When I first started studying philosophy, I created a Word document where I could collect quotes from texts I was reading that I found particularly meaningful. Almost a decade later, I’m still adding to that document.
One of the unanticipated joys of keeping such a document is that it lets me look back on my former self and observe what I’ve found particularly meaningful over time. Some of the quotes no longer resonate much with me, while others have deepened in their significance.
Below are five of my favorite quotes from that document, along with explanations of why I like them so much.
I’ve written this post, in part, because it’s valuable to share the words of others that we find meaningful. But I also write this post as a limited form of autobiography; as a sort of memoir of the changing contours and consistent themes of my own study of philosophy.
My hope is that for those inspired by similar impulses to explore the world of ideas and arguments found in philosophy, that these quotes might resonate in a meaningful way.
1. “With regard to the gods, I cannot feel sure either that they are or that they are not, nor what they are like in figure; for there are many things that hinder sure knowledge, the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.”
This is the first entry in my quote document, and I still love it. The source of the quote is the Presocratic (i.e. Greek philosopher who came before Socrates) Protagoras. The most famous quote attributed to Protagoras is that “man is the measure of all things.” But it is this (translated) quote of his about the gods that captivates me most.
My first interests in philosophy were philosophy of religion and epistemology (i.e. the branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge, understanding, and the reasons we have for our beliefs). This quote encapsulates some very important claims about both.
As someone who was raised in an Evangelical Christian household, I was taught that we could know many truths about God with certainty. But as I began grappling with those claims, I reached the conclusion that we could not. Thus, I resonated with Protagoras’ claim that he could not “feel sure” whether the gods existed or what they were like if they did exist.
People often claim that Protagoras was an atheist or an agnostic, and that’s probably right. But for me, agreeing with this quote doesn’t entail atheism or agnosticism. And this is where epistemology comes in. We can believe all sorts of things that we don’t feel sure or certain about. And we can be justified in believing things that fall short of knowledge.
Note how (as translated) Protagoras is denying the existence of sure knowledge. (Not all translations include the “sure.”) But the very idea of “sure knowledge” implies that there could be something like unsure knowledge (or unsure belief). Epistemologists disagree over what we can know things with certainty and if certainty is required for knowledge. This latter debate is often labeled as being between fallibilism and infallibilism about knowledge. (My own view is that the term ‘knowledge’ is ambiguous and that there both fallibilist and infallibilist types of knowledge.)
2. “When devoted men sacrifice to other deities with faith, they sacrifice to me, Arjuna, however aberrant the rites”
This second quote comes from the Bhagavad Gita, as translated from Sanskrit to English by Barbara Stoler Miller. The Gita is the most famous portion of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. Miller describes the Gita as “a philosophical poem, composed in the form of a dialogue between the warrior Arjuna and his charioteer, the god Krishna.”
I first read the Gita as a PhD student in philosophy. This quote, like the last one, spoke to me because of how it challenged the religious doctrines I had been raised with. In my church and community growing up, faith was defined in terms of correct belief about God. A premium was placed on doctrinal accuracy.
This often worried me because it seemed that if someone was sincerely pursuing a relationship with God, it would be a cruel god to punish that person for having mistaken beliefs about God or misguided forms of worship of God. I found comfort and wisdom in Krishna’s words. Even attempts to understand or to worship God that are completely off base, but innocently so, will be recognized and honored by a good god.
To this day, I still love this quote. Although if I am being honest, these days I’m not sure what I think of the phrase “with faith” included in the quote. What does it mean to believe or to act “with faith”? And why think that faith is a virtue? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but this quote from the Gita inspires me to try and find answers.
3. “To do philosophy is to explore one’s own temperament, and yet at the same time to attempt to discover the truth.”
This third quote comes from philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch’s book of philosophical essays The Sovereignty of Good. I enjoy reading Murdoch’s philosophy not only because she was a brilliant philosopher but also (as one might expect from an award-winning novelist) because she was a great writer. She had a gift for artfully wording insightful points. This quote is an example.
This quote resonates with me because I find it to be an accurate description of what the task of doing philosophy is like for me. It also sticks out because it highlights an uncomfortable tension in the process. This tension arises because the two activities Murdoch mentions “to explore one’s own temperament” and “to attempt to discover the truth” appear to be at odds with one another.
