Phenomenology: Cotton Candy or Ripe Fruit for Artificial Intelligence?

Phenomenology is the study and description of experience as it’s experienced, without the preconceived notions of what lies behind the experience. “Preconceived notions” can be common sensical or scientific. For more on Husserl’s method of arriving at a phenomenological POV, see this.

Artificial intelligence is, according to Wikipedia, the intelligence exhibited by machines or software. It is also the study of how to create such machines.


In my previous posts, on Husserl’s phenomenological method and on Heidegger ( Part II here and Part III here), I discussed phenomenology from a purely philosophical perspective as a means of solving or doing away with the infamous mind-body problem. The truth is, I barely touched the surface of what phenomenology does. It’s sort of a joke in philosophy…Husserl has a propensity to rehash method, but when will he do phenomenology?  I suspect this constant upheaval of methodology could have something to do with why phenomenology is largely ignored for practical purposes. Now I want to ask whether phenomenology—even if rejected on philosophical grounds as a sort of masked solipsism—can prove fruitful for AI research.

Those of you who are well-versed in artificial intelligence may not see the possible connection, and I’m not sure there is one, but the question has been sitting in the back of my mind for some time. I’ve read a lot of posts concerning the stickier issues in AI: consciousness, self-awareness, mind-uploading, the possibility of AI achieving singularity, AI ethics, etc. I don’t hear as much about the more mundane matters, like how we might create a machine that cleans the house—that really cleans the house—or takes care of the elderly. These mundane robots are what I’m curious about. From what I understand, there’s a lot of work to be done. We have self-driving cars and facial recognition, Siri and Roombas. It’s a great start, but there’s a lot more to be discovered. I’d like to have a robot that will take care of me when I’m older, something that I can have confidence in, something that will allow me to stay in my home. I don’t care if it’s “conscious.”

It seems to me there remain problems in AI that involve interacting with the world, and these are things that seem simple for us. Phenomenology explores these issues, especially the seemingly simple things. And taking up phenomenology for AI research doesn’t require that we buy into  Heideggerian ontological upheaval or dismiss science as fundamentally wrong. We can simply borrow the techniques, or maybe even stick to Husserl’s program of bracketing the natural world.

I’ve often wondered how much implicit phenomenology is happening in certain areas of AI, specifically in perception, object recognition, and embodiment. I finally got up the energy to look into it, briefly.

In my Google searches, I came across Hubert Dreyfus’ criticisms of AI, which started back in the sixties when AI researchers focused on symbol manipulation (GOFAI=”good old fashioned AI”) and made some overly optimistic claims about AI capabilities. Dreyfus was an expert in Heidegger and modern European philosophers. The AI community didn’t respond well to his criticism (and some even refused to have lunch with him, according to Wiki), probably because he reacted to AI optimism with overly pessimistic claims. Nevertheless, he pointed out problems in AI that turned out to be real, problems that phenomenology allowed him to foresee. And according to that same Wiki article, Dreyfus barely gets credit for highlighting phenomenological issues that were later addressed and resolved in a piecemeal way. The article points to the lack of common language and understanding between the AI researchers and phenomenology experts such as Dreyfus:

“Edward Feigenbaum complained, ‘What does he [Dreyfus] offer us? Phenomenology! That ball of fluff. That cotton candy!'”

Well, the “cotton candy” stresses the importance of the so-called unconscious skills that we possess in our human intelligence. These skills rely on holistic understanding of context, embodiment, a background of ‘common sense’ about the world, relevance and intentionality, to name a few.


An analogy of the problem:

Why is it that some people are able to replicate your best friend’s face so well that you can barely distinguish their work from a photograph?

Unknown.jpeg

He’s your BFFE.

They know how to distinguish between what they think they see and what they “really see.” They learn how to be good empiricists, at least in one domain. (BTW, realism in this sense is not phenomenology…this is just a metaphor.)

And yes, there are guidelines for the artist. For instance, objects in the background are grayer, bluer, and less distinct than objects in the foreground, which are more vibrant, warmer, and have greater contrast.

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My photograph from Wasson peak…notice the mountain in the background.

