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.

Best,

 

Kelly

 

Lewis White Beck Memorial Remarks

I happened across this while doing a little cleaning up.  I wrote it to honor my teacher, Lewis White Beck, at a memorial conference held for him at the University of Rochester (September, 1998).  He was a wonderful teacher, a wonderful man.

Beck Panel Memorial Remarks

“Kantian Hurly-Burly” (William James)

Well, Kant’s way of describing the facts is mythological.  The notion of our thought being this sort of an elaborate internal machine-shop stands condemned by all we said in favor of its simplicity…Our Thought is not composed of parts, however so composed its objects may be.  There is no chaotic manifold in it to be reduced to order.  There is something almost shocking in the notion of so chaste a function carrying this Kantian hurly-burly in her womb…The Ego is simply nothing; as ineffectual and windy an abortion as Philosophy can show.  It would indeed be one of Reason’s tragedies if the good Kant, with all his honesty and strenuous pains, should have deemed this conception an important outbirth of his thought.  (Principles I, pp. 363-365.)

William can extend his metaphor–for good or ill.

 

And Now for a Moment in Kant’s Imagination…?

Bloody_Hell_32

From Asher Moore’s “Existentialism and the Tradition”:

In Kant’s synthesis, transcendence was prior, existence derivative.  There is one place in his thought, however, at which it looks like he might reverse this order.  This is the concluding section of the Dialectic.  Leibniz’ pretensions to knowledge of self, other selves, and God have just been disposed of.  We have not yet been told, except in asides, that those realities are still there, busy changing into their second-act costumes.  Here on this watershed, and for just a moment, there is a sense that God, self and other selves are indeed present, but present as absent, as ideals and lures, as almost empty memories.

If one were determined to find nothing new in existentialism, to hold it derivative through and through, I think one would derive it, not really from Hume–who, except to the eyes of fondest affection, is too one-sided–but from this particular moment in Kant–this moment when, in Kant’s imagination, Hume stands alone on the battlefield, the unchallenged victor, but suddenly and poignantly moved by the grandeurs he has struck down.  For existentialists, transcendence, the ontological dimension, is present, but taken in its own inner sense, per se, it is present as an ideal, a standard of comparison–something regretted or hoped for, heard or plighted–a brave, comic pretension.

Kant, Intuition and Direction of Fit

Nothing teaches better than teaching.  I’ve been trying to ease (!) my Intro students into Kant’s Prolegomena.  In the last class, we talked about directions of fit, world-to-mind and mind-to-world.  It had never struck me (clearly) that Kant’s story about intuition makes it the case that pure intuition enjoys one direction of fit, world-to-mind, while empirical intuition enjoys another direction of fit, mind-to-world*.  I suppose that is or ought to have been obvious to me, but it didn’t seem to be.  I may have missed it (if we need an explanation other than my not being overly bright or my being careless) because I had gotten so focused on the distinction between spontaneity and receptivity, and the differences in their respective directions of fit, and in thinking of the categories as spontaneous and intuition as receptive, that it hadn’t occurred to me that intuition could itself embody both directions of fit.

I guess we could say that intuition itself has a spontaneity (call it “anticipation”) and a receptivity.  Its having a spontaneity is what makes pure mathematics possible (since pure mathematics constitutionally involves the spontaneity of intuition).  –The Copernican revolution reaches all the way into intuition.  Huh.  It seems I had thought of it as reaching only into judgment, categorically.  I mean, of course I knew that intuition was both pure and empirical, but I did not (fully) see that as already thematizing the synergy of spontaneity and receptivity.  –Duh.

*I’ve edited the terminology here from the initial post.  I had reversed the use of the standard terms.  Apologies.

Getting Them Hooked

I begin Kant’s Prolegomena in my Intro to Phil class today.  Having students read the book is a stretch, but I rather like the way I excerpt it, and I think it provides a fitting capstone for the course (we also read Plato’s Theaetetus and Descartes Meditations)  As you might guess, the Ariadne’s thread through this maze is the notion of knowledge.  Today, we start Kant by talking about rationalism, empiricism and the antinomies, with emphasis on the antinomies.

I can’t read the Prolegomena without thinkng about a quip from my colleague, Roderick Long.  “‘Prolegomena’ is Greek for ‘gateway drug'”.

Completed Draft of New Talk

Since I posted bits of this already–its first part yesterday and its last part a while back–I thought I would go ahead and post the whole thing.  I find writing talks for audiences that will include both philosophers and non-philosophers especially hard.  I wish I were better at it.

Philosophical Investigations and Three Kinds of Illusion:  A Talk

Final Paragraphs of New Talk: Philosophical Investigations

[I’m unsure how much sense these paragraphs make without the preceding 15 pages or so. First draft material.]

Allow me to reiterate my thinking about the three illusions in PI As I have said, I think that transcendental illusions are central to PI, central to understanding its conception of philosophical problems. But I do not mean to deny that the other two types of illusion make appearances in PI. They do. If they didn’t, the other two readings of PI I have discussed would probably never have tempted anyone. But I do not think either of those other two illusions is central in the way transcendental illusion is central. Even more, although I do not have time to detail this now, I also think that the other two types of illusion can metastasize into transcendental illusions, and that what seems merely an empirical or logical illusion can itself be revealed to be or involve a transcendental illusion.

