Stumbling Blocks in Reading Philosophy

Philosophical texts are notoriously difficult to read, but the real problem comes when each text calls for a distinct set of skills. By the time you’ve “cracked the code” to reach that “ah ha” moment with one philosopher, it’s time to start all over with another.

I’d like to share some of my stumbling blocks with you.

I was inspired to write on this topic after reading Michelle Joelle’s The Delicate Art of Reading Philosophy, a post every philosophy student should read.

WORKS THAT SEEM EASY, BUT AREN’T:

This is the most difficult category, because we think we understand when we don’t. There’s no impetus to move beyond our flawed understanding to reach the deeper meaning. It’s only by accident that we realize we’ve had it wrong all along. The only cure for this malady is to take a more generous approach with the text, to assume it has something important to say rather than tearing it apart before we’ve fully grasped it.

Anything ancient goes in this category.

Can we really learn from someone who wrote over 2000 years ago? It seems fair enough to say we’d get an historical understanding, but are these ancient texts intrinsically interesting?

Of course, these questions are usually in the back of student’s minds, not explicit or conscious. However, the doubt can make it difficult to take a text seriously. Students often give obligatory lip service to the great achievements of the ancients without really finding these achievements anything but curious artifacts. I certainly had these doubts in the back of my mind, until I reached the “ah ha” moment in a major way with Plato.

Plato is particularly difficult. On the one hand, students are often told that Plato wrote in dialogue form, so they expect to be carried along as if they were reading a novel. Very soon they realize this is not the way it works. So then they switch back to the familiar methods of analyzing arguments. Here they find themselves wandering down blind alleys, and they wonder what the point is. They might appreciate that Plato wanted us to “think for ourselves” or some such platitude, but ultimately they find the whole experience disappointing.

Plato always requires multiple readings. Give yourself time! 

Know your history. There will always be historical characters, and if you don’t know your Greek history or who these characters were, it’s worth looking them up. For instance, if you don’t know who Alcibiades was, you won’t understand his significance when he shows up drunk at the end of the Symposium. Try to imagine a modern-day equivalent. Imagine J.F.K. crashing your party instead of just some dude off the street.

Secondly, give some time to analyzing arguments, but then place them in context. Who’s making these claims? Why? What motivations/intentions are they coming from? What’s the setting? What is Socrates trying to do? Is he being facetious? Is Plato speaking through him?

And lastly, pay attention to detail. The more irrelevant it seems, the more you should pay attention. If a speaker mentions that he just came from the Piraeus or a festival, look up that festival and its significance. If someone seems to be blathering on about nothing, pay even closer attention. Assume this: Absolutely nothing in the text is disposable (Phaedrus 264c). Reading Plato is like putting together an enormously complex puzzle.

William James. I started with The Varieties of Religious Experience and learned so much about what I had previously found perplexing about asceticism in religion. James struck me as thoughtful and fair-minded, deeply sympathetic to religion but also realistic. I immediately read most of his other works with great eagerness.

James wrote in a clear and direct style, which presents its own peculiar problem. I found after reading several books that I had to take a step back to avoid getting swept along. It’s a kind of rhetoric that comes as such a relief after reading a lot of German philosophy, but don’t let it make you lazy. As I read him I really wanted to be on his side…it’s a lulling quality, a “hot damn, he sounds so direct he must be right!” Don’t get me wrong, he’s a hard hitter and his ideas on radical empiricism were big, but tread with caution. Take the time to write out his arguments or repeat them to yourself.

Wittgenstein’s Philosophical InvestigationsI think most people know the difficulties here. I never did reach the “ah ha” moment with Wittgenstein. At first I was excited to see that same sentence-level clarity that William James exhibits, but then found after reading the first paragraph that I had no idea what was said. I have never read anything so hard, but seemingly easy. I kept pushing on through Philosophical Investigations, but never got beyond the “slab” example.

Analytic philosophy. I found similar problems with reading Frege and others. I never achieved the “ah ha” moment.

Leibniz’s MonadologyThis is the most beautifully bizarre work I’ve ever read. Leibniz’s style here is to lay down the law, and this can be off-putting. But the law he lays down is…so…weird. The best way to read this is to run with it, let him take you there. Think of it at first as a strange new poetry. Let down your guard and explore its beauty then later come back to criticize, otherwise reading this will feel like a waste of time. A solid understanding of Plato’s Timaeus is also useful.

Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. If you’re not a Christian, try to pretend you are and take a sympathetic stance. This work attempts to make sense of God coming down to earth in the flesh of Jesus Christ. It explains the paradox and the importance of paradox as central to Christianity. It’s the best defense and explanation of Christianity I have ever read.

Augustine’s Confessions. It’s always the pear thing. He steals a pear for no reason, feels bad. Can we move on to Rousseau’s masochistic fantasies, please?

Hold your horses. There’s a lot going on here. The fact that stealing a pear is so small a sin is part of the point.

