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edit index PseudoPhilosophy

PseudoPhilosophy is any idea or system that masquerades itself as Philosophy while significantly failing to meet some suitable intellectual standards. The term is frequently pejorative, and most applications of it are quite contentious. The term bears the same relationship to Philosophy that PseudoScience bears to Science, or Anti-Matter to Matter.

The term is often used more casually to express contempt, irritation, or just dislike toward some idea or system of ideas. It is not, for the most part, used technically within academic Philosophy, though it is likely to occur in philosophers' judgments on larger aspects of culture, their advice to new students, their assessments of other disciplines, and so forth.

Nicholas Rescher, in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, defines pseudo-philosophy as "deliberations that masquerade as philosophical but are inept, incompetent, deficient in intellectual seriousness, and reflective of an insufficient commitment to the pursuit of truth." Rescher adds that the term is particularly appropriate when applied to "those who use the resources of reason to substantiate the claim that rationality is unachievable in matters of inquiry."

Pseudophilosophy in Academia

An example of poor academic judgement of PseudoPhilosophy was the episode when W.V.O. Quine, along with Barry Smith, Hugh Mellor (then Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge), and various other academic philosophers, wrote to protest Cambridge University's award of an honorary degree to Jacques Derrida, claiming that Derrida's work "does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigor" and that it is made of "tricks and gimmicks similar to those of the Dadaists". Alfred Korzybski's theory of General Semantics has been given this appellation (also by Quine), and Post-Modernism has been widely accused of this kind of accusation (see Sokal Hoax) from academics.

Similarly, Arthur Schopenhauer wrote the following about Hegel:

If I were to say that the so-called philosophy of this fellow Hegel is a colossal piece of mystification which will yet provide posterity with an inexhaustible theme for laughter at our times, that it is a pseudophilosophy paralyzing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking, and, by the most outrageous misuse of language, putting in its place the hollowest, most senseless, thoughtless, and, as is confirmed by its success, most stupefying verbiage, I should be quite right.
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Basis of Morality, trans. E.F.J.Payne (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), pp.15-16.
Schopenhauer's critiques of Hegel, Schelling, and Fichte are informed by his perception that their works use deliberately impressive but ultimately vacuous jargon and neologisms, and that they contained castles of abstraction that sounded impressive but ultimately contained no verifiable content. Soren Kierkegaard attacked Hegel in a similar manner, writing that it was pretentious for Hegel to title one of his books "Reality." To Kierkegaard, this indicated an attempt to quash critics even before criticism was voiced.

Despite these attacks, Hegel is widely considered one of the most influential writers in world history: the rigor of his philosophy notwithstanding, Hegel had a significant impact on the writings of subsequent philosophers, for example Marx. Hegel scholar Walter Kaufmann contends that Schopenhauer's attacks actually illuminate more about Schopenhauer than about Hegel. Accusations that are similar in substance, if not in style, to Schopenhauer's have been made more recently against Martin Heidegger, postmodernists, and the adherents of French critical theory like Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Lacan and Jean-Fran?ois Lyotard.

Pseudophilosophy in Pop Culture

Ayn Rand's Objectivism is very often cited as a PseudoPhilosophy for several reasons, and is perhaps the most well known PseudoPhilosophy in history. Many of Rand's views are presented in her "romantic realist" novels without any clear reasoning, rather than argued, for example in journal articles or books specifically tied to certain issues. Secondly, while Rand was a self-taught philosopher (which is not a mark against her), the issues she discussed, and the way she discussed them, were unrelated to the basics of what Philosophy is. Rand's work was more of a plea to moralizing judgements about others, and her grasp of the subtle historical problems of Philosophy is considered idiosyncratic at best.

Rand's followers are often perceived as dogmatic, frequently ignoring published criticism of the system instead of responding to it. This is in part because many of them were young people excited by her novels and unlearned in Philosophy; such people are not often aware of the complexities of their subject and prone to construe disagreement as ignorance. Furthermore, many of her supporters would not permit modifications or additions to her philosophical system, leading some to label Rand as a cult leader.

Other works that have been labelled as PseudoPhilosophy include the religious poetry of Kahlil Gibran, the material in Richard Bach's fable Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Satanic Bible, James Redfield's The Celestine Prophecy and the novella The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Other New Age works are generally considered speculative or unanalytical by philosophers. Here, the label of PseudoPhilosophy is used to criticise these works as being conventional, sentimental, or platitudinous; and of lacking rigor, system, or analytical content.

Some content adapted from the Wikinfo article "Pseudophilosophy" under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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[ last updated: 5:07am EDT - Fri, Apr 06 2007 ]
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M.R.M. Parrott