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.





Browning and Kierkegaard on Oblique or Indirect Communication

Browning from near the end of The Ring and the Book:

…learn one lesson hence
Of many which whatever lives should teach:
This lesson, that our human speech is naught,
Our human testimony false, our fame
And human estimation words and wind.
Why take the artistic way to prove so much?
Because, it is the glory and good of Art,
That Art remains the one way possible
Of speaking truth, to mouths like mine at least.
How look a brother in the face and say,
“Thy right is wrong, eyes has thou yet art blind;
Thine ears are stuffed and stopped, despite their length:
And, oh, the foolishness thou countest faith!”
Say this as silvery as tongue can troll–
The anger of the man may be endured,
The shrug, the disappointed eyes of him
Are not so bad to bear–but here’s the plague
That all this trouble comes of telling truth.
Which truth, by when it reaches him, looks false,
Seems to be just the thing it would supplant,
Nor recognizable by whom it left;
While falsehood would have done the work of truth.
But Art, –where in man nowise speaks to men,
Only to mankind, –Art may tell a truth
Obliquely, do the thing shall breed the thought,
Nor wrong the thought, missing the mediate word.
So may you paint your picture, twice show truth,
Beyond mere imagery on the wall, —
So, note by note, bring music from your mind,
Deeper than ever e’en Beethoven dived,–
So write a book shall mean beyond the facts,
Suffice the eye and save the soul beside.

And now some of Kierkegaard, from The Point of View:

No, an illusion can never be destroyed directly, and only by indirect means can it be radically removed.  If it is an illusion that all are Christians–and if there is anything to be done about it, it must be done indirectly, not by one who vociferously proclaims himself an extraordinary Christian, but by one who, better instructed, is ready to declare that he is not a Christian at all.  That is, one must approach from behind the person who is under an illusion.  Instead of wishing to have the advantage of being oneself that rare thing, a Christian, one must let the prospective captive enjoy the advantage of being the Christian, and for one’s own part have resignation enough to be the one who is far behind him–otherwise one will certainly not get the man out of his illusion.

Supposing then that a religious writer has become profoundly attentive to this illusion, Christendom, and has resolved to attack it which all the might at his disposal (with God’s aid, be it noted)–what then is he to do.  First and foremost, no impatience.  If he because impatient, he will rush headlong against it and accomplish nothing.  A direct attack only strengthens the person in his illusion, and at the same time embitters him.  There is nothing which requires such gentle handling as an illusion, if one wishes to dispel it.  If anything prompts the prospective captive to set his will in opposition, all is lost.  And this is what a direct attack achieves, and it implies moreover the presumption of requiring a man to make to another person, or in his presence, an admission which he can make most profitably to himself privately.  This is what is achieved by the indirect method, which, loving and serving the truth, arranges everything dialectically for the prospective captive, and then shyly withdraws (for love is always shy), so as not to witness the admission which he makes to himself alone before God–that he has lived under an illusion.

The religious writer must, therefore, first get into touch with men.  That is, he must begin with aesthetic achievement.  This is earnest-money.  The more brilliant the achievement, the better for him…Therefore, he must have everything in readiness, though without impatience, with a view to bringing forward the religious promptly, as soon as he perceives that he has his readers with him, so that with the momentum gained by devotion to the aesthetic they rush headlong into contact with the religious.

Comments to come.

Easter Day, Robert Browning (Poem)

Here are the opening lines of Browning’s awesome “Easter Day“.  Although my primary intent is eventually to say something about the relationship between Browning’s dramatis personae and Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms, I thought it might be useful to preface that with a bit of Browning speaking, as it were, in propria persona, and speaking in a way that, to anyone who knows Kierkegaard, will sound remarkably familiar.  The poem is a dialectical tour de force, a deep and deepening investigation of all the ways in which faith is denatured, each a way of making it easy or easier to be a Christian.

Easter Day

HOW very hard it is to be
A Christian! Hard for you and me,
—Not the mere task of making real
That duty up to its ideal,
Effecting thus complete and whole,
A purpose or the human soul—
For that is always hard to do;
But hard, I mean, for me and you
To realise it, more or less,
With even the moderate success
Which commonly repays our strife
To carry out the aims of life.
“This aim is greater,” you may say,
“And so more arduous every way.”
—But the importance of the fruits
Still proves to man, in all pursuits,
Proportional encouragement.
“Then, what if it be God’s intent
“That labour to this one result
“Shall seem unduly difficult?”
—Ah, that’s a question in the dark—
And the sole thing that I remark
Upon the difficulty, this;
We do not see it where it is,
At the beginning of the race:
As we proceed, it shifts its place,
And where we looked for palms to fall,
We find the tug’s to come,—that’s all.

