Friday, November 1, 2013

The Corrupting Influence of Philosophy

At the risk of sounding redundant, I will repeat an old question: What is the use of philosophy? Seen from the point of view of another species, if one may be allowed such an absurd position, philosophy must seem like one of the more peculiar human activities.

Reflection is somewhat contrived and artificial when practised by the human being. It does not come naturally in man; significant efforts are required and the result is often far from impressive. As George Santayana said, it is difficult to overcome “the present with its instant joys in order laboriously to conceive the absent and the hypothetical.”[1] It is not surprising, therefore, that the spiritual foundations of modern civilisation were laid only relatively recently.[2] In the last two or three millennia, philosophy has spread slowly, indirectly influencing values and changing modes of thinking across society.

For the individual, this diffusion of philosophy cannot be said to have a positive influence, from either a physical or a spiritual point of view. Physically, the highest objective of life, besides mere survival, is the reproduction of the species and the accumulation of material wealth. Philosophy is not helpful in reaching these goals; on the contrary. As Rousseau famously said, reflection turns a man inward and philosophy isolates him.[3] This explains why many of the best thinkers never had children and were thus unable to fulfil the main biological duty of any living being: to beget an offspring.[4] The same principle can be seen at work in the general population, which is generally only indirectly exposed to philosophy. In the modern world, the influence of philosophy is at least partially responsible for the fact that the fertility rate in women is inversely correlated with their level of education.[5] There is also the movement of “voluntary childlessness”, which is followed mostly by highly educated men and women.[6] It would seem, therefore, that the more the human population engages in speculative and rational thinking, the less its members are inclined to procreate. Regarding material wealth, it is hardly necessary to comment on philosophy's poor capability in this respect. Reflection is hardly the most important factor for financial success.

From a spiritual point of view, the highest objective in life is peace and happiness. Here too, philosophy tends to make things more rather than less difficult. A thoughtful life is rarely a harmonious life. The best way to stay happy is to stay ignorant, like children. As Russian poet Alexander Griboedov said, there is "woe from wit."[7] Philosophy often troubles the soul; it has a disturbing tendency of stirring things up and stripping reality of its veneer. Reflection requires serious moments of solitude, “away from the market-place”, as Nietzsche said.[8]

It would seem, therefore, that philosophy is unnecessary and even counter-productive to the fulfilment of the most important physical and spiritual objectives of the human life. Philosophy is at best a useless activity, and at worse a harmful one for successful living.

Philosophy leads to a certain abnormality or ailment in the human soul when the individual is exposed to it directly. This spiritual sickness expresses itself as a morbid questioning of the world, destroying that innocent confidence that is so useful in life. Sometimes doubt is good, of course, because it increases the chances of survival. A healthy dose of natural scepticism is the basis for both individual and social development. But philosophy often generates a level of doubt that goes far beyond what the human mind generally is able to handle.

This may be one reason questions of philosophy are never settled. The same questions lead to different answers after thousands of years of ruminations, because the proposed answers are never universally satisfactory. The human being will always be fundamentally unprepared to conclusively answer questions that are so much wider in scope than daily life. The tragedy is that the human being has the intellectual capability of asking philosophical questions, but not the capability of answering them.

Political philosophy is a good example of this dilemma. This area of philosophy only exists because of the endless disagreements among some members of the human species regarding how society could or should be organised. Less intelligent species never had to deal with this problem: their members live naturally together in an implicit and instinctive social compact. The extreme intelligence of the human species has driven it away from the natural life, almost to the point of self-annihilation.[9] The Homo Sapiens seems to have been a step too far in the evolution of the human being; the Homo Erectus did not live in such confusion.

