The 30 Harshest Philosopher-on-Philosopher Insults in History
We’ve amused ourselves for a while now at Flavorwire with our ongoing survey of internecine mud-slinging in various areas of the arts: musicians, actors, authors, and filmmakers have all prov…

A few choice servings of harshbrowns:

Bertrand Russell on Aristotle
“I do not agree with Plato, but if anything could make me do so, it would be Aristotle’s arguments against him.”

Jean-Paul Sartre on Albert Camus
“Camus… a mix of melancholy, conceit and vulnerability on your part has always deterred people from telling you unvarnished truths. The result is that you have fallen prey to a gloomy immoderation that conceals your inner difficulties and which you refer to, I believe, as Mediterranean moderation. Sooner or later, someone would have told you this, so it might as well be me.”

Camille Paglia on Michel Foucault
“The truth is that Foucault knew very little about anything before the seventeenth century and, in the modern world, outside France. His familiarity with the literature and art of any period was negligible. His hostility to psychology made him incompetent to deal with sexuality, his own or anybody else’s. … The more you know, the less you are impressed by Foucault.”

Alan Wolfe on Ayn Rand
“In the academy, she is a nonperson. Her theories are works of fiction. Her works of fiction are theories, and bad ones at that.”

Bertrand Russell on Georg Hegel
“Hegel’s philosophy is so odd that one would not have expected him to be able to get sane men to accept it, but he did. He set it out with so much obscurity that people thought it must be profound. It can quite easily be expounded lucidly in words of one syllable, but then its absurdity becomes obvious.”

Noam Chomsky on Slavoj Žižek
“There’s no ‘theory’ in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find… some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a 12-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it. I don’t see anything to what he’s saying.”

Slavoj Žižek on Noam Chomsky
“Well, with all deep respect that I do have for Chomsky, my… point is that Chomsky, who always emphasizes how one has to be empirical, accurate… well, I don’t think I know a guy who was so often empirically wrong.”

Karl Popper on Ludwig Wittgenstein
“Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers.” (On being challenged by a poker-wielding Wittgenstein to produce an example of a moral rule; the discussion degenerated quickly from there.)

Karl Popper on Martin Heidegger
“I appeal to the philosophers of all countries to unite and never again mention Heidegger or talk to another philosopher who defends Heidegger. This man was a devil. I mean, he behaved like a devil to his beloved teacher, and he has a devilish influence on Germany… One has to read Heidegger in the original to see what a swindler he was.”

Arthur Schopenhauer on Georg Hegel
“Hegel, installed from above, by the powers that be, as the certified Great Philosopher, was a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense.”

Every intellectual has a very special responsibility. He has the privilege and the opportunity of studying. In return, he owes it to his fellow men (or ‘to society’) to represent the results of his study as simply, clearly and modestly as he can. The worst thing that intellectuals can do - the cardinal sin - is to try to set themselves up as great prophets vis-à-vis their fellow men and to impress them with puzzling philosophies. Anyone who cannot speak simply and clearly should say nothing and continue to work until he can do so.
—  Karl Popper 1994: Against Big Words
7 Important Quotes from the Philosophy of Science

Bertrand Russell, The Study of Mathematics:

Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry. What is best in mathematics deserves not merely to be learnt as a task, but to be assimilated as a part of daily thought, and brought again and again before the mind with ever-renewed encouragement.

Alan M. Turing, Computing Machinery and Intelligence:

It is not possible to produce a set of rules purporting to describe what a man should do in every conceivable set of circumstances. One might for instance have a rule that one is to stop when one sees a red traffic light, and to go if one sees a green one, but what if by some fault both appear together? One may perhaps decide that it is safest to stop. But some further difficulty may well arise from this decision later. To attempt to provide rules of conduct to cover every eventuality, even those arising from traffic lights, appears to be impossible. 

Niels Bohr, as quoted in Philosophy of Science (1934, Vol. 37):

What is it that we humans depend on? We depend on our words… Our task is to communicate experience and ideas to others. We must strive continually to extend the scope of our description, but in such a way that our messages do not thereby lose their objective or unambiguous character … We are suspended in language in such a way that we cannot say what is up and what is down. The word “reality” is also a word, a word which we must learn to use correctly.

A.J. Ayer, Philosophy in the Twentieth Century:

There never comes a point where a theory can be said to be true. The most that one can claim for any theory is that it has shared the successes of all its rivals and that it has passed at least one test which they have failed.

Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations:

What we should do, I suggest, is to give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it be beyond our reach. We may admit that our groping is often inspired, but we must be on our guard against the belief, however deeply felt, that our inspiration carries any authority, divine or otherwise. If we thus admit that there is no authority beyond the reach of criticism to be found within the whole province of our knowledge, however far it may have penetrated into the unknown, then we can retain, without danger, the idea that truth is beyond human authority. And we must retain it. For without this idea there can be no objective standards of inquiry; no criticism of our conjectures; no groping for the unknown; no quest for knowledge.

