Are Philosophers Monsters?

David Birch looks at the interface between philosophy and monstrosity.

There is a remarkable moment in Book One of A Treatise of Human Nature where David Hume – a young man, alone in a foreign country, writing this monumental text – lets the veneer of philosophical disinterest slip. He writes, ‘I am first affrighted and confounded with that forlorn solitude, in which I am placed in my philosophy, and fancy myself some strange uncouth monster, who not being able to mingle and unite in society, has been expelled all human commerce, and left utterly abandoned and disconsolate.’

Such confessional lyricism is rare in philosophy, and one of the more curious aspects of the passage is Hume’s description of himself as a monster. Why does he use this word in particular? Why not pariah or outcast? Why does he think of himself as somehow non-human? I’d like to suggest that this was more than mere fancy on Hume’s part, that there is in fact a revealing accuracy in his choice of words.

Consider Noël Carroll’s analysis of our concept of monster in his 1987 article ‘The Nature of Horror’: ‘They are unnatural relative to a culture’s conceptual scheme of nature. They do not fit the scheme; they violate it. Thus, monsters are not only physically threatening; they are cognitively threatening. They are threats to common knowledge.’

There is an uncanny parallel here between the characterisation of monsters and the work of philosophers. If a monster is that which poses a cognitive threat to our conceptual schemes, a threat to common knowledge, should we conclude that Hume was not alone in his monstrousness, that contrary to a coterie of the noble enlightened, the pantheon of philosophy is in fact a den of monsters? Should Raphael, with his stately The School of Athens, be dismissed as philosophy’s portraitist and replaced by the likes of Francisco Goya, Francis Bacon, and other such masters of the manxome?

It is perhaps not merely incidental that Socrates, our esteemed progenitor, was known for his monstrous looks. Indeed, this seemingly incidental detail has become central to his legend. His ugliness prompted Friedrich Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols to speculate that he wasn’t even Greek, that he was malformed, and thus of dubious origins and character: ‘While on his way through Athens a certain foreigner who was no fool at judging by looks, told Socrates to his face that he was a monster, that his body harboured all the worst vices and passions. And Socrates replied simply: “You know me, sir!”’

What might we make of the self-ascribed monstrousness of Hume and Socrates? What can it tell us about philosophy? Well, in order to answer that question, we should first dabble in a little monsterology…

Monsters evoke dread. They are often creatures of the darkness and depths. They inhabit the corners of creation we rarely venture, from deep water (Scotland’s Nessie) to outer space (H. R. Giger’s xenomorphs). The monster is not so much a creature of an unknown nature as a creature whose nature it is to be unknown. They are incarnations of the unfathomable (Nessie is depth, the xenomorph is darkness). This is why they escape zoological classification, why they are more than animals, because they elude our understanding. As Harvey Greenberg writes, the xenomorph of the 1979 film Alien is a ‘Linnean nightmare, defying every natural law of evolution; by turns bivalve, crustacean, reptilian, and humanoid.’ The monster defies definition. When confronted with it, the dread we feel is the dread of a world we cannot grasp, a world that transgresses our expectations and loosens the cosy fetters of familiarity.

Monsters are singularities. They are nature’s orphans. The xenomorph is born from a host (which it kills) rather than a mother; the gremlins from the eponymous 1984 film are mutations of Gizmo that burst from his body; Frankenstein’s creature has a maker but not a father. The monster was never raised or nurtured, it undergoes no enculturation. It is a creature of instinct alone. With its constitutional inability to be civilised or domesticated, its impregnable otherness, it is almost excessively natural; it is nature undressed, an embodiment of nature itself. As Bertrand Russell highlighted when illustrating the fallacy of composition, though every human has a mother, the species itself does not have one. Nature itself (to twist the logic) is an orphan: homeless, rootless, feral.

The unbearable naturalness of monsters is what precludes machines from attaining the status of the monstrous. Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey was menacing but not terrifying. Likewise, the androids in Westworld are frightening but not dreadful. They are governed by algorithms, not instinct, coding rather than need. The machine is functional, it has a purpose, but the monster makes a mockery of our instrumentalist conceptions of nature. Its actions and purposes defy reason. We can ask why there is a crocodile under the bed but not why there is a monster there: the crocodile, unlike the monster, has a place and therefore can be out of place.

