A Few Catchy Philosophy Quotes That Are Often Misinterpreted

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1. "Man is a naturally political animal." - Aristotle (Politics, Book 1)

What people think it means

1. People are drawn to "political associations to satisfy their social needs." (source), or...

2. People enjoy engaging in the ugly parts of politics, or...

3. People are meant to live in cities. (closest to the actual meaning)

What it actually means

To Aristotle, the words "natural" and "political" held special meanings that are not equivalent to what we mean today. The result is that this quote is closer in meaning to:

"Human beings have an internal principle that necessarily leads us to collaboration rather than to independence, and as a result we are meant to live in cities."

When we say "natural" today, we typically mean something that is not man-made. To Aristotle, "natural" refers to things that have a "nature":

"within itself a principle of motion and stability in place, in growth and decay, or in alteration" (Aristotle 192b13)

So when Aristotle says that something is "naturally" the case, through a modern lens he's saying something closer to it being the result of the laws of nature.

Second, by "a political animal," it's tempting to conclude that Aristotle simply means "suited for life in a polis" (city) or "conducive to starting a polis." But he goes on to say that "a human being is more of a political animal than is any bee or any gregarious animal [i.e., an animal that lives in a group]" (1253a8, emphasis mine). So Aristotle thinks that some gregarious animals are political animals, but not to the extent that human beings are. It seems unlikely that Aristotle would suggest that bees or gregarious animals are "suited for lives in a polis" to any degree. More likely, by "political," Aristotle means "working toward a common goal" or "collaborative."

Secular, modern readers would likely disagree with Aristotle's next passage. He argues that nature has "given us" the ability to speak and make moral judgments, and nature "does nothing pointlessly," so we are meant to collaborate on our moral judgments. With our modern understanding of evolution, nature doesn't "give us" features, and nature does sometimes do things "pointlessly." However, this is what Aristotle meant when he said we are "naturally political animals." So even if you agree with the actual meaning of the quote, you probably don't agree with Aristotle's reasoning.

2. "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

What people think it means

When I hear this quote today, I find that people often use it to mean that even if no one observes a fact, it is still true. So it's used as a rhetorical question, with the answer being "of course it makes a sound!"

What it actually means

This quote is not directly from any philosophical text, but the question is derived from "A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge" by the Anglican bishop George Berkeley (namesake of UC Berkeley!). Here's the closest section, where Berkeley explains a counterargument and his response:

"But say you, surely there is nothing easier than to imagine Trees, for instance, in a Park... and no Body by to perceive them. I answer, you may so, there is no difficulty in it: But what is all this, I beseech you, more than framing in your Mind certain Ideas which you call Books and Trees, and the same time omitting to frame the Idea of any one that may perceive them? But do not you your self perceive or think of them all the while?" (source, pg. 18)

I know that's confusing. Let's break it down. For context, Berkeley's famous phrase "esse est percipi" ("to be is to be perceived") is a summary of his philosophical position that objects as we know them cannot exist without the existence of minds to perceive them. (The gist is that everything we know about the object is known through our minds, so when you remove those characteristics, there's nothing left.)

In the first sentence, Berkeley is paraphrasing an objector who claims they are able to imagine trees that no one is perceiving. But Berkeley points out that the objector is simply thinking of the idea of trees ("certain Ideas which you call Books and Trees"), which only exist because the objector is thinking about them.

Since Berkeley believed in a Christian God, it's not clear whether he thought real objects could possibly exist without any perceiver at all, since God might always be watching. But to a secular reader of Berkeley's arguments, the consequence is that the tree does not make a sound, since sound is a perception, and the existence of a perception depends on the existence of a mind to perceive it.

3. "God is Dead." (The Gay Science) - Nietzsche

What people think it means

This quote might be interpreted as a proclamation of atheism.

What it actually means

Nietzsche presented this phrase to a group of atheists, claiming that it was new information for them. So it can't be a statement about atheism.

In this section of "The Gay Science", Nietzsche discusses how many of the underpinnings of Western society, particularly our moral philosophy, implicitly rely on the concept of God. With the rise of philosophical secularism that came with the Enlightenment, we can no longer rely on God to give life meaning and value, and everything that was built on the Christian faith is destined to "collapse" (GS 343). This is what it means for God to be "dead."

Tags: philosophy Aristotle Nietzsche

See also: How to train a neural net to play cards

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Neel Somani

About the Author

Neel Somani is a software engineer in the Bay Area. In addition to computer science, he's interested in philosophy and entrepreneurship. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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