5 Misunderstood Philosophy Quotes. Ockham’s Razor

This morning i found myself yet again browsing through pages upon pages of philosophy quotes. There is just something I like about browsing through tonnes of these tiny little snippets of philosophy, each a tiny little window into vast and complex philosophical systems and ideas, any of which I could peer through by reading these short, sometimes simple quotes. Unfortunately however in my google-spree, more often than not it turns out that many of these quotes are recycled ‘junk philosophy’, that contains wisdom that one philosopher had at a time, but has been repeated over and over again to the point where it’s hard to determine which philosopher had even said it, let alone what they really mean when they said it. This awful chinese-whisper like transformation seems to remove and/or drastically change the ideas that these philosophers originally meant, and what’s worse is that these horrible corrupted versions often fall into ‘common knowledge’. We all know the people that Ayn Rand talks about in her “Why Philosophy” spiel, where she points out the various sayings that are heard every day, and shows the link to the real philosophy that is behind them but seemingly invisible to those advocating it. What ever doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger, right? How many people would correctly identify that as Nietzsche, further how many people would understand him and what he means when he says it? though I think that would be asking a lot in this circumstance, i mean, it’s Nietzsche, i feel like i can’t understand him at the best of times.

So in all of my rage filled yelling directed at my monitor, inspired by these awful recycled philosophy, i feel obliged to balance the Internet out in my own small way, by going through a few quotes, and trying to re-open these little windows of insight, so that people may once again gaze in at the beauty that is the philosophy being quoted, and go past mere words. Over the coming weeks i will explore 5 of the most commonly misused and misunderstood quotes and hopefully restore them to what philosophy quotes ought to be; Windows to the world of ideas.

“Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily” – William of Ockham


Ockham’s razor, is one of a few philosophical razors and by far the most well known (slightly ahead of Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword’ which is likely known purely because of it’s badass name). The purpose of these razors are to provide a principled ‘rule of thumb’ to help us cut down (hence razor) on the amount of theories, or the complexities within the theories, and to help us in choosing which theories to discount and which to take on board. Ockham’s razor is as the quote suggests, that the number of entities (things, concepts, variables, etc) should be kept to a minimum, as the simpler the theory, the less things that could go wrong with it. It’s purpose is to help us decide between competing hypotheses, and as a guide when creating them, when two hypotheses have the same explanatory power, the one with the simplest, least amount of assumptions and ancillary hypotheses should be preferred.

Karl Popper talks extensively about the problems caused by ancillary hypotheses and how people tend to shift the blame when something goes wrong with the hypothesis, which razor’s like Ockham’s (Popper appropriates Ockham’s razor and reformulates it, to fit his falsifiability criteria, by the way) would surely help fix.

Where people go wrong

it’s always thrown about in the strangest of ways and so widely misused it would surely raise the blood pressure of any nearby philosophers, even Galileo made fun of the misuse in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.

I could write endless pages on this one, but I’ll save that for the next quote. The biggest problem I encounter when reading people talk about this razor, is when people misunderstand and say that it’s “the simpler the theory, the more likely it is to be true”, which is definitely not the case, perhaps with other razors, but not this one.

Let us consider a theoretical situation. We have just witnessed a phenomenon, which we label A. Now, we think about A, and attempt to explain and understand why and how the phenomenon came to be, and instantly, we have multiple, competing hypotheses. Ockham’s razor suggests that the one with the least ‘quantitative things’’ ought to be preferred based on practical grounds. We have hypothesis B and C. B has 4 major concepts within, and 6 ancillary hypotheses, that rely on outside theories and conceptual understandings and a vast structured metaphysics. C however has only 3 major concepts, and only 1 ancillary hypothesis; They both have the same explanatory power, in that, they both, if true, allow us to sufficiently understand this phenomenon (whether it’s causal nature or whatnot). This is a rule of thumb, this does not make that simpler theory more likely to be true, it makes it easier to test. Further if C is wrong, you do not have to look far to alter the hypothesis, because you have few major hypothesis and only one ancillary, as opposed to B. If B was called into question, we would need to sort through all those ancillary hypotheses, call into question the metaphysics, and question all of the hypotheses that it contains.

Quote of the Week: Diogenes

Those who have virtue always in their mouths, and neglect it in practice, are like a harp, which emits a sound pleasing to others, while itself is insensible of the music. – Diogenes of Sinope

Diogenes of Sinope was an ancient Greek philosopher, who was one of the most well known and most controversial of the Cynics. Diogenes is also known as Diogenes the dog (Διογένης ὁ Κυνικός, Diogenēs ho Kunikos) which is the supposed origin of the term Cynic (Doglike).