Machines, unlike, monsters cannot terrify because they have no insides. There is no interior space within them. They do not breathe or eat. We cannot be devoured by a machine. The monster, however, can gobble. What we most fear is not that the monster will kill us as such, but that it will taste us, eat us, touch us, consume or cradle us. What could be more dreadful than the breath of a monster on your face? Its touch upon the nape of your neck? What we most fear is intimacy with the monster; whether violent or hideously tender, we fear the mingling of our body with its.

The pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles speculated that during the earth’s natural history there exists a monstrous phase. As the synthesising force of Love takes hold, wandering limbs start to join together seeking union. Initially this leads to monstrous combinations that are unable to survive, such as oxen-headed men and men-headed oxen. Malformed and ill-defined, the monster is shunned to extinction, not fit to survive in this world, yet somehow able to. They are testament to nature’s whims, caprices, its sheer experimental irrationality; through them we see the frightening contingency of our own comparative normality.

Whereas a giant lion is merely a giant lion, a giant ant is a monster. Why the difference? The reason partly lies in the ant’s facelessness. When we see a lion, we see an animal that can see us. Even if it recognises us as prey, it still recognises us. This can generate fear but not dread. The monster is a faceless creature; no emotion can be discerned there. It has eyes that look but don’t see. It has no notion of us because it has no notion of itself, it exists without a self. It is an image of nature’s indifference, of life’s impersonality.

Consider the curious symmetry of the child lying in bed with the monster beneath it. As the child lies in the dark, its parents can be heard laughing together downstairs. The child in bed is an outcast, an orphan of the darkness, it is unseen, unknown, and as such it experiences its humanity dissolving into the night, thus becoming monstrous. In its rage at being so confined, it would love to exact revenge upon its parents, to perform that most formative of monstrous acts: parricide (likewise infanticide), to divest oneself of family, familiarity, the face, to become a singularity.

The dread of the monster is the dread of nature’s indifference, of the impersonality of life itself. Frankenstein’s monster is an amalgamation of corpses, limbs without identity, bodies without belonging. It shows us the impersonality of the body, it reflects the faceless alterity of our own flesh: the monstrousness of arseholes, tongues, hair. Frankenstein’s monster, moreover, is an image of death as decomposition. His body shows us an afterlife that consists of nothing but decay. It tells us that personal immortality is a fiction; we do not continue to exist because nature, in its faceless indifference, does not acknowledge or see the self.

What, then, can these observations tell us about the monstrousness of Hume and Socrates, and more generally, the monstrousness of philosophy? We have seen that the monster is without parents or lineage, it exists without purpose or function, it is beyond classification, it is impersonal and shatters the familiar. As with the aforementioned Carroll quote, it is all too easy to see the resemblance here with philosophy. Like a xenomorph, the philosophical text is born through parricide, its existence is predicated on the death of its forbearers; the philosopher aims to supersede the past, to expose the folly and flaws of prior theories. Whether it’s Berkeley against Locke, Kant against Hume, or Nietzsche against Schopenhauer, the philosopher will devour and discard those very figures who nourished her, who awakened her to the existence of certain philosophical problems and furnished her thinking with new concepts. As such, like the monster, the philosopher becomes unmoored from history, detached from tradition, a fresh being, singular and unprecedented.

And just as the monster shows us life, but not life as we know it, the philosopher shows us thought, but not thought as we know it. The monster can survive in the darkest regions, existing without light or heat, far from the surface of things, without companionship or community. Likewise the thought of the philosopher exists beyond the light of certainty and the norms of conventional understanding. Their thought dwells in the shadows, away from the warmth of received wisdom and collective opinion. Rather than using thought as a tool to solve everyday problems and help us get by, the philosopher uses thought to pose problems, to perplex and bewilder. This is an apparent perversion of thought; thought that thrives in confusion, that shows a greater interest in questions than answers, that willingly strays from the beaten track in search of the wilderness.

