IF THERE’S ONE THING that most people can agree upon, its that we live in a culture of celebrity worship. Its not just that there’s a few tabloid rags at the check-out counter; there are entire networks devoted to exploring the lives and goings-on of the famous and almost famous.
We weren’t always like this, they say…
And with a marketplace oversaturated with a celebrity idolatry, its easy to pick out, or rather, pick on, the famous folks that we choose to blame for our culture’s obsession with celebritydom.
Now, there’s plenty of famous folks to blame
We can blame Oprah. Or Snooki and reality TV. Or even blame TMZ.
But most say the blame for the decline of American civilization truly lies here, with this family
They are undeniably the first family of reality television. And they’ve built a brand so popular and successful that those who are merely Kardashian-adjacent manage to snag more than their fair share of 15 minutes of fame.
A brand so popular and successful that their activities and scandals are even covered on the “legit” news.
I think we can all agree that it’s a fairly “in” thing to talk shit about the Kardashians. It’s easy to dismiss or to talk disparagingly about the family, either as individuals or collectively. And I’m not going to deny that I’ve participated in more than my fair share of Kardashian-bashing. To say that you not only do not watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians but also despise them is seen as a badge of honor and integrity.
Despising the Kardashians and all that they symbolize means that one is enlightened.
I no longer believe that this is the case.
I’ve discovered, while talking shit about people that you’ll never meet and can’t possibly hear you (at least I don’t think any of them can hear me), that doing so isn’t helpful.
At least not helpful if you want to do something more than talk shit.
Doing more is exactly what I intend to do.
I’m not going to say that my opinion on celebrity culture has completely changed (for the record, I still think that TMZ is one of the worst things out there. And yes, I watch it regularly), but I’ve come to a new conclusion, at least so far as my feelings towards the Kardashians.
It would be easy to say that nothing of value has come from this family. They’re celebrities, and celebrity matters only to those people who have nothing of value to say, anyway.
“Small minds discuss people” they say.
But, offhandedly dismissing the Kardashians would be rude and unphilosophical.
I hold to the idea that anything – everything is philosophical.
Anything or any one has lessons to teach, and yes, even the Kardashians.
And you don’t even have to watch the show to learn a lesson, either.*
I’ve drawn up a list of the philosophical things I thought about while watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians:
The nature of fame and its effects on the individual and the society. What kind of people become famous. Are they the kind of people that we should look up to? Are famous people inherently better than others? Are they the kind of people that philosophers like Plato had in mind when he wrote of those who should be leaders of the polis?
Caitlyn Jenner and gender: What is gender and gender identity/gender expression? What makes us masculine a/or feminine? How do we navigate the intersection between biological gender, gender identity, and sexuality? We do feminist philosophers such as Judith Butler, Simone de Beauvoir, bell hooks, and Helen Longino have to say about the subject?
Kanye West and what makes a philosopher? Some (often derisively) name Kanye West as a modern philosopher. Is he a philosopher? What makes a philosopher? Is philosophy strictly limited to academia or can anyone become a “philosopher”?
The Kardashian/Jenner sisters are not only known for their celebrity but are also well-known for their looks and their association with beauty products. We can discuss the philosophical definition of beauty, and how the philosophical definition conforms (or does not conform) to our conversations about beauty and aesthetics.
Reality and reality TV. Is reality television reality or the appearance of the real? How does reality TV present the real world to the audience and are reality television producers morally obligated to inform the audience that reality TV isn‘t “real”? There’s plenty of material to cover here, including commentaries (from postmodernist philosophers such as) Jean Baudrillard, to the ontology of Platonic forms, Kant’s transcendental idealism, and Descartes’ evil demon.
Questions of value: What is valuable? How do we measure value – is it merely a matter of taste or can we quantify value philosophically? Is what is valuable good? What is the Good? Are some reality TV shows Good – better for us philosophically than others?
There’s always some sort of moral dilemma going on: So long as people act, there will be motivations and consequences of their actions, and those actions can be evaluated ethically.
Personal identity: Who we are. Who do we present ourselves and is that presentation authentic?
We can drift into some pretty heavy existential conversations, right there.
Everyone knows you cant discuss anything pop culture without somehow drawing in Nietzsche. Someone is bound to quote (or misquote) an aphorism or two.
And lastly, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, or any other television program, can aid in the philosophical study/analysis of pop culture in general.
Those are just a few thoughts I had while watching the show.
I’m not saying that watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians is a replacement for reading Kierkegaard or that you should quote Kim Kardashian in your next term paper.
… unless she says something really brilliant.
Then by all means, do.
Just as philosophers defend philosophy against those who decree philosophy dead and useless
Stephen Hawking I’m looking at you…
Philosophers shouldn’t get into the habit of offhandedly dismissing something that we may think is useless – it just might be very useful.
So at least give the show a peek before you completely write it off.
And even if you hate it, you can probably find a philosophical explanation for why you hate it, too.
It’s one of E! Network’s most popular shows, which means it’s on a lot.
It’s probably on right now.
* ALTHOUGH WATCHING KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS ISN’T NECESSARY TO DISCUSS THEM, IT’S STRONGLY SUGGESTED THAT YOU CHECK OUT AT LEAST A COUPLE OF EPISODES. IF ANYONE SEES YOU AND DEMANDS TO KNOW WHY YOU’RE WATCHING THE SHOW, JUST TELL THEM YOU’RE WATCHING IT FOR “RESEARCH PURPOSES”.
THERE’S A WELL-KNOWN saying that goes “you’re only as old as you feel”. Well, sometimes even when you feel quite youthful, something happens that makes you feel old.
Like when you remember one of your favorite movies when you were a kid was released 30 years ago.
Or when the person who wrote and directed a movie you loved as a kid dies.
On August 6, 2009, film writer-director and Generation X icon John Hughes died.
There’s something really unnerving when the idols of one’s youth start popping off from the same diseases, ailments, and blocked arteries that killed your grandparents. The death of John Hughes only reminded me of how old I’m getting; that my chances of dying young and leaving a good looking corpse is quickly slipping away.
I was thinking about how much (way back in the 1980s) John Hughes’ movies were, as they say in the modern vernacular, the shit. Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science and Pretty in Pink were the cinematic soundtrack of my youth. Honestly, who can hear Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” without defiantly thrusting your fist in the air like Judd Nelson? (Alright, no one ever does).
New York School of the Performing Arts kids like Doris Finsecker and Ralph Garci might have experienced self discovery while smoking weed and doing the time warp to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but for the suburbia-adjacent kids like me, we saw our so-called lives played out in the teen angst drama of Some Kind of Wonderful.**
Not too long ago, partly because a) I had nothing better to do, b) I wanted to honor the memory of John Hughes, and c) I was desperately engaged in a vain attempt to capture my lost youth; I decided to watch a John Hughes movie. After some serious contemplation – and because it was the easiest John Hughes movie to grab off of my DVD shelf – I spent an afternoon watching John Hughes’ teen comedy magnum opus 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Nearly every one of John Hughes’ movies is quotable but Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was the one where we learned the eternally quotable “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it”.
I’m not entirely sure if Ferris Bueller is actually the first person to say it, but I do remember that hearing that line was the first time I’d ever been floored by anyone, let alone a character in a movie, speaking philosophically.
Imagine this: you’re an eleven year old kid, home alone on a Wednesday afternoon, watching cable TV, probably HBO.
Ferris Bueller is dressed in a bathrobe and is actively breaking the fourth wall just to speak directly to you, the eleven year old kid sitting at home alone watching HBO.
Nowadays, looking back, Ferris Bueller’s wisdom seems a bit trite (were we really supposed to learn the value of carpe dieming from a character who is still in high school?), but back then, just like Cameron Frye, Ferris Bueller was my hero.
My, how things have changed.
I thought when I sat down to watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off so many years after I had initially seen it as a kid, that I would re-experience the same sense of philosophical enlightenment that I had felt all those years ago when I was a lonely latchkey kid looking for someone to look up to.
Because one‘s parents are never the first choice.
