Saturday, September 4, 2010

How to Read Philosophy, and Be a Philosopher

In the course of preparing a presentation I’ve been invited to give at a conference at University of St Gallen in Switzerland later this Fall, an intriguing idea came to me about the history of philosophy. It’s too complex to fit into the space I have for the presentation, but it’s promising enough that I think I can work with it for a while. It’s also connected to a conversation I had Friday evening about how philosophy is taught at the introductory and undergraduate level.

My friend has begun to find it ridiculous that we are teaching undergraduates philosophy by having them argue against or otherwise try to attack the works and ideas of the giants of our fields. If a philosophical work or corpus has survived with a prominent role in the history of ideas for hundreds or thousands of years, it seems absurd that we would teach people by demanding that they refute Aristotle at age 19. It trivializes a work of monumental scope and power. It demeans the concepts that have revolutionized thinking over the millennia. I didn’t recall being taught that way.

My first philosophy instructor was (and still is) an old Cambridge man, who waxed to me this summer about the old way of teaching philosophy, where you truly know your history, can genuinely understand the thoughts and social milieux that shaped the thinkers you’re studying. You can’t start refuting all over the house until you know why every word is just the way it is. This is philosophy as serious scholarship, the meticulous investigation into a way of life that in most cases no longer exists, so that one can understand most deeply how a great piece of work was produced, and how it was meant to affect its own time, its own readers.

However, there is a different way to read philosophy which I consider equally legitimate as serious scholarship, but is easier in some respects, but far more difficult in others. Werner Herzog talks about how the meaning of his films, particularly Aguirre The Wrath of God, changes depending on who is watching them. The work is no less great, even though the people who receive it transform its meaning significantly and radically. In fact, it’s greater because it can have all these different meanings in different contexts of culture and history. Philosophy has such a long tradition that its great works have undergone similar transformations. It is easier than scholarship because it doesn’t require so much historical and contextual work. But inspirational readings are more difficult because the work stands out as even more alien when it is transplanted into a new context.

It’s difficult to read philosophy well, or indeed any great work, when you are part of the community. Every filmmaker, the Hollywood hacks, commercial directors, no-budget indie directors with a stolen digital camera, is in the same community as Kubrick, Murnau, and Herzog. Writers are in the same community as Eliot, Joyce, and Cervantes. Philosophers are in the same community as Plato, Russell, Deleuze, and Kant. The danger of the trivializing attitude of refutation being your only engagement with a work is that you make a mockery of the giants of your field. The scholarly attitude becomes dangerous when it becomes worship, and you sterilize your own creativity in a terrible inferiority complex.

The inspirational attitude is to pick up a work and a philosopher as if you are talking to an old, strange friend. This friend will shock and terrify you, and also mystify you completely. But if you can engage your alien friend in a respectful conversation, a productive dialogue, then you can become a great figure yourself.


Jeremy said...

I don't quite understand the distinction you're trying to draw. Surely, if you engage a philosopher as an alien friend, you need to make an effort to understand something about your friend's context. For example, I read an article on 18th century jurisprudence in the Holy Roman Empire, and it gave me a clearer understanding of what Kant means by "deduction" (it was a legal term of art). In fact, that tidbit motivates a reading of the Critique that makes more of it make good sense, a reading we would be much less likely to hit upon on our own. It has the added nicety of being, apparently, the one Kant intended. So it seems to me that good scholarship is still absolutely necessary for an "inspirational" approach.

On the other hand, the greatest scholars, and ESPECIALLY the Whiggishest of them, have always thought of the history of philosophy as a grand conversation between friends, or at least colleagues, across the ages. I mean, shucks, it doesn't get more Cambridge than, say, Alfred North Whitehead, and he positively glowed with enthusiasm when talking about past philosophers. Similarly, scholars of Spinoza don't call themselves "Spinoza scholars", they call themselves "friends of Spinoza", but not because they aren't scholars.

In short, aren't you setting up a dichotomy that doesn't need to exist? Shouldn't we really be inspired scholars?

Jeremy said...

I mean, just ask Rebecca for horror stories about classes run by people who eschew "scholarship", whether they be of an Analytic or Continental stripe. Last year she was told that Hobbes was the first Analytic philosopher, and that Hegel was inspired by Heidegger. Everything just becomes a stupid, soupy mush, and there goes any hope of ever making any sense out of anything.

Borna said...

I think what you're trying to get at, Adam, is the distinction between what Deleuze calls judgment (i.e. criticizing a work) and evaluation (i.e. taking the time to fully understand a work). Many undergraduates (and even some grad students and Professors), tend to quickly jump the gun and critique an idea, thinkers or argument, before taking the adequate time to properly understand what it is they are refuting. This happens all the time, when people are hesitant about evaluating an idea, seeking out its pros and cons, and simply try to dismiss it by quickly refuting it.

A great example is Russell's rather laughable account of Hegel, in his 'History of Western Philosophy'. In the chapter on Hegel, Russell does not so much try to give a brief account of the thinker but he rather calls Hegel's system as amounting to nothing other than "mysticism", and therefore, nonsense. Anyone who has spent time studying the difficult works on Hegel, will realize that it isn't mysticism at all. Russell, in this sense, tried to refute Hegel without first evaluating the thinker's works.

This does not only pertain to philosophy, though. Many political science students are even more hot-heated to refute ideas which do not coincide with their own viewpoint. They critique without bothering to first understand the opposed argument.

This is why, I think, Deleuze's conjecture is so important here. He emphasizes that a substantial refutation must first and foremost be a positive one, rather than a negative. That is, first learn to walk in the shoes of the thinker, before you start to critique them. Understand, evaluate, and THEN critique.

Julia said...

"This friend will shock and terrify you, and also mystify you completely. But if you can engage your alien friend in a respectful conversation, a productive dialogue, then you can become a great figure yourself."

This is just fantastic. It's so, well, Nietzschean.

“Regarding my Zarathustra, for example, I do not allow that anyone knows that book who has not at some time been profoundly wounded and at some time profoundly delighted by every word of it.”

Anonymous said...

@ Borna:

Would you mind telling me what you think Russell means by mysticism? I assure you, under the distinctions Russell makes regarding the different categories of mysticism Hegel certainly falls. Perhaps you were attempting a meta-example of the process of not knowing/understanding an author before criticizing him/her, but I suspect that is too charitable of a reading...