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.





Wodehouse’s Caliban at Sunset (Poem)

I stood with a man
Watching the sun go down.
The air was full of murmurous summer scents
And a brave breeze sang like a bugle
From a sky that smouldered in the west,
A sky of crimson, amethyst, gold and sepia
And blue as blue were the eyes of Helen
When she sat
Gazing from some high tower in Ilium
Upon the Grecian tents darkling below.And he,
This man who stood beside me,
Gaped like some dull, half-witted animal
And said,
“I say,
Doesn’t that sunset remind you
Of a slice
Of underdone roast beef?”

Heidegger on an Education in Thinking

The following words of Heidegger’s have been on my mind for the past couple of weeks.

We all still need an education in thinking, and before that first a knowledge of what being educated and uneducated in thinking means.  In this respect, Aristotle gives us a hint in Book IV of his Metaphysics (1006a ff.).  It reads…”For it is uneducated not to have an eye for when it is necessary to look for a proof, and when this is not necessary.”

This sentence demands careful reflection.  For it is not yet decided in what way that which needs no proof in order to become accessible to thinking is to be experienced.  Is it dialectical mediation or originary intuition or neither of the two? Only the peculiar quality of that which demands of us above all else to be admitted can decide about that.  But how is this to make the decision possible for us before we have admitted it? In what circle are we moving here, inevitably?

Aristotle’s passage–and its non-kissing cousin in EN–have become more and more deeply embedded in my thinking and teaching.  My Seven Deadly Sins course this summer (now just ended) in many ways pivots on the EN passage.  I take that passage to insist on differences in kind among objectivities, differences in kind among, say, geometry and history and philosophy and rhetoric.  I have grown increasingly resistant to attempts to solder philosophy to science or to mathematics–or to whatever.  (Not that I was ever very receptive to such attempts.)  Philosophy is its own thing and not another thing.  Perhaps Heidegger gets a little too invested here and there in soldering philosophy (or thinking) to poetry (that is a topic for another time), but generally he is acrobatically adept at sundering philosophy from other things.  (Heidegger inherits the form of his Idealist predecessors’ metaphilosophy even if he rejects its specific content. –Compare him here to Bradley or to Oakeshott.)

Anyway, I do not like thematizing philosophy as argument, as argumentative.  Why should philosophy be beholden to proof?  I do not mean that philosophy should jettison proof or that proof does not matter.  But why should it be essential?  I am happy to say that argument has its place, an honored place, in philosophy.  But there is no reason to believe that gaining admittance to philosophy requires an inference ticket (apologies to Ryle).   –That does not mean that we just throw open the doors–free admission!  –No, but some things may get in without an inference ticket.  –Ok.  But what, and why, and when, and how?  –We need a sense of what is relevant in philosophy, to philosophy, and a sense that relevance itself is not a matter (always) for proof.  (In what circle are we moving here, inevitably?)  We need to understand what it looks like to be educated and uneducated in philosophy, so that we can embark on our philosophical education.

We glimpse here why the vocabulary of late Heidegger runs through the all the inflections of ‘receptive spontaneity’, why hearkening and following a path become leitmotifs of the work.  The claim of relevance is not always to be established by argument; sometimes the claim of relevance is simply the peculiar quality of certain things, a claim that demands acknowledgment from us.  We hearken to such things.  We follow in their paths.  Their relevance is their solemn power, calling us to free response. We make ourselves available to thought.



Directive (Robert Frost)

I have had Whitman much on my mind for the past few weeks.  Attempting to clarify for myself the strange mixture of love and indifference that Whitman poems provoke in me, I turned back to a longtime favorite, Frost.  Looking at him has been helpful.  His poetry succeeds in ways that make my (sometimes rapidly) hardening and unhardening heart toward Whitman make better sense to me:  it has helped me to clarify and to define my own perceptions and judgments, and my own aims as a poet.  I will not get into those issues now, however.

I will share one of my favorite of Frost’s poems, maybe my favorite–“Directive”.  It is a poem that shares thematic elements with Whitman’s late poems, but is a poem compelled forward by a syntactic compression and complexity that is foreign to Whitman.

Drink and be whole again beyond confusion!


Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry –
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there’s a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods’ excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.
First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Whistling for Your Thoughts: Thoreau (Walden Chapter 12)

Let me see; where was I? Methinks I was nearly in this frame of mind; the world lay about at this angle. Shall I go to heaven or a-fishing? If I should soon bring this meditation to an end, would another so sweet occasion be likely to offer? I was as near being resolved into the essence of things as ever I was in my life. I fear my thoughts will not come back to me. If it would do any good, I would whistle for them. When they make us an offer, is it wise to say, We will think of it? My thoughts have left no track, and I cannot find the path again. What was it that I was thinking of? It was a very hazy day.  I will just try these three sentences of Confutsee; they may fetch that state about again. I know not whether it was the dumps or a budding ecstasy. Mem. There never is but one opportunity of a kind.

Bradley’s Earthy Absolute Idealism

Thus, for the absolutists, the Absolute is not far removed from us; on the contrary, it is everywhere present to us, the all-encompassing totality with which we are constantly in touch in all our intellectual activities and which, as Bosanquet says, persistently drives us from pillar to post.  It is not, as William James mistakenly supposed, “a marble temple shining on a hill”; it is, rather, as James would have it, inextricably involved in the dust and dirt of things.  And, it may be added, the argument to which the absolutists all alike in the end appeal is designed to show precisely this. –G. Watts Cunningham

One of the chief ironies of Bradley’s work is the upside-down way it is typically understood.  Cunningham’s complaint about James certainly captures the irony.  Whatever may be true of the other ‘absolutists’, there is no doubt that Bradley took the Absolute to be dusty and dirty, all up in our face, brawny and inescapable, our goodly fere.  It is no weirdly irradiated glop, alien, distant, and vaguely threatening. Bradley understood himself as panning philosophy’s ballet of bloodless categories, as stomping through the Palace Theater in muddy boots, tracking the Absolute all over the place.  Bradley deplores the reduction of reality to thought, even if it sometimes seems as if he is engaged in just such a reduction.  He is not.  Bradley is the most doggedly anti-reductionist philosopher I can think of, other than Wittgenstein.  (That Wittgenstein is himself often taken to be an idealist, albeit of the linguistic and not the Absolute ilk, is worth considering, but I will simply note that it is, and move on.)  Bradley insistently forces his reader toward the real; he will not relent.  He does not browbeat the reader.  He does not beleaguer.  But he does not stop.  Bradley works to redintegrate thought and feeling, but in a way that puts the accent mark darkly and unmistakably above feeling, feeling dusty and dirty.


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