W.V.O Quine, The Web of Belief:

At root what is needed for scientific inquiry is just receptivity to data, skill in reasoning, and yearning for truth. Admittedly, ingenuity can help too.

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:

Men whose research is based on shared paradigms are committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice. That commitment and the apparent consensus it produces are prerequisites for normal science, i.e., for the genesis and continuation of a particular research tradition…

Scientists work from models acquired through education and through subsequent exposure to the literature often without quite knowing or needing to know what characteristics have given these models the status of community paradigms.


The early 1900s was an amazing time for Western science, as Albert Einstein was developing his theories of relativity and psychology was born, as Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis took over the scientific mainstream. Karl Popper observed these developments firsthand and came to draw a distinction between what he referred to as science and pseudoscience, which might best be summarized as science disconfirms, while pseudoscience confirms. While the way we describe these disciplines has changed in the intervening years, Popper’s ideas speak to the heart of how we arrive at knowledge.

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Free Will & the Fallibility of Science

One of the most significant intellectual errors educated persons make is in underestimating the fallibility of science. The very best scientific theories containing our soundest, most reliable knowledge are certain to be superseded, recategorized from “right” to “wrong”; they are, as physicist David Deutsch says, misconceptions:

I have often thought that the nature of science would be better understood if we called theories “misconceptions” from the outset, instead of only after we have discovered their successors. Thus we could say that Einstein’s Misconception of Gravity was an improvement on Newton’s Misconception, which was an improvement on Kepler’s. The neo-Darwinian Misconception of Evolution is an improvement on Darwin’s Misconception, and his on Lamarck’s… Science claims neither infallibility nor finality.

This fact comes as a surprise to many; we tend to think of science —at the point of conclusion, when it becomes knowledge— as being more or less infallible and certainly final. Science, indeed, is the sole area of human investigation whose reports we take seriously to the point of crypto-objectivism. Even people who very much deny the possibility of objective knowledge step onto airplanes and ingest medicines. And most importantly: where science contradicts what we believe or know through cultural or even personal means, we accept science and discard those truths, often wisely.

An obvious example: the philosophical problem of free will. When Newton’s misconceptions were still considered the exemplar of truth par excellence, the very model of knowledge, many philosophers felt obliged to accept a kind of determinism with radical implications. Give the initial-state of the universe, it appeared, we should be able to follow all particle trajectories through the present, account for all phenomena through purely physical means. In other words: the chain of causation from the Big Bang on left no room for your volition:

Determinism in the West is often associated with Newtonian physics, which depicts the physical matter of the universe as operating according to a set of fixed, knowable laws. The “billiard ball” hypothesis, a product of Newtonian physics, argues that once the initial conditions of the universe have been established, the rest of the history of the universe follows inevitably. If it were actually possible to have complete knowledge of physical matter and all of the laws governing that matter at any one time, then it would be theoretically possible to compute the time and place of every event that will ever occur (Laplace’s demon). In this sense, the basic particles of the universe operate in the same fashion as the rolling balls on a billiard table, moving and striking each other in predictable ways to produce predictable results.

Thus: the movement of the atoms of your body, and the emergent phenomena that such movement entails, can all be physically accounted for as part of a chain of merely physical, causal steps. You do not “decide” things; your “feelings” aren’t governing anything; there is no meaning to your sense of agency or rationality. From this essentially unavoidable philosophical position, we are logically-compelled to derive many political, moral, and cultural conclusions. For example: if free will is a phenomenological illusion, we must deprecate phenomenology in our philosophies; it is the closely-clutched delusion of a faulty animal; people, as predictable and materially reducible as commodities, can be reckoned by governments and institutions as though they are numbers. Freedom is a myth; you are the result of a process you didn’t control, and your choices aren’t choices at all but the results of laws we can discover, understand, and base our morality upon.

I should note now that (1) many people, even people far from epistemology, accept this idea, conveyed via the diffusion of science and philosophy through politics, art, and culture, that most of who you are is determined apart from your will; and (2) the development of quantum physics has not in itself upended the theory that free will is an illusion, as the sort of indeterminacy we see among particles does not provide sufficient room, as it were, for free will.

Of course, few of us can behave for even a moment as though free will is a myth; there should be no reason for personal engagement with ourselves, no justification for “trying” or “striving”; one would be, at best, a robot-like automaton incapable of self-control but capable of self-observation. One would account for one’s behaviors not with reasons but with causes; one would be profoundly divested from outcomes which one cannot affect anyway. And one would come to hold that, in its basic conception of time and will, the human consciousness was totally deluded.

