Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Cult Philosophy

Western philosophy is defined by its tradition of criticism. So when you get a ''movement'' in philosophy it is just as notable for its internal divergences as for its shared principles. What you get very little of, then, are philosophy cults. Of course, cults, which are common enough, operate according to a certain "philosophy" in the sense that they hold certain ideas or world-views, but this is different from the sense of "philosophy" western philosophy is interested in because it lacks a critical attitude.

Once in a while, though, there are borderline cases: A group of thinkers who discuss positively a shared set of beliefs, who to one set of people may appear to be philosophy, and to another a cult. (An example of this may be Rand's Collective or Objectivists more generally.)

The reason these borderline cases have an appearance of a cult to them is due to the ways in which they go against the traditions of Western philosophy as hinted at above. They tend to have qualities like: the group seeking guidance from an authority rather than each member of the movements taking their lead from problems they've identified with their superior's theory. Or they lack careful and rigorous exchange with their opponents, (instead often considering their opponents only according to the most naive or negative interpretation).

The reason they have the appearance of not being a cult is that they will in some way have attributes that are too "serious" to be a cult. Perhaps, for instance, the participants of the movement consider the ideas carefully and do not take them on blind-faith. Or perhaps the participants are a part of the movement for the ideas themselves, and not "to belong" or other such psychological determinants typical of cults.

Perhaps then, instead of discreet categories when it comes to belonging to a movements--one being a school of philosophy and the other a cult--it would be more accurate to say that both exist at two extremes of a continuum. This might be a more fitting interpretation.

Yet two categories do spring to mind: the learner and the thinker. Let me explain.

We might ask, what is actually so bad about one of these borderline cults if the ideas are actually good? Yes, there are criticisms, good criticisms, most important of which is that criticism is an important weapon against fallibility and this must be taken seriously, which the borderlines aren't as good at. But there are assets, too.

Sometimes a philosopher is so busy carefully understanding something, so as to rip it to shreds, they miss a lot of what's good and useful about a theory. In this respect the likes of Rand's collective are being more thorough--certainly they could tell you more about what's good about objectivism and how to put it into practice in your every day life than most other ethical movements could with their theories.

So perhaps we need both! We need a bit of cultishness to learn the best of good theories inside and out (the learner). And we need the traditions of western philosophy to then alleviate us against dogma and to go on to use our own understanding of things (the thinker).

You see, I suggest what is actually bad about some of these borderline cases, isn't their bits of cultishness per se, but is the degree to which they mistake themselves for thinkers when they are are learners.

It is good to know which you are doing, and if you were to mistake one for the other, you could find yourself in a very dogmatic position.


  1. What are some examples of this learner/thinker distinction? What would Nathaniel Branden be, say? Learner-come-thinker?

    I hate it when people use the word 'cult' to describe Objectivists. Their philosophical views are far more critically held on the whole than the philosophical views of average people (such as they are). After all, "there are no evil thoughts but one: refusal to think."

  2. Wait, what makes you think they're more critical that most philosophers?

    "there are no evil thoughts but one: refusal to think."

    It's only one interpretation of that to mean 'think critically'. 'Think' can mean lots of things. I don't know the context of that quote, but it could be connected to Rand's concept of reason, in which case it could mean something like 'think as a verificationist' a.k.a believe what is provable against all other considerations. Not a very critical attitude at all, really.

  3. Does Nathaniel Branden actually have important criticism of Rand's theory that he uses to develop his own variant? As far as I can tell he just has his own emphasis and way of explaining objectivism. Which is exactly what a good student should do. So as far as I know he's a student (tho, I don't actually know his work very well).

  4. Tanya - not among most philosophers, just among anyone who attempts any sort of soft philosophy.

    I interpreted 'refusal to think' as 'refusal to re-examine ideas'.

    He had novel theories in psychology that were inspired by Rand. And he has his own ideas about self-esteem. All Rand-inspired but with some new theories, I believe.

    Francis, sorry, I only just realised you were correcting my spelling.

  5. objectivism isn't soft philosophy, tho.

    on refusal to think: But is this what Rand meant? Not obviously.

    Branden: according to my criteria I'd say he was still a 'learner' then, because he's not breaking away from Rand, and applying it elsewhere is only continuing to understand 'those' ideas.

    But remember I'm suggesting all of this is on a continuum and so he's maybe a borderline case.