Also, this is regarded as the first autobiography—take into consideration what must have been going through Augustine’s mind when writing in this form. When arguments are brought to a personal account, they cease to be arguments. No one can argue with my experience, but I can still use my recounting to persuade you, to make you feel what I’m feeling even if you don’t agree with my opinions. I may steal a pear and feel guilty about it, and you may laugh at me for feeling guilty, but you won’t argue with me. There! I have my foot in the door to your soul. Now I will show you how stealing that pear for no reason is actually worse than doing something really bad. No really.

His insights into memory and psychology are especially worth reading. His thinking was authentic and original, and very thoughtful. So push on after you’re done laughing at the pear thing.

Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. It’s massive. It’s overarching. It’s preposterously ambitious by our standards. I remember giggling as I showed my roommate the three or four pages in which Aquinas assumed he had proven the existence of God. I later read those arguments and caught myself frowning and scratching my head. Well, shit. Maybe he did it!

This is some of the clearest, most succinct philosophical thinking I’ve ever encountered. Dry, but solid. Beautiful in its precision. (And, of course, heavily influenced by Aristotle, whom I love.) Sometimes when it’s this clear and simple, it’s hard to take it seriously. But why is that?

I think philosophy students are used to…

WORKS THAT READ LIKE THE QUADRATIC FORMULA:

This includes a great deal of philosophy, especially German. If you don’t have to work hard for it, you must not have anything of value…that follows, doesn’t it? But watch out for those muddy puddles!

Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. There’s a reason philosophy professors begin with Kant’s ethics—it’s much more manageable. Problems with CPR include contradictions and lots of terminology. When you try to use ordinary language to talk about his philosophy, you feel paralyzed in fear of saying something like: “Kant has this idea about…I mean, not an idea, a concept—NO! not that—a kind of thought, sort of…well anyways Kant says…” By now you’ve forgotten your point.

My advice here is to be understanding. Kant is not trying to be obscure; he’s trying to be clearer with all his definitions, but sometimes he fails. And when he fails after setting such a high standard for himself, it’s easy to get frustrated. Remember that he was pioneering an enormous project. Look for the overall meaning of his philosophy rather than let yourself get bogged down in details.

Husserl’s Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. Doesn’t the title say it all? The key to reading Husserl is this—find the linking verb. It may be halfway down the page in that page-long sentence. Once you find it, cut as many clauses as you can to make sense of that ridiculous sentence. Once you’ve done this, start taking in a few of the clauses.  Take a deep breath. You won’t die. Not yet. Get ready for your mind to be blown.

Heidegger’s Being and Time. I chose to focus on present-at-hand and readiness-to-hand. A lot of Heidegger’s writing can be infuriatingly tedious (I would call a lot of it muddy puddles). I found most of what I needed to know about phenomenology in Husserl, but I’m sure there are some who will disagree.

INTENTIONAL OBFUSCATION:

Descartes’ Metaphysical Meditations. How did the infamous Cartesian circle come to pass? How could such a thinker make this mistake? Even I, a lowly college undergrad, spotted the error. I think Descartes was a secret atheist, but I don’t really know. I take Galileo’s house arrest into consideration and the time the Meditations were published—eight years later. Not enough to prove anything, especially when you think of how often Descartes writes about God in letters and such, but if you assume he was an atheist, you’ll see the work in a whole new light. I found it was easier to appreciate what he had achieved. In any case, taking out the error will help you refocus on the methodology of doubt, which is really the main point.

I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot more writing falls into this category, for political reasons.

What are your stumbling blocks? Which writers/philosophers did you find the most difficult to read? How did you learn to read their works?

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49 thoughts on “Stumbling Blocks in Reading Philosophy

  1. You’ve packed so much into this post! Couldn’t agree more about Plato. He requires multiple readings with commentaries. Like Shakespeare. The other thing is that the dialogues are works of art, unlike most philosophical works. There is the dimension of the argument, but also the aesthetics of the piece to be considered and enjoyed. Plato is unique in his use of gentle irony, so far as I can tell.
    My stumbling block was Derrida. I finally concluded that if there is infinite potential for slippage between the signified and the signifier, then why am I wasting my time reading something that could mean (literally) anything? It all reduces to nonsense. I am not very fond of phenomenology either. It’s a bit too loosey-goosey with meaning, a bit too woo-hoo for my taste. But that’s just me. I’d rather read Aristotle any day. He’s a sexist and an apologist for slavery, but at least you can follow his logic. I also like David Hume.
    I am intrigued by your comments of Leibniz–never read him but would like to!

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    • It’s funny, I’ve never read Derrida. I guess I assumed I wouldn’t like it, so I didn’t even bother!

      I’m actually a big fan of Husserl’s phenomenology, but not much after. Philosophers such as Heidegger use that word in different ways, so it’s possible we’re talking about different things. In my mind it’s kind of like the word “existential”…

      So true about Plato. It’s not just arguments, it’s art. And the art is actually integral to his philosophy of desire, it’s the perfect form for communicating his philosophy. Oh I could go on and on about how brilliant he was.

      And since you like Plato and Aristotle, I would highly recommend Leibniz. To be clear, he’s not writing in dialogue form or fiction, but the ideas themselves are so creative but clear and logical. It’s Plato reimagined. Well, you may have read Candide? “The best of all possible worlds” comes from Leibniz. Voltaire is making fun of him in his character, Pangloss. But I think Voltaire made a cheap shot.

