Love of All Wisdom

Asperger’s syndrome in the history of philosophy

by on Sep.12, 2010, under Analytic Tradition, Confucianism, German Tradition, Greek and Roman Tradition, Metaphilosophy, Metaphysics, Psychology, Roman Catholicism, Vedānta

I’ve just been reading the popular neurologist Oliver Sacks‘s piece “An Anthropologist on Mars,” from the book of the same name. It’s a short biography of Temple Grandin, a woman whose life was recently made into a movie. Grandin, an animal researcher, has Asperger’s syndrome or “high-functioning autism”; she understands science, and animals, much better than she understands the social interactions of her fellow human beings.

People describing Grandin often reach first for words like “extraordinary,” “fascinating,” “remarkable.” These are not the words that come to my mind. I say this not because I find her accomplishments limited – they are major – but because I find her story very familiar. I don’t know if I would be diagnosed with Asperger’s myself; but I do know that Asperger’s is part of a spectrum, with full-blown autism on one end. At the other end, I think, one finds the behaviour of typical science-fiction geeks and absent-minded professors, in whose company I unquestionably fall.

The central features of Asperger’s syndrome are a difficulty with social cues and a narrowness of interest; one falls far outside the normal realms of human interest and interaction. (My interests are almost opposite Grandin’s, yet this makes me sympathize with her more. Where Grandin has been obsessed with animals since her youth, my mother recalls that I was the only child to be completely uninterested when a bunny rabbit was brought into our classroom.) The subtle interplay and social niceties that come so naturally to most people, must be learned deliberately and consciously, as one learns mathematics – and learning these is often far more difficult than learning math.

There are a number of philosophical implications that the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome might have. In today’s post, I want to focus on its implications for the history of philosophy.

I’ve recently been noticing a repeated pattern in Indo-European philosophy: one great philosopher posits a realm of pure reason, absolute abstraction, an abstract Good set above and beyond the particulars of the everyday world; and then that abstract philosopher gains a disciple (whether known personally or hundreds of years later) who takes the first philosopher’s abstract ideas and embeds a modified version of them in the concrete everyday world. The first philosopher is to some extent an Ascent thinker, trying to transcend the material and social world, and the second is more of a Descender, trying to embrace it.

Raphael, <i>The School of Athens</i>The classic version of this pattern is in Plato and Aristotle. Raphael’s The School of Athens immortalizes their differences – Plato pointing up vertically to a transcendent world of Ideas and Aristotle emphasizing the horizontal world of matter – but Aristotle nevertheless embraces much of Plato’s worldview, agreeing the Ideas exist but situating them in matter instead of in their own outer realm.

I see at least three places the pattern repeats itself. In Christianity, Augustine points to a transcendent God, sublime in infinite majesty compared to a world of darkly fallen, sinful humans, hoping that through God’s grace we can ascend to something better than our worldly fallen state. Much later, Thomas Aquinas works God much more deeply into the world of human interaction, seeing it as the working out of God-given natural laws. Here the repeated pattern is explicit, with Augustine drawing deeply from Plato and Aquinas from Aristotle.

No such influence is present in Vedāntic India. Yet I think the same pattern appears. Śaṅkara, clearly influenced by Buddhists, sees the world as full of suffering and produced by ignorance, and advises us to transcend it to realize our nature as a single entity of pure knowledge and consciousness. Then Rāmānuja draws on Śaṅkara’s account of cosmic oneness, but sees it as manifested in the physical world.

Finally, one can see a similar pattern among the great thinkers of modern Germany. Consciously attempting to move away from the supernatural transcendent worlds proposed by Plato and Augustine, Kant nevertheless identifies a realm of pure reason that would exist even in the absence of anything concrete; and tells us our moral goodness lies in following this reason, as opposed to the natural inclinations of the physical and social world. Soon enough, Hegel tries to take Kant’s pure reason and show how it underlies the physical and social world of desire and inclination. (An acquaintance once proposed to me the analogy “Kant is to Hegel as Plato is to Aristotle”; I would now add “as Augustine is to Aquinas as Śaṅkara is to Rāmānuja.”)

