Fake Philosophers; or, the Modern Sophist

Occasionally I happen across New Age figures that style themselves as “philosophers.” As someone whose worked hard to formally study philosophy, yet would still feel reticent to call myself a “philosopher”, this angers me.

I enjoy true crime programs, and over the past few days I watched documentaries about various cults. The Family International, Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate – like many people I have a bile fascination with the psychology of people who are led to believe something ridiculous. There are broadly two types of cult leaders: those who believe what they’re saying and those who don’t. Of my example cults only the leaders of Heaven’s Gate seem to have believed their own message. I deplore the grifters more, but believers are scarier.

Today I happened across Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray.

James Arthur Ray is a New Age guru who managed to get three people killed in 2010. His typical grift appears to involve motivational speaking events where people pay to hear a secularized, New Age version of prosperity gospel. By simply thinking positive you can conquer the world! Now I’ve saved you $10,000. He combined these supposed insights with “retreats” that subjected people to grueling physical and mental exertion. In the instance where he got three people killed, the retreat involved sitting in a large tent in the desert while hot coals were placed inside to warm it further.

What has this to do with the title of this entry? Ray received his first bit of fame from some self-help, motivational program called The Secret where he appeared alongside other grifters. In The Secret, Ray is identified by a caption calling him “A Philosopher.” What credentials does Ray possess? Well, he dropped out of junior college to become a telemarketer. He might as well claim to be a neurosurgeon or an anthropologist, he’s equally qualified.

Of course, the reason Ray is given this title is because it’s mysterious and mystical. Many people who have no other point of reference for philosophy might point to someone like Deepak Chopra before any academic philosopher. The popular perception of philosophers sometimes seems to be some mystic who waxes poetic about the meaning of life instead of people interested in logic, argumentation, and truth. I think a meagre portion of the blame for this situation should be pinned on actual philosophers for letting this happen.

Since the medieval period philosophy has been abstracted from the art of living. If we look at the beginnings of most philosophical traditions there is an early interest in philosophizing about how best to live. The ancient Greek Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics certainly had much to say on this topic, as did Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and other early philosophical schools in the eastern tradition. Now, there have always been folks doing moral philosophy who offer insights into how to conduct ourselves, but even in ethics the philosophical discussions moved away from advising people on how to live.

This historical sketch is a gross over-simplification, naturally, but is only meant to be suggestive. My point is that when philosophers abdicated themselves from the task of advising people on how best to live, plenty of charlatans took up their place. Some of these charlatans even style themselves as “philosophers.” In some ways it’s unfair to compare contemporary New Age gurus to the ancient Sophists. The Sophists we meet in Plato’s dialogues have some interesting arguments, and are occasionally a match for Socrates. The New Age mystics offer nothing nearly as interesting or insightful.

However, I don’t blame those taken in by these conmen. The desire for direction and guidance in life is a real and legitimate one, which is why I think actual philosophers could stand to offer people more. That’s not to discount the importance of purely theoretical work, but I think we can strive for a better balance. The alternative is to abandon people to navigate a self-help industry of grifters and frauds, which is not ideal.