      Also, you may have heard of the aesthetic principle, “The greatest possible unity of the greatest possible diversity.” That’s Leibniz too. This is in Plato’s Timaeus in the form of pure being (nous) and non being (necessity). So the world of becoming is the combination of the two and there you have Leibniz’s principle.

      I would start with the Discourse on Metaphysics which usually comes with the Monadology, which is very short.
      Theodicy is also good.

      I found the Monadology online:

      http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdfs/leibniz1714b.pdf

      It might be too weird to just jump in, but you can give it a shot. Don’t worry if you’re reading along wondering, “What the hell’s a monad?” That’s part of the experience. 🙂

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      • Thanks! I’ll take a look! I’m interested that he wrote a “Theodicy.”
        Yes, “existentialism” seems to be a vague concept. Certainly Camus is classed as an existentialist but he seems to have rejected that label. Another example of a literary artist who was also a philosopher–and as a bonus, very good-looking 🙂

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  2. My biggest stumbling block is that I just don’t enjoy reading most old historical works, particularly older works that are in English (such as Hume’s), since they’re usually not translated. At least Plato typically comes with translation into modern English and historical footnotes. I did enjoy Russell immensely, but he’s 20th century and seems much more approachable.

    This aversion leads me to get most of my philosophical information from modern write ups. On the science side, this is generally considered quite acceptable. No one expects you to read Newton’s ‘Principia Mathematica’ or Dawin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ to understand their ideas. (Indeed only reading those historical books would be very incomplete.) But going back to the source material in philosophy seems to be what you’re expected to do. I’m afraid it’s why I’d never make a decent professional philosopher.

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    • That is so interesting. I always loved reading Hume and anything in English because then I didn’t have to question the translation. And it was just so much better than reading those German philosophers, oh lord that was hard.

      But you’re right about Plato. There are some really good translations out there into very fresh English. And tons of footnotes too.

      You know, you’re probably doing well reading the modern write ups, although there is the risk that the author is getting something wrong. But even there, multiple perspective can usually help with that problem.

      I had to read “Origin of Species” and I couldn’t keep myself awake. I had to force myself through it, but it was so boring.

      I suspect you would make a decent professional philosopher if you ever had the wherewithal to read this tedious stuff, but I don’t blame you if you don’t. It could negatively impact your writing. Not kidding about that. It took me a long time to get back to using pronouns.

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      • Thanks. I’ve tried to read Hume in particular since I seem to agree with just about every opinion attributed to him, but I have the same reaction you do to Origin. I find my mind wandering hopelessly. I could probably fight through it if I had it as a school assignment or something (I once fought through the Iliad and figure I could fight through anything after that), but it’s just not going to happen as a read for pleasure.

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        • I had the same feeling about the Iliad when I first read it, until we discussed it in class and then I fell in love. I always attributed my initial lackluster feeling toward it to the fact that I had to read the thing overnight and I was constantly stressed about academics. The class I was taking was a balls-to-the-wall survey of Western thought.

          I’m the same way as you now. I only read for pleasure. There’s so much that I haven’t read that’s both pleasurable and enlightening. Why bother banging my head against the wall?

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  3. I am approaching philosophy somehow from the side. My main background is in computer science and linguistics. Those of my thoughts that I would call philosophical have mainly grown out of reading the publications of my friend Kurt Ammon (who is a mathematician but whom I would also regard to be a philosopher) whose publications I am regularly proofreading since I got to know him about 30 years ago. Another source of my thinking seems to be my practical experience as a computer programmer, a strange kind of work that is somehow like a craft but where you build something like machines out of abstractions. You develop a certain style of thinking by doing so that can be applied elsewhere as well. I think some books of Stanislaw Lem have also had a profound influence on me. So most of traditional philosophy is not part of the ferment in which my ideas have been developing. If I had started reading those philosophers too early, it would have led my thoughts into other directions.

    So probably one could call me an amateur philosopher. I am comfortable with that (among the people you are listing, I think Wittgenstein was one). I am outside academic philosophy at this time although I am studying and I might start publishing in academic journals later, but at this time, I am outside that system. I am not sure that being inside that system always yields interesting stuff, and some of the most interesting philosophy has emerged outside of it.

    I started reading about philosophy when I was 14 (I read a history of philosophy), but for a long time I hardly read any original philosophy, or did so only sporadically and not very systematically. Only in the last 5 years or so have I begun to get into it a bit more systematically. However, I am already beyond 50 and working full time, so my time is limited. I have a certain philosophical project in mind and I don’t think I will read a lot of original texts except they interest me. I think I don’t have enough time left to do study philosophy in a broader way. I am currently trying to get a kind of overview or map of the history of ideas so I will have an idea which original works I want to read.

    The difficulties you are describing mean that reading the works of a philosopher can be a substantial investment of time and effort. I only want to do this when I think it is worth the effort. Reading secondary literature means, of course, that you are only getting interpretations and selections of others and you may be missing a lot of interesting detail.