As it happens, determinism is a false conception of reality. Physicists like David Deutsch and Ilya Prigogine have, in my opinion, defended free will amply on scientific grounds; and the philosopher Karl Popper described how free will is compatible in principle with a physicalist conception of the universe; he is quoted by both scientists, and Prigogine begins his book The End of Certainty, which proposes that determinism is no longer compatible with science, by alluding to Popper:

Earlier this century in The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism, Karl Popper wrote,” Common sense inclines, on the one hand, to assert that every event is caused by some preceding events, so that every event can be explained or predicted… On the other hand, … common sense attributes to mature and sane human persons… the ability to choose freely between alternative possibilities of acting.” This “dilemma of determinism,” as William James called it, is closely related to the meaning of time. Is the future given, or is it under perpetual construction?

Prigogine goes on to demonstrate that there is, in fact, an “arrow of time,” that time is not symmetrical, and that the future is very much open, very much compatible with the idea of free will. Thus: in our lifetimes we have seen science —or parts of the scientific community, with the rest to follow in tow— reclassify free will from “illusion” to “likely reality”; the question of your own role in your future, of humanity’s role in the future of civilization, has been answered differently just within the past few decades.

No more profound question can be imagined for human endeavor, yet we have an inescapable conclusion: our phenomenologically obvious sense that we choose, decide, change, perpetually construct the future was for centuries contradicted falsely by “true” science. Prigogine’s work and that of his peers —which he calls a “probabilizing revolution” because of its emphasis on understanding unstable systems and the potentialities they entail— introduces concepts that restore the commonsensical conceptions of possibility, futurity, and free will to defensibility.

If one has read the tortured thinking of twentieth-century intellectuals attempting to unify determinism and the plain facts of human experience, one knows how submissive we now are to the claims of science. As Prigogine notes, we were prepared to believe that we, “as imperfect human observers, [were] responsible for the difference between past and future through the approximations we introduce into our description of nature.” Indeed, one has the sense that the more counterintuitive the scientific claim, the eagerer we are to deny our own experience in order to demonstrate our rationality.

This is only degrees removed from ordinary orthodoxies. The point is merely that the very best scientific theories remain misconceptions, and that where science contradicts human truths of whatever form, it is rational to at least contemplate the possibility that science has not advanced enough yet to account for them; we must be pragmatic in managing our knowledge, aware of the possibility that some truths we intuit we cannot yet explain, while other intuitions we can now abandon. My personal opinion, as you can imagine, is that we take too little note of the “truths,” so to speak, found in the liberal arts, in culture.

It is vital to consider how something can be both true and not in order to understand science and its limitations, and even more the limitations of second-order sciences (like social sciences). Newton’s laws were incredible achievements of rationality, verified by all technologies and analyses for hundreds of years, before their unpredicted exposure as deeply flawed ideas applied to a limited domain which in total provide incorrect predictions and erroneous metaphorical structures for understanding the universe.

I never tire of quoting Karl Popper’s dictum:

Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.

It is hard but necessary to have this relationship with science, whose theories seem like the only possible answers and whose obsolescence we cannot envision. A rational person in the nineteenth century would have laughed at the suggestion that Newton was in error; he could not have known about the sub-atomic world or the forces and entities at play in the world of general relativity; and he especially could not have imagined how a theory that seemed utterly, universally true and whose predictive and explanatory powers were immense could still be an incomplete understanding, revealed by later progress to be completely mistaken about nearly all of its claims.

Can you imagine such a thing? It will happen to nearly everything you know. Consider what “ignorance” and “knowledge” really are for a human, what you can truly be certain of, how you should judge others given this overwhelming epistemological instability!

Astrologers were greatly impressed, and misled, by what they believed to be confirming evidence–so much so that they were quite unimpressed by any unfavorable evidence. Moreover, by making their interpretations and prophecies sufficiently vague they were able to explain away anything that might have been a refutation of the theory had the theory and the prophecies been more precise. In order to escape falsification they destroyed the testability of their theory. It is a typical soothsayer’s trick to predict things so vaguely that the predictions can hardly fail: that they become irrefutable.
—  Karl Popper (Curd, Martin, and J. A. Cover. Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues, p. 7-8. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998. Print.)

Karl Popper, as quoted by David Deutsch in The Beginning of Infinity:

I think that there is only one way to science – or to philosophy, for that matter: to meet a problem, to see its beauty and fall in love with it; to get married to it and to live with it happily, till death do ye part – unless you should meet another and even more fascinating problem or unless, indeed, you should obtain a solution.

There you have it. If you like you like that problem so much, why don’t you marry it?

Which 10 Philosophers Would You Recommend to Someone Just Becoming Interested?

Go ahead and reblog with your list of philosophers you’d shove at a newcomer (and explain why, if you feel inclined).

For me, I’d have to say: Plato, Simone de Beauvoir, Noam Chomsky, Arne Naess, Peter Singer, Bertrand Russell, Immanuel Kant, Descartes, Karl Popper, and Judith Butler.

The history of science, like the history of all human ideas, is a history of irresponsible dreams, of obstinacy, and of error. But science is one of the very few human activities — perhaps the only one — in which errors are systematically criticized and fairly often, in time, corrected. This is why we can say that, in science, we often learn from our mistakes, and why we can speak clearly and sensibly about making progress there.
—  Karl Popper