quotable philosophers & their friends




Here are various quotes by philosophers (mainly) that I don't necessarily endorse, but which struck me as notable, entertaining, or otherwise worth recording. There is no pretense of order here, so apologies for the hodgepodge of topics and sources.

"The worth of a metaphysical system can be measured by the number of nonsense principles and ghostly entities it condones"
            -Mario Bunge "Philosophy of Science and Technology" Contemporary Philosophy 8: Philosophy of Latin America
, ed. Floistad, p. 266. 

"If you are able to rise to this challenge, if you are able to honestly examine the moral arguments in favor of slavery and genocide (along with the much stronger arguments against them), then you are likely to be either a psychopath or a philosopher. Philosophers are one of the only groups that have been found spontaneously to look for reasons on both sides of a question; they excel at examining ideas 'dispassionately'." 

            - Haidt and Bjorklund "Social Intuitionists Answer Six Questions About Moral Psychology" in Sinnott-Armstrong, ed. Moral Psychology Volume 2, p. 196

"No thinker has the right to take his own life of reason by shirking the responsibility of trying to explain whatever mysteries permeate the world in which he lives and dies. To say, for example, that the structural ascent from a lower to a higher  manifestation of energy is a "mysterious" saltus in Nature is to block the road to inquiry. After all, as Charles Peirce observed, it is precisely the "mysterious" itself which calls for an explanatory theory. To declare that the facts themselves, the "leaps" of energy in this case, are "mysterious" is to make them inexplicable by definition, thus defeating the very purpose of whatever hypothesis is proposed. It is, in fact, to miss the whole point of the function of hypothesis in the field of inquiry, which is to make as intelligible as possible what otherwise would remain a great mystery."

-Patrick Romanell, Making of the Mexican Mind, p. 116.

"Philosophy, when it is really philosophy and not sophistry or ideology, does not ponder philosophy. It does not ponder philosophical texts, excepts as a pedgogical propaedeutic to provide itself with interpretive categories. Philosophy ponders the nonphilosophical; the reality."
     Enrique Dussel, Philosophy of Liberation,  ¤

"I hate you all. You leave me writhing to give a decent account of what you have done for me, and no matter what I say, I am still going to feel like an ungrateful little weasel."
    Sarah Ruden, in the acknowledgements to her translation of AristophanesÕ Lysistrata, p. ix.

"In reality, the subject of all our researches is one; we divide it only so that we may, by separating the difficulties, resolve them more easily. And so it not infrequently happens that these established divisions are a hiderance, and that questions arise which need to be treated by combining the points of view of several sciences"

- Comte, in Introduction of Positive Philosophy p. 25-6.


In Mexico, we are called upon to protect 'national identity' as an element that is always on the verge of wandering away or getting lost.

            - Carlos Monsiv‡is, "Cultural Relations between the United States and Mexico" in Common Border, Uncommon Paths, 115.


Conjectures on the cultural consequences of Mexico's economic integration with the United States-fears of loss of identity and destruction of individuality, for example-are somewhat belated and alarmist. The process will take a while and even when it intensifies, its essential features can already be clearly seen: The continent, and Mexico, will continue to be Americanized and, depending on how close or how far a Latin American country is from high-level technology, the way it view the world will be modified (who can, in all seriousness, define what being a Mexican or a Peruvian means?), without having its fundamental values affected. These values include the Spanish language, whose vitality and powers of assimilation do not need government supports that are alien to the educative process itself.

-   Carlos Monsivais, "Cultural Relations between the United States and Mexico" in Common Border, Uncommon Paths, 119.


"Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn't it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? Some minor little activity takes place somewhere in this unimportant place in one of the brain hemispheres and suddenly I want to go to Montana or I don't want to go to Montana. how do I know I really want to go and it isn't just some neurons firing or something? Maybe it's just an accidental flash in the medulla and suddenly there I am in Montana and I find out I really didn't want to go there in the first place. I can't control what happens in my brain, so how can I be sure what I want to do ten seconds from now, much less Montana next summer? It's all this activity in the brain and you don't know what's you as a person and what's some neuron that just happens to fire or just happens to misfire? Isn't that why Tommy Roy killed those people?"

            - Heinrich in Don Dellilo's White Noise, pp.45-6.


"But it is the reverse in philosophy: since it is believed that there is no issue that cannot be defended from either side, few look for the truth and many more prowl about for a reputation for profundity by arrogantly challenging whichever arguments are the best."

