Amongst the Shadows of Metaphysics…

On the road to Solipsism–which is the doctrine not that I matter to nobody but that nobody exists but me–on the road to Solipsism there blows the same wind of loneliness which blows on the road to the house with walls of glass which none can break.  In the labyrinth of metaphysics are the same whispers as one hears when climbing Kafka’s staircases to the tribunal which is always one floor further up.  Is it perhaps because of this that when in metaphysics we seem to have arranged by a new technique a new dawn we find ourselves again on Chirico’s sad terraces, where those whom we can never know still sit and it is neither night nor day?

We may hurry away and drown the cries that follow us from those silent places–drown them in endless talk, drown them in the whine of the saxophone of the roar from the stands.  Or, more effective, we may quiet those phantasmal voices by doing something for people real and alive.  But if we can’t we must return, force the accusers to speak up, and insist on recognizing the featureless faces.  We can hardly do this by ourselves.  But there are those who will go with us, and however terrifying the way, not desert us.

John Wisdom

Letter to a Philosophical Inquirer

As I suppose most philosophers do, I get fairly common requests from folks who are fascinated by philosophy asking for reading lists and advice. I thought I would share my latest response to such a request.

Dear (Inquirer),


   Reading serious philosophers is demanding, but it is ultimately worth it.  But you have to read with a notebook and a pencil, working to write out what you take passages to mean, providing illustrations (literally, pictures), asking yourself questions, making notes of connections with other texts–whether that philosopher’s or other philosophers’.  You cannot read passively.  You have to push back against the text as hard as you can.  It will whip you soundly, but if you are game, and keep coming back, the volleys will last longer and you will begin to understand more and more.

   Suggestions:  Plato’s Socratic dialogues, particularly the Euthyphro, the Euthydemus, the Ion, the Charmides, the Apology.  Read Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics.  Read St. Thomas (Aquinas Ethicus is free online and a great place to start.)  Read Descartes’ Meditations.  Read Rousseau’s Social Contract and Emile.  Read Kant’s Prolegomena.  Read Kierkegaard’s The Present Age.  Read F H Bradley’s Ethical Studies.  Read Russell’s Problems of Philosophy.  Read Wittgenstein’s Blue Book.   These are all wonderfully written, central works, that are written for an educated reader, but not necessarily someone with much formal training in philosophy.  If you can find someone to read with, that is a huge help.  Best if it is someone you can talk to face-to-face, but online is better than nothing.

Expect to be baffled.  Expect to be confused.  As I tell my students, philosophy requires a high confusion threshold.  To read philosophy, you have to be willing to be confused, know you are confused, but nonetheless to read on.  Much of what is necessary in philosophy is the right intellectual habituation, and you can only get that by frequent active reading and frequent conversation.





Philosopher (F. H. Bradley) (Poem)

I do realize that poetry–or an attempt at it–about obscure dead philosophers is not exactly a growth industry…


Philosopher (F. H. Bradley)

I do not know whether this in my case is a mark of senility, but I find myself now taking more and more as literal fact what I used in my youth to admire and love as poetry.”  –Bradley

McTaggart, on meeting Bradley:  “I felt as if a Platonic Idea had walked into the room.”

He lives
Taut between
Appearance and reality

Overdone with


Underdone with

He does not much leave the house

As if drumly
Of the Good
Could substitute
For living
In its light

“On all questions, if you push me far enough, at present I end in doubts and             perplexities.”

He lives
Amid systems
Without a view
In an age
Of worldviews

“The older I grow, the more I recoil from any forced venture in the dark.”

And so
He picks
The scab

Nothing is
Removed from
Existence by
Being labelled

He lives
With it all

All is real
Even if not
Really real

His habitual mood
Diffident bewilderment–
It is all too
Too much

There is
No lorica
No padding
Against it all

Is demanded


Is conclusive
Of the real

An opened
The sign
Of self-sacrifice


Increscunt animi, virescit volnere virtus


Philosophy demands
That he extinguish
Spiritual pride
But nothing
Kindles that fire

Vanity snuffs

So he must
Not think

He can save
Anyone else

The trouble
Of thinking

The goal
Is to stimulate
Thoughts on
First principles
And not
To supply them

The love
Of wisdom
Is love

In the twilight
He sounds out
The idols

He has ears even behind his ears

His truths
Are borne
In time

He lives
Stretched absolutely taut
Between dogmatism
And skepticism


Philosophy as a Managerial Concern (Heidegger)