Still, I suspect at this point that you may be less interested in this nicety of housekeeping and more interested in the spirit-sinking midwinter bleakness of the picture of philosophical problems that I have been presenting. Haven’t I said that philosophical problems don’t get solved? —Yes. Haven’t I said that the best we can hope for is to cope with them, and that only temporarily? —Yes. Isn’t that an incredible downer? —Yes. —No. —Yes and no.

Let me revert to Kant once more, while also recalling my opening remarks. At least from his early 20’s, Kant is vexed by the uncanny fact that for so long and so often philosophers of equal education and gifts, each deeply serious and sincere, persist in apparently irreconcilable conflict. Kant regards this as a disgrace to reason. We can think of Kant’s entire philosophical career as driven by his passionate concern to settle conflicts in philosophy—not by entering a judgment in favor of either of the conflicting philosophers, but rather by entering a judgment on the conflict itself, by finding a way to end it. Kant first pictured these conflicts as between philosophers; but he later came to picture them as conflicts between arguments; and still later he came to picture them as reason in conflict with itself, as reason having fallen out of agreement with itself. This became Kant’s new picture of the uncanny fact: reason can fall into apparently irreconcilable conflict with itself.

Wittgenstein we can think of as accepting and, in a sense, extending this movement of Kant’s. He comes to see philosophical problems as manifesting my having fallen out of agreement with myself. It is this uncanny fact about me—and about you too of course—that is the mainspring of PI. Philosophical problems are all at once conceptual, i.e., invulnerable to the empirical, and also deeply personal, personal in the sense that I am at stake in them in various ways, personal in the sense that the problems encroach upon me. My desires and longings, my needs and fears, –my whole affective being potentially is part of the problem. Because it is, we cannot take a simply objective approach to the problems. We must instead always and everywhere approach the problem subjectively, attending to our mode of involvement in it. And there is always already one of those whenever we reflect on a philosophical problem. (Reflecting on a philosophical problem is not an empty holding of something, of the problem.) I am a part of, involved in, every philosophical problem that I take up, like it or not. You too are part of every philosophical problem you take up. The mode of involvement in the problem matters and is, in fact, itself a part of the problem. When we see this, we are also position so as to see what PI is showing each of us: I am susceptible to transcendental illusion. I can, with practice, develop a discipline of response to such illusions. I can teach myself—-with the aid of PI—-to push back against the pressures of transcendental illusion, to stick to ordinary realities. But learning this discipline neither ends philosophy itself for me nor ends any philosophical problem permanently. I have to recognize that I am tempted and I need to find a way of responding to the temptation other than yielding to it. And I have to recognize that there is no way simply to end temptation. I should expect to be tempted until my last breath. But none of this makes much sense if we think that philosophical problems can be independent of modes of reception. To care about illusion as Wittgenstein does is to care about modes of involvement and vice-versa: To use `illusion’ as a term of criticism as Wittgenstein does is to bring the mode of involvement in a philosophical problem into work on the problem.

Philosophy, as Wittgenstein teaches it to us in PI, is transcendental dialectic, but Wittgenstein’s transcendental dialectic is self-critique. Philosophy is self-critique. Philosophy is a form of self-knowledge. Is that a downer? No: there is philosophy to be done. There is always philosophy to be done. Self-critique has no endgame. Even more, there is progress of a sort that can be made. I can become better at resisting temptation, better at recognizing its onset; I can discipline myself to push back harder and for longer and with better focus. That is, I can come better to know myself in such a way that I become better at controlling myself. I cannot make myself impassible, invulnerable to temptation. But I can respond to it better, yield to it less often or less easily. Still, isn’t that a downer? Yes: since such self-knowledge is, face it, almost always bitter. (What I discover will not be things of which I have been ignorant, simply epistemically blank, but things I have refused to know, to acknowledge.) We would all rather not do philosophy as self-examination, self-critique. We would rather do it as distinct from the self, as objective investigation in which my self does not count. We would like to be the investigators of the investigation but not the investigated. We want to be neither shaken nor stirred.

One quick parting comment: We can understand the similarity and difference between Kant and Wittgenstein and their transcendental dialectics in this memorable way, even if it may be slightly misleading: for Kant, we see things aright philosophically when we come to see that the solutions to philosophical problems must be transcendental idealist solutions. For Wittgenstein, we become what we need to be philosophically when we become `transcendental idealists’ about the problems themselves. Wittgenstein’s Copernican Revolution (PI 108) revolves the problems—and, thus revolved, we can see past the apparent need for a solution to them. So, since I have been talking about downers, let me end with a hurrah: Vive la revolution!

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.

Enjoy!

Hamann and the Tradition

Hamann and the Traditon (Northwestern University Press) is just out.  My essay:  “Metaschematizing Socrates:  Hamann, Kierkegaard and Kant on the Value of the Enlightenment” is included.  The editor, Lisa Marie Anderson, did a nice job with the volume.  Lots of good stuff on Hamann—including especially an essay by my friend, John Betz, who is the Hamann guy (not that that’s all he is, by any means).

(I just noticed an annoying mistake in my paper, no doubt due to my faulty proofreading.  The final footnote should compare Socrates to St. John the Baptist, not to Saint Paul, as it does. )

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