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.





“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…?


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

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