5 of the most misunderstood quotes in philosophy
The great thing about philosophy is that we can all do it. Anyone can ask philosophical questions about reality, truth, good and evil, and the purpose of it all, and we often do, at least for brief moments throughout the day. The best books, TV shows, and movies are all tinged with philosophy, and they plant ideas that linger long after you close the book or the screen fades to black.
But even if everyone knows how to do philosophy (small “p”), it is also true that not everyone is good at Philosophy (big “P”, and as a discipline). when you study Philosophyonly a small part – a part often reserved for the sages and sages of university departments – involves Do philosophy. The rest is spent learning what other philosophers have said and why they said it. It makes sense, of course. When you learn to draw or write, you first learn the basic techniques. You have to walk before you can run.
The problem is that the internet is awash with half-read and mostly misunderstood philosophy. It is made up of a series of quotations – often from Nietzsche, Rumi or Camus – extracted in a single line from a very complicated book. It is wisdom, but taken out of context and stripped of all nuance. Million-follower social media accounts wring pithy aphorisms from huge, well-argued tomes to spread the philosophical equivalent of “live, laugh, love.”
To help clear things up and make things easier to understand, here are five of the most misunderstood quotes.
Nietzsche: “God is dead”
This quote is much more powerful (and makes more sense) when looking at the parts that come after it: “God remains dead! And we killed him!”
After all, this quote isn’t about God at all – it’s about humanity, what we’ve done, and the meaning of those actions.
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When Nietzsche said, “God is dead! is not the triumphant cheer of a dragon-slaying hero, or a smug, crusader atheist at the back of the church. It sounds more like the worried whispers of a eulogy. God, in this case, refers to the magnetic pole around which we all lived, not some bearded, benevolent figure from myth.
Before the Enlightenment began bringing science and rationality to the masses, God meant certainty, truth, security, and purpose. He was the alpha and the omega; the answer to all of life’s questions. He was the grandparent who gave meaning to the world. Without God, Nietzsche continues, it is as if we were falling, without any sense of up or down. There is nothing to cling to and nothing to stabilize us at all.
“God is dead” is about how we reorient ourselves in a world that no longer revolves around God. How are we going to make sense of things when all of our explanations are suddenly gone?
ockham: “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily”
If I asked you to give your top three philosophical razors, I bet Ockham’s would rank high on the list. People often assume that Ockham’s Razor claims that “if something is simpler, then it’s more likely to be true” – as if simplicity is proportional to truth. But that is not what it is intended to do. Ockham’s razor is not meant to be a to reign, but rather a guiding principle when choosing between options. Essentially, this means that if we are presented with two equally compelling theories, it is more rational to believe in the simpler one.
But the biggest problem with how we understand Ockham’s razor is that it was never really intended for real-world things, like in philosophy of science. When Ockham was writing, he was aiming for what was, frankly, pretty crazy metaphysics. It was the time of angelology andhow many angels can dance on the head of a pin? It was pedantic, convoluted and very bizarre. Dun Scotusfor example, believed that the extramental world was made up of 10 distinct metaphysical essences, and 10 was a modest number for the time.
Ockham was trying to calm everyone down a bit – to stop inventing millions of metaphysical entities when one or a few was enough.
marx: Capitalism is completely bad
It’s more of an idea than a quote. To many people who do not know Marx, or those who have only read his works at a glance, he appears as an anti-capitalist burning banks and building barricades. There is no doubt that Marx did not want to capitalism, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t see the good side of it either. In fact, he even recognized it as an important and essential element in the progress of the story.
The opening section of his communist manifesto is a lengthy, if reluctant, recognition of the successes of capitalism. Marx points out the great networks of industry, commerce and communications; the educational offer; and the rule of law. Capitalism is what brings warring and quarreling peoples together to form “one government, one code of laws, one national class interest.” It forces xenophobic and pariah peoples with a “stubborn hatred of foreigners to capitulate”. But the most important thing that capitalism has done is act as a kind of creative destruction.
Capitalism commodifies everything so that “all that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned”. It destroys the deities and sacred things of the past and replaces them with profit and industry. It is this iconoclasm that will be the clean slate that will allow an egalitarian restructuring of society. Moreover, capitalism’s fetishization of “profit” is what creates the surplus and productivity necessary for the communist redistribution of resources. Communism is not parachuted in as its own thing, but rather grows out of late capitalism.
Of course, for Marx, capitalism is a “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation” of humanity. It is riddled with problems and tends to bring out the worst in us. But it is also a necessary evil on the way to a better era.
Rousseau: “The Noble Savage”
This is a bit of a cheat, because rather than being “misunderstood”, it’s probably better to say that this idea is “misattributed”. Rousseau’s “noble savage” idea is that before we all started living in cities and calling ourselves “civilized”, humans were a naturally virtuous species. We were nice, social and happy. Rousseau, it is thought, used the phrase to show how modern society has further degraded human nature. “Civilization” is more corrupt than civilized.
Not only is the idea of ”savages” versus “civilization” massively dated, racist, and colonial notion, but the big problem is that Rousseau never said it. He probably didn’t believe it either. Rousseau argued that we could not call pre-societal people good or bad, virtuous or vicious, because these ideas evolved with civilization. Our conception of what is right is formulated or given to us by the society to which we belong. To refer to a “noble savage” would amount to projecting our own values onto a pre-value people. Before civilization, humans were neither moral nor immoral. They were just natural.
Descartes: Cogito Ergo Sum or “I think therefore I am”
I admit that this one is a bit niche. First, “I think, therefore I am” most certainly does not means, “if you believe in it, you can do it”. René Descartes was not a 17th century French version of Dale Carnegie writing self-help books to fuel his addiction to slave robots. Instead, it was his attempt to resolve radical skepticism, which is “how can we be sure of anything?” question.
The basic point is that if I’m thinking right now – or if I’m doubting, to be precise – then that’s also because I exist. A non-existent thing cannot think.
The misunderstanding comes from assuming that it is a dispute in the form of premises (I think) to conclusion (I exist). Certainly, the “therefore” attracts you rather. Instead, the Cogito is an “a priori intuition”, that is, it is true just by thinking about it. It is more like saying “there is a triangle, therefore there is a three-sided shape”. It is not an argument but rather a statement that contains certain truths within.
The reason this is important, and not (just) philosophical nitpicking, is that in Descartes meditations it is quite explicit that we have no reason to think that our rationality is irreproachable. Our ability to find truth in arguments might just be the trick of an all-powerful demon.
As Descartes wrote, “How do I know I’m right every time I add two and three, or count the sides of a square? So we cannot rely on our logic. This is why the Cogito—if it is to serve as an outlet for his skepticism—cannot be an argument.
look a little further
As we can see, it’s rare (and highly unlikely) that the entire canon of history’s greatest minds can be summed up or encompassed in one beautifully-lettered Pinterest post. It almost always happens that if you take the time to research the full context of a quote, you’ll find a lot more. At the very least, you’ll find details and nuance, and most of the time, you’ll find something completely different from your first impressions.
But, of course, that’s not what many people like to do. Quotes, especially popular ones, act like a kind of magic mirror in which we see what we want to see. And, to be honest, if it gets people thinking and talking, there’s not much harm in that either.