Maybe it’s because I’m looking at Ferris Bueller’s Day Off through cynical adult eyes, but while I sat, watching the shenanigans of Ferris Bueller and Co., it suddenly hit me; I realized what a horrible person Ferris Bueller is.
Wait – my revelation didn’t stop there. I realized that almost every John Hughes character was an unforgivable jerk in some major way.
Collectively speaking, most of John Hughes’ characters are self- indulgent assholes.
Don’t believe me? Here are a few examples for you:
Farmer Ted (Sixteen Candles) is a date-rapist (he has sex with Jake Ryan’s drunken, passed out girfriend, with Jake’s encouragement no less. Watch the movie. It’s true).
Andie (Pretty in Pink) was kind of a bitch who not only wanted way out of her league (for even considering that she should go to the prom with high school hottie Blane Mc Donnagh), but Andie in no way deserved Duckie.
There is not one redeeming character in The Breakfast Club (we’re supposed to like Andy, this time played by Emilio Estevez, even though he committed a possible sexual assault/battery on a classmate by taping the guy‘s buttcheeks together).
And the Griswold family (National Lampoon’s Vacation) are just plain racists.
Watch the hubcap stealing scene if you don’t believe me.
Now that I’m thinking about it, If characters like Ferris Bueller were supposed to be a portrait of the American teenager (if you live in a world where amazingly enough, everybody is white, upper middle class, and the only minorities you encounter come straight out of Black Acting School), I think in retrospect, that John Hughes’ American teenager was about as true to life as the fictional hamlet of Shermer, Illinois.
I know that I am treading on thin ice, here. For those of a certain age, the movies of John Hughes are like GOSPEL and Hughes’ characters are so freaking cool that they can do no wrong. But after several viewings of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off I really began to think that of all John Hughes’ characters. Perhaps with the exception of Kevin McCallister, who possessed more knowledge about planting booby traps and countermeasures against home invaders than a seasoned Navy Seal, Ferris Bueller is Hughes’ most selfish character.
Really. The entire movie is about how Ferris Bueller spends an entire day scheming, exploiting, and outright lying to people to get what he wants. The fact that all the “sportos, motor heads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, dweebies, dickheads,” all adore Ferris, and think he’s a “righteous dude”, doesn’t mitigate the fact that Ferris is an
The proof is in the viewing: As the movie opens, we see Ferris (Matthew Broderick) faking that he’s sick. Of course we know that Ferris isn’t sick, but Ferris’ very concerned and clueless parents have no idea their is lying to them. They believe that there actually is something physically wrong with their son. After all, why else would their son be bent over moaning and wailing with sweaty palms if he wasn’t dreadfully ill?
Tom and Katie Bueller believe Ferris is sick, and Ferris is glad that they do. Ferris is so glad that he’s duped his parents into believing that he is deathly ill that he doesn’t feel even the slightest tinge of guilt for deceiving his parents. In fact, Ferris Bueller doesn’t spend one moment of the movie regretting the fact that he weaves a web of deception around not only his own parents but around practically everyone he knows.
Ferris doesn’t care when his (supposedly) BFF Cameron Frye tells Ferris that he’s (actually) sick and can’t accompany Ferris on his adventure. SFW, Ferris says. Instead of offering Cameron a decongestant or well wishes, Ferris tells his best friend that if he doesn’t get out of bed and hang out, that Cameron will have to find a new best friend.
Ferris not only decides that he’s going to coerce others to join his plan, he also decides to “borrow” Cameron’s father’s prized sports car for the day’s activities. Ferris could not care less when Cameron tells him that his (likely physically abusive) father will kill him if his prized 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California gets “so much as a scratch on it.” Ferris ignores his (supposedly best) friend and steals the car anyway – even if the consequence of discovery means almost certain death for his best friend.
Unlike a good person, Ferris has no problem lying to his parents or to his principal, Mr. Rooney, or falsifying his school records. Nor does Ferris have any compunction over pulling his girlfriend, Sloane Peterson, out of class.
By faking her grandmother’s death, no less.
Ferris gleefully mouths off to a snooty restaurant maitre d’ to prove his moral superiority to the guy and assumes the identity of someone he is not to humiliate the maitre d’ in front of the restaurant‘s patrons.
Ferris doesn’t hesitate to commandeer a Von Steuben Day Parade float not only to garner more attention for FERRIS but also to publicly humiliate Cameron in front of the gathered crowd by declaring that his best friend is a grump who didn‘t think he would “see anything good today”.
NOT ONLY DOES FERRIS DRESS DOWN HIS “BEST” FRIEND IN PUBLIC, HE SPECULATES ON CAMERON’S (LACK OF) SEXUAL EXPERIENCES , TALKS SHIT ABOUT THE STATE OF CAMERON’S HOME LIFE, AND COMPARES HIS FRIEND’S RECTUM TO THE GEOLOGIC DIAMOND-MAKING PROCESS. SOME BEST FRIEND, EH?
Ferris Bueller doesn’t care if everyone else has to go to school or to work “on a day like this”. Oh no! Ferris’ day off is all about the fact that Ferris can’t be bothered by responsibility. That’s what other people do. After all, with all that hard work being idolized by everyone at school, Ferris Bueller needs a day off!
By the way, if you really pay attention to the movie, you’ll notice that he only time Ferris shows any sort of remorse for what he’s done is when he feigns an apology so he can further exploit other people.
Now, either Ferris Bueller either is suffering from some sort of sociopathy, which is a matter best handled by mental health professionals, but since I am a philosopher, and consequently, am in no way interested or qualified to render a psychiatric diagnosis, my philosophical diagnosis is that Ferris Bueller is nothing more than a standard ethical egoist.
Ethical egoism is the ethical theory that holds an act is right if (and only if) an act produces happiness for a particular agent — you. Everyone ought to look after, as a follower of the goddess of egoism, Ayn Rand (1905-1982) would tell you, his own rational self interest. The philosopher Gregory Kavka (1947-1994) explained that an egoist (in particular a Rule Egoist) acts according to the following principle:
Each agent should attempt always to follow that set if general rules of conduct whose acceptance (and sincere attempt to follow) by him on all occasions would produce the best (expected) outcomes by him.
In short, egoist ethics is the inverse of utilitarian-esque “Vulcan logic”. Instead of believing that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one, the egoist believes the needs of the one, the agent, outweigh the needs of the many.
But enough Star Trek.
The ethical egoist’s reasoning is this: because we are unable to know anyone else’s needs or motivations and because we are restricted to seeing the world from only our own particular point of view, we only are morally obligated to act in a manner that benefits us. Egoism poster-girl, Ayn Rand, wrote, “This is why objectivist ethics is a morality of rational self-interest – or of rational selfishness.” In a way, Ferris Bueller is not unlike Rand’s description of Howard Roark, the protagonist of Rand’s novel The Fountainhead (1943). In her description of Roark, Ayn Rand writes:
He is not even militant or defiant about his utter selfishness… He has a quiet, irrevocable calm of an iron conviction. No dramatics, no hysteria, no sensitiveness about it — because there are no doubts… A quick, sharp mind, courageousness and not afraid to be hurt… He will be himself at any cost — the only thing he really wants of life. And, deep inside if him, he knows that he has the ability to win the fight to be himself.
So apparently not only is Ferris Bueller an ethical egoist, more specifically, he’s a Randian objectivist.
**Objectivism is most closely associated with the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Rand describes the objectivist ethic, based on rational self interest, as “The proper standard of ethics is: man’s survival qua man – i.e., that which is required for his survival as a rational being … Man – every man – is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself, he must work for his rational self interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose in life”. In short, a Randian objectivist’s primary moral objective is to act only in a manner that is most beneficial to him, which is exactly what an ethical egoist does.**
According to Rand the egoist is concerned about others in so far as his concern for others contributes to his own happiness. Sure, an egoist might give to charity, but he is not motivated by any sense of altruism. The egoist is motivated by a personal want (a good reputation and public accolades, for example) than by a want to selflessly give to people less fortunate than he is. So when Ferris tells Cameron that his day off really was for Cameron’s benefit, we know that Ferris is full of shit.