    I found your observation that “each text calls for a distinct set of skills” very interesting. In science, as long as you do “normal science” in the sense of Thomas Kuhn, you just apply some set of methods to problems of some kind. You only have to learn the methods then you can do science. You can learn this from textbooks and you don’t have to ever read the original works of those who developed the methods (see one of the comments above). Areas of knowledge where this is possible develop into special sciences.

    However, there are questions where such an approach does not work. These remain with philosophy and there will always be some areas of this kind left, although occasionally, one of them will grow into a new science. I think that no finite set of knowledge can cover everything; each set of concepts and methods has a limited reach. As a result, if you enter such an area of thought, you can only approach it from the inside, since the knowledge you have before does not lead there. You have to read and enter a hermeneutic process of understanding. At some point, you find the key (or you don’t). Philosophy does not go away because it is impossible in principle to derive everything from a single set of concepts and methods, so this “needing of a distinct set of skills” is, I think, a fundamental property of philosophy. If you can assimilate something new under existing knowledge, you are doing science instead. (I am not sure I could express this here in a way that is understandable, these thoughts are connected to the concept of analytical spaces, see http://creativisticphilosophy.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/analytical-spaces/).

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    • “I think that no finite set of knowledge can cover everything; each set of concepts and methods has a limited reach. As a result, if you enter such an area of thought, you can only approach it from the inside, since the knowledge you have before does not lead there.”

      Exactly. And that’s the thing that’s both fascinating and infuriating about philosophy. People think they can just pick up a book and read it, but it’s not so simple. Your words “approach it from the inside” are spot on. There is no way I could have read Kant and Husserl outside a classroom. I just didn’t have the conceptual tools to make sense of it. After class I’d have to curl up on my bed in fetal position to process everything…it really was mind altering. But in order to get inside, I had to allow myself to be changed, I had to have patience and tenacity. It feels like the rug is being pulled out from beneath you. Not always pleasant, but sometimes the payoff is immense.

      Your idea of getting a history of philosophy is a good one, as reading everything in the original is extremely time consuming and…tumultuous. I haven’t read many history of philosophy books, but I did find Richard Tarnas’ “The Passion of the Western Mind” very readable. It might be stuff you already know, however.

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      • Being changed might also be a risk sometimes. Books can be doors to go through and you don’t know where you will end up.

        I will check our the Richard Tarnas book. I found that after reading one history of philosophy of ideas, another on always gives you new aspects.

        I am also listening to a lot of lectures available as audio books. I can do that while on the train, bike-riding, gardening or pressing the shirts. There is some very good stuff available. I have a subscription with one audiobook company and they have a lot of philosophy and history books and especially lectures that are quite good.

        Some of the stuff I have been reading so far is in German. German is my native language, but it does not always help you with those German philosophers. 🙂

        Kant’s German is old-fashioned, one has to get used to it, and his style is, well, you know it… He is writing those terrible convoluted sentences that are possible in the German language. I have once tried to read Heidegger. He is inventing new words and using the Grammar often in a way that is at the edge of what is correct. Maybe you are in a better position to read him in a translation although a translation is an interpretation. His language is somehow poetic because of the unusual, rule-bening use he makes of it, but I am not always sure there is actually some meaning behind it. If it is, why did he not try to say what he wanted to say in a way that can be easily understood. He is one of those where I am not sure if getting into it is worth the effort. I have not made up my mind about him yet.

        I think many philosophers are simply bad writers 🙂 Writing in a way that can be understood is not easy because being inside your own thoughts, you cannot always anticipate all the ways people will understand or missunderstand or not understand what you mean. I found blogging helps tremendously. I learn a lot from comments, especially those that show me how somebody did not understand what I have written the way I meant it. The feedback you get here helps to get a better understanding of the audience. It is also helpfull to have (or imagine) an audience that does not consists only of professional philosophers. Sometimes it is hard to formulate your thoughts in a way that might be understandable to non-philosophers, but you can clarify them for yourself that way. But sometimes it is very diffiult exactly because there is this gap between the analytical space you are in and those inhabited by the audience. Sometimes I have an idea that seems to be very clear and very simple to me, but there is a lot of work involved to formulate it in a way that would be understandable to somebody else. If a philosopher is used to remain in his own conceptual world, you end up with those hard to understand texts.

        I learnt some useful things from my father who was a teacher (teaching material science to people learning professions involving metal). I think I have learnt useful things about didactics from him. It was also helpful to do proofreading for somebody else, as I did with Kurt Ammon’s papers. My work also sometimes involves the writing of technical drafts and documentations and I have learnt a lot from writing those, although it is a part of the work I don’t like.

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        • The Richard Tarnas book is really very introductory and popular, but I sort of like it for that reason. I can’t follow a lot of academic writing. Nowadays I prefer more popular works. I like fun reading…I would have been embarrassed to say so a few years ago, but I’ve done a 180.

          I used to listen to audiobooks and iTunes lectures when I cleaned the house. I don’t know why I stopped. It’s a great way to multitask.