One of the core ideas of Cynicism and of Diogenes is that philosophy is practical, and as a result, philosophical questions are ones that deal with the ‘everydayness’ of life, with the goal of these thought provoking questions being action. This is evident in Diogenes through his idea of Solvitur Ambulando, or, it is solved by walking (practical experiment). The quote above illustrates this core cynic idea, as the person who speaks of virtue applies none of them to their own life. Their failure to grasp the purpose of philosophy means they hear nothing where others hear music, they speak of virtues while others live by them, they miss the point, while others take action, they are reduced to mere objects, incapable of living a virtuous life for they do not grasp the connection between philosophy and life.

A Room Full of Philosophers Broke My Heart

A room full of philosophers broke my heart today.

Upon entering the building they handed me a tote bag full of papers and a green tag with my name to swing around my neck. Puffing together in a circle at their cigarettes, they stomped on the butts when called inside and spilled their coffee walking through the door. They entered in their dark suits trailed by Old Spice cologne. Grinning stained teeth they laughed as they bent and sunk into their seats. The introducer was a balding historian who spoke of the value of philosophy. We appreciate, he said, the value of the department; it will not be disappearing from Murdoch University. Old, wrinkled hands were brought together in a clap before the presentations began.

They pulled out their papers, reading along with and ahead of the retired German presenter. I sat upright gripping my pencil and scrawled notes onto the pages. He tripped over his words as they told him he had ten minutes left. He scowled at the timekeeper and finished the presentation having thrown around words and said nothing at all.

As the presentations rolled on I slumped further into my seat, dropping my papers and pencil, and thought about something else. The air was thick and we were falling asleep. When we got outside and the sun hit my face, it came to me: this is not philosophy. These people spat strange words and rehearsed arguments thought by someone else. They spoke of the same books, the same names, and all agreed that, yes, that is what so-and-so meant about such-and-such, and yes, we have all performed well, and yes, this is all terribly, terribly important. But from the footpath, watching them drinking their coffee and congratulating each other for having read the same things and thought the same things and said the same things, I wondered, For whom is this important?

This was a gathering of professional teachers of philosophy, an association Karl Jaspers criticised as “diffused, artificial, and unreal”. This was a self-sufficient artificial world wherein philosophy is the most important thing, but only insofar as the citizens face inwards, and do not see the world outside. Philosophy, self-contained, is nothing. It must always be guided and directed towards the world we live in, the lives we lead, and the others around us. Philosophers who do nothing but theorise and master the words and arguments of their heroes are not philosophers at all, but phantoms; they do not live in this world, but are somehow still there, faint, like an echo. Philosophers must, ultimately, be guided by the question, What shall we do? And in order to ask that question, they must be able to do, that is, be in the world, with everyone else.

Philosophers mustn’t forget that they are, first and foremost, persons. They begin life as laymen, equal with all others, and this never leaves them. Abstracting from this experience is important, of course, and in doing so we must develop a specialised set of tools with which to handle this newfound perspective. But just as surgeons, with finely crafted and highly specialised tools, are worthless if they sit at their desks and only theorise about performing surgery, so, too, do philosophers need to be able to come back from their abstracted world and apply what they’ve learnt in the world of laymen. Without this ultimate goal, philosophers disappear from the world and cease to live.

And so, watching a room full of people who call themselves philosophers, running down the rabbit hole and refusing to come back up – indeed, with no way to come back up – I thought to myself, If this is what philosophy is, then I want no part of it. This, after having fallen in love with philosophy – a love ignited by these very same people, only in the classroom – truly did break my heart.

The Kind of Person I Want to Be

We stood in the corner sipping whiskey and rattling the ice against the glass. The smell of smoke and burning meat drifted in from outside. There was laughing, chattering, and the twang of country music. I was red-eyed and sunken as we talked about my breakup. We stumbled onto the topic of her dating again. That, he said, is when you find out who your real mates are. That night was lost in a haze of port and an army of bad food.

I remembered this when I got home last night. We met last night for dinner, eating cumin-scented curry, our forks tapping against the metal plates. The haunting taste of the rose dessert cleared the foggy sky and the moonlight traced your cheeks. When you told me about you and him, I was not surprised; I knew even before you did. But I was wrapped in a cold, soaking sheet of emotion and we sat there, silent, staring. The water lapped against the wooden posts; somewhere, children were playing.

You’ve been together for two weeks, and it was you, not him, but that does not matter. I almost got up and walked away. Almost yelled; almost swore. But I realise that he was wrong that night. This is not when you find out who your real mates are; this is when you find out who you really are.

We are rarely thrown life-defining moments, and rarer still is when we recognise them. But in these situations, there is only one reason to choose between the easy excess of an extreme position – anger, depression, hatred – and the difficult, long, and lonely path; the path wherein we face the contradictions and anxiety of life with all our reason, emotion, imagination and inspiration. The reason to choose one position over the other comes down to how we answer this question: what kind of person do I want to be?