So to return to the earlier concerns of the post, I can’t help but wonder whether the first philosopher in each pairing had Asperger’s syndrome, while the second did not (or had it more mildly). I imagine that the same sense of being outside the normal world, which drove Temple Grandin’s animal research, also drove Plato and Augustine and Śaṅkara and Kant – but then in each case someone more normal and well-adjusted then sat down and tried to adapt their theories so they could fit into the everyday world. This seems to be confirmed in the case of Kant and Hegel, where we have the most reliable information about their personal lives. Kant never married, and was said to have been so obsessive about punctuality that the citizens of Königsberg set their clocks by his daily walk; Hegel, meanwhile, had a wife and children and seemed to live a relatively normal personal life by the standards of nineteenth-century Prussia.

I seem to recall Graham Harman noting a while back (I can’t find the reference) that most great philosophers today begin by making an extreme and exaggerated claim that draws attention, and then gradually pull back to a more moderate position. I wonder if the same thing may occur interpersonally: a weird outsider with an autism-spectrum disorder is needed to get the philosophical world to pay attention and shake things up, and then someone more socially well adjusted is required to give those theories wider acceptance. Grandin suggests that Asperger’s may be one of the world’s great wellsprings of creativity: “if the genes that caused these conditions were eliminated there might be a terrible price to pay. It is possible that persons with bits of these traits are more creative, or possibly even geniuses…. If science eliminated these genes, maybe the whole world would be taken over by accountants.” (quoted in Sacks 292) Perhaps one needs a maladjusted, socially inept genius to create a great idea and then an “accountant” to make it stick. (Sacks’s piece mentions Wittgenstein as someone who might have had Asperger’s, and there is a certain transcendent aspiration in some of his work; it may have been the whole 20th-century school of analytic philosophy that brought his work down to earth.)

At least, that seems like it may be the Indo-European pattern. I don’t see anything parallel in East Asia, perhaps because East Asian thought has so much stronger of an intimacy orientation. (At the SACP two years ago, I said to an East Asianist colleague that I thought explicit argument and disagreement were essential to the progress of philosophy. He said he thought that I was being Eurocentric; when I noted how much explicit argument there is in India, he modified it to “Indo-Eurocentric.”) For better or for worse, people with Asperger’s tendencies seem to have found much less of a home in East Asian thought. Perhaps that should be no surprise: after all, Aspergians make terrible Confucians. A philosophical climate that stresses etiquette and social relationships is about as uncongenial an environment as can be imagined for someone like Temple Grandin. The thought of such a person might have had a much harder time getting a foothold there.

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34 Comments for this entry

  • Thill

    “individuals with Asperger’s syndrome…their language acquisition and use is often atypical. Abnormalities include verbosity, abrupt transitions, literal interpretations and miscomprehension of nuance, use of metaphor meaningful only to the speaker, auditory perception deficits, unusually pedantic, formal or idiosyncratic speech, and oddities in loudness, pitch, intonation, prosody, and rhythm.” (Wikipedia)

    If some of these characteristics, taken as a group, suggest Asperger’s syndrome, then Kant and Hegel are prime candidates! LOL The German language is yet to recover from their unbridled and verbose onslaughts on it and in it!

    But, seriously, some of the philosophers on your list may suffer from something more: pathologies of thought and/or a severe form of insincerity.

    If there is a Nobel prize for the weirdest theory, it should go to Plato for his theory of forms among whose central tenets is the view that only the idea of human is truly human, only the idea of beauty is truly beautiful, and that particular humans or beautiful objects can hardly tell us anything about humanity or beauty, and such!

    But Plato surely knew that he knew humanity and beauty only in terms of the particular humans and beautiful objects and beautiful youth he had encountered in his life and those he had heard or read about! His contempt for particulars, despite the fact he was himself a particular born of particular parents, deserves study from a psychological point of view.

    Shankara belongs to the same case-book as Plato. He denies the reality of all particulars and relations among them! But he surely knew that he was a particular who was going around visiting particular places of learning and debating with other particulars! He surely knew that he had a mother and recognized her as such and respected her wishes! His philosophy is an extreme case of insincerity bordering on the pathological!

    Kant, who was compared to a spider by Nietzsche, tells us that there is a realm, Noumenon, which is unknowable. How then did he come to know its existence? To know that something exists implies that it is knowable! But the “knowable unknowable” is just nonsense!