They also know all that stuff you would’ve learned in middle school about perspective and vanishing points on the horizon:

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The artist who can replicate your best friend’s face realistically, photographically, undoubtedly has even greater knowledge. True, many artists have what we call talent, which is to say, an innate knack. But what is talent? I think of it as an ability to quickly and easily acquire a kind of knowledge. Those of us who lack the knack can sometimes achieve the same results, but it requires a lot more labor for us. A lot of what we achieve is done through painstaking conscious effort, whereas the talented person often relies on knowledge that’s more or less subconscious. It’s true that talent needs instruction and practice, but if you’ve ever witnessed a talented person in action, you’ll see that there really is such a thing as talent.

Are there rules for creating art? I suspect I could take classes all my life and never produce anything like the portrait above. We might conclude there are no strict rules, only loose guidelines. Not to mention that realism is not necessarily worthy of being called art. A camera is not an artist. What’s interesting about the portrait is not just that it’s realistic.

Right now it seems to me we are at the point in AI in which we have cameras, but not artists.

Are there rules for human experience? And if there are, can we discover them? The problem is, we are all too talented. If there are rules that govern what we do, they are buried deep. We are like those awful college professors— geniuses in their fields—who can’t teach worth a damn. They don’t know how they do what they do. They just do.

It seems natural to attack the problem through our biology, through scientific understanding. But from what I hear, that method could take a long time. There’s the problem of the sheer amount of information that somehow exists in that squishy stuff between our ears. And what about embodiment? Is perception integral to learning? I don’t know.

It seems to me that a descriptive philosophy of experience could be useful in understanding how AI could evolve. We could uncover some rules (or maybe lack thereof) on a non-scientific basis…in other words, via philosophical reflection. The idea here is that perhaps some progress could be made outside of and/or alongside a full neuro-biological modeling.

I don’t pretend to know what is involved in the human-to-computer/robot translation of human experience. All I know is that we don’t know our own experience all that well. Does this knowledge seem like it might be a start? Or at least a possible means of creating robots that are useful…now-ish? For instance, Roombas that don’t suck at sucking? (I’m aiming low here. I don’t want to get into theories of consciousness or general intelligence. One step at a time.)


Next post: Intentionality. This will hopefully give you a clearer idea of what phenomenology does.

Heidegger’s Being and Time (Part III: Dualism)

I’ve been threatening to explain Heidegger’s views on why dualism is predicated on a mistake, and I’ve finally done it. Well, I let someone else do it while I held the camera.

Please don’t read my criticism below until after you’ve seen the video. (It won’t make any sense.)


MY CRITICISM

If Heidegger could prove that presence-at-hand arises out of readiness-to-hand, that the world of purpose (teleology) which we inhabit is primordial, that the world of bare existences is dependent on the world of value, then he’s proven that dualism has been misguided. Heidegger shows how presence-at-hand could arise out of readiness-to-hand, but he doesn’t show that it must. The necessary connection is missing, and this weakens the whole of Heidegger’s project as I understand it.

As always, feel free to ask questions, offer criticisms, shower praise on Geordie and his exquisite performance, etc.


Transcript:

Me: Why is dualism predicated on a huge mistake that has carried through the whole history of Western philosophy?

Professor: Dualism is the view that there are two substances in the world, two kinds of being—mind and matter—and that somehow mind perceives matter, perceives the world. They are separate ontologically—that is, conceptually—but somehow they connect. When Heidegger addresses this problem, he doesn’t do it in the traditional kinds of terms that I just used. I think that the key to understanding him is in his idea of presence-to-hand [presence-at-hand] and readiness-to-hand. And the primacy of readiness-to-hand.

Presence-at-hand is what we modern Westerners think of as simply the way things are. They sit out there and fill up space and time and nothing else. Readiness-to-hand is the object in so far as it has value.

The only thing in philosophy that I know of that is like this is final cause in Aristotle, where objects have certain values insofar as they are good for certain purposes or created by those purposes. The value, then, is in the object. But here in Heidegger it is much broader than that and I don’t think Heidegger had very much respect for the Aristotelian final cause. It comes from the active involvement or engagement of Dasein—that is, human being—with the world. The world exists first as value-laden.

