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.





Is Stupidity a Sin? (St. Thomas)


Article II.–Is stupidity a sin?

R.  Stupidity implies a dulness of perception in judging, particularly about the Highest Cause, the Last End and Sovereign Good.  This may come of natural incapacity, and that is not a sin.  Or it may come of man burying his mind so deep in earthly things as to render his perceptions unfit to grasp the things of God, according to the text:  “The sensual man perceiveth not these things that are of the Spirit of God;” and such stupidity is a sin.

2.  Though no one wishes to be stupid, still people do wish for what leads to stupidity, by withdrawing their thoughts from things spiritual and burying them in things of the earth.  So it is also with other sins; for the lustful man wants the pleasure to which the sin is attached, though he does not absolutely wish for the sin; for he would like to enjoy the pleasure without the sin.

The God of the Philosophers (Herbert McCabe)

It is true that philosophers, generally speaking, are the most dogmatic of men, but they cannot claim any divine authority for their dogmatism.  The kind of philosophical reflection that is called “natural theology” exists because God made the world and men.  I think that this reflection can lead to the conclusion that there is a “beyond” that transcends all that we can know.  Broadly speaking, we look at the world and it has a created look about it, which is as far as we can go.  There used to be an idea (invented, I think, by Pascal) that the God of the philosophers was a different kind of being than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Now of course the God of the philosophers that Pascal had in mind may very well be different from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but the God of my philosophy (and here I am at one with St. Thomas) is not well known enough to be different from Yahweh of the Old Testament.  Philosophy tells us almost nothing about God, certainly not enough to set up a rival religion.  –The New Creation

A Lack of a Sense of Reality?

Philosophers, you know, are disconnected, hot air balloons climbing to the height at which they pop in one distant burst; they are abstracted and lost in someone’s thoughts, sometimes their own; they are characterized by a peculiarly undistressed but by-their-fingertips hold on what is real.  –Consider this little turn from St. Thomas, offering a help for sorrow.  “Take a warm bath,” he says, “and get some sleep.”  Sheesh.  Only a philosopher…

Trials, Thomas and Tree

I am currently trying to get some writing done–or, more strictly and honestly, I have been trying to get myself to try to get some writing done. It’s been a while since I have felt more distant from the beginning of productive writing. Part of it is the lingering fatigue of the term, I guess; but part of it is a recently settled conviction of emptiness, of having nothing to say, or of not having powers adequate to saying whatever it is I have to say (read this last as a comment on the worthlessness of my powers, not the worthiness of whatever it is I have to say). Oh, well; I’ll get over it. Perhaps the best bet is to just get over the fatigue, and then to see how I need to address the conviction, if I still do.

In the meantime, I have been reading books on St. Thomas and watching Hallmark Christmas movies, usually doing both at once. I hope to teach a course, Concepts and Judgments in Thomism, next fall, and I am trying to get some of the initial blocking-out of ideas done, so that my understanding can ripen over the spring and summer. Here’s a particularly nice line from St. Thomas: “The good of the intellect and its natural end is knowledge of the truth. False judgments in the acts of the intellect are as monsters in nature, which are not according to nature but accidental to the nature.” Monsters! –As for the Hallmark movies, they’ve been mostly light and entertaining and holidaydreamy. Enough, I reckon, to stir the water of the mind without muddying it.

Thanks to my wife and my daughter, our Christmas tree is up and deserving of contemplation. The stockings are hung, and my wife has located both her kerchief and my cap. I enjoy the holiday.

Now for a series of long winter’s naps. Talk to you again in ’13.

Book Recommendations: Two Pairs

I don’t explicitly or directly recommend lots of books here, although I mention or quote from many and often make it clear that I think highly of them.  But, as I rode my bike in this morning, I started thinking about two pairs of books that have meant a lot to me, personally and intellectually.  I thought I would recommend them.

The first pair is:

The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (Walter Jackson Bate) and The Silence of St. Thomas (Josef Pieper).  Neither of these books is quite or completely a biography, neither is quite or completely literary criticism (Bate) or philosophy (Pieper).  Each is instead an examination of how the work of each man grew into what and who he was, and was grown into by what and who he was.

The second pair is:

Actor and Spectator (Lewis White Beck) and The Myth of Metaphor (Colin Murray Turbayne).   I was lucky enough to have been taught by both men, although to a lesser extent and mostly informally (in conversation) by Turbayne.  Both books are beautifully written and philosophically significant.  And each is a study of the way in which a person can become so immersed in another’s thought that it is no longer clear who is doing the thinking and who is being thought about.  With Beck, it is Kant; with Turbayne, it is Berkeley.


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