Tag Archives: misinformation

Attack of the Philosophy Bots

After Friday’s post about the mistaking of Horace for Cicero, I started to wonder: who’s behind the philosophy tweet bots that cause me so much consternation?

You don’t have to look very far for answers. Every tweet by @philo_quotes — not the worst of the quote bots, but the one I singled out in my last two posts on the topic — is accompanied by a link, and that link leads to philosophical-quotes.com. The site lists quotations, the same stuff the bot tweets, without reference to sources, and it runs ads. On my last visit, I was offered Games to Exercise Your Brain and stave off the misery and forgetfulness of old age, the services of a Connecticut law firm looking for people who have been abused by clergy (and who, presumably, seek the consolation of philosophy), and a “Call for Research Participants” posted by The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity — which is obviously not an organization run by grammarians, or even native speakers of English.

The philosophical-quotes site also promotes another site, dedicated to “inspirational quotes”, where along with words of inspiration you find more ads: a 401K plan, a business loan, some kind of sales-lead technology, audible.com, and yet another site of “Inspirational Life Quotes”. There is also a link to a Facebook page dedicated to “Motivational Quotes” (with 2979 likes); that page features an ad for the Facebook page of Philosophy Quotes, a “Society/Culture Website” with nearly 6000 likes.

A simple WhoIs search reveals that these sites are the creation and property of a French entrepreneur who deals in words and sayings that inspire and instruct. In an interview I found on the French site brocooli.com, he sums up his online activity with a single word: moné­ti­sa­tion. Hence all those ads. He also has a number of ebooks for sale, including a collection of motivational sayings which concentrates, in a single volume, “the best advice to motivate you to attain your own success”; the others are dedicated to the same theme: La Reussite, or Success.

We are pretty far removed from the quiet shade of Socrates’ plane tree. This is philosophy in the service of Success, or Leadership, or Entrepreneurship. It all amounts to the same thing. The sayings of the philosophers are regarded as guides to self-actualization; they help perpetuate a sunny entrepreneurial optimism, a bold confidence, a faith in Success, and help create the illusion that that faith is informed and justified by philosophical inquiry. The greatest minds the world has known are there to inspire you to succeed, achieve your potential; they all seem to concur: stick to it, buck up, take risks, be humble but go for the gusto, don’t be afraid to fail, trust yourself and you will succeed.

And I suspect it gets worse than that: the medium of philosophy is itself the message. The philosophy bots publish anything and everything (Descartes, Marx, Hume, James, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Plato, Heidegger), outrageous stuff, and people will quote it in speeches, tweet it, put it in PowerPoint, wear it on their sleeve, pin it on Pinterest or hang it above the desk, simply because quoting “philosophy” or even seeing philosophy quoted makes people feel smart and connected to smart.

Ultimately, the trouble isn’t that people use or abuse fragments of philosophy to feel smart or to elevate and ennoble base pursuits. That happens, to be sure, but that’s been happening since the first days of philosophy. And it’s worth considering that for many followers of these philosophy bots, these fragments or sayings of the philosophers might actually make the world more coherent: somebody thought that thought, not just somebody, but a philosopher, and — wow — it makes sense to me. It’s just important to remember that many of these quotations are taken out of context, often misquoted, misattributed, almost always badly translated, and until you have read and understood something of a philosopher’s work, you haven’t grasped the sense it makes.

Another misattribution: be careful out there!

It happened again today. Just now, a philosophy Twitter bot posted this quotation, attributing it to Cicero.

A noble sentiment. As of this writing it’s been retweeted 54 times and favorited 16, just an hour or so after it was first posted.

The only trouble is, these are not the inspiring words of the orator and statesman Cicero, but the words of Orfellus, “a peasant, a philosopher unschooled and rough,” as rendered by the poet Horace at the close of Satire II.ii.

Like Horace himself, Orfellus was dispossessed of his property; and he understands that neither he nor the new landlord, Umbrenus, has a legitimate claim to the land. It belongs to “no one for good,” but is ceded for use (cedet in usum). The Loeb trot continues:

Nature, in truth, makes neither him nor me nor anyone else lord of the soil as his own. He drove us out, and he will be driven out by villainy, or by ignorance of the quirks of the law, or in the last resort by an heir of longer life. Today the land bears the name of Umbrenus; of late it had that of Orfellus; to no one will it belong for good, but for use it will pass, now to me and now to another. Live then, as brave men, and with brave hearts confront the strokes of fate (quocirca vivite fortes / fortiaque adversis opponite pectora rebus).

I can’t figure out the source of the confusion, how or where the quotation came to be attributed to Cicero, how Cicero’s prose and Horace’s verse could be confused, and I don’t really know what to make of it all, except to reiterate that most books of quotations and nearly all quotation bots and sites proffering quotations are borrowing, cutting and pasting, or sloppily compiling from other compilations, and never working from original sources. Maybe that sort of spadework went out with the keeping of commonplace books. No matter, don’t trust any attribution that doesn’t cite chapter and verse; and even then, verify.

And if fortune is averse, front its blows with brave hearts. No, that’s not Mel Gibson.