Can philosophy be dangerous?

Philosophy at its most benign is the search for clarity (although many would contest that assertion, I’m sure). Philosophy at its most proactive is a method of attempting to convince readers that a certain walk of life is right or wrong (and again, I concede, this is quite debatable). However can philosophy ever be dangerous? Certainly political philosophies, whether from the right or left, can be dangerous as anyone who has lived under an oppressive political regime would be able to testify.

But what of other forms of philosophy, such as moral philosophy? Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), love him or loath him (I for one am not a huge fan), is often cited as one of the great modern philosophers, credited with such concepts as the will to power, the death of god, master-slave morality and his often cited and more often misinterpreted concept of the Übermensch. Along with his title as one of the great modern philosophers I believe he can be gifted the title of one of the most misunderstood philosophers in history, to ugly effect. After Nietzsche succumbed to insanity in the later years of his life his sister, Elizabeth, edited and distributed his works in such a way as to intellectualise her own rabid anti-Semitism and Adolf Hitler expressed admiration of Nietzsche, although it is likely he never actually read any of his work. The best evidence we have about Nietzsche’s feeling on such matters suggests that he would have been horrified at how his work had been interpreted. Despite this it seems he had some, to put it mildly, unsavoury readers who perhaps read in his work what they wanted to hear. However to say that his work directly influenced the crimes of the Nazi party seems far-fetched.

This brings me to more recent events with the tragic shooting and murder of six people by Jared Loughner in Arizona earlier this month. In an opinion piece in the Canadian newspaper, the National Post, much is made of the fact that it appears Loughner was a reader of Nietzsche and that therefore the work of Nietzsche is potentially dangerous when read by the wrong people. There is little discussion of other texts Loughner may have been a fan of, and because Nietzsche’s work , on rare occasions, has appealed to people who have done wrong in the past it is implied the work of Nietzsche is dangerous. This seems to me to be a case of the logical fallacy post hoc propter ergo hoc (literally ‘after this, therefore because of this’) The fallacy is set out thus: x happened, then y happened; therefore x caused y.

Because Loughner read Nietzsche at some point in his past and more recently committed a horrific crime does not mean that Loughner committed that crime because he read Nietzsche, as the article implies. Lack of context can make something ripe for misinterpretation, which it seems is something which has happened to Nietzsche’s work in the past, however logical fallacies can make something ripe for misunderstanding, which it seems is something which has happened in this National Post article. It is ironic that an article which discusses the dangers of philosophy should contain a potentially damaging logical fallacy such as post hoc propter ergo hoc.

Constitutive Arguments Ariela Tubert

Buck-Passing Accounts of Value Jussi Suikkanen

Author: Steven Hedley

I am a postgraduate student in philosophy at Kings College London and an aspiring academic.

1 thought on “Can philosophy be dangerous?”

  1. Okay, Loughner is probably a poor example though. A John Maynard Keynes has a wonderful quote on the matter (I am not generally a fan of his, but this is good):

    ‘The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.’

    Loughner is a poor example because he is just one man who was not particularly subtle in his application of his misunderstanding of philosophies (if, indeed, that had any bearing… your contention otherwise I think is pretty solid).

    But what about those for whom philosophy had more meaning and more influence which therefore translated into very real action? Could Karl Marx be held responsible for the atrocities committed by, among others, Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler? They all owe an intellectual debt to Marx, and at least 3 of them were avowed Marxists in the formative part of their lives.

    Of course the same can apply to most philosphers from Hobbes to Nietzsche, or any philosophers for whom violence was not necessarily to be rejected. I am conscious of not making a value judgment on this, by the way – I personally think philosophy is more valuable than the terms we are using here!

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