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Strange Thinkers: Western Philosophy and Weirdness

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Strange Thinkers: Western Philosophy and Weirdness

<p>Who are philosophy’s strangest thinkers and what are their weirdest ideas? Begin with the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles and examine his idea that the universe is made up of love and strife


Who are philosophy’s strangest thinkers and what are their weirdest ideas? Begin with the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles and examine his idea that the universe is made up of love and strife and then move to Plato’s notion of forms being the ultimate reality. Skipping ahead considerable periods of time, we examine Mary Wollstonecraft’s distrust of aesthetics and the Marquis de Sade’s defence of cruelty. We will also look at claims by Guy Debord that we are too distracted by television and mass media to actually change society. Contemporary philosophers will be covered with such as Alasdair MacIntyre who argues that morality died with modernity, Donna Haraway who claims that we are all cyborgs and Julia Kristeva and her fascination with the abject.



  • Ancient Greece. This first lesson will ground strange thinkers by examining Ancient Greece. In Ancient Greece there were a number of strange theories about existence. Empedocles held that the universe was governed by the forces of love and strife, Parmenides that the universe was always still and Plato that there was a realm of forms.
  • The Marquis de Sade: The Marquis de Sade considered himself a philosopher of the bedroom though many philosophers would dispute that he was in fact a philosopher. Nevertheless, his ideas were very influential on French avant-garde philosophy in the twentieth century. Sade’s notions are in a way an emancipation from religious customs. He held, however, that nature was violent and that sex could and should be too. He thought murder was permissible, as long as it was conducted by individuals and not the state. Despite his radicalism, he nevertheless supported the king and believed the French Revolution was too extreme. This lesson will explore the contradictory ideas of a contradictory thinker.
  • Mary Wollstonecraf: Wollstonecraft challenged ideas about what was meant by the term nature and very much challenged the presence of gender norms. Her feminism led her also to oppose sensory conception of beauty, which paradoxically led her to synthesis Enlightenment ideals with Platonism.
  • The Frankfurt School,. Adorno fled Germany as a result of the rise of Nazism, but when he made it to the liberal US, he was horrified because he thought American democracy was not so different from Nazism or Sovietism. All three political systems had censorship and sought to use mass media to influence people’s decisions. On every commercial channel we see the same things and corporations much like totalitarian regimes think of humans as numbers. His friend Herbert Marcuse would claim that even mass media flattened the individual leaving them one dimensional.
  • French Critical Theorists: Guy Debord, Baudrillard and Virilio: Guy Debord, an influential French Marxist came up with a similar theory arguing that we lived in a society of the spectacle. Going further than Adorno and Marcuse, he argued that we lived dream lives when we watched television, that we became passive receivers, buying items that we want even when we don’t need them. This dream world meant that we sleep-walked through life ignoring the structural inequalities of capitalism and our own exploitation. Baudrillard would go on to argue that our very idea of reality became lost with mass media so much so that we saw simulated reality before actual reality. Virilio argued that meaning was flattened as the speed of mass media came to erase value.
  • Alasdair MacIntyre, we are left only with the fragments of morality: Alasdair MacIntyre argues that we no longer have an intelligible morality as a result of liberalism and the Enlightenment. According to MacIntyre, modernity is the enemy. MacIntyre';s position is not one that seeks to overthrow rationality but rather one that asserts that scientific rationality cannot be used to structure morality. Morality can learn from science, but moral systems must be based in community frameworks and the promise of a virtuous life. Virtues and community, old fashioned concepts, are in fact necessary if we are to share a moral terminology, argues MacIntyre.
  • Donna Haraway claims we are all cyborgs. According to Donna Haraway, we are no longer human beings: we are a fusion of machine and animal. Haraway argues that this fusion upsets dichotomies that have previous been used to oppress human beings.
  • Kristeva on the Abject. Kristeva’s psychoanalytic focus on the abject is unusual. After all, what possible philosophical importance is there in focusing on things that repulse us? However, Kristeva argues that the abject is a universal experience and one that is surprisingly complex, holding a power of attraction as well as repulsion.

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Understand some rather strange ideas and the reasons behind them.
  2. Reconsider what we consider to be normal.
  3. Consider some of the dangers of the modern world.
  4. Be introduced to various schools of thought.