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Awful historical men give me life advice (part 1)

April 06, 2016

One of the best things about being a professor is that I’m constantly learning new things. I’m also challenged to articulate, defend, and often revise my positions. In particular, my students have a tendency to challenge me in all the right ways. This winter during a discussion on the history of philosophy, my student Nathalie raised an excellent question which really got me thinking: what should we make of the role of awful historical men in the philosophical canon – and why, especially when it comes to ethics and moral philosophy, do we still include them in the curriculum?

Arthur SchopenhauerFirst, let’s resist the temptation to dismiss this concern on account of awful historical men being, well, historical. No one is totally let off the hook because of their historical circumstances. Historical circumstances incline us strongly toward certain viewpoints but they do not compel us. For example, human slavery was accepted by many Americans before the Civil War but there were also abolitionists fighting against it, so opposition to slavery was not only morally correct but also a live political option (at best – following Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit here – we can understand and perhaps forgive, without totally excusing and therefore justifying, erroneous past viewpoints and practices where there were better live options). I’ll be talking about Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) in my next few blog posts, so let his example resonate here: he was a virulent misogynist and racist, and we are under no obligation to excuse him for this just because variants of such viewpoints were the tenor of his times. The question is whether and why, given this stance, we still have anything to learn from him regarding practical ethics.

With this in mind, the answer to Nathalie’s question – what we’re supposed to do with historical figures espousing awful viewpoints – depends upon what exactly an education in ethics entails. If moral knowledge is a kind of theoretical knowledge – like knowledge of the axioms of math, logic, or geometry – then there is perhaps no obvious need to insist that the teacher of moral knowledge be good at what he preaches, or even practice it at all. To give a non-moral example, I once taught a course in symbolic logic, understanding perfectly well what I was talking about and having few problems conveying what I knew (he says, with nagging self-doubt). But I have no particular aptitude for the writing out of proofs, and struggled mightily with the task of practical demonstration (on this score I’m pretty hopeless; I rarely ever just “see” the solution to a formal logical problem like some people do). When it comes to moral knowledge specifically, we can apply Bertrand Russell’s amusing defense: just as a geometry teacher needn’t actually be a triangle, an ethics teacher (or a historical writer on ethics) needn’t be morally angelic in order to be wise and to correctly convey his or her wisdom. There is, in other words, perhaps no necessary link between having moral knowledge and being a good person.

If, however, moral knowledge is more like “know-how”, a knack or practical wisdom, then it does seem pretty odd that so many great moral philosophers were so disappointingly human. Why take advice on the good life from a person whose own life holds up so poorly to scrutiny? And how exactly would sitting in a university classroom or reading an old book help to teach you such knowledge anyway?

Note that there is a third possibility, which is my own view: that an education in ethics entails both theoretical and practical components, each of which constantly bleeds into the other (doing theory is a practice; working through real dilemmas is a kind of reflection), with room for emphasis on one aspect or another as per the needs and interests of the student. If this is the right view, then the examples of awful historical men are extremely instructive, as I hope to show in the case of Schopenhauer. By unpacking his texts on practical morality in subsequent posts, I hope to demonstrate that a) some of his arguments and practical advice hold up very well today; b) that his negativity and bitterness, his hatred of women and racialized persons, should be rejected at face value but contain the seeds of social criticism, allowing us to subvert and build upon his works in ways that run counter to his stated intentions; and c) he provides a lesson in the modularity of human intelligence, helping to illustrate certain theses of contemporary moral psychology which pertain to ethical pedagogy. If I’m successful in this task, then I think I will have answered Nathalie’s question. We still study awful historical men – in some cases, even selectively taking their advice – because philosophy is and always will be a work in progress. It would be a shame to abandon their works when they themselves provide clues on how to push beyond them to better views and practices!


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Nathalie Poirier      May 23, 2016 at 10:24
Hi Professor, I am so looking forward to part II.
Matthew McLennan      April 15, 2016 at 12:35
Thanks Nathalie for your thoughtful comment. I agree absolutely that this can and should be a forum for students to interact further with their professors and add their insight to the conversation. I won't speak to every point you raise (e.g. re: Arendt) but hopefully can give the outline of a satisfying answer.