We know that Cameron’s good day was a only fortunate consequence to Ferris’ egoism. Ferris is so focused on his own day off that if either his best friend Cameron or his girlfriend Sloane has a good day it is an unintentional consequence of Ferris‘ selfishness. In truth, the day is all about as the water tower says, saving Ferris.
As mere movie watchers unaware of the deeper philosophical significance of Ferris Bueller‘s Day Off, we only see Ferris as a go-getter, a mercurial rogue who lives life on his own terms. Ferris knows what he wants and doesn’t let obstacles get in his way. Ferris Bueller is the guy we, and Cameron Frye, always wanted to be.
I don’t know if John Hughes had Howard Roark, Ayn Rand, or ethical egoism in mind when he wrote and directed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I’m assuming that he did not. John Hughes may or may not have had Rand in mind, but philosophically speaking, Ferris is imbued with what Rand describes as the three fundamental values of man: reason, purpose, and self-esteem. Ferris Bueller is, as Ayn Rand’s ethics describes, a man who lives for his own sake.
As a man who lives for his own sake, a guy like a snooty maitre d’ or a power hungry Principal Rooney isn’t going to get into Ferris’ way. An egoist (like Ferris) does not allow anyone else’s needs trump his own needs and/or wants. That means if Ferris Bueller wants to have his way, Ferris gets his way; everyone else’s needs simply do not come first.
As we watch the film, we come to understand what Cameron Frye must have realized about Ferris – being with Ferris Bueller is easy if you understand this one thing: Ferris comes first.
This explains why Cameron’s father’s car goes from looking like this:
To looking like this by the end of the movie:
** It’s worth noting here that an individual who lives for one’s own sake might be interpreted be described by others as acting selfishly. To perceive an egoist’s actions as selfish is not a misinterpretation of an ethical egoist’s guiding moral philosophy. According to Ayn Rand, an ethics of selfishness isn’t a bad thing (in fact, Rand considers selfishness a virtue). An ethical egoist’s selfishness isn’t a moral or psychological defect. Unlike most people who are concerned with soul (and bank account) draining activities and ideals like altruism or a sense of selflessness in dealing with their fellow humans, an egoist knows what he wants and knows exactly what he needs to do to get it (serving others selflessly often interferes with our ability to serve our own interests). Ferris Bueller would inform you that his actions were not due to a lack of morals or because he is an asshole. Ferris would tell you that he is, in fact, quite a moral individual. The situation simply is this: he chooses to not be encumbered by fulfilling the interests of others. **
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off costar Ben Stein described Ferris as having an “inner mobility” and an “inner sense of freedom and self-confidence”, and John Hughes said that Ferris Bueller isn’t “labored with all the difficulties that everyone else is”. Given Ferris’ behavior during his day off, we’re safe to assume that the achievement of his own happiness is Ferris’ greatest purpose in life.
Straight outta Rand.
** This is why we not only like but want to be like Ferris Bueller and why all the sportos, motor heads, geeks, sluts, and dweebies adore him. The unfortunate reality for most of us is that although we want to be Ferris Bueller, we all know that deep down we all really are like Cameron Frye trapped in lives as Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Of quiet desperation”. We need people like Ferris to show us that life is worth living. This is exactly what Ferris does for Cameron. This leads us to a question: since the day ended pretty well for everyone, what’s the harm in what Ferris did? What’s the harm of being selfish and using other people to get what you want if everyone has fun? **
Well, Ferris Bueller’s universally fun-filled day off aside, there’s a tremendous problem with ethical egoism. Namely, the problem with ethical egoism is the fact that egoism tends to be self defeating.
Listen: the only way a person can really ever be a successful egoist is if a person remains closeted about it. The late Australian philosopher, Brian Medlin (1927-2004), says ethical egoism doesn’t work because people don’t want to live in a world where people only live for themselves. Medlin says:
What is he when he urges upon his audience that they should observe his own interests and those alone? Is he not acting contrary to the egoist principle? It cannot be to his advantage to convince them, for seizing always their own advantage they will impair his. Surely is he does believes what he says, he should try to persuade them otherwise.
If everybody is an ethical egoist, says Medlin, our selfish pursuit of our own pleasure will inevitably conflict with someone else’s selfish pursuits. Although an ethical egoist can be quite comfortable calling himself an egoist, he is likely to be uncomfortable with other people knowing that he is an egotist. For example, Ferris couldn’t very well ring up Cameron and say, “hey, Cam. I’ve decided, being the ethical egoist that I am, to take the day off. And as an egoist, I’m going to spend the entire day pleasing me, and I’m going to exploit you, Sloane, and anyone else who I need to use along the way. Wanna come along? By the way, bring your dad’s car”.
This would not work. Cameron has his own selfish interests he may want to pursue, including not being exploited by his best friend.
Obviously Ferris’ want to exploit Cameron and Cameron’s want to not be exploited by Ferris conflict. An egoist as smart as Ferris Bueller knows that he cannot and should not prance around waving his ethical egoism in everyone’s faces. And Ferris, like many egoists, is far too clever to let other people in on his game. Ferris says that he’s doing it all for Cameron, but really, Cameron’s happiness is a happy accident. An egoist knows that the key to getting what you want does not mean that someone always gets harmed, but it does mean that nobody else knows you’re an ethical egoist.
Alright. Rebuttal time, you say. Ethical egoism naysayers like Brian Medlin and Jesus Christ are only partially right.
The egoism-is-self-defeating-argument may be a problem if an egoist is indeed strictly in it for himself. Doing so would indeed be self-defeating. However, being an egoist does not mean that you always have to seek your own happiness to the exclusion of the happiness of others. Ethical egoists often discover that pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number of people actually increases the egoist’s happiness as well.
Ben Stein claims that Ferris helps Cameron to “liberate” himself. So when Ferris “borrows” Cameron’s father’s car, ignores Cameron’s illness, and talks to the camera about his friend’s non-existent sex life, it’s really to help Cameron to break free from his fear. When Ferris stands completely still and does nothing to stop Cameron while Cameron kicks the holy hell out his father’s car, it’s not because Ferris is looking after his own ass and wants to wipe his hands clean of the whole ordeal, it is because Ferris is being a great friend helping Cameron to gain independence from his father. When Ferris humiliates the maitre d’ at Chez Quis, it’s not because Ferris gets his rocks off humiliating people in public, it’s to put a snarky butthole in his place. When Ferris lip sync’s The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” on the Von Steuben Day Parade float, it’s not to be the center of attention, he’s doing it to show Cameron something good that day.
The fact that Ferris’ happiness was Ferris’ main motivation for taking the day off didn’t necessarily mean that other people had to get hurt. It’s possible that everyone can think you’re a righteous dude and they can get what they want, too.
And because no one admits that we’re all in it for ourselves, everyone is happy.
In the end, my two cents worth says that Ferris Bueller indeed is a Randian egoist.
I will, however, concede that Medlin and the other haters tend to act as if being an egoist means that you’re required to go all Marquis de Sade in how you treat others. We know that’s not so.
The trick is that you simply don’t go waiving your egoist banner everywhere. If you have to tell people that you’re a Kantian, so be it. Just as long as everyone (especially you) is happy. If you are successful, you can get exactly what you want while everyone else thinks you’re a righteous dude. All it takes is a little bit of obfuscation. And because no one ever admits that we’re all in it for ourselves, everyone is happy.
Maybe except for Cameron.
Anyone else get the feeling that Cameron didn’t show up the next day at school?
Or the next…
… or the next?
** I have once again made reference to an original version of a film (and not its sequel). For those who are unfamiliar with the original film, the characters “Doris Finsecker” and “Ralph Garci” are characters from the film Fame, originally released in 1980.
*** For those who don’t know, SFW means “so fucking what?”
*THIS POST ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ANOTHER FORM IN THE BOOK MINDLESS PHILOSOPHER: HOW PHILOSOPHY TAUGHT ME EVERYTHING I NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT POPULAR CULTURE AND ON THE (now defunct) BLOGGER BLOG “THE KANTIAN EGOIST” (POSTED AUGUST 25, 2009).