            Descartes Meditation on First Philosophy


"Moreover, it may be part of mature commitments, even of the most intimate sort, that a measure of perspective beyond the personal be maintained."

            Peter Railton, "Alienation, Consequentialism, Morality"


". . . for while it is desireable to secure what is good in the case of an individual, to do so in the case of a people or a state is something finer and more sublime."

            Aristotle, Ethics, Book 1, 1094b


"It is a mark of the trained mind never to expect more precision in the treatment of any subject than the nature of that subject permits."

            Aristotle, Ethics, Book 1, 1094b


"Conscious of their own ignorance, most people are impressed by anyone who pontificates and says something that is over their heads."

            Aristotle, Ethics, Book1, 1095a


"Possibility is the destruction of contentment."

            G.E.M. Anscombe, "You Can have Sex without Children"


"Philosophy being nothing else but the study of wisdom and truth, it may with reason be expected that those who have spent most time and pains in it should enjoy a greater clam and serenity of mind, a greater clearness and evidence of knowledge, and be less disturbed with doubts and difficulties than other men."

            George Berkeley, Introduction to "Principles of Human Knowledge"


"For moral philosophy is nothing else but the science of what is good, and evil, in the conversation, and society of mankind. Good, and evil, are names that signify our appetites, and aversions . . ."

            Thomas Hobbes, "Leviathan"


"To this war of every man, against every man, this also is consequent: that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice."

            Thomas Hobbes, "Leviathan"


"and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

            Thomas Hobbes, "Leviathan"


"So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory."

            Thomas Hobbes, "Leviathan"

"For such is the nature of men, that howsoever they may acknoweldge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves; for they see their own wit at hand, and other men's at a distance."

            Thomas Hobbes, "Leviathan"

"So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death."

            Thomas Hobbes, "Leviathan"

"The passions that most of all cause the difference of wit, are principally, the more or less desire of power, of riches, of knowledge, and of honour. All of which may be reduced to the first, that is, desire of power."

            Thomas Hobbes, "Leviathan"

"He must surely be either very weak, or very little acquainted with the sciences, who shall reject a truth that is capable of demonstration, for no other reason but because it is newly known and contrary to the prejudices of mankind."

            George Berkeley, Principle of Human Knowledge


"It is impossible to refute a system which has never yet been explained. In such a manner of fighting in the dark, a man loses his blows in the air and often places them where the enemy is not present."

            David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature


"If from our own concepts we are unable to assert and determine anything certain, we must not throw the blame upon the object as concealing itself from us."

            Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A482/B510


"To profess to solve all problems and to answer all questions would be impudent boasting, and would argue such extravagant self-conceit as at once to forfeit all confidence."  

            Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A476/B504


"Human reason is by nature architectonic. That is to say, it regards all our knowledge as belonging to a possible system."

            Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B502


"The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it."

            Betrand Russell, The Monist (1918)


"Possible worlds are what they are, and not some other thing."

            David Lewis, "Possible Worlds."


"What matters in survival is survival."

            David Lewis, "Survival and Identity"


"Religious faith is best understood as trust in the ultimate meaningfulness of life-that is, the ultimate meaningfulness of the world an of one's own life, one's own being, as part of and related to, as embedded in, the world. Religious beliefs, by contrast, are best understood as religious faith mediated by- understood and expressed in the medium of-words, whether concretely, in stories, or abstractly, in concepts and ideas."

            Michael Perry, Love and Power


"We "moderns" (or "postmoderns") would never embrace an outdated, superseded conception of "science" (of scientific inquiry, of the methodology of science, and so on), but we often embrace an outdated and outlandish conception of "religion" (and of "theology").

            Michael Perry, Love and Power


For that matter I don't know anything that gives me greater pleasure, or profit either, than talking or listening to philosophy. But when it comes to ordinary conversation, such as the stuff you talk about financiers and the money market, well, I find it pretty tiresome personally, and I feel sorry that my friends should think they're being very busy when they're really doing absolutely nothing. Of course, I know your idea of me; you think I'm just a poor unfortunate, and I shouldn't wonder if you're right. But then, I don't think that you're unfortunate- I know you are.

                        Apollodorus in Plato's Symposium  (173c-d)


"It is comfortable  to be a philosopher, for no one makes demands of philosophers . . . . Today's philosophers manifest all the vices of the age, above all its haste, and they rush into writing. They are not ashamed to teach, even when they are very young."

