Presumptuous Qualifiers


“If we want to understand the totality of this philosopher’s character, we must know their flaws too,” they say, “because character matters”.

“Why are we questioning her personal character here? We’re talking about her philosophy.“

“She wasn’t kind to her husband. She stepped out on him, and she didn’t treat her children well. Also, she doesn’t agree with you on [some unrelated position].” 

If we planned on dating or marrying this philosopher, an expose on her character might matter a great deal to us. If the only thing this philosopher planned on doing was giving us her personal road map for life, and we could use her message, to be a better spouse, parent, friend, and person, why does anything else matter? If a couple of bullet points from her personal life sway you to question her philosophy, then you’re probably do it wrong.   

Those who tells us about her personal flaws wants us to dismiss her philosophy. She wrote some brilliant philosophical nuggets that either broke the complex down to simple, understandable nuggets, or she provided some insight into the human condition that was so brilliant we cannot shake it. What if she wrote something that changed how we view a substantial matter in our life? How often has someone, philosopher or otherwise, achieved that? If we considered those nuggets brilliant, and we could use them to make our life a little better, shouldn’t that be the end of the conversation?

“What if she disagreed with you on [some unrelated position]?” Detractors think that if they can trip us up on some unrelated position, we might dismiss the entire cannon of her philosophical beliefs. Wrongo Bongo! We do not have a litmus test on philosophers. We are only concerned with the information we think we can use. 

Unless detractors are able to disprove her theories, I don’t care to read anything they have to write about her. The detractors can even provide substantial proof that she was a hypocrite in that she didn’t personally follow any of her beliefs, and it won’t matter to me. I’m only concerned with how I can apply her principles to my life. If she decided to violate those principles, that’s on her.

Some detractors don’t even bother trying to refute the message of a philosopher anymore. They just go straight to character assassination. It means nothing to me anymore. Prove or disprove the message, I say, and do it so well that you can convince me that you have a quality rebuttal. Her philosophical nuggets may have proved so influential in my life that her detractors might not sway me, but I will at least appreciate the elements of their approach.

This assassinate the messenger to kill the message argument is tantamount to celebrity worship. I think detractors believe we idolize the messenger in the manner they worship people. They write scathing pieces about her personal life. They explain how that information serves to undermine everything she taught. They seek to expose some personal flaws about her to taint her message. Some of us don’t care. We only seek the message. 

They also seek to insert a qualifier into everyone’s brain whenever someone discusses the brilliance of her philosophy. “She was brilliant, sure, but wasn’t she a (fill in the blank).” Who gives flying fig leaf?

The progression of the qualifier has reached a point where we place so much emphasis on the faults of the messenger that their message gets lost. If I fell prey to such matters, I would consider that so confusing. “You mean I have to do research on everyone who ever lived, and if they have one flaw I should dismiss them?” I say. “What if they could provide me some valuable insight into matters that otherwise trouble me? What if amid everything they wrote, they provided a nugget that directly applied to that troubling situation? Should I dismiss that nugget of information based on the fact that they were unkind to their children?”    

Those who control the manner in which we interpret a message often find that the best way to torpedo a message is by taking the messenger out to the public woodshed. They obviously think most listeners/readers idolize the messenger so much that if they kill the messenger, the message dies. We obviously enjoy the messenger’s presentation more than others do or we wouldn’t be reading her books, but we never idolized her so much that if you point out a relatively insignificant flaw, we’re going to trash all of her philosophical tenets. “If you thought I was that superficial, then you read me wrong.”

We might find her message informative, entertaining, or some combination of both, but the moment after she dies, the next messenger takes the baton. Dear detractors: It’s not about the messenger it’s the message.

If John Doe develops a brilliant technique on the general, agrarian practices of South Dakota, some detractors might attempt to have his technique dismissed by discussing what he wrote about the Peloponnesian Wars. Thus, if John Doe wants people to take his unique and possibly helpful ideas on agrarian practices seriously, he is now required, personally and professionally, to inform his readers of his views on the Peloponnesian Wars. Why?

Why does anyone care that John Doe has been married four times, and that he wasn’t very nice to his kids? “Because character matters.” It does matter, in general, but it doesn’t make his ideas on South Dakota agriculture any less brilliant? Those who disagree with John Doe’s ideas, expose his philandering activities in the hope that no one will follow them. If we say that we’re going to follow Doe’s ideas, and someone says, “Are you sure you want to do that? You know he cheated on his wife don’t you?” Yes, I know all that, but I don’t plan on dating him, marrying him, or having any personal relationships with him. I just think he has great ideas, and I prefer to listen to anyone who has great ideas. “They work,” I say. “Try them.”  

If we haven’t had military service, we cannot comment on anything involving the military without thoroughly informing the public of that qualifier. If we haven’t reared a child, we cannot have a philosophy on raising kids. We must cede the point that if someone poses an idea on agrarian practices in South Dakota without stepping foot in the state that person might not know enough to comment, but we shouldn’t dismiss them outright. If their outside-the-box ideas work that’s the end of the conversation. We might need some qualifiers to make informed decisions, but too many people dismiss otherwise great ideas based on a messenger’s personal resume.

If we know nothing about the qualifiers, we cower. “I didn’t know that,” we say. Okay, now that you do, what are you going to do about it? If you feel the need to incorporate the relatively insignificant information, do it, then take it out and put it back into the philosophy. Does the philosophical nugget, that helped change or fortify your beliefs, still work for you, personally? Did it enrich your life all the way up to the point that you found out that your favorite philosopher was a (fill in the blank)? If so, continue to use that nugget for all that it’s worth. If you idolized her prior to learning that bit of information, and that information led you to question the philosophical nugget that helped you in some way, then you were doing it wrong. Your superficial idolatry put you in a vulnerable position that allowed them to refute and undermine the philosophy with a couple of superficial brush strokes. So, you see that the emperor has no clothes on now, was she that enjoyable to look at with her clothes on? Drop the superficial idolatry. It doesn’t fit you anymore. You’re too old now, and your experiences in life have taught you way to much to fall for such idiocy. Seek substance.