I WASN’T BORN a fan of philosophy.
Many, many years ago I was just another latch-key kid who watched too much TV. With an empty house, plenty of snacks, and a TV remote in hand, I spent countless hours not doing my homework, watching everything from He-Man to The People’s Court to The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Back in the day, when music television meant a channel actually showed music videos, I watched a lot of MTV.
Now, back then, when music videos were becoming a thing, most videos weren’t very good.
And sometimes after watching a video, you would wish you’d never seen what the band actually looked like.
But every so often you’d see a video that had something more than bad camera work, cheesy sets and costumes, and big 80’s hair going on.
Some videos gave you the idea that there we something going on behind what we see.
In some cases, the thing going on behind the thing we see is philosophical.
Before I had ever heard of Jean-Paul Sartre. Before I had heard of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. And long before I had ever heard of postmodernism, I had heard of David Bowie.
Not only were Bowie’s music videos visually stunning, but many of his videos would leave me thinking, “Is there something else going on, here?”
As it turns out, there almost always was.
This explains why when David Bowie died in January of this year, I felt a little sadder than I normally would for the usual celebrity death. Bowie’s death wasn’t just the loss of a musical idol. It was a philosophical loss as well.
If I had my choice, I’d much prefer that my philosophical lessons come from watching music videos rather than from reading philosophy books. Really, if you think about it most songs are kinda philosophical, so it would make (some) sense that one would learn a philosophical lesson or two from their favorite musician.
It wouldn’t be too unreasonable, then, to consider the philosophy of some musicians in the same way that we adhere to the ideas of a particular philosopher.
The trouble pops up when one’s musical idols become what YouTube famous* atheist Steve Shives calls “problematic”.
And David Bowie certainly is “problematic”.
David Bowie, like many other musicians, had certain relations that may be called “inappropriate”.
“Baby Groupie” Lori Mattix recounted in an article for Thrillist that was deflowered by Bowie in the 1970s when she was just 14 years old.
Although Mattix insists that she’s suffered no irreparable damage from her encounter with David Bowie (in fact, Mattix says she was a willing participant and has no regrets), the fact that Bowie was an adult and Mattix had not yet reached the age of consent presents a problem. To wit: sexual relations with an individual under the age of consent, even if the individual is willing, is illegal.
The law calls it statutory rape.
The statutory rape allegations against David Bowie rape have lead some to argue that we should think of Bowie less like this:
and more like this:
The reason why, I think, has something to do with the fact that our favorite musicians are more than mere entertainers.
You see, music, according to Socrates, is an essential element in life. Not just because listening to music makes a long road trip fun, but because music plays a part in the formation of a good soul.
According to Socrates, it is important that we not only listen to music, but also listen to the right kind of music.
And because the music we listen to is the right kind of music the quality of the music also reflects the quality of the people making the music. The right kind of music is made by the right kind of people.
And by “the right kind of people” we mean the kind of right-souled examples the community should follow.
But what about philosophers? As lovers of wisdom, philosophers should also be the right-souled kind of people the community should follow. Socrates even suggested that society should be ruled a philosopher-king. If we use the same standard for philosophers that we use for music and the makers of music, how many philosophers qualify as the right kind of people?
Well, let’s take a look at a few philosophers, shall we?
Hume and Kant were racists. Jean-Jacques Rousseau abandoned his family. Hegel was shitty to his illegitimate son. Hegel also said “The difference between man and woman is as between animal and plant”. Schopenhauer was a misogynist who described women as “[a] mental myopic” and pushed a woman down a flight of stairs.
Bertrand Russell had multiple infidelities with the wives of his friends. Nietzsche was a German nationalist who may or may not have influenced the Nazis. Heidegger was a Nazi. Descartes experimented on cats while they were still alive. Diogenes masturbated in public. Colin McGinn resigned from his position at the University of Miami following allegations by a female student of sexual harassment . Rutgers University philosophy professor, Anna Stubblefield was tried and convicted of sexually assaulting an intellectually disabled man.
Foucault was just weird.
If you think about it, it’s not exactly a group of good souls.
Long story short, if we’re looking for the kind of good-souled people worth following, we may find very few in philosophy.
And that’s the point – just like some advised when David Bowie’s sexual improprieties came to light following his death – perhaps we should learn to separate the artist from his art – and the philosopher from his philosophy.
Although I think that it’s sometimes for our own psychological peace of mind to ignore the unsavory bits of a philosopher’s or artist’s personal life, there’s something about overlooking the unpleasant parts that kinda, well, bugs me.
I mean, why would we? Can we ignore the unsavory bits? Should we? Is it to our philosophical benefit to excise aspects of a person’s life and actions? Are some illegal acts really no big deal? At what point can we or should we not overlook the personal life or actions of a pop culture idol or a philosopher?
To be honest, I don’t know. I’m well aware of Bertrand Russell’s adulterous behavior and yet I still believe that Russell is one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. I’ve read the racist views of Hume and Kant and yet I still refer to Kant’s ethics and Hume’s metaphysics regularly in my writing. And even though Schopenhauer truly was an awful person, he retains a soft spot in my heart.
I still hate Hegel, though.
Finding out that Hegel was a turd of a human being only makes me hate him more.
I probably won’t stop listening to David Bowie’s music, either.
I think, in the end, we shouldn’t be required to abandon our fandom or appreciation for Hegel, Heidegger, Hume, Kant, or David Bowie. What we should be, however, is mindful. We should be mindful of the fact that anyone we look up to, be they a philosopher or our favorite singer, is a flawed human being.
We should never fail to remind ourselves that the ability to communicate profound words or deep insights does not make a person perfect (nor should it). We should remember that sometimes even good people do bad things.
When all is said and done, there’s still a philosophical lesson to be learned – if only for the opportunity to ask what do we do when our idols are “problematic”?
I still don’t know.
If you figure out the answer let me know.
* I mean the term “YouTube famous” un-disparagingly, but to merely state that Steve Shives has a sizable following on YouTube. I, for one, am rather jealous of Shives’ following. I’m not even “Wordpress famous”.
I would also recommend checking out Shives’ commentary on David Bowie: