post hoc rationalisation and cognitive-biases discourse are modern tools for addressing that.

I argue acting against our best interests impulsively, or being decieved or exploited by others into doing so, is exactly what wisdom-traditions aim to provide tools to address, here: Wisdom and John Vervaeke's awakening from the meaning crises? Harry Ramsden defined the term 'bullshit' as speech intended to pursuade without regard to truth. Sophists, marketers and advertising, populist aspiring tyrants, and Machiavellian-propagandists aim at this. But through a process of finding the integrated centre of our concerns, by an active practice of wisdom, we can aim to free ourselves from the hold of those.

Hobbes and Machiavelli considered the human character fixed, and incapable meaningfully or at scale of improving. If that were true, we might see their inferences as wise. But we know it is not. We can look to game-theory and evolutionary multi-level selection, to understand that although we are coerced by incentives, the incentives can change.

I don't believe in evil, if it means unredeemably or intrinsically bad. We cannot imagine the future, and how it may have integrated lessons from events we haven't grasped. And I don't accept intrinsic essences, evil is contextual, relational, and intersubjective, if it is anything at all. Morality is a social rather than subjective concept, it relates to our collective decisions about how to be, within the practical experience of the implications of the set of decisions, which we call culture.

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  • Perhaps what we call evil is an introspection blind spot, with someone unable to see how things are for others by considering it themselves? I would say that in extreme cases that is unlikely to be curable. But it is something everyone has to learn as they grow up. If their early environment is too dangerous, they don't.
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 25 at 11:06
  • @ScottRowe: What Jung calls en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadow_(psychology) Haidt looks at intolerance of ambiguity as a response to experience threats during key development years. I have been thinking about ecologies, & how parasitic wasps might be experienced as evil by their prey. Dawkins uses 'parasitic meme complexes' for religions which is bogus, but, different replicators as units of selection can have deeply contrary purposes, which could seem like evil to some of them.
    – CriglCragl
    Apr 25 at 11:42
  • "Why can't we all just get along?" Well, parasites are not workable from that standpoint. If Jains ran the world... Joke. Jains wouldn't run the world!
    – Scott Rowe
    Apr 25 at 15:39
  • @ScottRowe: Over time, many parasitic relationships become symbiotic ones - the well-being of hosts is often correlated to that of parasites. Gut bacteria are obligate endosymbiotes, that period r
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 5 at 11:03
  • I think what I was saying is that if a human is unable to see anyone else's point of view, then they are unlikely to participate well with other humans, and this is probably not solvable, especially if they find a parasitic lifestyle rewarding. We could call that type of person 'evil' in the sense that they do not l o v e (sort-of e v i l spelled backwards).
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 5 at 11:20
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The Enlightenment is normally seen as a positive development in European culture, including political culture.

Whereas the early enlightment philosophers were agreed on a harmony between reason and religion, they began to be seen as incompatible with the rise of scientific rationality with Nietzsche eventually stating that the whole idea of God had been overthrown. Thus even the categories of good and evil no longer held. He accused the Jews of instilling such a concept into religion, to be later taken up by Christianity and Islam and singled out Zarathrustha as the man most responsible for this revolution in ethical thought. Nietzsche wanted a counter-revolution, and when he said he spake in Zarathrusta's tongue, this was a deception, a ploy. He came not to eulogise Zarathrustha, but to bury him alongside Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Now, Nietzsche is very well known for his famous or infamous rallying call: "God is dead". What is much less well-known is what he said in his Will to Power:

The great majority of men have no right to life, and serve only to disconcert the elect among our race. I do not grant the unfit that right. There are even unfit peoples.

This is sometimes criticised as not being his own handiwork. The book in which this aphorism is compiled was put together by his sister after his death from his notebooks and who is well-known to be a Nazi. However, we have a similar aphorism in his The Anti-Christ and this is unarguably by his own hand.

The weak and failures shall perish: first principle of our love of man. And they shall be given every possible assistance.

Often Nietzsche is eulogised as a philosopher of life, of self-actualisation, of self-expression. But as a philosopher, he is much more than this, he is also a philosopher of death, for the death of not just millions but of hundreds of millions in order that an "elect of our race" can thrive, in order that they are not "disconcerted".

When one contemplates the atrocity exhibition that is the 20C, and Nietzches words "the great majority of people have no right to life", one can say he is an evil philosopher without parallel.

One might think that I'm merely pointing this out as a muslim reacting against Nietzsche's athiesm but Bertrand Russell was an athiest and more or less said the same.

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  • Plato advocated for slavery, a state built on lying to secure the status of the aristocracy, and where poetry was banned. But your problem is with Nietzsche, because his sister was a racist..? Darwin described something like Nietzsche says in your quote of his actual words, so was he 'evil'? If you downvoted my answer, feedback would be appreciated.
    – CriglCragl
    Jan 31 at 10:07
  • @CriglCragl: You've come out with some run-of-the-mill platitudes about Plato. Plato didn't think poets were the right kind of people to run a city. An opinion that was agreed by Oscar Wilde who said meetings were boring and also by Auden who said poets were more into excitement than planning for schools and drainage. Also you misread what I've said. I said Nietzsche's sister was a Nazi and I'm pointing out that despite representations to the contrary by the Nietzschean fan-club, Nietzsche was a philosophical Nazi. What Darwin said about evolution is not something he was prepared to state ... Jan 31 at 17:46
  • @CriglCragl: ... on the level of ethics. Nietzsche did. As did the Nazi's. Enuff said. Jan 31 at 17:47

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