    As to Hegel, just one passage will suffice (if you like to harp on “contexts”, you would be gratified to know that the “context” only consists of more passages of the same kind.)as an illustration of the quality of his “thinking”:

    “In the indifferences of light, the aether has scattered its absolute indifference into multiplicity; in the bloom of the solar system it has borne its inner Reason and totality out into expansion…And so the unity of the stars lacks the form of universality, while that of the solar system lacks pure unity, and neither carries in itself the absolute Concept as such.”

    I would not at all dismiss the hypothesis that Hegel suffered from a severe form of thought disorder, even if it typically or exclusively manifested in his “philosophical thinking”.

  • michael reidy

    Some philosophers are mentioned in relation to Asperger’s. Socrates, Quine, Russell, Wittgenstein. We notice that it’s a guy thing mostly if not exclusively. Augustine doesn’t seem to fit the bill from the emotional point of view. He was devastated by the death of his son and had a close relationship with his mother. His autobiography details a joint mystical experience that they had which is very unusual in the annals the transcendent. One of the marks of the aspergers syndrome seems to be a precocious ability in maths and logic and a lack of empathy or interest in others or a marked tactlessness.

    In a complex society there is room for this sort of specialism. Grandin has done much for the humane treatment of animals in slaughter houses. Her squeeze machine is uncanny i.e. mechanical hugging device.

    • Thill

      Augustine fits something far worse than Asperger’s syndrome with his profound problematic of determining whether Jesus is still bleeding from his crucifixion or still bears the scars from that experience! His answer? Jesus still bears those scars, but they are faint and not repulsive to see!!!!

      I suggest that you read the reflections of Augustine and Aquinas on the salacious topic of sex between women and demons to comprehend the extent to which even otherwise brilliant minds are prone to pathologies of thought and belief!

  • Thill

    Amod: “At the SACP two years ago, I said to an East Asianist colleague that I thought explicit argument and disagreement were essential to the progress of philosophy. He said he thought that I was being Eurocentric; when I noted how much explicit argument there is in India, he modified it to “Indo-Eurocentric.”

    You are aboslutely right about the need for explicit argument and its attendant processes of rebuttal, refutation, defense, revision, etc. Thanks to Robert Nozick, we now have an irrational disdain or inhibition concerning those essential elements of philosophical dialogue with the resulting abysmal decline in quality of thought and discussion!

    Your “Asianist colleague” probably never heard of the “Genetic Fallacy”, the fallacy of trying to deny or dismiss something by mentioning its origins. He should have known that “Explicit argument and disagreement” are characteristic of all known philosophical traditions, including the Asian traditions.

  • Stephen C. Walker

    I’d like to broaden the picture of East Asian thought offered here, since I think more account should be taken of non-Confucian schools. It may be true that “Aspergians make terrible Confucians,” but they also make terrible Mohists, statecraft theorists, and Daoists. (At least those kinds of Daoism that have a social and political agenda, rather than being purely individualistic or esoteric.) Classical China does indeed epitomize a “philosophical climate that stresses etiquette and social relationships”, provided that by this one understands it to stress social and political action in general. “Etiquette” is claimed as a specialty by Confucians, but an agent interested in any of the other teachings also requires understanding of and response to human emotions and social cues. That holds regardless of how much explicit argument and disagreement they engage.

  • Thill

    Protocol and rules of etiquette in philosophical debates were also prevalent in India, but these have nothing to do with “explicit argument and disagreement”. There is nothing in “explicit argument and disagreement” which implies a violation of etiquette or protocol for discussion.

    Hence, these facts concerning etiquette or protocol for philosophical discussion are irrelevant to Amod’s point on the indispensability of “explicit argument and disagreement” in philosophical discussion.

    On the other hand, any emphasis on “being nice” at the expense of explicit argument and rational disagreement is detrimental to the quality of philosophical discussion and inquiry whose goal is not to add to one’s popularity, or one’s list of supporters, but the investigation of the truth or plausibility of a given claim.

  • Thill

    SCW: “It may be true that “Aspergians make terrible Confucians,” but they also make terrible Mohists, statecraft theorists, and Daoists.”