Just as we cannot rationalise the nature or actions of the monster, the philosopher too is an affront to good sense. It is clear, for instance, why there are builders and bankers, but why are there philosophers? What is their utility? Do they have a function? Would the world not be a more comfortable place without them? Indeed, like the monster, the presence of the philosopher plunges us into an unfamiliar and disorienting world; a world of possible demons (Descartes), without substance (Berkeley), without causality or the self (Hume).

As a self-confessed monster, let’s briefly focus on Hume. He tried to establish the rational basis of causal inference, that is to say, he wanted to understand what justifies the belief that events are tied together in a pattern of cause and effect; the belief, for instance, that fire causes ice to melt. Hume noted that there is no logical connection between fire and melting ice. It is perfectly easy, for instance, to imagine fire causing ice to expand. If we saw such an occurrence, we would be shocked, but we wouldn’t regard ourselves as witness to a contradiction. Our expectations but not our logic would be violated.

Having established that there is no logical connection between so-called causes and effects, Hume reached the conclusion that our belief in the connection must be grounded in experience: through repeatedly observing the presence of fire followed by the melting of ice, we are led to believe there is a causal connection binding fire to melting ice. However, if causal inference has a merely experiential basis, this leaves us unable to reach any justified beliefs about the future, about what will happen, say, when I strike this match and hold the flame up to an icicle.

Thus far in the history of experience, the presence of fire has indeed been followed by the melting of nearby ice, but how do we know that this won’t change tomorrow? How do we know that the presence of fire won’t suddenly be followed by the spectacle of expanding ice? If we answer with the observation that nature has never changed in such ways before, we are caught in a circle, in effect arguing thus: my inference from past experience to future events is justified because nature doesn’t change, and I know that nature doesn’t change because that is what past experience indicates.

Hume concluded that causal inference has no rational justification. There is, therefore, no rational justification for our beliefs about the future. My belief that the match I am about to strike will lead to the melting of this icicle is no more justified than your belief to the contrary. As such, Hume eroded the certitudes of everyday life, throwing us into a world we no longer recognise, that does not recognise us, a world in which we are living upon a constant precipice of experience with only darkness before us.

Hume’s philosophy is thus a monster of the mind, devouring the light of reason and leaving us with the dread of our own dissolution before a faceless existence. There was indeed no hyperbole in his plaint of monstrousness, and the revelations it contained may well be instructive to the rest of us.

If Hume’s characterisation of philosophy is accurate, those of us who teach philosophy, myself included, should possibly reassess the nature of our roles. Rather than seeking to foster or instil wisdom and steady rationality, should we instead endeavour to become the makers of monsters? In truth, this captures my teaching experience quite well. There is something monstrous about the child who delightedly annihilates the existence of time or gleefully crushes the belief in other minds. When teaching philosophy I am not usually faced with a class of level-headed individuals but a gaggle of ‘strange uncouth monsters’. However, unlike Hume, the reluctant monster, they are not disconsolate. Instead, like Socrates, they embrace and rejoice in the monstrous exuberance of philosophical thought. If you call them monsters, they reply, “You know me, sir!”

Philosophy, then, is arguably not so much the pursuit of wisdom as it is the quest for monstrosity. The monsterologist Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has written, ‘The monster’s very existence is a rebuke to boundary and enclosure.’ Likewise the philosopher takes thought beyond the boundaries of common sense, outside the enclosures of conceptual familiarity and into the fathomless darkness of xeno-morphic (strange-shaped) possibilities. And perhaps an appreciation of this monstrous essence can help forestall Humean gloom. To warn unsuspecting travellers, philosophy departments would do well to nail a sign above their doors: hic sunt dracones, here there be dragons.

Further reading on monsterology –

Stephen T. Asma, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Monster Theory: Reading Culture

Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, The Monster Theory Reader

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David Birch works for The Philosophy Foundation, an educational charity based in London. He also teaches philosophy and religion at Highgate School. His latest book, Pandora's Book: 401 Philosophical Questions to Help You Lose Your Mind (with answers), was published in June.