Thinking About Believing

I consider my students and I consider myself–and I think:  our problem is that we know heaps and heaps of things but we believe nothing, or almost nothing.

A friend of mine asked me the other day about Christian religious belief and being a good person, about whether you can be a good person and disbelieve.  That sort of question I cannot answer formulaically, and would not, I hope, even if a formula came to mind.  What I found myself saying was something like this:

We most of us have no real knowledge of what we believe or disbelieve, in the existentially indexed form of belief I take ultimately to be at issue in Christianity.  What we believe or disbelieve is something that isn’t captured by putting a ‘T’ or an ‘F’ in the blank before, say, “There is a God”, on a True/False test.  Perhaps living a good life–a genuinely good life, not a conventionally good one–is itself to believe.  And perhaps living a bad life–a genuinely bad life, not a conventionally bad one–is to disbelieve.

What I said was something like that.  At any rate, I reckon that someone who has a false understanding of Christ could disbelieve in that Christ without disbelieving in Christ.  So too someone with a false understanding of Christ could believe in that Christ without believing in Christ.  Kierkegaard somewhere attempts to elucidate Christian belief by talking about it as ultimately a matter of the imitation of Christ:  imitation is the sincerest form of belief, we might say.  Does imitation–in the sense at issue, whatever exactly that is–require that one know that one is imitating, who one is imitating?

“No one can come to the Father except through me”, “I am the door of the sheep”:  couldn’t ‘going through’, ‘entering the door’, be a matter of what we are ontologically (salvation as theosis) and not, or not so much, a matter of what we are epistemologically, of what we believe in a non-existentially indexed sense?  “Not everyone who saith unto me Lord, Lord shall enter into the kingdom of heaven…”   Will non-existentially indexed denial prevent entrance?

What significance would all this have for the Church?  Well, that is a huge topic.  But Orthodoxy has taught me to believe that although we know where the Holy Spirit is (in the Church) we do not know where it isn’t. –What the Church does is to help us to live a good life, a genuinely good life, to live in imitation of Christ, deliberate imitation, and imitation of Christ truly understood.

Living a genuinely good life is far harder than we reckon it to be, I think, far harder; a camel passing through the eye of a needle.  Both inside the Church and outside it, people underestimate how hard it is.  Mea maxima culpa.  And it is not just hard to live a genuinely good life, it is just as hard to figure out what one would be, what it would look like.  Especially on your own, especially in situ.  “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, that leads to life, and few there be that find it.”  Travelling the way is hard, yes; but finding it is just as hard.

I know there is much to complain about here–but I am just thinking aloud, quasserting, not asserting.

No Massing of Men with God–A Thought on MacDonald and Kierkegaard

Here’s an important reminder from George MacDonald:

There is no massing of men with God.  When he speaks of gathered men, it is as a spiritual body, not a mass.

I have Orthodox friends who attack Kierkegaard’s individualism.  Perhaps there is something to attack there, perhaps not, but all too often their attack is that Kierkegaard’s overemphasis on the individual obscures our ties to one another and makes nonsense of Christian ecclesiology.  But I say, briefly, bearing MacDonald in mind, that Kierkegaard is not making nonsense of ecclesiology, but rather preparing the way for it, by making sure that we understand that there is no massing of men with God–and that the church is not a mass, but a spiritual body:  a qualitatively different thing.

The deep similarities between MacDonald and Kierkegaard deserve study.

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. )

Some Hesitant Thoughts after Mooney

I find what Ed has written very helpful, as I said.  One reason for that is because he clearly recognizes the difficulty of self-knowledge—that is, the conceptual difficulty about it (not the difficulty of acquiring it, although it is difficult to acquire).  Self-knowledge is not simply a species of information, information about myself.  Sure, there is lots of information about me, and lots of it I know (and some of it is hard to know, I need, e.g., doctors or x-rays to tell me about it), but none of that is what Socrates or Kierkegaard or Emerson calls on me to care about.  –In fact, Kierkegaard and Emerson signal this by ringing changes on the Delphic Commandment—“Choose yourself!” (Kierkegaard) and “Obey yourself!” (Emerson), distancing themselves deliberately from ‘know’ (without disavowing it).