The mountain that sits there as a chunk of matter or worldliness is not simply a volume filled with stuff. It is an obstacle in a path, it is a goal to be climbed, it is a piece of beauty to be looked at and enjoyed. It is all kinds of values first—primordially—and then in Heidegger we subtract from it those values and thus come to the presence-at-hand. So that presence-at-hand is actually derived from readiness-to-hand, not the other way around. And I believe Heidegger refers to this by saying that presence-at-hand is a deficient mode of readiness-to-hand. First of all, it is there in Dasein’s active engagement with the world as a value-ful object, then we subtract the value and come up with the idea of present-at-hand, which he thinks we mistakenly put back into the object and try to imagine Dasein coming across something present-at-hand and adding value to it. That is dualism as Heidegger understands it. For him, it’s wrong.

An example of the relationship that Heidegger gives between present-at-hand and ready-to-hand is the idea of being broken. You start with the primordially-given ready-to-hand…say, a tool, which has a certain value imbued in its being, being good for hammering would be the value that’s in a, well, hammer. Then we are to imagine a hammer breaking, perhaps the handle breaks so that it’s no longer [something in German] ready-to-hand, it becomes now merely present-at-hand, sort of stupid. All I can do with it now is kick it.

Kind of like a car that doesn’t work anymore, the first reaction is to kick it. It just sits there, being, but no longer good for anything. And it is obviously bad for something, but its presence-at-hand comes forward and in this way the present-at-hand is derived from the ready-to-hand. And this is an example, I suppose, of what Heidegger means by presence-at-hand being a deficient mode of readiness-to-hand.

Me: What is Heidegger’s attitude towards science?

Heidegger’s attitude towards science is not that science is simply wrong or anything like that, but that science is a derivative activity that comes up with a purely theoretical view of the world, which it then superimposes back on the world, then imagines Dasein coming upon the world and tries to imagine how it can happen that Dasein knows the world. But in fact, according to Heidegger, Dasein was already there in the world with Being-in-the-world before any of that happened. Of course, the world that Dasein was “in,” so to speak, was a world of readiness-to-hand. Everything was ready-to-hand in one way or another. Either as an obstacle or a source of food—it was good for something or bad for something, let’s put it that way. Dasein was already there, with it in a primordial unity which is what he calls Being-in-the-world. Again, from that primordial unity Dasein has the capacity to withdraw itself from the world, and merely look at the world instead of using it or being engaged with it in some way. And that’s what science is.

Now gravity of course is a scientific idea. And so the idea of gravity is for Heidegger derivative. Derivative, in what sense? Gravity is the idea that all pieces of matter anywhere in the world attract each other with a certain force. It would be closer to the original primordial experience to say something like…well to use the etymology of the word “attract”…that is, it’s not just a motion of two bodies towards each other, but a real attraction in which, in Aristotle’s terms or in old Greek terms, the bodies experience a kind of love. I’m sorry if that sounds romantic or hideously old-fashioned, but that would be closer to what Heidegger thinks. Though, I don’t think that Heidegger is saying that “love makes the world go ’round” or anything like that, but that the world is not simply matter in motion. The world can love, it can hate…it has all sorts of value-laden relations that are involved with motion. It’s just growth. Growth is a motion in Aristotle’s terms, and growth is a much richer concept than mere gravitational attraction.

Back to the mind-body problem:

So now if we’re trying to imagine this primordial unity of Being-in-the-world (in which the world is encountered as value-laden in myriad ways) and presence-at-hand (which is derived from that world), we can see that in order for presence-at-hand to emerge in that way, Dasein must have been already there in the world before it performed that feat of abstraction which lead to presence-at-hand. So Dasein was already there in the world before we separated Dasein and the world and then tried to figure out how to get them back together again. If we begin with the primordial unity of Being-in-the-world, according to Heidegger, we don’t have the mind-body problem. We have the unity of Dasein and the world, which he called, Being-in-the-world.

What do you think?

Join the discussion at philosophyandfiction.com

Thanks for watching!