Gregory Kavka. “A Reconciliation Project”. Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings. 2007. Ed. Louis J. Poijman. pp. 358-9.
I KNOW THAT THIS TOPIC has been written about, nearly to the point that one may add the phrase ad nauseam when talking about the subject – and I know that philosophers have also thrown their two cents in on this overly-discussed topic. But I also know that no matter how much we, normals and philosophers alike, talk about it, it won’t be nearly enough to get to the bottom of this perplexing and often frustrating subject.
Bottom being the operative word, here.
You see, it seems that no matter how emphatically I insist that philosophy is necessary, there will be no shortage of those who will remain unconvinced that studying philosophy is at all necessary for one’s psychological and intellectual fulfillment. But believe me when I tell you this: thinking about life and the world philosophically opens up entirely new ways to look at everything. EVERYTHING.
There’s something that happens to you once you begin to study philosophy. You’ll find it everywhere. It’s not just that you’ll understand the philosophical undertones of Radiohead’s Ok Computer (and there are plenty to be found) or understand how understanding postmodernism makes watching David Lynch movies much easier (actually, it probably won’t). However, more importantly, you’ll be able to use philosophy in your everyday relationships with your family, friends, coworkers, even with complete strangers!
I cannot say it enough times; philosophy is great. Even though the stereotypical image of philosophers and their theories is not an image that we readily associate with the word “great”, and is even less likely to be associated with the word “fun”, thinking of everyday things from a philosophical point of view can actually be simultaneously informative and tremendously entertaining.
A few years ago, the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt’s 1986 essay “On Bullshit” was republished and became a bestseller on the New York Times non-fiction list. The popularity of the 2005 book version of On Bullshit surprised many, most of whom, I assume, are people who probably did not believe that anything written by a philosopher can be popular.
… Or entertaining.
Or would have the word “bullshit” in it.
Frankfurt’s mission in On Bullshit was to define and develop a theory of bullshit, which Frankfurt describes as “one of the most salient features of our culture”. What Harry Frankfurt proved is that philosophy can not only be entertaining, but philosophy can be used to analyze something that all of us, not just philosophy professors or philosophy students, are interested in and familiar with.
While I was earning my philosophy degree, I had made it a habit of asking my fellow students and (some of) my professors why they had decided to take up philosophy. To be honest, I was shocked by the homogeneity of the answers that I heard. I was well aware that philosophers are the sort of people who make a habit of thinking about things other people usually don‘t think about, so I had expected that their answers would be more varied than they were.
The answer I usually heard was something like this, “I decided to study philosophy because I wanted to learn more about myself and the way the world works”.
Exciting answer, eh?
For the record, that’s not why I went into philosophy.
You see, before I became a philosophy major I was a dedicated student of political science. And, as any student of politics knows, what political science really is about is the art of bullshitting. Bullshitting is the politician’s medium. A politician’s finely crafted pieces of tauroscatatological masterpieces have no rival. Politicians dole out bullshit to the public as freely as drunken coeds dole it out in Cancun during spring break. And I was on my way to becoming a master of bullshitting, until I found philosophy.
As I said before, what initially drew me to philosophy wasn’t an insatiable need to know about irrefutable truths or the meaning of life.
Ok, here’s the reason.
Ready for it?
If there is anything that would make the study of philosophy un-fun (besides reading Kant) it’s taking up a major for the sole purpose of staring at a professor. Yeah. THAT kind of staring.
It’s typical, it’s lame, and nothing ever came of my infatuation, but that’s my reason for wanting to study philosophy. The thing is, that for most of the time I was a philosophy major, I told myself that that wasn’t the reason why I was taking philosophy classes. I was bullshitting myself about the reason why I was studying a subject that is supposed to be devoid of bullshit.
Anytime someone asked me why I decided to study philosophy, I gave the same bullshit answer that everyone else did.
In my philosophy classes I found myself surrounded by people who claimed that philosophy is the real thing – a no bullshit zone; that philosophy isn’t just opinions and rhetoric, but is logically sound and at times irrefutable.
But why, I asked myself, did so much of what I heard in my philosophy class sound like the BS I was hearing in my political science classes?
As social beings, our interactions with people and how people interact with us influences how we perceive the personalities of others. Based on our perceptions of others, we classify them as nice people or good people or people who are not nice or bad people and so on. So, if, through experience, we come to feel that everyone is unkind, we will base our actions, thoughts, and perceptions of others accordingly.
I found myself thinking not only is all philosophy is bullshit, I found myself growing increasingly disturbed by my feelings towards some of my fellow philosophy students – some of them – many of them were not nice people.
I began to suspect that some of them were assholes.
The actress Mink Stole famously said in John Waters’ 1972 masterpiece of filth, Pink Flamingos, “I guess there are just two kinds of people… My kind of people and assholes”.
As a fan of both Mink Stole and the film, the first several dozen times I watched the film Stole’s sentiment hadn’t aroused my philosophical interest. But as I observed my classmates, I began to find myself feeling more like Mink Stole’s character Connie Marble. The world truly is divided between two different groups.
There’s my kind of people.
Assholes, so far as people go, are an entirely different class of human being.
As time progressed I realized that my impressions weren’t mere delusion or some deep-seeded hatred of philosophers held over from my background in political science. Some of my fellow students were assholes – big ones at that.
Hey, Wittgenstein was an asshole, why not them, right?
The realization led me to think: is there is a connection between being a bullshitter and being an asshole?
Is it possible for us to determine, not only who the purveyors of bullshit are, but also if there are personality traits that are common to bullshitters or anyone else we would sooner throw out of a moving car than help them escape of a zombie infested shopping mall?
My answer is yes.
I observed that my classmates not only had fairly high opinions of themselves, but also all possessed an over inflated sense of their own mental capacity.
Listen, I’m not knocking having a positive self image. A healthy sense of self-esteem is a good thing, but what I saw with some of my classmates was a kind of high-falutin attitude that was something quite out of the ordinary – to the degree that one may, and rightfully so, call these individuals assholes.
Now, for a time I wasn’t sure if they were actually smarter than everyone else, or, perhaps with the encouragement of the professors, had been convinced that they were in fact smarter than everyone else.
I couldn’t help noticing that a not insignificant number of my classmates not only slung a fair amount of bullshit, but I also realized that there was a distinct correlation between those students who thought very highly of themselves and the presence of bullshit.
I have to admit that, until I had become a philosophy major, I hadn’t paid much attention to what kind of person dispenses bullshit, much less if there’s a connection between bullshitting and the kind of person who is prone to bullshitting. I wondered if those people what I considered assholes and the ones that were bullshitters were one in the same. More importantly, I wondered if there was a methodology to figuring out that kind of person a bullshitter is.
Until I observed my classmates, I had been blissfully unaware that we’re even capable of knowing what kind of person is prone to habitual bullshitting, much less that a bullshitting person can be identified by the mere observation of particular personality traits.
So, after conducting a very unscientific poll of some of my fellow, non-philosophy major students, I concluded that there was enough of a correlation between bullshit and assholes that further examination of the relationship was warranted.
This is getting somewhere, trust me.
I was somewhat elated that I had discovered that it is possible to figure that there is a possible formula for finding whether someone is an asshole. However, in my eagerness to label everyone (asshole or non-asshole), I realized that my zeal had led me to an error: some of those who I had squarely tossed into the asshole camp were not assholes at all.
These people were different from the garden-variety assholes that I had encountered in my philosophy classes. Some of the people that I met clearly exhibited asshole tendencies, yet something was missing. There was some quality that they lacked. That moment, I realized that there was indeed something different about these people. They were an entirely other breed of person – they were smartasses.
This threw a serious wrench into my line of thought. How was I to figure out if I was dealing with a smartass or an asshole?
At this point I knew this: I had to figure out what makes a person an asshole, and, if possible, what makes him different from a smartass?
