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.

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.

Heidegger incoming!

Soon I’ll upload my spiel on Heidegger, likely something specific like dasein or being-toward-death. Many of my class mates and I found quite a bit of difficulty in overcoming his unique terminology and the difficulty in the translation from German to English, it seems a lot of this terminology was more intuitive in its original format. So this is what i will concern myself with in my next post, a heavy focus on explaining some of the terminology that Heidegger uses, and perhaps linking it to the similar terms used by other existentialists.

Adam Smith will also be posting some things in the near future so ‘stay tuned’! We are both swamped with assignments at the moment but will attend to this once we are free.

Ciao for now!

Eternal Recurrence

The most well known version of the concept of ‘Eternal Recurrence’, sometimes known as ‘Eternal Return’, was posited as a thought experiment by Friedrich Nietzsche. Though not the first to encounter this idea, Nietzsche struggled with the concept for a long time, he felt at that the idea of the Eternal Recurrence was the most disturbing and most puzzling of all value judgements, and seems to highlight his critique of values very well.

It is important to note that this is a Thought experiment and not a metaphysical claim. Though Nietzsche had originally intended it as a claim to truth, prior to the writing of the Gay Science he had reformulated it into a purely hypothetical concept.

The concept as put forth by Nietzsche is as follows.

The greatest weight.— What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, s.341, Walter Kaufmann transl.

At first it seems difficult to understand the purpose of this thought experiment at all, though the beginning phrase, “The greatest weight” alludes to the problem Nietzsche had encountered. If we know we are to experience the same things over and over again, how would we value things? Even the slightest actions would be given almost infinite weight, as we would be forced to experience them over and over and over countless times. In the only case in which i could ever answer in the affirmative would be if i were to have lived every moment in my life to the highest…. highest what? Nietzsche had undone pretty much all values possible. I cannot say i live morally as Nietzsche had clearly undone that. How am i to solve this riddle?

One possible approach is that Nietzsche was putting this forth as a kind of ‘imperative’, similar to that of Kant. If we are to run our lives through this thought experiment, what will our reaction be to the demon? We are not borrowing any systemic approach, we are not being told how to value, we are simply being asked what we value by having this question asked of us. But at the same time it seems to be the greatest burden imaginable to have to re-live life over and over. In the perfect possible world, where i have done everything to the point that i am satisfied with life, i feel i have lived it to it’s greatest extent; this is the only situation i can conceive of in which i would rejoice. However where does that leave us? We cannot exactly use that in any meaningful way in life, even if we strive towards that goal, we will likely never reach it, and have to deal with these great burdens.

Nietzsche’s vague response to these issues are as follows:

To endure the idea of the recurrence one needs: freedom from morality; new means against the fact of pain ( pain conceived as a tool, as the father of pleasure…); the enjoyment of all kinds of uncertainty, experimentalism, as a counterweight to this extreme fatalism; abolition of the concept of necessity; abolition of the “will”; abolition of “knowledge-in-itself.”

Greatest elevation of the consciousness of strength in man, as he creates the overman.

from The Will to Power, s. 1053,1056,1058,1060, Walter Kaufmann transl.

If we are to abolish so many of these core values that we hold, are we not just evading the problem by rendering life meaningless? Or do i contradict Nietzsche’s philosophy by taking his theory of the overman by adopting his values towards it, becoming the very thing he warns against? This mystery seems unsolvable to me, with my limited understanding of what is very clearly a complicated and radical philosophy.

It seems to understand the thought experiment, and to understand Nietzsche’s philosophy itself continually falls back on his rejection of morality and of herd mentality, which is by no means an easy task. Perhaps without a proper understanding of Nietzsche i shall never fully unravel the mystery of eternal recurrence as he saw it.

*This is just a test blog post, scrambled down in the early hours so forgive the quality!