          Your English is excellent! Where/when did you learn? I knew you lived in Germany, but I hadn’t quite put two and two together. Blogging in a second language is very impressive. I took a few philosophy courses in France and I had no idea what was going on. I had to get up in front of everyone and do an exposé, a kind of lecture after which the class drills you. I thought I was gonna puke. It was terrifying. Doing philosophy in another language—doing anything in another language—is not easy. Kudos to you.

          It’s reassuring to hear that Kant is also hard in German. And Heidegger too…I felt the same way about Heidegger. I felt I was going around and around in circles. And like you said, I wondered if he was actually saying anything.

          Philosophers are probably some of the worst writers on the planet. Some of the social sciences are bad too. I don’t know why it has to be that way. That’s about 99% of the reason I loved reading William James…it was so easy! 🙂

          In college I acquired a philosophical writing style that I’m still trying to eradicate. I was terrified of getting back into writing fiction. I knew I wouldn’t be able to write little syllogisms off the side to check my reasoning, that it would require a lot more work.

          What you’re saying about getting feedback from readers is absolutely crucial. It’s something I learned from writing fiction, but it really needs to happen more in philosophy. I’ve been to lectures on Plato—on works I’ve read a million times—and I had no idea what the speaker was saying. It was so obscure that I could barely tell you which dialogue the lecturer was talking about. I was very much turned off by academia for that reason. I worried that I’d be up at the podium someday, pontificating about nothing.

          I’ve also found blogging a great way to get a handle of my audience, who would actually read the things I write. I’m pleasantly surprised to find a very intelligent group of people.

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          • Thank you. Of course I had English lessons in school but I was not particularly good. I found it quite boring, probably because what we had to read or talk about did not interest me (tourist talk, novels …). Later, I was able to opt out of the subject and did so as soon as I could. However, I wanted to study computer science and realized I would need English. After I had finished school, I did an intensive course to refresh the language, but I really learnt it later, by reading a book that I found very interesting and fascinating (R.M.W. Dixon’s “Australian Languages”). During working through that book, bit by bit, my grasp of the English Grammar became better. After that, I was able to read technical texts, where the subject allowed me to infer the meaning of words I did not know. I then subscribed to Scientific American (up to that point I had been reading the German edition) and later New Scientist. I still read both of them regularly. As a result, I became very fluent in reading and writing scientific or technical English. I married and remarried and both of my wifes are English-speaking, so I also got some training with spoken English and became very fluent.
            The trick seems to be to first get some basic knowledge in the language and then to find well-written books that you really find interesting. I would not use fiction for this but scientific or technical texts in some area where you have knowledge already, since scientific language is much simpler than, say, novels (or philosophy, so, German philosophers would not be a good choice 🙂 ). For me it was a linguistics book. This book is out of date in some respects (although it was state of the art back then in the 80s), but it is well-written.

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          • I found the same thing was true for me in learning French. Philosophy books were perfect. How hard can it be when the words are “epistemologie,” “ontologie,” etc.? Novels, on the other hand—damn near impossible. I did get through “Le Monde de Sophie” (Sophie’s World), but I’m sure I missed half of what I was reading. I can get by if I’m talking to someone face to face, but I get nervous if I have to speak French over the phone. It’s so funny how it all works. People were so impressed that I wrote a portion of my philosophy thesis in French, and I let them go on being impressed…keeping it a secret that it was actually a lot easier than they thought!

            It’s great that you can keep it up at home with your wife. Speaking is one of the best ways to learn, I’ve found. Although in French it messed up my spelling abilities somewhat…all those silent endings! 🙂

            Well your English is terrific. It’s very difficult to learn another language, especially when picking it up later in life. A lot of people never get to the level you’re at even when they live in an English speaking country.

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  4. People who pass their lives in reading and acquire their knowledge from books are like those who learn about a country from travel descriptions: they can impart information about a great number of things, but at bottom they possess no connected, clear, thorough knowledge of what the country is like. On the other hand, people who pass their lives in thinking are like those who have visited the country themselves: they alone are really familiar with it, possess connected knowledge of it and are truly at home in it.

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  5. Your suggestions are fantastic! I am no philosopher, despite the philosophical thoughts that constantly pervade my writing, and yet I feel I can read your suggestions and arrive at a moment in time in which I could say ‘I know philosophy.’

    Consuming texts in the original Ancient Greek and Latin while digesting them and regurgitating them in edible form for English and Spanish speakers is my true passion; an undertaking submerged in culture and personal biases. Yet, I feel the gravitas of responsibility; especially when reading the original language is not possible for most people. Perhaps that is my contribution to philosophy, and why I find it so intrinsically interesting.

    I wonder what your experience with moorish Mystics are. Have you read Moses Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed”? He also believes he has proven the existence of God. A XII century Jew with a moorish name and living in Spain; a place in time of huge philosophical advancement.

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    • I’m glad you liked the post and could relate back to that “ah ha” moment for yourself.

      That’s quite a contribution to philosophy! I may have to call on you sometime. I took some ancient Greek in college, but too little too late. I wish I had discovered my love for it a bit earlier in my college days. I don’t know if I have the drive to learn it these days. It’s hard stuff!

      The only “Guide for the Perplexed” I’ve semi-read is E.F. Schumacher’s. I wonder if we have it on our bookshelves…I’ll have to check it out. I feel like I saw it up there.

