Ian Olasov and Rachel McKinney Comment on "Gratuitous Misuses of Philosophy"

Ian Olasov and Rachel McKinney Comment on “Gratuitous Misuses of Philosophy”

PhD student Ian Olasov and alumna Rachel McKinney are quoted in a article titled “Ivanka Trump’s Foray into Nietzsche, and Other Gratuitous Misuses of Philosophy”, published May 7th on Quartz.

Below are some highlights from the article, written by Olivia Goldhill. See also McKinney’s recent article published on Medium, titled “Philosophical Fight Club: Alt-Right Recruitment (and How to Fight it)”, linked within the article text:

. . . Ian Olasov, philosophy graduate student at CUNY and organizer of Brooklyn Public Philosophers—who notes that philosophers who wear makeup are often given the brand [Philosophy] as a Christmas present—says certain philosophers seem to have more hipster cred than others. “Nietzsche’s cool. Rumi’s cool. [Willard Van Orman] Quine isn’t cool,” says Olasov. “People wouldn’t take a quote from [Karl Popper’s] ‘The Logic of Scientific Discovery’ and put that on their make up.”

. . . Personally, I find it disturbing and frustrating to see the writings of thinkers who were deeply against materialism used by corporations to sell high-end products, such as Fyre Festival. It’s similarly annoying when individuals namedrop philosophers to artificially enhance their own opinions. “I think it’s trying to take some kind of crass transaction or event and make it seem more elevated,” agrees Olasov. And there are several potentially troubling consequences.

. . .Philosophers certainly worry about their own ideas being misconstrued, and so some are deterred from engaging in public philosophy discussions. But refusing to have real philosophical discussions in public allows for the meanings and ideas in philosophy to be dangerously distorted.

Rachel McKinney, philosophy fellow at Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, has written on how several alt-right figures and ideologies have connections to philosophy. “Philosophy has become a vehicle for the alt-right,” she writes on Medium, where she singles out a white supremacy group that seems to advertise itself as a “philosophical fight club.” “The fascists are recruiting in our name, using the tools of our trade, and some academics seem more than happy to play along,” McKinney says. It’s not as though it hasn’t happened before; famously, Nietzsche was the darling philosopher of the Nazis.

Alt-right philosophy is considerably more troubling than flashy businessmen using the odd quote to spruce up their mission. But both have the potential to twist public perceptions, and underline the need for meaningful philosophical discussions, rather than superficial quotes.

There’s one undeniable positive to using philosophical one-liners: It shows that there’s widespread interest in these thinkers. Olasov argues that there’s nothing wrong with Fyre Festival or Ivanka Trump or anyone choosing to incorporate philosophical ideas into their work, it’s just that this engagement should be sincere rather than window dressing. “[Philosophy] can take place in commercial contexts and that’s totally fine,” he says. “Just because it’s in public or a commercial context, doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.”

But an arbitrary philosophical quote does not truly make a philosophical idea, or product, or person. It’s important for philosophically minded people to challenge those who thoughtlessly use quotes to sell themselves or products. And academic philosophers have a duty to take part in these public discussions.

“When we philosophers don’t do a good job of going out and fulfilling the need people have for philosophical conversations, then other forces will come in and do that job for us,” says Olasov. “Fyre Festival or Ivanka Trump or men’s rights activists will do it instead, and they won’t do it well.”