Some Preparatory Remarks for a Class

There are no shallows in philosophy, no knee-deep, shoreline waters.  It is abysmal from horizon to horizon.

Nothing we read will be textbook-like.  That is, nothing we read will begin easy, with starters, and proceed gradually through middling difficult intermediates, and on to truly difficult finalities.  So you will not likely get better as you read straight ahead.  You get better backtracking, as you re-read:  the intermediates come into view on a second or third reading; the finalities only after long frequentation, sometimes life-long re-readings.  (You must learn to cultivate the pleasures while overcoming the challenges of re-reading!)  Re-reading is the analog, in reading philosophy, of working through a textbook.

To make progress in philosophy, you need a high confusion threshold.  You have to be capable of being, willing to be, thoroughly confused without falling into despair.  And you have to be willing to enter into confusion again and again, even while not seeing any exit from it.  The exit, if there is one, is always “across a step or two of dubious twilight” (to borrow a phrase from Robert Browning).  No one who refuses to enter, or who will make no settlement in that twilight, that confusion, will ever be a philosopher.

7 responses

  1. You say (in a more elegant way) something akin to what I like to say to my classes at the beginning of the term. I’m also averse to assigning textbook-style readings: I usually just assign primary texts (sometimes a lot of it). I often talk about the fact that the biggest obstacle to reading a difficult text is often simply the fear of and frustration produced by confusion. This fear and frustration sometimes shows up as hostility and resentment. My job is to be the one who throws the students into the pool: they might not like swimming, but at least they don’t have to live with the fact of not having faced up to the challenge.

    If I get to teach the new intro. to art, value and society, my plan is to assign some Heidegger at some point (“Origin of the Work of Art” probably). At that point, I might have to pull back and simply apologize profusely to my students…

    • If you teach the Heidegger, let me know how it goes. I taught Part 3 of The Claim of Reason to an Intro to Ethics class one Fall. On some days the room looked like a Nike product tester’s lab–all of the students were staring fixedly at their shoes.

  2. If I get the chance, the whole class will be an experiment in teaching philosophy alongside literature, art and criticism. I’ve always wanted to do that, but haven’t had an opportunity justifying it yet. Some things I have in mind would be easier to engage students than others: e.g. alongside Guy Debord it would be easy to have them watch videos of Parkour and Flash-mobs for easily digestible examples. But for Heidegger…what, Holderlin? Blanchot? I have no idea…

  3. I really appreciate the remark about needing a “high confusion threshold,” and may quote that, and what follows, in the future. Thanks!

    • You’re welcome! I enjoyed reading your blog today. I have a colleague, Jody Graham, who has been working on integrity and I will send her a link to the blog. I think she’d be interested in your work on Cottingham, etc. I found the material on courage and pride and humility helpful; I am currently working on a small book on the seven deadly sins and the seven cardinal and theological virtues. Good stuff!

      • Thanks! I know Jody has a paper on integrity from a few years ago, though I haven’t looked at it. The paper on Cottingham is under a fairly total revision and reorganization but I hope to post a (much more organized) draft soon.

  4. I can easily see myself quoting this, too. I often have to explain to my students that it’s good if they get confused or their head hurts. Just as long as they don’t stay confused. Or, at least, so long as they don’t stay so confused that they have no idea what’s going on. A little lingering puzzlement isn’t so bad.

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