We cannot ignore this question; to ignore it is to already have answered it. And so, last night, as we sat there staring at each other, I did not get up. I did not yell. I did not swear. I looked into your eyes, held your hand, and we talked.

That is the kind of person I want to be.

Sartre’s Tribute to Albert Camus

I felt this needed sharing, it is quite amazing. Sartre and Camus had somewhat of a falling out in their later years, but after Camus’s sudden and unexpected death, Sartre had written a tribute/eulogy for Camus.


Edited by Germaine Bree.
Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962.

Pages 173-175

Tribute to Albert Camus
by Jean-Paul Sartre

Six months ago, even yesterday, people wondered: “What is he going to do?” Temporarily, torn by contradictions that must be respected, he had chosen silence. But he was one of those rare men we can well afford to wait for, because they are slow to choose and remain faithful to their choice. Some day he would speak out. We could not even have dared hazard a guess as to what he might say. But we thought that he had changed with the world as we all do; that was enough for us to be aware of his presence.

He and I had quarreled. A quarrel doesn’t matter — even if those who quarrel never see each other again — just another way of living together without losing sight of one another in the narrow little world that is allotted us. It didn’t. keep me from thinking of him, from feeling that his eyes were on the book or newspaper I was reading and wondering: “What does he think of it? What does he think of it at this moment?”

His silence, which according to events and my mood I considered sometimes too cautious and sometimes painful, was a quality of every day like heat or light, but it was human. We lived with or against his thought as it was revealed to us in his books-especially The Fall, perhaps the finest and least understood-but always in relation to it. It was an exceptional adventure of our culture, a movement of which we tried to guess the phases and the final outcome.

He represented in our time the latest example of that long line of moralistes whose works constitute perhaps the most original element in French letters. His obstinate humanism, narrow and pure, austere and sensual, waged an uncertain war against the massive and formless events of the time. But on the other hand through his dogged rejections he reaffirmed, at the heart of our epoch, against the Machiavellians and against the Idol of realism, the existence of the moral issue.

In a way, he was that resolute affirmation. Anyone who read or reflected encountered the human values he held in his fist; he questioned the political act. One had to avoid him or fight him-he was indispensable to that tension which makes intellectual life what it is. His very silence, these last few years, had something positive about it: This Descartes of the Absurd refused to leave the safe ground of morality and venture on the uncertain paths of practicality. We sensed this and we also sensed the conflicts he kept hidden, for ethics, taken alone, both requires and condemns revolt.

We were waiting; we had to wait; we had to know. Whatever he did or decided subsequently, Camus would never have ceased to be one of the chief forces of our cultural activity or to represent in his way the history of France and of this century. But we should probably have known and understood his itinerary. He said so himself: “My work lies ahead.” Now it is over. The particular scandal of his death is the abolition of the human order by the inhuman.

The human order is still but a disorder: it is unjust and precarious; it involves killing, and dying of hunger; but at least it is founded, maintained, or resisted by men. In that order Camus had to live. That man on the move questioned us, was himself a question seeking its reply; he lived in the middle of a long life; for us, for him, for the men who maintain order and for those who reject it, it was important for him to break his silence, for him to decide, for him to conclude. Some die in old age while others, forever on reprieve, may die at any minute without the meaning of their life, of life itself, being changed. But for us, uncertain without a compass, our best men had to reach the end of the tunnel. Rarely have the nature of a man’s work and the conditions of the historical moment so clearly demanded that a writer go on living.

I call the accident that killed Camus a scandal because it suddenly projects into the center of our human world the absurdity of our most fundamental needs. At the age of twenty, Camus, suddenly afflicted with a malady that upset his whole life, discovered the Absurd-the senseless negation of man. He became accustomed to it, he thought out his unbearable condition, he came through. And yet one is tempted to think that only his first works tell the truth about his life, since that invalid once cured is annihilated by an unexpected death from the outside.

The Absurd might be that question that no one will ask him now, that he will ask no one, that silence that is not even a silence now, that is absolutely nothing now.

I don’t think so. The moment it appears, the inhuman becomes a part of the human. Every life that is cut off-even the life of so young a man -is at one and the same time a phonograph record that is broken and a complete life. For all those who loved him, there is an unbearable absurdity in that death. But we shall have to learn to see that mutilated work as a total work. Insofar as Camus’s humanism contains a human attitude toward the death that was to take him by surprise, insofar as his proud and pure quest for happiness implied and called for the inhuman necessity of dying, we shall recognize in that work and in the life that is inseparable from it the pure and victorious attempt of one man to snatch every instant of his existence from his future death.