    This looks like an ad hominem fallacy. Is there a good reason to think otherwise?

  • Stephen C. Walker

    Thill – the main point of my comment was to broaden the scope of the East Asian thought under discussion. If Amod is right that what he identifies as “Asperger’s tendencies” could not find much of a home in the Sinitic tradition, then I agree (at least for the classical period) – but it is not for reasons specific to Confucianism. It is not the case that Chinese philosophy is inimical to argument or theory-construction, but it is the case that all the schools that won any kind of enduring prestige were aimed at practical results. The practical orientation of Chinese thought means that, however abstract the issues discussed, there was persistent pressure to relate these to government policy and social interaction. Any tendencies toward metaphysical or epistemological speculation tended to grow out of and/or get circumscribed by practical demands.

    • Thill

      Yes, I understand. But could one argue that “X has Asperger’s tendencies. So, X will make a terrible Confucian philosopher, Mohist, Statecraft theorist, or Daoist philosopher.” without committing an ad hominem fallacy?

      Could we consider a few explanations of how Asperger’s tendencies could prevent someone from becoming a Confucian or a Daoist philosopher?

  • michael reidy

    Thill wrote:

    Augustine fits something far worse than Asperger’s syndrome with his profound problematic of determining whether Jesus is still bleeding from his crucifixion or still bears the scars from that experience! &c

    Staying with the subject, the nature of Asperger’s is well known and we can clearly distinguish between those with it and those with beliefs that we find absurd. It is an interesting question to ask whether those that have established the parameters of Western thought might not have been disconnected from the natural range of concerns and in a wonderland of their own by virtue of an organic condition. What can reflecting on ‘possible worlds’ tell us about this world that we share? Think also of the ‘thought experiment’ fetish which is taught to students as a way of stress testing concepts and theories. Isn’t it a way of saying that anything you can imagine might be the case. Doesn’t it turn the fantasy of covering all options including the absurd into a launch pad? Good minds are divided on ‘Jackson’s Mary’ and ‘The Chinese Room’. Do I mean the same good mind or different minds you may ask? Yes, quite.

  • skholiast

    In a former chapter of my life I spent several years working for two different companies which ran group homes for people with autism and other developmental disabilities. I read Grandin’s books, among others, to get an insight into what it was like to be the people I worked with. Since then I’ve also known other students with Asberger’s. One young man I worked with had a savant-like ability to identify shades of color; extraordinarily subtle differences came with (it seemed from the outside) a clear index pointing to “fire-engine red” rather than “candy-apple” or “crimson” or “brick.” It strikes me that at least in these cases, (not to mention those like Sacks mentions in which prime numbers “jump out” at you, or instances of synaesthesia) it would be an almost obvious extrapolation to posit a world in which qualities had a sort of substantive existence.

    My own suspicion (and I have not yet pushed the empirical side of this very far) is that our ancestors — this would be back around the era of Julian Jaynes’ “bicameral mind” — were mostly synaesthetic, and that this is more or less a synonym for “participation” in Barfield’s sense.

    And of course, philosophy is also paired with other forms of mental “aberration” and indeed madness. I just read the graphic novel Logicomix, a fairly good (albeit not especially deep) intro to Russell’s life and thought, which (quite consciously) makes much of the overlap between logic and madness (it ran in Russell’s family; Cantor died in an asylum; Frege descended into paranoia, Wittgenstein struggled against it, etc etc). Since Jaynes argues that schizophrenia is actually a recursion to bicameral thinking, this again makes one wonder how deep the roots go.

    • Thill

      I would like to clarify that my focus is on the pathology of some forms of philosophical and religious thinking. I am interested in personal facts, in this context, in terms of their role, if any, in explaining that pathology of philosophical or religious thinking.

      My premise here is that if we have a clear specific case of pathology of philosophical or religious thinking, e.g., in Shankara, “No-Self philosophers”, Plato, Hegel, etc., then we have to search for both intellectual and personal factors to account for that pathology.

      But we have to be careful about committing the ad hominem fallacy in these investigations. If there is no pathology of philosophical or religious thought, e.g., the thought of Mill, Hume, Wittgenstein, Moore, Austin, Carnap, Strawson, etc., then even if some of these philosophers had some form of affect disorder it is irrelevant to our understanding of their thought.