If you were to ask me why I do philosophy, part of my answer would be that I’m searching after truth. I would not include as part of my answer that I am seeking to explore my own temperament. Yet that is certainly part of what I have in fact ended up doing by doing philosophy.
Through doing philosophy, I discovered that I have a penchant for certain views and impatience with others. I discovered that certain values and intuitions are deeply rooted in my worldview, while I am less devoted to others. I have also learned about my own preferred methods for engaging in philosophical dialogue.
In the end, I don’t think the quirks of my temperament bar me from making progress in the search for truth, but I do think recognition of the role my temperament plays in the conclusions I reach is a good reminder of my fallibility and the limits of human knowledge.
4. “I am not a relativist; I do not say ‘I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps’ — each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated.”
This quote comes from twentieth-century philosopher and political theorist, Isaiah Berlin.
I like this quote for several reasons. For one thing, this quote packs a powerful analogical punch, that’s both jarring and delightful. By juxtaposing the banality of preferring coffee with or without milk to the chasmic moral difference between favoring kindness versus favoring concentration camps, Berlin displays in an intuitively easy to grasp way the distinction between mere matters of subjective taste and matters of objective moral significance.
When Berlin claims that he is not a relativist, he is talking specifically about moral relativism, which is the view that there are no moral truths outside of the context of particular cultures or communities. Berlin is thus making a claim in the philosophical domain of metaethics.
There is a myth that circulates in some circles that almost all philosophers are moral relativists. So much so that I had people warn me about the dangers of moral relativism when I first decided to start studying philosophy. In actuality, I’ve found that the vast majority of philosophers are not moral relativists (although there are some).
I’ve also found that there is room to take into account the cultural significance of moral values and practices without being a moral relativist. For example, in the larger piece from which this quote is pulled, Berlin defends value pluralism while denying moral relativism.
While I love this quote, and the larger piece from which it comes, that doesn’t mean I don’t have my gripes with it too. For example, Berlin can be read in that larger piece as promoting a kind of gender essentialism (and a gender binary), which I think represents a mistaken view of reality. But I can acknowledge the value of his insightful prose while disagreeing with and feeling the need to highlight problematic aspects of his rhetoric as well.
5. “I believe the truth about any subject only comes when all sides of the story are put together, and all their different meanings make one new one. Each writer writes the missing parts of the other writer’s story. And the whole story is what I’m after.”
Walker, who first coined the term womanist, has had a powerful influence on many other thinkers, among them sociologist and social theorist, Patricia Hill Collins. It was in Collins’ book, Black Feminist Thought, that I first came across this quote from Walker.
Collins includes this quote from Walker as part of a discussion of how “[d]ialogues associated with ethical, principled coalition building create possibilities for new versions of truth.” Collin describes Walker as concerned with the “whole story,” including stories from both Black and White writers, but points out that Walker describes her mother as more skeptical about the ability to get truth from White writers given power differentials. Walker’s mother is recorded as saying “Well, I doubt if you can ever get the true missing parts of anything away from the white folks…they’ve sat on the truth so long by now they’ve mashed the life out of it.”
I appreciate the insight into the Black feminist perspective Collins and Walker provide with their writing, and I value the insight Walker’s mother provides about the difficulty of getting truth from dominant groups that have deeply entrenched practices of willful ignorance, which is true of White America.
I also love this quote from Walker because of what it says on a more universal level both about truth and about the power of story. I see in Walker’s quote a way to accommodate both Berlin’s support for pluralism and his rejection of relativism. On Walker’s picture, truth is something that exists in part perspectivally, but which is only complete in the bringing together of the various perspectives.
Such perspectives may seem contradictory or incompatible, but the whole story is one that comprehends and weaves together these varying perspectives, despite the tensions. I resonate deeply with the idea that the whole truth comes from the whole story and that the whole story is necessarily comprised of the stories of different people, none of whom can tell the whole story on their own.
I think this is a big part of why I love philosophy so much. I want truth, I want the whole story, and I think the best way to get that story is to reflect on and think about wisdom from many thinker and writers from many times and places. It is a luxury I am very grateful for, and one I’m happy to share.