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.





Opening Speech: Socrates, A Tragedy in Five Acts (Francis Foster Barham)


ACT I. Scene I.— Athens.

Socrates solus, basking in the sunshine.

Philosophers have many a pleasure — known–
Felt — by themselves — which to the vulgar world
They rarely express : and when they do, how seldom
Do the hearts of men respond ! — Ay, at this moment
There is a rapture in this sunshine — spreading
Its hot o’erwhelming lustre over Athens,
Which they conceive not ; —
Unto me it is Symbolic of the incommunicable flame
Of Deity ! It seems to embrace me, like
The beatific vision of Olympus,
Transforming what it shines on, to its likeness ;
It enters into my very soul, and makes
A summer of my conscience! — I rejoice
To anticipate the eternity when I
Likewise shall be as a sunbeam.

Johnson, recall, complained of Milton’s great poem that no one ever wished it longer.  I doubt Johnson believed such a wish was rejected as early as the first few of Milton’s lines.  Here, however…

Socrates, the sunbeam!

More on Abiding in Hope

Abiding in hope…

Ed Mooney, over at Mists on the Rivers, has been mulling over the Heidegger passage I posted yesterday, as have I.  The passage fascinates me in part because so many paths intersect in it:  one from Socrates and his avowal of ignorance, one from Eckhart and his working-out of contemplation, one from St. Thomas and his condemnation of curiositas as a form of cognitive intemperance, one from Neitzsche and his linking the will to knowledge to the will to power, one from Husserl and his plying of the reduction, one from Marcel and his ideal of secondary reflection, and one from Wittgenstein and his contrast of explanation and description.

I cannot rise to the level of Ed Mooney–but let me say a bit more about the line from Marcel.  Marcel distinguishes primary from secondary reflection by distinguishing between what we might call their ‘objects’, problems and mysteries.  There is a lot to say about that distinction, and I have toyed with it on the blog a time or two (here for example).  But a key idea is the idea of investigations that are, as it were, self-willed, where the investigator stands above, over and against, what he investigates, and one where the investigator is ‘object-willed’, moved to consideration of what she stands enmeshed in, alongside, and which calls out to her for consideration.  We might say that in the first case, the investigation proceeds in light produced by the investigator, in the second, in light produced by the ‘object’ investigated.  (Marcel works a far-reaching change on the popular understanding of mystery, which he regards, not as a darkness that overwhelms, but as a light that is blinding, –at first, but that becomes eventually the light in which we see light:  think of Christ on Mount Tabor.)  Heidegger seems to understand some things as worthy of thought, as calling out to us to think them, and to think in relationship to them.  Curiosity all-too-often is something that we project upon the world–we think about what we regard as worthy of thought, instead of what calls us out of ourselves and into thought.

There seems to me little doubt that Walden (to hook up with Ed’s reflections) is not only a book about but a book that exemplifies secondary reflection.  And I think that secondary reflection is at play too, albeit in different ways, in Socrates’ unknowledge, Echart’s contemplation, St. Thomas’ studiositas (the contrast to curiositas), Husserl’s reduction and Wittgenstein’s descriptions.  It seems likely true even in Nietzsche’s transvalued knowledge.  For all of these, the relationship between the investigator and the investigated transforms the investigation, and that must always already be on the mind of the investigator.  The world does not bumble around us, a flattened pother of objects indifferent to their investigation and that we investigate willy-nilly as we choose, but  instead structures and variegates itself around us, featuring objects that call us to thought and objects that do not.  And what they reveal to us is not a matter of what we take from them but of what they give us, sometimes only after we have earned it by abiding in hope before them, listening even to their silence, waiting for them to speak. What we ‘know’ of them in such moments is not something that we can commodify, something that we can learn by banking on our own conceptions of reasoning about them, our own ability to wring answers to our questions from them.

Didn’t Aristotle push us this way, too, long ago, when he noted that the problem of method is entirely (note that word) determined by the object?

Staying Put

Here are a few lines from Fr. Stephen Freeman, addressing place and stability:

In monastic tradition, a monk makes four vows: poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. Most people are familiar with the first three but not with the fourth. In classical monastic practice it meant that a monk stayed put: he did not move from monastery to monastery. It was not a new idea. Before this vow was formalized in various Rules, there was already the saying from the Desert: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”

I have been lucky to have been able to stay put.  Perhaps, if I had been more talented or more ambitious or both, I would not have stayed put.  Perhaps I would have aimed more seriously at career upward mobility.  But I was not more talented and was not and am not more ambitious.  So, here I am.  So, here I stay.  Here I hope to stay–until I stay put permanently, resting, I hope, in peace.