      Thus even if a philosopher or thinker has some of the affect issues associated with Asperger’s syndrome, it is completely irrelevant if we are not dealing with expressions of thought disorder or pronounced insincerity in their philosophical thinking.

      We would be guilty of an ad hominem fallacy if we appeal to the fact that a philosopher might have had Asperger’s syndrome in the context of examining the thinking of that philosopher which has no discernible weirdness, absurdity, or insincerity.

    • Amod Lele

      Yes… while I’m not prepared to endorse the anti-psychiatrists who say that madness is entirely a social construct, it is worth remembering how much of what we call madness is simply a lived rejection of social norms – and that much philosophy is this as well. As Stephen points out above, this was often not philosophy’s role in East Asia, but it’s clearly something that Socrates shared with both Nietzsche and the Indian śramaṇas. Some philosophers (Aristotle, Confucius, Hegel) make peace with the accepted world around them, find a way to bring philosophy back in harmony with established norms. Difficulty of their prose notwithstanding, these philosophers move away from Aspergian unconventionality to an understanding that fits those around them. The pattern seems to be different in East Asia, but in Indo-European philosophy the examples above suggest a recurring theme: the Aspergian philosopher makes a mess, and then a neurotypical philosopher cleans it up.

  • skholiast

    I would think that any neuro-psychological condition of any thinker at all would be of only ancillary interest in evaluating the validity of their ideas, however pertinent in asking after the ideas’ genesis. (Since the ideas’ validity need have nothing to do with their corresponding “brain-states,” as they say.)

  • Thill

    I agree that the critical evaluation of a philosophers’ ideas or arguments is not determined by their personal idiosyncrasies. However, I also think that demonstrably weird, absurd, or irrational ideas and a consistent abuse of language call for an explanation in terms of something personal and/or social.
    For example, given the absurdity of Shankara’s denial of the reality of all individuals and relations, and the fact that he was an individual arguing with other individuals about the plausibility of his denials and must have known this, we are compelled to speculate on psychological and/or social factors which could have led him to these absurdities.

    • Amod Lele

      Thill, is there an implicit conservatism in your approach? You seem to be privileging the everyday, the commonsensical, the assumed, the normal. Those who deviate from this are to be investigated for pathology, whereas those who advocate the everyday are not. Such a viewpoint fits comfortably with American traditions of pragmatism, which I find highly suspect. Our everyday ways of doing things are deeply screwed up. In politics we should be very careful about changing them, given that they are the result of so many years’ reflection – thus my sympathy for literal conservatism – but that doesn’t mean our everyday ways of doing things are themselves good and justified. And that goes double at the individual level.

      The extent to which Asperger’s constitutes a “pathology” is itself heavily debated. Grandin has stated that if a cure were developed she would not take it, for her condition is part of who she is. Plenty of the figures we now venerate outside of philosophical circles (such as Einstein) could likely have received a diagnosis of Asperger’s. It’s clear to me that Aspergians often correctly see things that others do not.

      • Thill

        Amod: “You seem to be privileging the everyday, the commonsensical, the assumed, the normal.”

        Amod, whether we like it or not, accept it or fight it, we were all born into, have our roots in, and inhabit the everyday and the commonsensical. Our standards of intelligibility and veracity are derived from them.

        As Wittgenstein’s remarkable work makes it clear, our language is inextricably woven with the fabric of the “form of life” that is the everyday and the commonsensical.

        Even science is parasitical on the language of the everyday and the commonsensical and becomes unintelligible when its speculations, as contrasted with its established truths or confirmed hypotheses, run rife and conflict with everyday intuitions or commonsense. For instance, all this talk of “time travel” implies that we can go to back to a time when we were not born and therefore could not possibly exist or that we can go forward to a time after our death and could not possibly exist! It is sheer nonsense! Nature abhors nonsense! That’s why you can never find descendants of those who died before they reproduced! LOL

        The main problem with metaphysical and religious discourse is intelligibility and coherence. That’s because, as Wittgenstein put it inimitably, language goes on a holiday (from everyday life and commonsense)when you do metaphysics! I would add that when you do theology, language goes into a veritable black hole from which no meaning can escape!

