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.