This is where philosophy comes in handy.
I realized that differentiating between regular people and assholes and establishing a relationship between bullshitting and being an asshole required determining the necessary and sufficient conditions that must be met if I wanted to figure out if a person is “my kind of people” or an asshole.
But I ain’t actually gonna to do that.
That kind of bullshit is what professional philosophers do.
I already knew that bullshitting, although elemental to determining who an asshole or a smartass may or may not be, may not be the sole factor in determining if one is indeed an asshole.
Ok, at this point, I realize that the impression may be that my inquiry is not one of serious academic merit, and to some extent, I heartily agree. However, in all seriousness, my inquiry is only partially in jest. Although I realize the outward appearance of the subject matter may appear un-philosophic, I feel that serious philosophical examination of seemingly un-philosophical topics is not only warranted but long overdue.
** I should take this time to say that I’m not the only person thinking about this subject. The subject of assholes has become quite the hot topic in philosophy. Several books on the subject have been released, including UC Irvine philosophy professor, Aaron James’ Assholes: A Theory (also inspired by Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit), published in 2012.**
I must say that my approach is purely one of inquiry. My conditions for assholocity (or assholeness, or assholitude, if you will) may be inadequate or not correct at all. As I have said before, I am not a professional philosopher. The point here is to encourage others to consider this cultural phenomena from a philosophical point of view.
My intention is to suggest that:
1) there is a connection between habitual bullshitting and the personality types more likely to engage in bullshitting.
2) bullshit is more likely to come from assholes,
and 3) it may be useful for us to know what the connection is, so we can easily spot an asshole.
** It is not my intention to be offensive by declaring that bullshit tends to come from assholes. The fact is that many of the people we call “assholes” do indeed have a proclivity for bullshitting. It is unfortunate that the terminology also refers to particular body parts and excretory products. I feel that, so long as Frankfurt suggests that we do a serious philosophical examination of bullshit, it might do us all some good to figure out exactly where or from whom all this bullshit is coming from.**
I have constructed an equation of the specific characteristics that are essential if we want to label an individual an asshole. The equation goes like this:
(Bullshit + Apathy + Duplicity) = Asshole
I believe that all three personality traits are necessary (and/or sufficient… whatever) if we are to accurately identify someone as an asshole. That is, if someone you know is an apathetic, duplicitous bullshitter, it generally follows that the individual you are dealing with is an asshole.* However, I will admit here, as this is still a theory in progress that I have not exactly mapped out the necessary and sufficient conditions for determining if an individual is just a bullshitter or if that individual is a smartass or an asshole. The focus of the matter, I think, is that there is an established a connection between bullshitting and being an asshole.
Of course, as with any theory in progress, there is still much more work that is necessary if I ever intend to develop a real philosophical theory of assholism.
As I said, at the outset my inquiry was motivated by my fascination with bullshit. I had discovered that both bullshitters and smartasses possessed a capacity for bullshiting. Frankfurt writes that a bullshitter is indifferent to the truth and that an indifference to truth is “the essence of bullshit”. I found, in my observations, that assholes share the bullshitter’s indifference to truth.
Frankfurt writes that the bullshitter carefully crafts his bullshit for the purposes of getting what he wants and that the bullshitter is “trying to get away with something”. Frankfurt writes that a bullshitter is careful of his words because he wants the object of his bullshit, the listener, to feel something; namely he wants us to take him at his word, he wants us to believe that he is sincere.
I, however, feel that the asshole’s motivation is different. I observed that an asshole wants to get over on other people, but unlike Frankfurt’s bullshitter, an asshole does not care if he is perceived as sincere or not; he is oblivious to whatever emotional response anyone has to what he says. If you feel any emotional response to what an asshole says, then good for you. He doesn’t care. An asshole is only concerned about himself. This indifference to the feelings of others explains why people often feel (after an encounter with an asshole) as if they have been shit on. Since an asshole has a disregard for the feelings of others and no intention of ever returning any favor, he feels is able to maintain his asshole attitude as long as he is getting what he wants.
A bullshitter’s worse fear is discovery (the fear that we’ll discover that he has been bullshitting us the whole time). The asshole has no such underlying fear. He is not only indifferent to truth; he is indifferent to getting caught. An asshole simply does not care about you or what you think. The asshole, at heart, suffers from an extreme case of apathy.
However, an asshole’s apathy cuts both ways. Despite the fact that an asshole does not care about other people, he realizes that other people are essential if an asshole is to be an asshole. The asshole, despite the fact that he does not care about you, definitely wants you to be around. I realize that this trait sounds like a contradiction, but for the asshole the sentiment is not so much of a contradiction as it is an indication of the duplicitous nature of an asshole’s personality. An asshole really does not care about you, but he does care about whether you think he is an asshole. An easier way to explain how an asshole thinks is it’s kind of like Nirvana song that goes, “I don’t care what you think unless it is about me”.
** A word about smartasses…
Like an asshole and the bullshitter, a smartass is also motivated by a need to bullshit. His motivation, however, differs from the bullshitter and an asshole in that a smartass’ motivation is not at all influenced by other people. At first glance, this might seem odd, since a smartass, by nature, can only be a smartass around other people (since it’s rather difficult to be a smartass to yourself). A smartass says what he says because his words are pleasing to himself; usually in an attempt at being humorous (I have long suspected that, in the case of most smartasses, the joke is meant to be private; like a joke one tells to one’s self inside one’s own head. In some cases a smartass just happens to say his private joke out loud). He does not care if his “humor” is humorous to anyone but himself. The fact that anyone or no one reacts to what the smartass says is of no consequence to him or his goals. The fact that the smartass speaks at all is his goal. His goal is self-amusement. He is most impressed by his capacity for witty and/or crude comments. An indifference to truth takes a back seat to the act of speaking itself. The bullshit that a smartass dishes out isn’t said for the purpose of getting what he wants; he says it because he fancies himself a clever and funny person. Usually he is not, which is why smartasses are often mistaken for assholes.**
Although assholes share a number of traits in common with smartasses and bullshitters, there is one trait that distinguishes assholes from smartasses and the garden-variety dispensers of bullshit – an asshole is not limited to language, his assholiness includes his actions as well. One is not usually described as “acting like” a smartass and even more rarely is one ever accused of “acting like” a bullshitter, but people are often described as acting like assholes.
Now that we know what an asshole is, it might do us some good to figure out how an asshole might act. I mean, actions speak louder than words, right? We might assume that an asshole acts in some way that makes them easy to spot. What ethical theory would an asshole follow – utilitarianism? Deontological ethics? Egoism?
Come to think of it, while we’re asking about which ethical theory an asshole might follow, it might do us all some good to bush up on our Ayn Rand.
It is an election year, after all.
*THIS POST ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ANOTHER FORM IN THE BOOK MINDLESS PHILOSOPHER: HOW PHILOSOPHY TAUGHT ME EVERYTHING I NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT POPULAR CULTURE AND ON THE (now defunct) BLOGGER BLOG “THE KANTIAN EGOIST” UNDER THE TITLE “SPOTTING THE GOLDEN EGG” (POSTED JANUARY 30, 2009). * An observant philosopher may have noticed that I have not elaborated on any sufficient conditions for being an asshole. If a condition is sufficient when, if the condition is satisfied, the truth of the statement is guaranteed, then bullshit, apathy, and duplicity are also sufficient conditions for being an asshole. But, don’t quote me. I got a D- in logic.
** I believe we shouldn’t hesitate to make our philosophy personal; even if getting personal means dealing out a large portion of TMI.
Harry Frankfurt. On Bullshit. 2005. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p.1, 23, 34.
“Drain You” lyrics by Kurt Cobain. Copyright 1991.
It’s the end of the year. It’s the time we look forward to the year ahead and turn back to think of the year we’ve left behind. As we open up or Christmas presents, we celebrate the people who mean the most to us and pray (if you’re into that kind of thing) for peace and good will on Earth.