Heidegger’s Being and Time (Part II: Dasein)

In the last Heidegger post, I promised I’d address why Heidegger thinks that dualism (the mind-body problem) is predicated on a huge mistake that has carried through the whole history of Western philosophy. I will eventually. I’m putting that off until the next post…I hope you’ll stick around until then. I’m not promising anything, but I hope to make a video. I just downloaded iMovie into my iPad and I’m having fun learning how to use it, but as I said, no promises.

First we need to know a key term—Dasein. Dasein is what we would ordinarily call a human being or consciousness, but these are very poor word choices because they have connotations Heidegger would want to dispense with. I only offer this as something to hold onto briefly, a foothold or scaffolding which should later be taken away.

Normally the word Dasein would be translated into English as simply “existence” or “presence.” For Heidegger, the word takes on a special signification which can be better grasped if we take a look at its roots: Da-There, Sein-Being. Being There. When English speakers read Heidegger, the word is left untranslated to avoid confusion. For people like me who don’t speak German, it comes across in its foreignness as a technical term with a special meaning. I imagine it would be confusing for those whose native language is German, as they would simply think existence in the ordinary way. So perhaps English speakers have the advantage here. Dasein is to be taken as a special technical term.

What is Dasein? Heidegger says:

Dasein is an entity which in each case I myself am. Mineness belongs to any existent Dasein, and belongs to it as the condition which makes authenticity and inauthenticity possible…But these are both ways in which Dasein’s Being takes on a definite character, and they must be seen and understood a priori as grounded upon that state of Being which we have called “Being-in-the-world”…The compound expression ‘Being-in-the-world’ indicates in the very way we have coined it that it stands for a unitary phenomenon. This primary datum must be seen as a whole. (53)

Note: Authentic could mean “the mode in which I can discover Being” and inauthentic “the mode in which I flee from discovering Being.” These words do carry some of the usual connotations. But to keep things simple, just think: authentic=good, inauthentic=bad.

My sloppy interpretation of the quote above: I am always in the world in a unified way. But by “in” I don’t mean that “I” am in the world as water is “in” a glass. As Heidegger puts it, “There is no such thing as the ‘side-by-side-ness’ of an entity called ‘Dasein’ with another entity called the ‘world'” (55). Such a relationship is spatial and relies on that mistake I’ve been alluding to.

As Heidegger says: “It is not the case that man ‘is’ and then has, by way of an extra, a relationship-of-Being towards the ‘world’—a world with which he provides himself occasionally.” (57).

So much for Dasein for now. There’s a lot about Dasein that I’ve excluded, but I figure this is enough to take in for now.


In the first post, I explained that Heidegger’s project in Being and Time is to uncover the meaning of Being. I explained that Heidegger simply does away with noumena and radically asserts that we can know Being phenomenologically, although its meaning eludes us.

Why does Heidegger say that Being is veiled or hidden from Dasein? 

When we want to inquire into what something is, we tend to look for a definition.

In order to come up with a definition, we seek a genus and species. We want to know how the thing in question is like a certain group of things and how it is at the same time distinguished from those things. Definitions always express a relationship to other entities.

However, Being cannot be defined—there’s nothing broader than Being, so we have no way of offering a genus for a definition, there’s no greater category to which “Being” belongs. Being is not a category to be broken up. Being is not an entity.

Being can be discovered, but because it can’t be defined, it cannot be assessed or judged retrospectively.

We fail to apprehend Being because we are for the most part caught up in the things in the world. This state is what Heidegger would call “average everydayness” and it’s for the most part inauthentic. Our average everydayness gives rise to the problem of dualism.

Thanks for reading! Your comments make this work worthwhile!

Heidegger’s Being and Time (Part I: Phenomenology)

The point of Being and Time: To properly formulate the question, What is being? so as to draw forth its meaning.

The process of reading B&T is sort of like being zoomed in on a pixel of a photograph and slowly zooming out to see the context. Which explains why my first reading in college was so infuriating—I had no sense of where things were going, I had no context for understanding. Now that I’m on my second reading I hope I’ll be able to provide some of that context as I start from the beginning, although a blog post is certain to be inadequate. Maybe, though, it will be a jumping-off point for further reading.