When I got my job at Auburn, my teacher, Lewis White Beck, was very pleased.  He grew up not far from here.  His brother still lived (in those days) just north up 85, in Westpoint, Ga.  (I used to visit him to hear stories of Lewis’ childhood.)  Beck counseled me about Auburn:  “Don’t go and leave.  Stay and make it the kind of place where you want to be.”  The philosophy department at Auburn has become that, although I deserve little of the credit.  But I do think that staying has made me more of the person I have wanted to be.  I do not mean I am not deeply flawed; of course I am, of course.  Still, staying put has been a revelator and tutor:  I have learnt something about fidelity and commitment, about what it means to work with others to build something bigger and better than the builders.  I have learnt something about being unknown and unremarked, and about first being restively reconciled to it and later accepting it and still later coming to desire it.  “Live hidden” is good advice.  (Beck was once asked by the NYTimes (if I remember correctly) if they could do a feature on him, a sort of Elder Philosopher at Home bit.  He declined, telling them that he was determined to enjoy “the beneficent obscurity of senectitude”.   –Is that a line from Gibbon?)  I guess I still have a few years before I enter my senectitude, but it is not too early for obscurity to be beneficent.

As I grow older, my classes and my students fascinate me more than ever before.  Philosophical problems incarnate are now my meditation.  Philosophical problems disincarnate no longer exert much pull on me.  Perhaps what I have come to appreciate more fully is that there is a strict specificity about philosophical problems–they exist only in a specific person and they can be grappled with only in conjunction with that person and they can be solved–in whatever sense they are solved–only by that person.  Where I am not that person, I can help or hurt (from the lectern, from the page); but I can only help or hurt; but I can no more solve the problem for him or her than I can be prudent for him or her.  Philosophical problems arise from and are finally only responsive to the living experience of a specific person.  I believe I have learnt that from Socrates–himself a master of staying put.

As Robert Frost once recommended:  “Don’t get converted.  Stay.”

From a Handout: Socrates as Midwife (Philosophical Questions 7)

[This was a class focused on Plato’s Theaetetus, Wittgenstein’s Blue Book and Bouwsma’s John Locke Lectures (The Flux).  The class was entitled, “The Flux”.  I taught it in the Spring of 1996.]

Back, now, to midwifery.

I recommend that Socrates be seen as logically clarifying thoughts.  His interlocutor says something–provides the datum clarificandum–and Socrates goes to work.  He pulls the interlocutor’s saying this way and that.  He compares it with first one sentence and then another.  All the while he’s asking his interlocutor to decide:  “Is this what you meant?  Could you have meant this?”  Sometimes the interlocutor keeps up for a while.

What is the midwifery comparison?  Call it an exhibitive theory of philosophizing. It shows us things we already know, but in a way that makes us see them afresh.

Socrates pictures his interlocutors as pregnant.  The have something inside them, although there is no way of knowing whether what’s inside them is going to be viable or still-born.  Socrates brings on labor pains.  He does this, I guess, by administering a potent medicine, by asking “What is x?”  Upon hearing the question, the interlocutor goes into labor.  The labor, like all labor, is painful.  (Try giving birth to Truth!)  Why is it painful?  Answering a question like “What is knowledge?” is a strenuous and hurtful mental business.

Let me try this without the midwifery idom.

Socrates knows how to ask questions.  The questions he knows how to ask are not of the “What’s his name?” or “What sort of architecture is that?” variety.  Such questions are not one that we are full of answers to, or think we are.  Sometimes we can answer them; sometimes we can’t.  As long as we aren’t taking a test or on Jeopardy, not being able to answer doesn’t matter much.  But when we can’t answer Socrates’ questions, it matters.  No test, no Jeopardy.  Socrates asks, “What is knowledge?” and we think we have to answer.  Why?  –We all know that we know what knowledge is.  That’s why!  We all talk about knowledge, use “know” or its cognates, all the time.

Theaetetus is a learner.  Theodorus is a teacher.  Surely, they know what knowledge is.

Socrates askes “What is knowledge?” and we have an answer in us.  But the answer won’t come quickly.  Augustine:  “If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.”  So we huff and we puff and we try things out:  knowledge is perception.  Knowledge is true judgment.  None of these comes easily.  We have the feeling that we force each out.  The forcing hurts; it ought to be unnecessary.  Socrates helps, if that is what he chooses to do, by asking still more questions.  Each time we force out another answer, Socrates tests it.  If it won’t do, he shows us it won’t.  This is no fun, either.  After all that work, after all those words, no one wants to see an apparent new answer, apparently fresh to the world and apparently full of promise, turn out to be nonsense–a phantom answer.  Don’t rob us of our darling follies!  But Socrates is a pro.  He’s on a mission from God.  He show us.  Sometimes we go back to work forcing out another answer.  Sometimes we take our phantoms and go home.

Socrates says he can tell those who are full of answers from those who aren’t.  Those who aren’t he sends to Prodicus.  (Prodicus has an office in our English department.)  The others he helps.  They profit from this help, even if they manage no viable births.  How?

All this is strange.  Midwifery is no glamorous role for the philosopher.  He’s only around to help bring answers to light and to get rid of them, if they are monstrosities.  (Philosophy:  confusiasm over abstrocities.)  The role is thoroughly negative.  The philosopher is barren, has no answers of his own.  He can’t adopt.

No pitter-patter of little answer-feet in the philosopher’s house.

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