In-between thoughts: dangerous ideas

Thoughts between sets at the gym.

I am about a third of the way through this workout and every single muscle in my upper body is quivering. I somehow gritted out 9 pullups my first set then barely did 5 each following set. I went up in weight on the upright chest press and now the thought of hugging someone makes me want to cry. It’s a time of life where I can’t get to the gym as regularly as I would like, so I think this is just the gym feeling I can expect from now on. Oh joy. The next few days are going to be TENDER.

Onto non-gym thoughts…

I’ve been thinking a lot about the reckoning in philosophy these days, particularly around the philosophers of the Enlightenment period. Some of their ideas changed and improved the way we understand the world and the way we think about humans’ experience of (and interaction with) it; others of their ideas were inexcusably, abhorrently, disgustingly bigoted. Hume supported the slave trade. Kant’s notion of autonomy, dignity, and equality as being inherent of humans had distinctly racial caveats. Rousseau said women were so different from and inferior to men that they didn’t deserve the same educational opportunities. Voltaire described some non-white groups as being “children,” possessing neither the reason nor the autonomy supposedly required to have an ideological stance. Along with moving human knowledge (philosophy and science) forward, these thinkers also held it back and crippled certain progress with their white supremacy, patriarchy, racism, and misogyny. How do we properly present these philosophers in the classroom and in history?

One suggestion has been to excise these philosophers from the canon entirely. But this doesn’t properly present the history of ideas, and can be dangerous by not allowing us to practice identifying bigotry in seemingly rational, objective ideas. Another option is to present these philosophers as heroes of the history of philosophy because of the value of some of their ideas, regardless of the cravenness of their other ideas. But of course this does a great disservice to the communities and peoples harmed (directly and indirectly) by their ideas and values, and perpetuates further violence through a refusal to address, confront, and combat violent and oppressive rhetoric.

In the question of “what do we do with these philosophers?”, then, I think there are two questions here that we shouldn’t conflate because they really are distinct and are responsive to distinct elements of human psychology and intellectuality: 1). How do we properly present dangerous ideas? and 2). How do we properly present problematic philosophers? Frankly, the answer seems really obvious to me, and I think most people agree. We talk about the problematic philosophers’ shitty ideas as we do all ideas: we critique them ruthlessly, we talk about how they fit with the ideas at the time, we talk about what ideas may have given rise to them and may have come from them, we talk about how internally consistent and logical they are (or are not), we talk about what assumptions they rest on, we talk about the practical consequences of these ideas (both within and outside of the philosophers’ general frameworks of thoughts), and we talk about who was harmed by an implementation of these ideas in the lived experience / real world.

Then we talk about problematic philosophers as we should do with all historical figures: we refrain from idolizing, we present each properly and realistically, in all their biased blind-spottedness and as situated within the particular biased, blind-spotted, patriarchal, sexist, slowly-progressing (sometimes backward moving) historical conditions that shaped them. We talk about how history has changed since and whether their ideas match (or don’t match) reality and progressive thought and what the (very diverse, divergent, often quite dissenting) dialogue around their works looks like. And yes, we refrain from using their names as an honorific, because this too often papers over real harms and only serves to provide a public perception facelift for absolute shit people (I’m looking at you, Sacklers).

This approach is nuanced and comes with its own challenges, but it’s how real philosophy, how real engagement with ideas, is usually done, and of course how I believe it should be done as often as possible.

I’m thinking of all this now because this semester I’m taking a class on Kant and our focus reading is his Critique of Pure Reason. It’s… a beast. One of the most technical and difficult texts I’ve read. But it also incredibly clear once you get sorted with his definitions and general system. It’s thrilling, in its own way. But it’s very, very abstract. VERY abstract. So in a lot of ways it feels so universal as to be difficult to connect to the very real, tangible aspects of life and thinking.

I hadn’t read much Kant, so when I read this while knowing the controversy surrounding him and his Enlightenment group, I kept thinking “What is so clearly problematic here that I’m missing?” The critique is damn near obscure. It’s hard as hell to connect it to something tangible in our experience, so it’s hard as hell to see what could be offensive about it.

Then I read his Anthology of Human Nature. OH. Here it is. Here is some of the problematic, controversial, racist arsehole Kant.

In a way, I totally understand the impulse to “expel from the canon!!” these philosophers, or at least these ideas. These ideas are dangerous. They are harmful. Ideas lead to actions, and actions lead to movements, so every idea has the potential to shape the future and affect the wellbeing of millions of people. That potential should be taken very seriously. So I don’t think dangerous ideas should be censored or eliminated entirely. Also, we have SO MUCH TO LEARN about human nature and our evil tendencies, where it comes from and how to work against them, from these ideas as properly situated within their person and historical context. Handled properly, they have incredible educational value (even while being garbage in and of themselves.)

In other words, the safest and most appropriate place for dangerous ideas to be presented and analyzed is in a responsible and skilled academia.

But the problem with the Information Age is that these dangerous ideas float around with no context in which they were originally presented, are consumed outside of any real analysis of how they sprung up, are presented as true with no examination of its internal logic/assumptions/consistency, spring up in forums without any information on the psychology of the person saying them, exist on their own with no discussion of the effects of their implementation, and are generally disconnected from their historical connection to other, past and future (whether dangerous or seemingly benign), ideas.

I’m someone who has been deeply harmed by the dangerous ideas brainwashed into me as a child, so I know how personally vulnerable young people are to ideas that lead to their own oppression and lead to them becoming oppressive adults.

I think this is one of my biggest motivators for getting a PhD in philosophy. It’s a way for me to protect myself, and maybe even those around me (most especially my eventual children), from the worst effects of dangerous ideas presented without context.

Becoming uniquely skilled at understanding and picking apart ideas makes me feel safer from the dangerous ideas I was oppressed with throughout my childhood. In this (mis)Information Age, I feel good knowing I’m doing what I can, in the way I’m excited and able to do, to protect myself from misinformation or harmful ideas, and to help put better, more grounded, more contextual ideas into the world; maybe even as a corrective or antidote to bad ideas out there.

1 Comment

  1. Julie SL says:

    Just a few questions to tack on to a very important conversation! Who determines the context in academia? Who is leading the conversation? Is there such thing as universal agreement that racist ideas are bad ideas? I continue to hope so, but I’ve certainly lost a lot of hope in this most recent political era.

    I attended a PD a few weeks ago where they presented a children’s school book from the 50’s about a house that used to be in a wide open space and have plenty of room. During the story, more and more houses and buildings spring up around the house until it is in the middle of a city. The questions for the students revolved around how the house felt and asked them whether they would rather live in a city or a suburban/rural area. The subtext about the inferiority of urban living was quite obvious. I had very similar thoughts: I would never teach that! Get rid of it! But our facilitators talked about the importance of including problematic texts because as you so eloquently stated, we need to learn about them to combat them (and we can’t get rid of them all). Their recommendation was to balance it with texts that directly or indirectly challenge the original. In the case of the house story, a teacher could balance it with positive stories of urban living and then create a well-rounded discussion about the factors that influence where we live, pros and cons of each setting, etc, which is what gives students the tools for critical, independent thinking. Who is Kant’s foil? Which philosophers or critics could create a balanced study of these very problematic ideas? In essence, we need more voices in every story.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s