In the phenomenology of spirit, as consciousness’s becoming-other-to-itself and coming-to-itself, “forms” of consciousness emerge, as Hegel says; but this emergence of forms of consciousness has nothing to do with the procedure, now becoming routine and stemming from various motivations, of classifying the so-called types of world views and types of philosophical standpoints according to just any schema.  These typologies and morphologies would be a harmless way of passing time, if at the same time the odd idea were not in play that, by placing a philosophy in the net of types, one has decided on the possible and of course relative truth of that philosophy.  This urge toward classification and such like always begins at a time when the lack of the power to do philosophy gets the upper hand, so that sophistry comes to dominate.  But sophistry provides itself and its own barrenness with some respectability by first catching whatever ventures to emerge in philosophy in the net of standpoints, and then, having given each type a label, by leaving it with the people.  This label sees to it that, regarding the philosophy in question, one will be interested in its label only so as to compare it with another label.  Subsequently, the literary discussions about the label give rise to a literature which in its kind may be quite considerable.  Consequently, the Kant literature is not only more important than Kant himself, but above all else it reaches the point where no one any longer gets to the matter itself.  The procedure reflects the mysterious art of sophistry, which always and necessarily arises along with philosophy and controls the field.  Nowadays the power of sophism has “organized” itself, one of the many indications of this being the popularity of typologies of philosophical standpoints–typologies which appear in various disguises (manuals and series).  Philosophy becomes a managerial concern–a diabolical condition to which the younger scientific minds, rare enough as they are nowadays, fall prey in their prime.  But the reason for mentioning these seemingly remote things at exactly this point is the fact that in their confusion these typologies appeal to Hegel’s Phenomenology, in the belief and pretense that in Hegel a similar typology is aimed at, although without the benefit of contemporary depth psychology and sociology.

Heidegger, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (p. 29)

Although this seems as timely as when it was written in the 1930’s, if not more so, I am interested in it right now because I think there is a similar understanding of Bradley afoot, as if he were spreading a net of types in his work.  He is not–no more than Hegel was.  His work is no more managerial than Hegel’s.

Anyway, sophistry is internal to philosophy, always present when philosophy is present.  Sophistry is philosophy’s shadow.  And the rise of the isms is always a bad sign, in a time, in a country, in a department, in a mind.




Bradley’s Rule

Another entry in the Bradley Calvacade:

I am afraid that, when some readers hear a poor ‘ontologist’ like myself uttering warning cries about the limits of our knowledge, they will think of Satan mighty in the scriptures or rebuking sin.  And yet I feel bound to submit to their attention that very rule which made me an ontologist, still keeps, and will keep me one:  Where you find a puzzle you are making an assumption, and it is your duty to find out what that assumption is.

What should we make of this rule?  In context, I believe the right way to understand it is to situate it against Kant’s Antinomies, or, relatedly, against Ramsey’s maxim.  Let me use the latter:

It is a heuristic maxim that the truth lies not in one of two disputed views, but in some third possibility which has not yet been thought of, and which we only discover by rejecting something assumed as obvious by the two disputants.

Ramsey’s maxim, forcefully economized (and internalized) as Bradley’s Rule, shapes the whole of Appearance and Reality–and indeed the whole of Bradley’s work.

The anti-Augustinian property colors metaphilosophy:  when someone asks how to do philosophy, we know, but when no one asks (and we are doing it), we do not know.  Philosophical ‘practice’ can seem impermeable to metaphilosophical ‘theory’.  All too often, in the throes of the problems, our metaphilosophy reduces to ornamental chatter.  It bears no load.  But not in Bradley.  He keeps his rules–he walks his talk’s walk.




Oakeshott on the Importance of Teaching Differences

Here is Michael Oakeshott in Experience and Its Modes, channeling Bradley:

To bother about a confusion de genres is the sign of decadent thought.  –But this is not the view of the matter I have come to take.  For…it became increasingly clear that unless these forms of experience were separated and kept separate, our experience would be unprotected against the most insidious and crippling of all forms of error–irrelevance.  And when we consider further the errors and confusion, the irrelevance and cross-purposes, which follow from a failure to determine the exact character and significance of (for example) scientific or historical experience, it becomes possible to suppose that those who offer us their opinions upon these topics may have something to say of which we should take notice.  To dismiss the whole affair as a matter of mere words is the first impulse only of those who are ignorant of the chaos into which experience degenerates when this kind of question is answered perfunctorily or is left altogether without an answer.  “Truth”, says Bacon, “comes more easily out of error than out of confusion”:  but the view I have to recommend is that confusion, ignoratio elenchi, is itself the most fatal of all errors, and that it occurs whenever argument or inference passes from one world of experience to another, from what is abstracted on one principle from what is abstracted upon another, from what is abstract to what is concrete, and from what is concrete to what is abstract…So far, then, as this part of my subject is concerned, it may be considered as an investigation of the character of irrelevance or ignoratio elenchi.

(Oakeshott names Bradley’s Appearance and Reality as one of the two books, along with Hegel’s Phenomenology, from which he has learnt the most.)

Seeing, Reading, Saying, Being: A Note from Josh Blog

Some days, between trying to get it right, trying too hard to make it come out right, and not being able to wait for it to strike me in the right way, interpretation wearies me, even sickens me, and I feel as if all real interpretation is just seeing and saying, and what I occupy myself with daily is instead nothing but saying I see, seeing if I can say, reading without seeing, seeing more than I can say, saying what should just be seen, reading instead of saying, saying instead of being. —Little knots of thinking and willing and wishing.

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