            - Nietzsche, "Philosophy in Hard Times," #53 (1873).


"No genuinely radical living for the truth is possible in a university."

            Nietzsche . . . letter to Overbeck (date ?)


"Twentieth-century moral philosophers have sometimes appealed to their and our intuitions; but one of the things that we ought to have learned from the history of moral philosophy is that the introduction of the word 'intuition' by a moral philosopher is always a signal that something has gone badly wrong with an argument."

            - MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 69


"Philosophy leaps ahead on tiny toeholds; hope and intuition lend wings to its feet. Calculating reason lumbers heavily behind, looking for better footholds. For reason too wants to reach that alluring goal which its diving comrade has long since reached."

            - Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greek, ¤ 3


"Perhaps . . . the inwardness of human life is an ontological absurdity- something which takes itself enormously seriously but actually has no important role to play."

            H. Frankfurt, "Identification and Wholeheartedness"


"For what purpose, then, any consciousness at all when it is in the main superfluous?"

            F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, ¤ 354


"In the end, when the work is finished, it becomes evident how the constraint of a single taste governed and formed everything large and small. Whether this taste was good or bad is less important than one might suppose, if only it was a single taste!"

            F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, ¤ 290


"We were friends and have become estranged. but this was right, and we do not want to conceal and obscure it from ourselves as if we had reason to feel ashamed. We are two ships each of which has its goal and course; our paths may cross and we may celebrate a feast together, as we did-and then the good ships rested so quietly in one harbor and one sunshine that it may have looked as if they had reached their goal and as if they had one goal. But then the almighty force of our tasks drove us apart again into different seas and sunny zones, and perhaps we shall never see each other again; perhaps we shall meet again but fail to recognize each other: our exposure to different seas and suns has changed us. That we have to become estranged is the law above us; by the same token we should also become more venerable for each other-and the memory of our former friendship more sacred. There is probably a tremendous but invisible stellar orbit in which our very different ways and goals may be included as small parts of this path; let us rise up to this thought. but our life is too short and our power of vision too small for us to be more than friends in the sense of this sublime possibility. -Let us then believe in our star friendship even if we should be compelled to be earth enemies."

            F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, ¤ 279.


"the maxim 'know theself!' addressed to human beings by a god, is almost malicious.'

            F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, ¤ 335


"The general drift of Vitoria's argument is that the quality of the thing being eaten reflects the quality of the eater. Thus it is 'better' to eat a cow than cabbage for precisely the same reason that, as we have seen, it is better to command a woman than a donkey."             Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man, p. 88.


"Men do not consider what we say but what we do- we may philosophize interminably, but if when the occasion arises we do not demonstrate with our actions the truth of what we have been saying, our words will have done more harm than good."

            St. John Chrysostom


Other apart sat on a hill retired

In thought more elevate, and reason'd high

Of providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate,

Fix'd fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute;

And found no end, in wand'ring mazes lost.

            Milton Paradise Lost, Book I


Demetrius: 'No one seems to me more miserable than the man who has not been touched by adversity'

Seneca's gloss: 'indeed he has not been allowed to test himself; if everything has gone as he could wish or even better than he wished, the gods have had a low opinion of him; he has not been thought to deserve an occasional victory over ill-fortune . . . God hardens, examines and trains those he loves . . . Why does God visit bad health and loss of those dear to them and other troubles on the best of mankind? Because in the army the most dangerous tasks are assigned to the bravest soldiers . . . No one who goes out on a dangerous mission says 'the commander has treated me badly' but 'he has judged me well'. In the same way those who are ordered to suffer what would cause the fearful and cowardly to weep should say 'God has found us worthy men on whom to try what human nature can bear'" (On Providence IV).


"The story goes that Zeno was flogging a slave for stealing. 'I was fated to steal', said the slave. 'And to be flogged', was Zeno's reply.

            Diogenes Laertius 7.23


"For the Cynic life is a short road to virtue, as Apollodorus says in his Ethics. And the wise man will even taste human flesh in special circumstances. He alone is free, and the base men are slaves; for freedom is the authority to act on one's own, while slavery is the privation of [the ability] to act on one's own."

