Skip to content

5 of the most misunderstood quotes in philosophy

That Nietzsche quote might not mean what you think it does.
Credit: martyweil / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Anyone can do philosophy, so long as they ask the right questions and think deeply enough. 
  • However, the internet lends itself to short and pithy aphorisms that do little to explain a philosopher’s theories.
  • Here are five examples where philosophical quotations are misunderstood.

The great thing about philosophy is that we can all do it. Anyone can ask philosophical questions about reality, truth, right and wrong, and the point of it all, and we often do, at least for brief moments throughout the day. The best books, TV shows, and movies all come dyed in philosophy, and they plant ideas that linger long after you close the book or the screen fades to black.

But even though anyone can do philosophy (small “p”), it’s also true that not everyone is great at Philosophy (big “P”, and as a discipline). When you study Philosophy, only a small part — a part often reserved for the wise and wizened ones of university departments — involves doing philosophy. The rest is spent learning what other philosophers said and why they said it. It makes sense, of course. When you learn to draw or write, you first learn the basic techniques. You need to walk before you can run.

The problem is that the internet is awash with half-read and mostly misunderstood philosophy. It is made up of a series of quotations — often from Nietzsche, Rumi, or Camus — ripped from a single line of a very complicated book. It’s wisdom, but out of context and stripped of nuance. The million-follower accounts on social media tear out pithy aphorisms from huge, well-argued tomes to broadcast the philosophical equivalent of “live, laugh, love”.

To help clear things up, and to make the point more fully, here are five of the most misunderstood quotations out there.

Nietzsche: “God is dead”

This quotation is much more powerful (and makes more sense) when you look at the parts which come afterward: “God remains dead! And we have killed him!”

After all, this quote isn’t really about God at all — it’s about humanity, what we’ve done, and what those actions mean.

When Nietzsche says, “God is Dead!”, it is not the triumphant cheer of a dragon-slaying hero, or a smug, cross-armed atheist at the back of the church. It’s more like the worried whispers of a eulogy. God, in this case, refers to the magnetic pole around which we all lived, and not some bearded, beneficent figure of myth.

Before the Enlightenment started introducing science and rationality to the masses, God meant certainty, truth, security, and purpose. He was the alpha and omega; the answer to all life’s questions. He was the great parent who lets the world make sense. Without God, Nietzsche goes on to say, it’s as if we’re falling, with no sense of up or down. There’s nothing to grab onto and nothing to steady us, at all.

“God is dead” is about how we reorient ourselves in a world that no longer revolves around God. How are we to make sense of things when all our explanations are suddenly gone?

Ockham: “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily”

If I asked you to give your top three philosophical razors, I bet Ockham’s would rank high on the list. People often assume that Ockham’s razor is making the claim that “if something is simpler, then it’s more likely to be true” — as if simplicity is proportional to truth. But that’s not what it’s intended to do. Ockham’s razor is not meant to be a rule, but rather a guiding principle when choosing between options. Essentially, it’s saying that if we are presented with two equally compelling theories, it’s more rational to believe the simpler.

But the biggest problem in how we understand Ockham’s razor is that it was never really meant for real-world things, like in the philosophy of science. When Ockham was writing, he was taking aim at what was, quite frankly, some pretty insane metaphysics. This was the time of angelology and of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” It was pedantic, convoluted, and very weird. Dun Scotus, for instance, believed the extramental world was made up of 10 distinct metaphysical essences, and 10 was a modest number for the time.

Ockham was trying to get everyone to calm down a bit — to stop inventing millions of metaphysical entities when one or a few would be fine.

Marx: Capitalism is completely bad

This is more of an idea than a quote. For a lot of people unfamiliar with Marx, or those who have only glancingly read his works, he comes across as a bank-burning, barricade-building anti-capitalist. It’s no doubt that Marx did not want capitalism, but that’s not to say he didn’t see the good side of it, too. In fact, he even recognized it as an important and essential part to history’s progress.