After over-stuffing ourselves on holiday ham and all the fixings, we might find ourselves, gazing at our distended bellies, falling victim to meat sweats and a bad case of the ‘itis, as we ask, “what have I done with my life?”
And as we settle down for a long winter’s nap, gazing into the glowing light of a yuletide fire, we realize the funny way the Christmas season gets us thinking about things philosophically.
The Austrian philosopher, Kurt Baier (1917-2010) says scientific theories cannot make the universe “intelligible, comprehensible, meaningful to us.” Baier claims that science isn’t structured to answer the “why” and causal explanations for the existence of life and the universe cannot produce “real illumination”, and if we look to science to tell us why we are here, the only explanation that science can give to explain our existence is that we are here solely for reproductive purposes.
Baier says that in reality a scientific universe is harsh, cold, and indifferent to us.
So what does that have to do with Christmas?
Nothing, other than I have the feeling that this is exactly what George Bailey was feeling the night he decided to kill himself in the Frank Capra-directed holiday favorite It’s A Wonderful Life.
These days, the only time most people watch It’s A Wonderful Life (originally released in December, 1946) is during the holiday season when the television networks temporarily preempt their regular programming to air Christmastime classics like, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and A Charlie Brown Christmas (a very philosophical thought-provoking television program in its own right).
Although some may dismiss It’s A Wonderful Life as a film that embodies all that is cheesy and hopelessly cliché about Christmas, the Frank Capra perennial holiday programming favorite is, I think, the most philosophical movie ever made.
At least one of the most.
OK, SO HERE’S WHAT HAPPENS:
George Bailey (James Stewart) lives in small-town of Bedford Falls. As a young man, George dreams of leaving the small town for the big city. George wants to go to college. George tells his sweetheart, Mary Hatch (soon to become his wife, Mary Bailey, played by Donna Reed) his dreams for his future:
Mary: What’d you wish, George? George: Well, not just one wish. A whole hatful, Mary. I know what I’m gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that. I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Coliseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here and go to college and see what they know… And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…
But, unfortunately for young George Bailey, life intervenes and George is called to manage the (failing) family business, Bailey Building and Loan. George gives up his dream of leaving Bedford Falls to tend to the family business.
Sure, George is married to a woman who loves him, has a couple of pretty good kids, a war hero brother, and the respect of the community, but when Bailey Building and Loan comes up $8000 short, George is suspected of stealing the money and faces arrest. To make matters worse for George Bailey, local corporate kingpin, Henry F. Potter wants to take over the Bailey family business and cut off bank loans to the town’s poor residents (George does not know that Potter not only found the missing $8000 but has pocketed the money).
With the possibility of a prison sentence looming over his head and an overwhelming feeling of failure and despair, George Bailey feels that the world would have been better if he was never born. George wants out of his unfulfilled, meaningless life.
George Bailey experiences what Thomas Nagel says is the realization of “the absurdity if our own situation derives not from a collision between our expectations and the world, but from a collision within ourselves.” When faced with the seeming reality of his own meaningless life and unrealized dreams of a better life outside Bedford Falls, George feels that his life is no longer worth living and like Dostoevsky’s Kirilov, George believes that the only way out of his life’s never-ending meaninglessness is to kill himself.
We can imagine George Bailey, standing on the edge of a bridge, waiting for the right moment to throw himself over the side, hearing the words of Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”, in his head:
… …in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.
Camus writes, “There is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for death.” When life has ceased to have meaning the natural inclination is to end it.
This is exactly what we can assume George Bailey is feeling as he contemplates suicide.
After getting drunk at the local bar, George decides to throw himself off of a bridge.
However, a moment before George flings himself over the rail, an angel named Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) intervenes in George’s suicide attempt.
Clarence tells George that he is George’s guardian angel. Clarence wants to earn his wings and to do so, he has to prove to George Bailey that his life is not meaningless and that the world is better off with him in it.
For Camus, ending one’s life is not an option and it isn’t for Clarence Oddbody, either. So, to prove to George Bailey that his life is worth living, Clarence grants George’s wish, and shows him what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born.
In a world without George Bailey Mary is a lonely spinster. George learns that not only is his younger brother Harry dead, but that the men on the troop transport that Harry saved during the war also perished – all because George was not there to save Harry when Harry fell through an ice-covered lake as a child.
Clarence shows George Bailey that without his presence, Bedford Falls (or as it is called in the George Bailey-less alternate reality “Pottersville”) is a den of sin filled with casinos, criminals, crazy people, dance halls, and dance hall floozies. Clarence tells George, “You see, George, you really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?” Clarence tells George sees that his life positively affects the lives of all he knows, including the town of Bedford Falls itself.
Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives.
When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?
Dismayed by the sight of a world worse off without him, George Bailey realizes that his life isn’t as meaningless and insignificant as he had believed and begs Clarence to return things back to the way it was.
*Interesting philosophical tidbit: It’s a Wonderful Life suggests that not only is determinism true, but that our lives are determined by a divine plan. Clarence Oddbody, who thwarts George Bailey’s suicide by showing George what life would be like if he was never born, introduces himself to George as George’s guardian angel. That means George Bailey doesn’t kill himself due to divine intervention George Bailey wanted to kill himself, but God had other plans -plans that have nothing to do with what George Bailey does or does not want to do.
George Bailey’s purpose in life wasn’t to build airfields or skyscrapers, but was right there in Bedford Falls. George learns that what makes life meaningful isn’t getting what we want or satisfying our desires, but what makes life wonderful is doing good for others and fulfilling one’s purpose in life. George Bailey’s life had meaning, even if he didn’t know what it was.
Even though George Bailey wasn’t aware of it, he indeed had a wonderful life.
In the closing scene of It’s A Wonderful Life, the townspeople of Bedford Falls, recognizing the fact that George Bailey is the town’s only hope of warding off Potter’s plans to turn Bedford Falls into a small town Sodom and Gomorrah, rallies behind George, giving him more than enough money to cover the lost money.
The townspeople know, even if George Bailey does not, that he has played a meaningful role in their lives. As the residents of Bedford Falls sing a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne”, a bell on the Bailey’s Christmas tree rings. George’s daughter Zuzu famously tells her father (now, everybody say it together) “every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings”.
We see that George Bailey means something to Clarence Oddbody as well – he’s helped Clarence to earn his wings. In an inscription in a book, Clarence leaves a final message for George Bailey; no man is a failure who has friends.
Whoa, hold the phone! What Clarence Oddbody tells George Bailey is worth repeating. Clarence tells George Bailey no man is a failure who has friends. This certainly sounds like a sentiment that we can all rally behind. If we’re to trust the words of Capra’s angel, it’s possible that Clarence Oddbody knows the true meaning of life. What this means folks – is perhaps we have we finally found what every great philosopher, thinker, theologian and layman has been looking for: Friendship is the meaning of life.
Alright, I’ve never been shy about my dislike of Aristotle. And generally speaking, I still do. But listen; as much as I am reluctant to admit it, Aristotle gives us a reason to believe friendship is the meaning of life.
Aristotle states that a Good (i.e. eudemonic) life is a meaningful life and that a requirement for living a meaningful life is friendship. Aristotle tells us that no one can be truly happy without friends. In Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle writes:
But it seems strange, when one assigns all good things to the happy man, not to assign friends, who are thought the greatest of external goods… Therefore even the happy man lives with others; for he has the things that are by nature good. And plainly it is better to spend his days with friends and good men than with strangers or any chance persons. Therefore the happy man needs friends.
If you think about it, perhaps the reason why we pursue philosophy – the reason why we want to know about truth and reality, why we need to know how to distinguish true beliefs from false beliefs or why we want to know the ethical way to act because, as Aristotle tells us, not only so we can determine what friendship is, but also good and virtuous people attract the right kind of people; people of good moral character.
We may claim that we are the products of our own invention, but as much as we define our lives, our lives are also shaped by the people around us.
Our friends are not just our companions; our friends give us examples to live by, they teach and inspire us, support and encourage our better natures, and share with us our values and the most meaningful moments in our lives. Our friends are our mirrors. Our friends reflect what kind of person we are and what kind of person we want to be.