As I see it, the difficulty (the conceptual difficulty) of self-knowledge reveals itself best when it is seen in the context of Perfectionism.  Now, although I am not quite a Moral Perfectionist of the Cavellian (Emersonian) sort, I am a Perfectionist.  (I suppose I could be called a Christian Perfectionist—of a Gregory-of-Nyssa sort.  Explaining that is a task for another day.)  And my Perfectionism can help itself to the “unattained but attainable self” structure that Cavell’s has.  Crucial to that structure is a form of self-involvement (in a non-pejorative sense) that can be described as knowing, as choosing and as obeying.  It can be described as discovery and as creativity.

Consider Kierkegaard’s “One must become a Christian.”  I take this as a grammatical remark.  But this means that no particular place a person finds himself on his Pilgrim’s Progress is going to be the final stop.  Even if the Pilgrim is, in one sense, a Christian, it will also be true that there is another sense in which he is not a Christian.  That is, for anyone who recognizes the grammatical remark, and lives in the light of that recognition, the term ‘Christian’ subdivides into two senses, one that applies to him now, and which seems to him now at best unsatisfying (conventional, rote, sclerotized, immanent), and another that does not (yet) apply to him now, but which seems to him to call him forward (and is unconventional, spontaneous, supple, transcendent).[1]  That person reaches out, as it were, toward the second sense by standing on the very edge of the first. The transcendent Christian self that the person is reaching out to is his own, himself, but is that transcendent self as yet is not fully determinate.  Who he will be when he becomes his transcendent Christian self is not (yet) fixed, not fully fixed.  And yet he will be himself.  He will be transmuted … into himself.  When he becomes his transcendent Christian self, he will come to know himself, but he will also choose himself, and he will obey himself.  He will discover himself and create himself.  Which of these descriptions we use will be a matter of how we center ourselves on the structure of his immanent Christian self and his transcendent Christian self.  If we center ourselves on the entire structure, then knowing is a natural enough description, since he comes to know a self he has not previously known, or to know about himself something he had not previously known.  If we center ourselves on his immanent self, then choosing is a natural enough description, since he determines or fixes, at least partially, that transcendent self.  Or, if we center ourselves on his transcendent self, then obeying is a natural enough description, since he has called himself  (immanent) to himself (transcendent).  So far as I can tell, none of these centerings is compulsory, all are available, and so each of the descriptions they generate is available—and natural enough. But even so, each of the descriptions is still in need delicate handling, since each is liable to be misunderstood.

Ed’s fascinating talk of ‘knowing-how’ relates to what I have in mind.  Ed understandably wants to retain the word knowledge (as I do too).  But since the knowledge we are after is not simply a species of information, a good thought is to treat the knowledge as know-how (where what is known is clearly enough not information).  Then we can think of our Christian as knowing how to become a Christian, and as utilizing his know-how by so doing.

Ed complicates his know-how story by bringing in ideas of loyalty, pledging and promising.  And here what he says sounds particularly Perfectionist.  When he mentions that the pledging he has in mind is “pledging-in-the-relative-dark”, I understand that as quite close to my idea that the transcendent self is not understood, not fully understood.

(I should add that although most of what I said on this topic in the previous post (and comments) painted self-knowledge as “confessional” or “reflective” (to use Ed’s terms) I too believe there is a commissive side to all of this, and that is part of the reason I have chosen to foreground my Perfectionist framework as I have.  Ed’s post helped me to see how better to balance what I wanted to say.)

Knowing, choosing and obeying are each natural enough descriptions, but each is liable to misunderstanding.  That all of the descriptions are natural enough reveals that each has its liability, since each normally ‘negates’ the other.  To seize one and to reject the others is not a good idea; the phenomenon to be saved is responsive to each, and not just serially but somehow all at once.  Socrates calls us to examine ourselves, so as to live worthily.  Kierkegaard calls us to choose ourselves, so that we are responsible for ourselves.  Emerson calls us out in front of ourselves, so that we can become our best.

[1] Each transcendent self condemns the immanent self and inspires its own eventual condemnation, since as it becomes immanent a new transcendent self becomes visible.

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