        • Thill

          And you can’t even say that “You seem to be privileging the everyday, the commonsensical, the assumed, the normal.” and make yourself understood were it not for the everyday, the commonsensical, the assumed, and the normal!
          This surely makes it privileged!

      • Thill

        Amod: Thill, is there an implicit conservatism in your approach? You seem to be privileging the everyday, the commonsensical, the assumed, the normal. Those who deviate from this are to be investigated for pathology, whereas those who advocate the everyday are not.”

        A pathology, whether physical or mental, is identified and defined in terms of its deviance or departure from the normal! I am proposing that there are forms of pathology of thought or the intellect and that these are identified, analogously, in terms of their deviance, or departure from the established truths of ordinary life, commonsense, and ordinary language. Take another look at at that passage from Hegel I quoted in an earlier post and tell me if you honestly don’t think that there is something seriously wrong with its ab(use) of language and the underlying “thinking”.

        “Such a viewpoint fits comfortably with American traditions of pragmatism, which I find highly suspect. Our everyday ways of doing things are deeply screwed up.”

        I don’t consider myself a pragmatist since I hold that truth is not a function of “workability”. Rather, I think that “workability” is dependent on getting the truth of the matter right in varying degrees of verisimilitude!

        Your last sentence is false (perhaps, it is true of philosophers and theologians if they have not compartmentalized their theories and their everyday lives.) and may itself be conditioned by strange philosophical theories.

        Which everyday ways of doing things are “deeply screwed up”? learning how to speak and write a language? Greeting people? Brushing our teeth? courting or dating? marrying? having sex? saving money? being careful about making enemies? cultivating family relations? avoiding danger? visiting a doctor if we are sick? enjoying music?

        • Thill

          And I dare say that if we are “screwing up” of our everyday lives, it is probably because of the influence of false theories, e.g., religious or philosophical, on how to run our everyday lives.

  • michael reidy

    That point at which we move in our attitude towards a person from seeing them as a patient or an actor varies. The philosopher who by a quirk in his brain has the capacity to focus on logical detail of the sort which drives the rest of us into a fury of boredom is welcomed as a specialist and a lusus naturae. Even Russell who with Whitehead spent years on the proof of 1 + 1 = 2 found that he was dead to philosophy afterwards for years. The rest of us have our own special subjects which bewilder others. We boldly go where no one would be bothered. To pathologize this is to shrink the range of human interest to that of the man on the Clapham omnibus. We are all in the Cave like the half awake man in a dark bedroom who has become disoriented and is feeling his way around until the shape of something is familiar. Some have climbed into wardrobes thinking they were going out the door.

    I am with Skholiast on this one. Valid reasoning can live with egregious oddity.

  • Thill

    Amod: “The subtle interplay and social niceties that come so naturally to most people, must be learned deliberately and consciously, as one learns mathematics – and learning these is often far more difficult than learning math.”

    A lot of that is not conducive to the development of sincerity. “Social niceties” are not necessarily indicative of a nice person! They can be a pretense born of duplicity and insincerity. The nineteenth century Tamil poet and radical mystic (He rejected all religions as repositories of falsehoods!) Ramalingam included this petition in his prayers:
    Let me not have any relations with those who have one thing on their lips and the opposite in their hearts!

    • Amod Lele

      Exactly – and this is a key example of that which in our normal interactions is “deeply screwed up.” To maintain social order we learn to tell lies to each other – and typically we tell the same, or related, lies to ourselves. The Aspergian or related misfit has the advantage of seeing beyond these social conventions. Common sense is full of ideas that people tell each other because it’s convenient to do so, and keeps social order humming. Even though Aspergian social awkwardness is in many respects a defect – it interferes with living a happy and healthy life – the fact that one doesn’t learn the conventions means that one learns something different, and sometimes truer, than what others learn.

  • Thill

    MR: “We boldly go where no one would be bothered. To pathologize this is to shrink the range of human interest to that of the man on the Clapham omnibus.”

    Life is too short and valuable to be wasted on flights of philosophical fancy at odds with the marvels of everyday life and science!