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      • I love “ah ha” moments.

        I think you would definitely enjoy “Guide for the Perplexed.” Maimonides had some heavy-handed Jewish and linguistic influences, but his contrast of religion and science is fascinating (one must strip away religion to get at the philosophy, much more easily done with the Mystics than the Sun’i and Shi’a texts). The Spanish Mystics are incredible philosophers, and gave rise to the later French ideas that became the base of Humanism. Another great example is “Birds,” not just the title of a play by Aristophanes, it was also the title of a play by a Muslim mystic named Mantiq-ut-Tayr. Moorish mystic philosophers were quite influenced by Plato, you will find yourself quite at home amongst them.
        If you are looking for philosophical continuation from the end of Rome and outside of the religious-driven Byzantines, Moorish Spain is the place to consider.

        I would love to take a look at any Greek or Latin you want to throw my way, that’s what I am all about. I have done some heavy analysis of Plato’s Symposium and Aristotle’s (supposedly written) Oeconomics. Bread of life for me.

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        • It turns out we don’t have “Guide for the Perplexed” on our shelves. Well, not the one by Maimonides. I will have to check that out sometime.

          I’ve got one line for you from the Symposium. I’ve seen so many translations of it, but some seem awkward. It’s a very famous line at 206a:

          ὁ ἔρως τοῦ τὸ ἀγαθὸν αὑτῷ εἶναι ἀεί.

          I’ve heard, “Love is desire for permanent possession of the good.” “Autoi” is dative of possession, right? And “ἀεί” is “forever”?

          I’ve often wondered if there’s a better way of putting it, something more modern. But then again, there’s the problem of straying too far from the text.

          The Symposium is one of my favorites. Timaeus too…that would be a tricky one to translate, I would think. It’s so bizarre.

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          • I love the Ancient Greek of “The Symposium.” You can tell Plato by his writing (which is why we consider he quotes Socrates a lot, since the style changes from his narrative to the answer) as well as any other Attic writer.

            We have to consider who says what is being said. In this case, it is Socrates, who is reporting on Diotima. The complexity of the Greek is derived from the reporting itself. Socrates is speaking in an Imperfect past of an event that took place between him and another person (and discussion which is still taking place in the philosopher’s mind) in the Perfect past while reporting at a part taking place in the Aorist sense of the person who is reporting on the deed in the Present (Plato himself). All of this has bearing on the writing and should have bearing on the translation.

            The phrase begins with an introduction to a conclusion: “ἔστιν ἄρα συλλήβδην” (to be ‘bringing together everything we have just discussed’ then). We must keep that in mind when Diotima speaks. Whatever her ideas are, she is teaching Socrates something, and he, for once, is the one repeating knowledge back to a teacher. Many argue Socrates was an actual pupil of Diotima, but that is just conjecture. Then your phrase, as Socrates’ learning statement comes in:

            Love, on account of these things (τοῦ — of all of the previous topics we have talked about) [is] to the worthy himself belonging.

            Now that is a fascinating statement. There are two verbs here, one implied, the other expressed. The first ‘to be’ is implied because both ‘Love’ and ‘the worthy’ (used here as a Substantive Noun) are both in the nominative form. Since Love is nominative singular and Worthy One nominative neuter singular, the terms are not related as a subject, and thus one is the direct object of the other – yay Ancient Greek. Socrates’ conclusion and position within the sentence tells us Love is the subject, while the Worthy Ones is the Direct Object. Τοῦ simply refers back to everything that has been said; while αὑτῷ is doing something awesome here: it is working with your expressed verb to denote possession. ‘To be’ plus the dative is stating to whom love belongs, but Plato couldn’t use a noun in the dative because of the restriction in which he had placed himself by the use of the unexpressed ‘to be.’ He therefore used a Reflexive Pronoun that could do the work for him, then tying it all together with the adverb ‘always.’ Strip away what is not necessary, such as τοῦ and ἀεί and you end up with:

            ὁ ἔρως τὸ ἀγαθὸν αὑτῷ εἶναι.
            Love belongs to the worthy.

            In other words, you either know truth, or you don’t, and only you have taken the time to reach for truth will you be considered worthy of possessing it. A fantastic conclusion, Socrates.

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          • That is my Plato coming out. The worthy, good, beautiful, are all interchangeable Substantive Adjectives (nouns) that relate to each other. Athens was a bit Calvinist in that sense. The good were worthy and beautiful, the bad were unworthy and not beautiful. The gods could dictate who was one or the other, but men could also make themselves one or the other. Strictly speaking ‘to agathon’ is only the good, but the good are also axios “the worthy.” Notice how I used the verb ‘to be’ to indicate equality. That is why Plato had to write ‘to agathon’ in the neuter. There is yet another translation to this which would take ‘to agathon’ as ‘the good things,’ but the good things being done by good men (women can be agathai, but it is not heard of much in male-driven Athens) I supplied the masculine to make it more understandable if the statement is read without context.