Having a head full of Descartes, Kant, and Hume may be philosophically satisfying, but what’s the point of studying philosophy if we have no one to share our ideas and knowledge with? Just remember as you’re swigging back a third mug of eggnog, a philosopher may attain enlightenment, but the individual who has soul enhancing, long-lasting friendships truly has a life worth living.
It’s a Wonderful Life. 1946. Writ. Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich, Jo Swerling, & Frank Capra. Dir. Frank Capra.
Thomas Nagel. “Death”. Mortal Questions. 1979. NY: Cambridge University Press. p.17.
Albert Camus. “The Myth of Sisyphus”. The Meaning of Life: A Reader. p.73.
I WOULD BE LYING IF I said that I am a Christmas person. I’m not.
I don’t like Christmas.
Of course, none of this has anything to do with the fact that I do philosophy. I started not liking the Yuletide season long before I ever opened up a book of philosophical whatnot. Being a Christmas person is just not in my bones.
I speculate that at least some of my dislike has to do with Christmas carols.
That Christmas Shoes song…
Although, I maintain that my love of philosophy has nothing to do with my non-fondness of Christmas, some folks would like you believe that it‘s all because of philosophy.
That being a philosopher is the quickest path to eternal damnation.
Head’s up: some of you may not know this, but there are many philosophers who not only celebrate Christmas but also accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.
That’s right, Kevin Sorbo.
Philosophers are Christians, too.
Like this guy
and this guy
and this guy
There’s actually more than a few Christian philosophers out there.
And not all of them are dead.
Kind of like God.
Although the common (mis)perception of philosophers is that philosophers are a bunch of God-hating academics that delight in nothing more than de-Christianizing freshman students.
Yes, Kevin Sorbo. I’m still talking about you.
Actually reading philosophy would inform even the most hardcore philosophers-hate-Jesus/morality folks that philosophy is also chocked full of some of the same Christian values that we teach/preach when we celebrate the birth of Christ.
Unless you’re reading Nietzsche.
All the God talk at Christmastime isn’t just a great opportunity to contemplate the metaphysics of man’s existence and the universe, it’s also the perfect opportunity to contemplate one’s philosophical beliefs while also acknowledging the religious and philosophical influence of the central moral figure of the western world.
That figure would be Jesus.
If you think about it, Christian Christmas ethics, with its principle of peace and good will towards men, is (basically) the foundation of every ethical theory.
Pick a moral philosopher – Mill, Bentham, Kant, Tillich… you name it. Every ethical theory is all about doing good for our fellow man.
The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.
Heck, Kant even wrote that our actions must first come from disposition of good will.
Nothing in the world – indeed nothing even beyond the world – can possibly be
conceived which could be called good without qualification except a GOOD WILL.
It’s not just getting presents that get philosophers all jazzed about Christmas.
It’s also about all the philosophy to be found this time of year!
Christmas stories of characters like Ebenezer Scrooge and The Grinch teach us about forgiveness and redemption.
Modern Christmas classics like A Christmas Story and A Charlie Brown Christmas teach us the moral lesson of discovering what’s important in life.
Rankin-Bass’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer gives us a lesson in what to do when our beliefs are challenged by countervailing evidence and finding one’s place in the world.
That’s all stuff that philosophers talk about.
So, if you hear anyone say that it’s improper for a philosopher to celebrate the holidays, tell them “Bah, humbug!” and hang another bauble on the Christmas tree. Offer the naysayer a mug of eggnog and explain, despite what Chick Tracts may have them believe, that there is nothing immoral about philosophy.
Still doesn’t mean a philosopher has to like Christmas, though.
WHEN YOU’RE A POLITICAL GEEK like I kind-of am, watching Sunday morning newstalk shows becomes something of a routine. The shows usually feature a regular who’s who of political pundits, experts, and media personalities.
A couple of Sundays ago, after some copious amount of channel surfing (I’m always torn between watching MSNBC or Fox News) I settled on watching Meet the Press, hosted by Chuck Todd.
The subject of most of the show was the Republican presidential nomination race, in particular, candidate and guest, Donald Trump. After the interview concluded, the morning’s panel discussed the controversial real estate magnate-turned presidential hopeful, – especially allegations that Donald Trump has a curious relationship with the truth.
That is to say, some accuse Donald Trump of making statements that are factually inaccurate.
Other people just flat-out say that Donald Trump is a liar.
Trump’s (alleged) lies include (but are not limited to): witnessing cheering Arabs/Muslims in New Jersey on 9/11, a retweet of bogus crime stats on black on white crime, and statements on Syrian refugees.
The Crime Statistics Bureau in San Francisco does not exist.
Chuck Todd and his panel observed that Donald trump seems to suffered no negative consequence for making things up. If anything, Trump’s popularity has held steady and even increased with every accusation that he’s stated a factual inaccuracy.
The peculiarity of the enduring popularity of the Trump campaign, despite being called a liar, lead Meet the Press host Chuck Todd to ask: Are we living in a post truth society?
Now, the term “post-truth” is a term has been floating around for at least a decade.
“Post-Truth” is often used in reference to politics.
Which is entirely appropriate if discussing the Trump presidential campaign.
In Ralph Keyes book The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception In Contemporary Life (2004), Keyes describes the post-truth era as:
In the post-truth era, borders blur between truth and lies, honesty and dishonesty, fiction and nonfiction. Deceiving others becomes a challenge, a game, and ultimately a habit.
Keyes also says in a post-truth era:
… a liar is “ethically challenged” someone for whom “the truth is temporarily unavailable.”
A quick survey of the modern American political landscape, and Keyes would seem to be spot-on in his observation, even in the more than a decade since he wrote The Post-Truth Era.
But as much as it is important to as if we live in a post-truth era, it is equally important to ask if we do live in a post-truth era, how did we get to a point where the truth is politically irrelevant?
Well, we can go the psychological route.
We might simply declare that politicians and political candidates who have a curious relationship with the truth are pathologically predisposed to being factually inaccurate.
That would do us just fine. (For more info on the pathology of political candidates, see: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/07/the-startling-accuracy-of-referring-to-politicians-as-psychopaths/260517/ )
Ok. We all can agree that politicians lie. And that some politicians seem to have an easier time with non-truth telling than others. But why is it that lying -er, factual inaccuracy telling is so prevalent in society today?
We can blame cognitive dissonance.
Or say that we all have a bad case of confirmation bias.
What if the reason isn’t psychological or political –
Since so much political post-truthing appeals to our emotions, we may ask, have the emotivists won?
When we say that your truth is as valid as any other version of truth, are we declaring Ethical Relativism the cultural winner?
Has postmodernism, that rejects the notion of the existence of objective truth, taken hold of our politics?
Postmodernism, closely associated with French philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard, has notably permeated popular culture, but also, perhaps to the detriment of, politics. Postmodernism does not subscribe to the idea of universal truths. Truth, like reality, is subjective. You make your own truth.
That certainly sounds like someone we’ve all heard of, doesn’t it?
You may noticed if we do a little philosophical zig instead of a psychological zag, we may find that the roots of the post-truth era may stretch as far back as the birth of philosophical thought.
Perhaps the reason why Donald Trump seems so loosely tied to the telling of truths rests in the possibility that a Trump presidency will be carried out in the mold of the Philosopher-King of Plato’s Republic.
Something that will certainly please Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
It’s entirely possible that Trump is merely utilizing Platonic Noble Lies, which if you look at the recent history of the Republican Party, is a pretty Republican thing to do.
The only problem is that Trump may be noble lying a little early.
In Plato’s Republic Noble lies are myths told by the leaders to the citizens of the city to maintain social order.
According to Plato (or rather, Plato as Socrates) Noble Lies are necessary.
In Republic (414b-415d) says:
“Could we,” I said, “somehow contrive one of those lies that come into being in case of need of which we were just now speaking, some on noble lie to persuade, in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of society?”