    • Thill

      At least the man on the clapham omnibus has one important thing in his favor: sanity! That’s way more than can be said of many philosophers whose “greatness” consists in denying that particular objects give us any reliable information about reality, or that any particular object exists at all, or that particular objects exist independently of ideas in the heads of one species of land-mammals, and so on.

  • Thill

    To “pathologize” a denial of all motion by a philosopher who knows for sure, like anyone else, that we are all subject to and initiate all sorts of motions is to call a spade a “spade”!

  • JimWilton

    I disagree that psychological condition is irrelevant to the ideas of a philosopher (other than in understanding their genesis). This point seems so obvious that I am surprised it needs to be stated.

    Has philosphy become entirely an intellectual exercise? Would you seek diet advice from a fat man? Would you seek wisdom from someone whose life is not exemplary, much less someone who is clinically insane?

    If a man or woman has a philosophy that is so tepid that it does no more than affirm a life of convention, what value could their ideas possibly have?

    • skholiast

      Jim, touché! I was being hyperbolic, without even quite seeing it. Yes, one looks at the whole life; who the teacher is, and not just “the teaching.” On the other hand, though, there seems something amiss with moving with too much dispatch from “this teaching seems daft” to “just as I thought — this teacher is daft.” As is well known, the wise can look decidedly odd from the outside. In any case, presumably the “diet” commended by the overweight diet instructor would have flaws in it discernible even to someone who read it in a book with no photo on the back cover.

    • Thill

      If you ask someone for an example of addition and she says to you “2 + 2 = 4″, would you wonder about her psychological condition?
      On the other hand, if she says “7 – 2 = 30″, wouldn’t you wonder about her psychological condition?

      I rest my case.

      • JimWilton

        Philosophy and religion aspire to something greater than stating the obvious.

        I also agree with skholiast — best not to be too quick to dismiss philosophical ideas as being “right” or “wrong” — since right and wrong are based on our assumptions and the big ideas sometimes require inquiry into our assumptions.

  • michael reidy

    Writing on Goethe, Carlyle has this to say:

    …..his maxims require study; nay they require it, and improve by more and more. They come from the depths of his mind, and are not in their place until they have reached the depths of ours. The wisest man, we believe, may see in them a reflex of his own wisdom: but to him who is still learning, they become as seeds of knowledge; they take root in the mind, and ramify, as we meditate them, into a whole garden of thought.

    This is both the danger and the greatness of philosophy; we are invited into the web of another’s thought and encouraged by argument and maybe outright sophistry to see the world through a foreign eye. Through a species of morphing we are enabled to become strange to ourselves for a time. There is an imaginative engagement that is similar to the reading of a novel or the fascinating misdirection of stage magic. We submit to the onerous rules of a game in which unexceptionable axioms can lead us anywhere. ‘Substance’ may lead us to monads or ‘nature naturing’ or ‘what is not said of anything’. Metaphysics in this world is not a description of how things patently are, but of how things must fundamentally be, for things to appear as they do. In that sense it is perfectly possible for philosophers to take positions that are counter-intuitive because they are detached from intuition and so must you be for a while to read them at the depth they require to be read.

  • michael reidy

    …his maxims will bear study; nay they require it..etc

  • michael reidy

    Projecting backwards to the tennis player’s paradox and how consequentialism ruins your game reminds me that we are forgetting in our catalogue of Asperger’s philosophers the epitome of that condition Jeremy Bentham the Utilitarian. The catalogue of his oddness surpasses anything in the history of philosophy. John Stuart Mill was also slightly bizarre but he had the benefit of his father’s educational system.

    Hazlitt in The Spirit of the Age delivers in pellucid prose an essay on Bentham. His rebuttal which I was reading today is entirely persuasive. Find it on :

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  • Perennial questions? | Love of All Wisdom

    […] by Amod Lele on Oct.06, 2010, under East Asia, Greek and Roman Tradition, Metaphilosophy, Metaphysics, Vedānta On my recent post about the ascent-descent and intimacy-integrity classifications in philosophy, skholiast asks an important question: “what is the itch in us to make such schematisms?” What is the point of trying to classify philosophies this way? Clearly many philosophers do attempt to so classify them – but is that anything more than the kind of obsessive interest that characterizes Asperger’s syndrome? […]

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