Since the exposure to philosophy can threaten individual well-being and social harmony, it is possible to conclude that there is such a thing as over-education. This is what the accusers of Socrates had in mind when they put him on trial for, among other things, “corruption of the youth.”[10] In this vein, today's policy recommendation would consist in reducing the intellectual education of society, for instance by limiting higher education to the natural sciences, and removing funding for those subjects that stimulate reflection, namely most subjects belonging to the humanities.[11] This is the dream of many educators and pundits, since the humanities are generally considered a waste of time and money in the capitalist society.[12] After all, economic growth is driven primarily by developments in the natural sciences.

A certain restriction or discouragement of higher education also makes sense because most professions do not require any serious thinking capability. The post-industrial service society requires a work-force consisting of simple-minded executers and quick-witted specialists, not thinking generalists.[13] The exposure to philosophy threatens the political stability of modern society because it kills the natural joy and happy insouciance of the majority. Several countries apparently recognise this and are trying, perhaps unwittingly, to limit access to higher education, for instance, by dramatically raising their university tuition fees and by letting the educational scores of their teenagers remain poor.[14]

However, the limitation of education for the good of society may not actually be needed, since reflection is far less common than is generally supposed. Most people never practice philosophy or even engage in any kind of sustained thinking. They are not worse off for it, since philosophy is not recommended for a successful life. As Santayana said, “reason is indeed not indispensable to life, nor needful if living anyhow be the sole and indeterminate aim; as the existence of animals and of most men sufficiently proves.”[15] Fortunately, most members of the human species remain happily insulated from most of the corrupting influence of philosophy. 


[1] G. Santayana, The Life of Reason, p9. Prometheus Books, 1998.

[2] From Wikipedia : Karl Jaspers argued that during the Axial Age "the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently in China, India, Persia, Judea, and Greece. And these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today.” (

[3] J-J. Rousseau, On the Origin of the Inequality Among Men.

[4] For instance: Plato, Spinoza, Locke, Kant, Nietzsche, Santayana, Wittgenstein, Sartre, Foucault, and many others.

[5] See the article from The Guardian, “Should we care that smart women aren't having kids?”, by Sadhbh Walshe. And the relation between education and childbirth:
[6] From wikipedia: “Childless persons tend to have higher educations than those that do have children. Due to their higher education these childless couples also tend to have professional and managerial positions.”

[7] "Горе от ума", Грибоедов.

[8] F. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra. “Away from the market-place and from fame taketh place all that is great...” Chapter XII, p49.

[9] For instance with World War I and II (total 85M people), and later with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident (see wikipedia:
[10] Plato, The Apology of Socrates.

[11] Something along these lines has already been suggested, for instance, by Bill Gates. See for instance:

[12] This argument is not so outrageous as it seems apparently, since it has been seriously proposed, for instance, by Jonathan Last, a senior writer at The Weekly Standard, that: “Among the solutions he advocates is cutting back on higher education, thereby reducing its depressing influence on American fertility.” See the The New Yorker, Head Count, by Elizabeth Kolbert, October 2013.

[13] This well-known trait of the modern society was pointed out almost a century ago by thinkers such as John Dewey, José Ortega y Gasset, J. K. Galbraith, and others. Today it has just become clearer than before. For instance, J.K Galbraith: “The real accomplishment of modern science and technology consists in taking ordinary men, informing them narrowly and deeply and then, through appropriate organization, arranging to have their knowledge combined with that of other specialized but equally ordinary men.” J.K. Galbraith, The New Industrial State, p62, Hamish Hamilton publishers, 1967. 
    More recently, see the study of managers and salaried workers by Professor Robert Jackall, Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, Oxford University Press.

[14] This is the case, for instance, in countries such as the UK, the US, and Canada. See: In the UK, fees have triples under the Cameron government. A similar situation has been seen in Canada in the last 20 years: For the situation in the US, here is the official data:

    Regarding low educational scores, this trend is particularly clear in the US. See for instance, the following article which shows that education level of teenagers have not improved at all in 40 years: and
[15] G. Santayana, The Life of Reason, p51. Prometheus Books, 1998.

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