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  6. Great post! I think my greatest stumbling blog is French phenomenology. Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Beauvoir, and the like are just baffling to me. I get enough of the general idea to find it fascinating and helpful, but the subtleties elude me. I can’t bear out the differences between them in a substantive manner, and my brain just shuts off when M-P goes on about shrapnel and phantom limbs. I feel like I need a decoder ring to parse it all!

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    • Haha…I had the same experience with Merleau-Ponty. I didn’t get far in “Phenomenology of Perception”. I really wanted to, though.

      I haven’t read Sartre’s more serious works, but I’ve often found myself asking, “What’s he going on about?”

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  7. I wish I could say that I read philosophical texts but I’ve never been able to make it past the first few pages without falling asleep. The terminology involved makes it almost like reading a different language to me. I prefer instead to listen to philosophers being interviewed. Most modern philosophers usually try in their interviews to keep the detailed terminology at a minimum or they at least try explaining when they do use it. If you count blogs like yours as philosophical texts then I can definitely say I read them, because philosophers such as yourself know how to write so everyone can understand even though your expertise is much more deep.

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    • Thanks so much! I’m blushing…

      I don’t have the expertise you think I have. I had to read these texts so fast that I could only glean the most basic ideas from them. You’re probably getting as much from your interviews!

      On the other hand, I do have an in-house professional philosopher. He’s always in the other room reading history (he doesn’t read philosophy anymore, and that’s telling), but whenever I have a question or feel unsure of myself, I ask him to proof read or double check my information. So that helps a lot!

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  8. This is a really great post, and I have encountered many of the stumbling blocks you note.

    One other stumbling block that came to mind for me is the tendency to read a philosopher’s works as if everything that philosopher wrote or said reflected a single perspective, and that philosopher did not change their mind over the course of their life. I studied quite a bit of Aristotle during my university life and I am afraid this is a particularly common tendency with Aristotle as we just assume that the view of nature expressed in De Anima or the Physics are the underlying assumption of the Nicomachean Ethics or The Politics, when the text of the latter hardly merits this assumption. Aristotle could have never changed his views but it is entirely possible that he had an intellectual development over the course of his life.

    In addition, one other stumbling block I note is fixating on the way that an author is read in a popular or academic context. When people read Hobbes’ Leviathan for example they automatically seem to focus on the game theory underpinnings of the state of nature, and don’t see the artistry and depth of Hobbes imagery. In addition we tend to ignore his discussions of religion and just assume that the heart of his text is about the social contract and the authority of the state even though this is a but a fraction of the book. This is probably because Hobbes is associated most commonly with his notion of the authority of the state and his “pessimistic” view of human nature.

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  9. Excellent guide. My biggest challenge was Kant, and in fact, he’s defeated me. The language is so obscure and dry I just can’t get through. I’m also not from a pure philosophy background and I’m used to equating awkward writing with poor thinking. I have to consciously stop myself from doing thus when I read Kant.

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    • I have the same feeling about awkward writing; I tend to dismiss it as unclear thinking. I honestly couldn’t have read the Critique of Pure Reason without a class. I think the best bet would be to get a popular book on Kant so that you know what to look for when you return to the original. It’s very hard material, but Kant is really worth it.

      It also helps to know a little bit of Hume, but you don’t have to read Hume to get what you need to know. A quick internet search should be enough. I had to beg to get into the Kant class in college because I just transferred in and had only taken a few intro to philosophy courses. This class was the main reason I chose this college, so I wasn’t about to let myself be excluded on technicalities. When the prof asked if I had read Hume, I sort of lied, well I DID lie (I had read a bit of secondary material), and I said, “Oh you mean that stuff about causality, we don’t know if the sun will rise tomorrow?” He smiled and said, “Yeah, okay. You’re in.”

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      • Actually, that sounds wonderful, reading Kant with the support of a class.

        With my own philosophical adventures, I wonder how much of my thought isn’t simply a case of me being lazy. I really enjoyed Neitzsche, Machiavelli, Camus and Sartre. It occurs to me now they’re all good writers. I really couldn’t stand Ayn Rand, Karl Marx or Martin Heidegger and I wonder if it’s simply because they sucked at prose.

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        • You know, I’ve never read Marx! I’m sort of surprised by that. I’m with you on Ayn Rand…I picked up Atlas Shrugged and found it unbearably bad. And that’s just from a fiction writer’s point of view. Then there’s the philosophy, which gets under my skin. Heidegger—with you there too, with the exception of that part in Being and Time which I mention in the post. Reading him doesn’t feel like it’s going to pay off.

          I don’t know about your being lazy. A lot of people would find those authors pretty difficult.

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          • Marx by himself is an awful writer. In collaboration with Engels, he’s better.

            I had to read Marx, and honestly, I learned a lot from him, but not in the sense he would have hoped.

            The Communist Manifesto is, in my reading, an attempt to apply literal, early Christian morality to economics – not that Marx was cognizant that’s what he was doing. Or, even more basically, kind of this idea that if we’re super righteous everything else will work itself out that I found unbelievably naive.

            One of the things I really loved about Machiavelli (particularly in Discourses on Livy) is that he simply disposes of the moral stuff and thinks pragmatically. I’m not sure I would have been so receptive without Marx annoying me first.

