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.