            Diogenes Laertius, 7.121


"For as long as a purely naturalistic understanding of human life remains controversial . . . no conception of agency and responsibility can claim to be neutral among conceptions of the good. This may seem to imply that, in order to preserve its neutrality, liberalism should refrain from endorsing any conception of individual agency or responsibility. However, even if such abstinence were a conceptual possibility, as it almost certainly is not, it would have the peculiar effect of reducing liberalism to silence on the very subject that was supposed to be its specialty, namely, the nature and moral importance of the individual human agent."

            Sam Scheffler, "Responsibility, Reactive Attitudes, and Liberalism in Philosophy and Politics," p. 318.


"The rest of it seemed very plausible, quite in keeping with the general tone of the work and (as is natural) a bit boring. Reading it over again, we discovered beneath its rigorous prose a fundamental vagueness."

            Jorge Luis Borges "Tlšn, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"


"I myself believe that the great prophet Darwin has done us as ill a turn as CortŽs did his crew members. Darwin has burned our ships for us, and I have a strong urge to strangle him."

            Angel Floro Costa, quoted in Zea's The Latin-American Mind, p. 252.


"Students were asked at the beginning of the semester, and also at the end, whether they would return to its owner an envelope they found that contained $100. The students also were asked whether they would inform a store about a billing mistake if they had been sent ten computers but had been billed only for nine. At the beginning of the semester, the economics students and the astronomy students said they'd perform the honest action about equally often. The economics and the astronomy students differed in how they changed during the semester. The willingness to act dishonestly increased among students in the economics classes more than it did among those in the astronomy class. This is evidence that studying economics inhibits cooperation. Of course, it is a further question whether economics has this effect by encouraging people to believe that psychological egoism is true. We think that this is a plausible guess, since this motivational theory plays a more prominent role in economics than in any other discipline."

            Sober and Wilson in Unto Others (1998, p.274), reporting on a study by Frank, Gilovich, and Regan in (1993).


"As is frequently the case in discussions that are conducted with a great show of emotion, the down-to-earth interests of certain groups, whose excitement is entirely concerned with factual matters and who therefore try to distort the facts, become quickly and inextricably involved with the untrammeled inspirations of intellectuals who, on the contrary, are not in the least interested in facts but treat them merely as a springboard for "ideas."

            Arendt, in postscript to Eichmann in Jerusalem (285).

"What is evil? You have looked on it often, so whatever happens, remind yourself that you have seen it all before."
             Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.1

"One thing alone troubles me: the thought that I might do what my true self does not will or that I might do what it wills in the wrong way or at the wrong time"
             Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.20

"Do not feel for misanthropes what they feel for mankind."
             Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.65

"It is no longer possible to live your entire life, not even your adult life, as a philosopher. How far short of philosophy you fall is plain to others, as it is to yourself. Your life is flawed, your reputation tainted, and it is no longer possible to win the glory of being a philosopher. Even your calling in life militates against it. Having seen these truths wiht your own eyes, stop worrying about what others may think and be content to live the rest of your life, as long or short as it may be, according to the requirements of your nature. know those requirements well and let nothing pry you from them."
             Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.1

"If the decision rests with you, why do it? If with another, who's really to blame? The gods? The atoms? To blame either is pointless. Blame no one. If you can, correct the offender; if you can't correct his offense; and if not even that's possible, what's the point in looking for someone to blame? Nothing should be done pointlessly."
             Marcus Aurelius,
Meditations, 8.17

"No one is possessed of such good fortune that he can lie dying without being circled by people rejoicing at his imminent demise. Was he high-minded and wise? Then you can be sure that omoene will be muttering to himself, "Now we can breathe easy again with that schoolmaster out of the way. Although he was never hrash with any of us, I always felt he was silently judging us." So much for the virtuous man's reward. As for the rest of us, think of all the good reasons we have given our friends to be happy to be rid of us."

             Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 10.36.

"You can't master the arts of reading and writing until you've studied them. This applies even more to those who would master the art of living."

             Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.29

"But without a mind, man is no longer able to be the master of himself, to understand exactly what is expected of him, to judge the evidence of his senses, to know when it's time to quit this life, or in other words, to make any of those calculations that require an intellect in reasonably good working order. We must get on with our lives, then, not only because we are closing on death with each passing day, but because our mental capacities may desert us before death decides to take us."
            - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.1

"Treat with utmost respect your power of forming opinions, for this power alone guards you against making assumptions that are contrary to nature and judgments that overthrow the rule of reason."
            - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.9

"Never act without purpose and resolve, or without the means to finish the job."
            - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.2

"Philosophy always buries its undertakers."
            Etienne Gilson (1949)