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          • That’s so funny…early Christian morality. An interesting reading! That would make a great paper. Naive is my impression of Marx, but that’s not having read him.

            Machiavelli I found to be a good read too. It’s pragmatic indeed, and very reasonable from a certain standpoint. It’s been a long time since I’ve read The Prince, but I remember it as being not quite as ruthless as we mean when we call something “Machiavellian”. There’s definitely an emphasis on the appearance of virtue rather than true virtue. However, maintaining power involves a certain amount of benevolence. I think politicians must be to some extent Machiavellian, which is why politics in general disgusts me…I’m a natural idealist, to be sure, but not of the Marxist variety. 🙂 I think anyone who wants to be a politician must have something wrong with them, or they must be so idealistic that they don’t see the realities they’re going to have to face. And the latter won’t make great politicians. The ones who are a bit more imbalanced (we might more generously call them “ambitious”) are more likely to succeed and actually make a difference. Even better are those who hold greater ideals but who can be Machiavellian (what we would more generously call “pragmatic”) when necessary. I don’t think I would ever be capable of such self-aware internal contradiction, but some people are.

            Sometimes contrast can really open things up in a new way. I had a similar experience when reading Husserl. One day, far out of college, I decided I’d try to read Husserl again. I got stuck and looked up at our bookshelf and spotted “War and Peace”. I decided that sounded like a lot more fun, a “light read,” I told myself! In any other context, it would have sounded like a lot of work. That was my entry back into fiction after college, at which point I started reading a lot of Tolstoy. I was so inspired by Tolstoy that I decided to get back into writing by taking a novel writing course at a community college and now here I am. So I guess I can thank Husserl’s awful writing for reawakening my love for fiction.

            Liked by 1 person

          • How interesting. Please tell me about your fiction. As you can probably tell by my handle, I dabble as well. 🙂

            Machiavelli isn’t really “Machiavellian” in the sense we’d use the word today. He was more indifferent to Christian morality and very obviously desperate for a stable government to unite Italy.

            I’m actually reading a book right now, Floating City, that shows kind of the same thing. In the lower classes of sex workers, people tend to have these very Christian ideas about morality. They justify the “bad” things they do. They make a virtue out of pity, they worship kindness and charity. In the upper classes, high end hookers don’t justify at all because they don’t see a need. Reminded me a lot of Nietzsche’s slave/master morality.

            Liked by 1 person

          • From what you describe, it definitely sounds like Nietzsche.

            I’d love to tell you about my fiction! 🙂

            I recently finished a first draft of a story about philosophy (not a philosophical novel, per se) loosely based on the character in the Republic. I picked four POV characters to represent each segment of the divided line (the more technical segment that comes before the allegory of the cave, which the latter is meant to represent). I wrote a short post on this following a prompt:

            https://philosophyandfiction.com/2014/08/05/my-novel-is-about-elevator-tag-line/

            I’m still working on a good elevator tag line. It’s so hard to come up with a short summary of an entire novel!

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  10. Pingback: You Don’t Know Jack | Ben Garrido's Author Page

  11. Really useful article, couldn’t agree more with most of this, especially regarding Plato!

    However, I don’t necessarily think that it’s the best option to read Kierkegaard from a religious perspective. It took me a long time reading Fear and Trembling to not just want to slam the book shut on him after reading sentences such as:

    ‘the single individual is higher than the universal, though in such a way, be it noted, that the movement is repeated, that is, that, having been in the universal the single individual now sets himself apart as the particular above the universal.’

    And the worst of all from Sickness Unto Death:

    ‘The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself.’

    I mean come on!

    But I would just say there’s a lot to gained from Kierkegaard’s existential tendencies that don’t necessarily require religious sympathies. The whole idea of the individual as higher than the universal doesn’t need to be attached necessarily to God (though of course for K himself it would be). In fact some of Heidegger’s Being and Time reads like Kierkegaard minus God! (Though he conveniently never attributes any of the similarities to Kierkegaard….)

    It takes a hell of a lot of thought to detach religious metaphysics from Kierkegaard’s work, but when you do you start to understand how brilliant he really is.

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    • I would agree that Kierkegaard can be appreciated without necessarily having Christian sympathies. In fact, there are many atheists who appreciate him for the reasons you describe, and many Christians who can’t stand him (the ones I’m thinking of see his philosophy as irrational and claim that Christianity is not irrational).

      That said, I know I have a hard time with the idea of Jesus as God in the flesh. I still have a problem with it. And for this reason and many others, I’m not a Christian. In order to even care about reading Kierkegaard, I had to ask myself, “What if I held these beliefs and didn’t know why?” Then I found his philosophy cast a whole new light on something I had disregarded.

      So I’d say it’s not necessary to interpret Kierkegaard in a Christian way, but sometimes that aspect can be a stumbling block for certain folks such as myself.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I just came back to this post because I finally got around to Fear and Trembling. I’m not finished but, holy cow!

    I feel like I’m being mugged, winning the Superbowl and suddenly gaining the power to fly all at once. What an exhilarating, exhausting and odd book.

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