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?

Calling All Agnostics…

I’ve always called myself an agnostic, and I think I really am, in the strictest sense. But there was a time when I wondered if I really should just go ahead and call myself an atheist, if I was being too waffle-y on the matter.

I came across an interesting article in the NY Times on this subject that I thought you might enjoy.

“…while I certainly think someone could easily be, and many people are, reasonable in being an agnostic about God…there are important goals served by our taking stands on issues where we cannot be objectively certain, or even know that we are right.”—Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame

Since I haven’t asked y’all any serious questions lately, as always, feel free to answer any or all:

  1. Do we need to take a stance on God?

  2. Does the idea of God strike you as bizarre?

  3. Which arguments for/against the existence of God do you favor?