As re: your "why" question, this is the heart of the matter and is fully on point. Considering that ideas (or works) live a life that is somewhat independent of their creators, why in particular would we look to the worst human examples to instruct us? Wouldn't we be better off sticking to sources more worthy of emulation, or perhaps even downplaying the historicity of our sources in favour of a more detached, analytical, concept-based approach? Here is where I would plead for retaining a historical depth to our studies, which implies that we're stuck with the blemishes on our philosophical record. Sticking to Schopenhauer, it is perhaps a historical accident that it fell to him to blend Kantian idealism with aspects of Buddhism to produce one of the most strikingly original and rigorously pessimistic philosophies in history. He was in the right time and place perhaps; the high water mark of German idealism, plus bureaucratization, plus a burgeoning capitalist economy, plus personal acquaintance with scholars of Asian philosophy/religion, etc. However that may be, he was the one to have done it. This (happy??) accident prompted further developments by Wagner, Nietzsche and Freud; it is a simplification but not totally unfair to say that Schopenhauer invented the unconscious (or at the very least can claim to be one of its grandparents). The unconscious being a concept that has permeated art, therapy, self-understanding and a large part of everyday life, it's fair to say that Schopenhauer has played a key role in building the ideas shaping us. So to me this resonates in an immediate way - what else did he have to say? How did he come to his philosophical views? And what - for better or for worse - was there in his body of work that is altogether too clearly stamped with the norms and ideas of his time?

So study of Schopenhauer in general is no endorsement of the man, but rather an important stop in any overview of the discipline. The question that interests me in this blog series - whether or not he hits upon sound practical advice when other aspects of his thought are so off-base and abhorrent - invites us to learn not just some practical tips, but also, I think, a good deal about our discipline and the people who have built it. This speaks, I think, to your question concerning non-philosophical disciplines and whether or not we hold other professions to different standards; in any case we'll see. Not everything we will walk away with will be positive, or to our liking, or acceptable today - but as philosophers we shouldn't fear when it comes to exercising our critical powers!
Nathalie Poirier      April 06, 2016 at 18:59
One of the best things about being a student is that I am constantly being challenged and learning in an environment that is intelligent and respectful, and it is in this vein that I say thank you to the professors who are putting in the time to participate in this blog, showing a strong commitment to the practice of philosophy. Having said that, I also feel it is important for students to engage in the discussion via the blog otherwise all we have are voices in an empty room. It is with this in mind that I choose to respond with some thoughts on your insightful articulation on “awful historical men” (love the title…just saying). I do recall this dynamic exchange of ours and as often happens in philosophy it was left open to further exploration.
Before I move forward, I want to make sure that I understand correctly your approach to the question as you saw it, which was, whether we still have something to learn from philosophers who had less than savoury lifestyles and beliefs and why would we do so? I do not doubt that we have something to learn from them and I look forward to your thoughts on this. However, the question of why we choose to learn from them is perhaps as important. It is actually one of your small comments, professor, in our discussion, that leads me to think this as you said yourself (this is a rough reiteration of your comment but I think it captures the essence): it is difficult to appreciate artists, politicians, actors, activists, public figures (Ghomeshi, Jutras and Cosby being recent examples, these are my examples not yours) when we learn about their personal life and how if fails (according to established basic human values) even if they are just humans. As well, you went on to say, which I thought was the most intriguing of your insights into your own thoughts: in philosophy, because of its training in examining bodies of thought, it seems easier to disassociate the person from the work. This led me to think about my 15 years as a financial advisor and how as a professional dealing with people’s money I was held to a high standard of ethical conduct as well as keeping my own personal finances on the straight and narrow, understandably so. I mean, who would want a broke fraudulent financial advisor, it seems quite obvious that this does not work. Another example would be, if someone seeks a brilliant psychologist who has much to teach society in the realm of healing from trauma due to incest and we find out that the doctor is an abuser himself how much credibility should we give this doctor and should we allow for his teachings now and in the future to continue because they are brilliant? In both these examples it seems that our financial and emotional health are important enough (and I venture our here) to say that most of us would not want to be taught by these knowledgeable professionals because of their behaviours and beliefs. It seems to me a matter of value, that is, we value or money and our health enough to know that we are not willing to have persons of strong unethical behaviour be our guides, however, in our philosophical studies this seems acceptable (I would even dare to say unquestioned). Does this mean that by doing so we are actually devaluing the importance of philosophy, ethics and our ensuing societal moral framework? Is the psychologist or financial advisor more important than the philosopher and if so is this not a symptom of a bigger issue that permeates our society today, the undervaluing of all that cannot be seen such as philosophy and art or where the exchange value is subtler. Or perhaps, the exclusion of these figures, and one can even include Hannah Arendt as a possible suspect as she had relations with her married philosophy teacher Heidegger (a Nazi supporter), would be problematic because as we can see we are all flawed humans and this might lead to very few guides. However, let’s be clear that the act of choosing to use theories of prominent historical figures to guide us in our learning, despite their reproachable actions, can be seen as a continued statement of approval of past actions.