Well, let’s start with some terminology. (With this I’m only touching the tip of the iceberg, and even so we may not get any farther in this post):

phenomena: Heidegger often seeks the meaning etymologically, so we, too, will go back to the Greek: φαινόμενoν (phainomenon) which he takes to mean “to bring something to light.” “φαινω” (phaino) is closely related to φῶς (phos), which means “light.” He calls phenomena

“the totality of what lies in the light of day or can be brought to the light—what the Greeks sometimes identified simply with τὰ ὄντα (ta onta, entities)” (29).

So here we already see that phenomena is tied to beings or things. As if all we needed to do was turn on the light. But how did Being remain in the dark until Heidegger came along? Well Heidegger’s answer is that we’ve been asking the wrong questions. The mind-body problem has never been a legitimate problem.

The study of Being will turn out to be possible only through phenomenology. This is a radical claim.

Heidegger defines phenomenology as: “to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself”…aaaaannnnd…this is when we try not to throw the book against the wall in despair. Or we go ahead and throw it just to vent…

Why all the verbiage?

Well, he’s being careful here. Phenomena can be challenging. Sometimes phenomena present themselves in a straightforward way, like this coffee mug before me. Other times phenomena point outside themselves, like a symptom pointing to a disease. For instance, a runny nose, a cough, etc. are indicative of something behind them, causing them; namely, a cold. So the reason Heidegger adds “in the very way in which it shows itself” is because appearances can be taken to mean a mere semblance. In other words, it can reveal itself as something which it is not. (29)

We have thus far two kinds of phenomena:

a) “appearances” that show themselves

b) “appearances” that, in showing themselves, show what they are not. Symbols, metaphors, symptoms, illusions, and indicators are all in this category.

The latter is constituted in the former. Without straightforward appearances, there would be no indicators. The latter are in a reference-relationship to the former (31).

Then there’s another kind of phenomenon:

c) “appearances” “brought forth” that do not make up the real Being of what it brings forth, but constantly keep the thing it announces veiled (30).

c) sounds mysterious. I think I know where he’s going with this, but I would only be guessing. For now let’s just take Heidegger’s definition of phenomenology at face value—as that which shows itself in the very way in which it shows itself. Soon we will see how his phenomenology is distinguished from Husserl’s, which I discussed more fully here.

In order to understand Heidegger’s stance on phenomenology, we need to know what noumena is: It’s an unknowable thing-in-itself, which cannot be experienced. The word is often used in opposition to phenomena and is a term used by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason. There, Kant gives examples of noumena: God, the soul, freedom, and objects as they exist ‘in-themselves,’ apart from our experience of them. For Kant, noumena is ‘behind’ phenomena in a causal relationship, but noumena are never directly experienced.

It helps to take the phenomena/noumena divide into the context of phenomenology. While Husserl ignores noumena, simply setting it aside in order to focus on the phenomena, Heidegger outright rejects noumena in order to find the meaning of Being phenomenologically. Imagine it like this:

Husserl—

phenomena    [noumena]

 

Heidegger—

phenomena     noumena

Husserl explicitly turns away from the question of being itself in merely bracketing noumena (in the earlier post on Husserl, the thing bracketed was designated “the natural attitude,” but it amounts to the same thing). His phenomenology is simply not concerned with things as they are “in themselves” in the Kantian sense. Husserl wants only to describe the phenomena as it appears, taking no positive stance on noumena.

Heidegger makes a positive claim: Being itself and its meaning can be disclosed to us. It’s not something “out there” beyond experience causing our experiences. Dualism (the mind-body problem) is predicated on a huge mistake that has carried through the whole history of Western philosophy (of which more in future posts).

For Heidegger, being is hidden, but only because we don’t pose the question of being properly, not because it is inherently inaccessible. Phenomena never lie. Nothing is hidden behind the phenomena.

In the next post I’ll discuss the mistake we are inclined to make in posing the question of being, and why we make this mistake.

Another thing. This post took me for-freaking-ever to write. And this was the easy one. So the next post may not come too rapidly…although hopefully I’ll gain some direction from your comments.

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?