The opening section of his Communist Manifesto is a long, if grudging, recognition of capitalism’s successes. Marx points out the greater industry, commerce, and communication networks; the educational provision; and the rule of law. Capitalism is what brings together warring and bickering peoples to form “one government, one code of laws, one national class-interest”. It forces xenophobic, pariah peoples with an “obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate”. But the most important thing capitalism has done is to act as a kind of creative destruction.

Capitalism commodifies everything so that “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”. It tears down the deities and sacred things of the past and replaces them with profit and industry. It’s this iconoclasm that will be the clean slate that allows an egalitarian restructuring of society. What’s more, capitalism’s fetishization of “profit” is what creates the surplus and productivity necessary for communistic redistribution of resources. Communism is not parachuted in as its own thing, but rather grows out from late-stage capitalism.

Of course, for Marx, capitalism is a “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation” of humanity. It’s riddled with problems and tends to bring out the worst in us. But it’s also a necessary evil along the way to a better era.

Rousseau: “The noble savage”

This is a bit of a cheat, because rather than being “misunderstood” it is probably better to say this idea is “misattributed”. Rousseau’s “noble savage” idea is that, before we all began to live in cities and label ourselves “civilized”, humans were a naturally virtuous species. We were kind, social, and happy. Rousseau, it’s thought, used the phrase to show how modern society debased more than advanced human nature. “Civilization” is more corrupt than civilized.

Not only is the idea of “savages” versus “civilization” a massively dated, racist, and colonial notion, but the big problem is that Rousseau never said it. He likely didn’t believe it, either. Rousseau argued that we couldn’t call pre-societal people good or bad, virtuous or vicious, because these ideas evolved along with civilization. Our conception of what is right is formulated or given to us by the society to which we belong. To refer to a “noble savage” would amount to projecting our own values onto a pre-value people. Before civilization, humans were neither moral nor immoral. They were just natural.

Descartes: Cogito Ergo Sum, or “I think, therefore I am”

I admit, this one is a bit niche. First of all, “I think, therefore I am” most certainly does not mean, “if you believe it, you can do it”. Rene Descartes was not a 17th-century French version of Dale Carnegie writing self-help books to fuel his robot slave addiction. Instead, this was his attempt to resolve radical skepticism, which is that “how can we be sure of anything?!” question.

Smarter faster: the Big Think newsletter
Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

The basic point is that if I am thinking right now — or if I am doubting, to be precise — then it must also be that I am existing. A non-existent thing cannot think.

The misunderstanding comes in assuming this is an argument in the form of premises (I think) to conclusion (I exist). Admittedly, the “therefore” does rather lure you in. Instead, the Cogito is an “a priori intuition” — that is to say, it is true simply by thinking on it. It is more like saying “there is a triangle, therefore there’s a three sided shape”. It is not an argument but rather a statement that contains certain truths within.

The reason that this is important, and not (only) some philosophical nitpick, is that in Descartes’ Meditations he is quite explicit that we have no grounds for thinking our rationality is faultless. Our ability to find truth within arguments could just be the trick of some all-powerful demon.

As Descartes writes, “how do I know that I am not deceived every time that I add two and three, or count the sides of a square?” So, we cannot rely on our logic. This is why the Cogito — if it is to act as a way out of his skepticism — cannot be an argument.

Look a little deeper

As we can see, it’s rare (and highly unlikely) that the entire canon of the greatest minds in history can be summarized, or understood, in a beautifully lettered Pinterest post. It’s almost always the case that if you take the time to search for the full context of a quotation, you will find much more to it. At the very least, you’ll find detail and nuance, and a lot of the time, you’ll find something completely different to your first impressions.

But, of course, that’s not what a lot of people like to do. Quotations, especially the popular ones, act as a kind of magic mirror in which we see what we want to see. And, to be honest, if it gets people thinking and talking, there’s not much harm in that, either.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular account called Mini Philosophy and his first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.


Up Next