Following the philosophy of Plato, the German-American philosopher and father of the Neoconservative movement, Leo Strauss (1899-1973), maintained that, in the interest of carrying out government affairs, politicians can’t be completely truthful. Government needs to lie.
Notes James Horrox in his essay “Leo Strauss and the Cult of the Noble Lie”:
Deception for Strauss is therefore not just an avoidable bi-product of politics, but a central and necessary part of it, a condition of “perpetual deception” between the rulers and the ruled being the sine qua non of a stable society. Strauss suggests that “noble lies” therefore have a key role to play in uniting and guiding the mass of the population … As another Strauss analyst summarizes, he advocates a society in which “the people are told what they need to know and no more.”
According to the Straussian view of politics, a government that is deceptive and manipulates the people isn’t just necessary; it’s good.
That’s because the average person is too stupid to be trusted to run his own government.
Now, does that sound like someone we know?
So, is Chuck Todd right? Is Donald Trump a post-truth candidate?
It would certainly seem so.
It’s worth reminding that the idea of a politician, president, or philosopher-king being averse to the truth is neither new, nor is it always discouraged or taken as a sign of the collapse of society. As Plato has shown us, it was the opposite. A government that lies is a sign of a efficiently functioning government.
Then again, Donald Trump may be, as Jeet Heer suggests in The New Republic, dealing in bullshit.
But then, that’s another topic for another article.
I’VE BEEN WRITING The Mindless Philosopher blog for some time now. And I’m not ashamed to say that after one book and years of blogging that I have developed a true love of wisdom. I have more philosophy books on my bookshelf than any other genre of literature.
It wasn’t always the case, though.
My first intellectual love wasn’t philosophy. It was politics.
I LOVED politics.
The mere thought of a presidential election cycle gave me the all over tinglies.
However, my love of all things political eventually faded and I found happiness with another, older, love
From the moment I read my first line of Hume, I was hooked. I’ve been through Kant and Russell. Descartes and Kierkegaard. Aristotle and Kripke. I truly believe that there’s no greater intellectual satisfaction than actually understanding Hegel.
I can’t put it any other way than to say
This is why it distresses me so much to hear practitioners of my first love speak with such harshness towards something I hold so dear to my heart.
On November 10, 2015, during the Republican Presidential debate, Florida Senator, Marco Rubio said:
Needless to say, I took the Senator’s sentiments personally.
I was perplexed. Hurt. I sat and stared at my TV set, baffled by what I had just seen.
Rubio’s inexplicable attack on philosophers was not his first, nor was Senator Rubio’s comment the only anti-philosopher sentiment expressed during the debate. Senator Ted Cruz (R, Texas), asserted that the Federal Reserve is being run by “a series of philosopher kings.” Said Senator Cruz
What the fed is doing now, it is a series of philosopher kings trying to guess what’s happening to the economy.
The candidates might have talked all about budgets and foreign policy, but for me, the overwhelming message I took from the debate was
I could have gotten angry about what I believed was straight-up philosophy bashing. I didn’t though. I didn’t because I think I know what Senator Rubio is trying to get at.
Assuming that Senator Rubio isn’t just on an anti-philosopher kick, the Senator is expressing his frustration over the fact that our culture does not value manual labor. We over value occupations where people talk and pontificate (and in some cases, literally don’t produce anything) over occupations where people actually do things – make stuff.
Truth be told, Plato’s philosopher-king doesn’t really bother himself with manual tasks.
The problem with pursuing a college degree in philosophy, according to the philosophy non-enthusiasts, is that students take out loans to study subjects that seemingly have no prospects for occupations in the “real” world or outside of academia. They leave university swamped with student loan debt that they are unable to pay (because the lack of professional philosopher gigs). This is a burden not only on individuals, but also on the economy.
The perception that philosophy is a surefire path to poverty is why there’s been a push among educators to direct students into the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, with the intention of producing students who will be competitive in the international job market and secure the nation’s economic prosperity.
The belief that philosophy is not a economically viable career is why politicians want to see students to learn how to do this:
Instead of doing this:
Ok, you know how I said that Senator Rubio’s sentiments weren’t complete bullshit?
Well, of course, saying something isn’t complete bullshit suggests the possibility that something may be just a little bit bullshit.
And in this case, that happens to be true.
There’s a noticeable bit of bullshit to what Senator Marco Rubio said.
You see, there’s something that Senator Marco Rubio is forgetting, namely, the fact that philosophy is the mother of many disciplines. The first politicians were philosophers. You’d be one hell of an idiot to dismiss how PHILOSOPHERS like Plato, Aristotle, Mill, Locke, Hobbes, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Bentham, Rousseau, Marx, Ayn Rand, John Rawls (and many other philosophers) have shaped and influenced political institutions and political discourse.
Senator Rubio can’t neglect the fact that American statesmen – and philosophers – Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Thomas Paine did better for the country by pursuing philosophical contemplation rather than taking up a career in welding.
Philosophy, as Jefferson was well aware, stresses critical thinking – an essential element for a lasting democracy.
Thomas Jefferson declared
“wherever the people are well-informed they can be trusted with their own government.”
It’s not unreasonable to assume that a well-informed people, in Jefferson’s view, are also a contemplative people. People who use their faculties to reason when casting their votes.
And let’s not forget that Leo Strauss, the father of Neo-Conservatism, a political view Senator Rubio is quite familiar with, was a philosophy professor at University of Chicago.
Seriously, even economists started out as philosophers.
Philosophy’s mark can be found in many fields including medicine, psychology, mathematics, even physics.
Now that I’m thinking of it, Senator Rubio’s fellow republican presidential contender, Carly Fiorina, is a philosophy major. Fiorina received her philosophy degree from Stanford University in 1976.
Seriously, the real reason why Senator Rubio’s comments are more than a tad bit on the bullshit side, is because what he said just isn’t true.
Philosophy, despite beliefs to the contrary, can be a economically viable career.
And not just for those in academia.
Check out this graph:
And this pie chart:
Professional philosophers earn on average, $71,000/yr. versus the average $40,000 yearly salary earned by professional welders. The average salary over time for a worker with bachelor’s degree in philosophy is nearly $100,000 per year.
In addition to not-too-shabby yearly earnings, philosophy majors earn high (if not the highest scores) on exams, including the Law Schools Admission Test (LSAT), Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) and the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).
And it’s not like philosophers just sit under a tree, being broke all day, contemplating their big toe. Philosophers aren’t limited to just being philosophers. There are many successful folks with philosophy degrees in fields outside of philosophy.
Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel has a degree in philosophy.
As does LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.
And Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield.
And Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger.
And activist investor Carl Icahn.
So does billionaire George Soros.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer also has a degree in philosophy.
Pope John Paul II also majored in philosophy.
And you can’t get any more successful than that.
*For a more comprehensive list of successful philosophy majors see:
If you think about it, the point of the welder-philosopher conflict isn’t that we should praise one and discourage the other, but that we should appreciate both.
Yes, the world needs welders. A lot of them. Vocational work is not only necessary but also valuable work. But so is philosophy. Philosophy is essential to the kind of life we should want to live.
Society needs people who will question, analyze; argue. Philosophy teaches critical thinking and intellectual clarity. Philosophy empowers us to understand not just the foundations of our political institutions, but also to examine our moral choices and the moral implications of what we do (by the way, ethics is a branch of philosophy). Philosophers ponder life’s big questions.
Even theology can’t escape the influence of philosophy. Many theologians, past and present, were and are also philosophers.
Really, in the end, folks, there’s no rule that says that a person can’t be a welder and a philosopher.
Some folks might think that the economy-er… world would be better off with less philosophers, but I say that’s just a load of poppycock. Being a philosopher doesn’t mean that one looks down from their academic ivory tower, scoffing at all the not-deep thinking people who work with their hands and take their showers after they come home from work. Nor does being a welder mean that a person can’t enjoy reading Plato and contemplating the meaning of life. I may be going out on a limb here, but I’ll say, with more than a little bit of certainty, that there at least a few welders out there who would join me when I proclaim that I – I mean, WE FUCKING LOVE PHILOSOPHY.