Is the Iconoclast Good or Bad for Philosophy?

By | October 30, 2018

Iconoclast: One who attacks and seeks to destroy widely accepted ideas, beliefs, etc. A destruction of the icons or idols.

“The destroyer of weeds, thistles, and thorns is a benefactor whether he soweth or not.” — Robert G. Ingersoll

“What we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground language on which they stand.”
—- Ludwig Wittgenstein

We’re familiar with those figures in the history of Western philosophy who questioned and undermined the beliefs and doctrines of their society, starting with some of the Pre-Socratics, the Sophists, and Socrates himself. Among the great figures in Western thought are a number of skeptics, certainly skeptical of religious doctrine, and other critical thinkers who rejected many of the prevailing social, political, and philosophical beliefs. Walter Kaufmann pointed out that two of the major philosophical trends of the 20th century, Analytical philosophy and Existentialism, were primarily revolts against much of what had come before in philosophy. So the idea of the philosopher as an iconoclast is not a new one.

But what about the Iconoclast who targets philosophy itself, who works to undermine fundamental ideas in philosophy? Is this a good or bad thing?  Much depends on what people mean by “philosophy” and the fundamental ideas of philosophy. It seems that we would have to identify these before we can say whether an attack on them is a good or bad thing.   The charge that the activity of philosophy is a waste of time would itself seem to be based on some ‘philosophical’ presuppositions. Some critics of philosophy from the field of science often make the charge that philosophical disputations are a waste of time.

There are a variety of attitudes that persons take with regard to philosophy. Among them are the attitudes of reverence (on one end of the scale) and iconoclasm (on the other end). The reverent attitude assumes that traditional philosophy expresses truth, or at least important aspects of truth; and that the scholar’s job is to render favorable interpretations of the text so as to bring out those important insights and truths. Contrary to this, the iconoclastic attitude mostly presumes that much of what traditional philosophers have written and uttered was confused and resulted from a lack of the knowledge that scientific development has provided.

Of course, there is a range of attitudes between the two extremes of reverence and iconoclasm. For example, the scholarly attitude that finds value in traditional philosophy but recognizes that the major figures in philosophy also got much wrong and were confused on important points. Another example coming from the far side of range is the critic who agrees with the iconoclast that much in traditional philosophy was wrong and misguided, but finds important lessons to be gotten from the errors of the philosophers.

“It is all a body of confusion and pre-scientific falsehoods and errors! It is best to ignore it all together.” So speaks the iconoclast, who often sees traditional philosophy as too closely aligned with religious doctrines and theologies, and thus not worth much of our time if we seek objective knowledge and clarity.

The moderate iconoclast emphasizes the degree to which philosophical theories and systems are the expressions of an age and a culture. There is a particular style of thinking and ‘psychology’ behind the philosophical expression which reduces (if not eliminates) philosophy’s claim to objective truth. In other words, the moderate iconoclast recognizes that philosophy is culturally and individually conditioned. Seen in these terms, traditional philosophy has much to teach us, but what it teaches is not the overarching ‘truths’ that some readers of philosophy have claimed.

There is at least one good answer to the question: Is iconoclasm good or bad for philosophy? It all depends on the kind of iconoclasm involved. The extreme form of iconoclasm that rejects everything that history and tradition offer is likely to overlook the value to be gotten from those sources. Is there value to be gotten? Yes, in any honest attempt to understand things, no matter how dated or erroneous, there is something of value to be learnt. Given a shared humanity, we learn at least how members of our tribe are inclined to think and where they’re inclined to search. Applying those lessons to our contemporary situation can be very valuable.

On the other side, a naïve reverence for traditional philosophers and philosophical systems will not contribute to our understanding and appreciation of what preceded us in the field of philosophy. Uncritical reverence is an attitude more appropriate to religious piety than it is to the spirit of philosophy. The uncritical, reverent reading of Holy Scripture and the writings of the founders of a religion is contrary to the critical spirit that philosophy should cultivate.

It may be that the proper terms is “respect” rather than “reverence.” An attitude of respect is consistent with recognition that imperfect human beings have worked in the field of philosophy and produced. Whether reading Plato, Spinoza, or Kant, we can appreciate the problems they confronted and their way of dealing with those problems while recognizing their limitations and the ‘wrong turns’ they took. We can appreciate and recognize their “genius” while acknowledging their overstatements and false generalizations. A reverent approach would deny that these great figures made any significant errors; whereas an extreme iconoclasm would deny they have anything of value to offer. Both extreme positions are faulty.

Reverence – (A bowing before the great figures.)
Such figures as Plato, Aristotle, Kant always get the benefit of the doubt – our interpretation will always be sympathetic – Our aim to is to illuminate the truths of the past.

Iconoclasm – (A destruction of the icons?)
Generally we reject the views of traditional figures as not applicable to our current problems and concerns. – Our aim is to undermine respect for tradition and thus focus on contemporary ways of dealing with problems. This may imply rejection of philosophy en toto.

Reform – (Reformation of the tradition.)
We try to give past philosophers their due, but we don’t hesitate to criticize and correct; our aim is to reform philosophy.

Iconoclasm is a preliminary step to Philosophy as Reformation.

The philosopher as a social critic. We see philosophy as criticism and evaluation of society’s values and institutions, often as rejecting the ‘idols of the tribe.’ This is a type of iconoclasm.

Some will argue that his is but one function of philosophy; and that other functions include expression and defense of culture’s values and institutions.

Some might ask: What gives philosophers this authority? Is not philosophy a part of the culture? How can philosophy take the role of critic and evaluator without assuming a perspective from outside of that culture?

Is it not true that any concentrated degree of thought and reflection leads one to question actions, practices, and policies? Questioning a convention sometimes leads one to reject that convention.

When a philosopher proposes a different perspective on things, he insinuates a rejection of (or at least a suspension of adherence to) the current perspective.

(Using the terminology of F. Bacon) Among the idols of the tribe that we should scrutinize: ancient myths, religious doctrines, the political and economic order, class structure, moral values, social view of reality, and other things.

Consider the reformer. Isn’t his first task that of undermining and eventually destroying the undesirable institution? His target might be a social institution such as slavery. First, he raises awareness among the general population by a sustained critique. Then, going beyond this, he works to undermine and eventually destroy the undesirable, old way of operating in favor of a new way.

“The idols and false notions which are now in possession of the human understanding, and have taken deep root therein, not only so beset men’s minds that truth can hardly find entrance, but even after entrance is obtained, they will again in the very instauration of the sciences meet and trouble us, unless men being forewarned of the danger fortify themselves as far as may be against their assaults.
Lastly, there are Idols which have immigrated into men’s minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration. These I call Idols of the Theater, because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion…”
— Francis Bacon

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