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.





Immortal Openings, 12: John Fowles, Daniel Martin

The first sentence of one of my favorite novels, maybe even my favorite (certainly it, along with John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts, is a contender for Favorite Contemorary Novel):

Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation.

If you don’t know the remarkable prose poem, “The Harvest”, that is the first chapter of the book, do make its acquaintance soon.

Fowles was influenced by Teilhard de Chardin, who writes in the Forward (“Seeing”) to The Phenomenon of Man:

. . . the history of the living world can be summarized as the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes within a cosmos in which there is always something more to be seen. After all, do we not judge the perfection of an animal, or the supremacy of a thinking being, by the penetration and synthetic power of their gaze? To try to see more and better is not a matter of whim or curiosity or self-indulgence.To see or to perish is the very condition laid upon everything that makes up the universe, by reason of the mysterious gift of existence.

I would add something about Iris Murdoch and vision, but I suspect my readers can supply the requisite something themselves.  (I will add that I find the ‘fit’ between the  de Chardin passage and various passages in Merleau-Ponty worth pondering–and it further suggests thinking more about Fowles’ novel in light of Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of vision.)

Merleau-Ponty Underwrites Wittgenstein?

From The Visible and the Invisible:

We need only take language…in the living or nascent state, with all its references, those behind it, which connect it to the mute things it interpellates, and those it sends before itself and which make up the world of things said–with its movement, its subtleties, its reversals, its life, which expresses and multiplies tenfold the life of the bare things.  Language is a life, is our life and the life of the bare things.  Not that language takes possession of life and reserves it for itself:  what would there be to say if there existed nothing but things said?  it is the error of the semantic philosophies to close up language as if it spoke only of itself:  language lives only from silence; everything we cast to the others has germinated in this great mute land which we never leave.  But because he has experienced within himself the need to speak, the birth of speech as the bubbling up at the bottom of his mute experience, the philosopher knows better than anyone that what is lived is lived-spoken, that, born at this depth, language is not a mask over Being, but–if one knows how to grasp it with all its roots and foliation–the most valuable witness to Being, that it does not interrupt an immediation that would be perfect without it, that the vision itself, the thought itself, are, as has been said, “structured as language,” are articulation before the letter, apparition of something where there was nothing or something else…Philosophy itself is language, rests on language; but this does not disqualify it from speaking of language, nor from speaking of the pre-language and of the mute world which doubles them:  on the contrary, philosophy is an operative language, that language that can be known only from within, through its exercise, is open upon the things, called forth by the voices of silence, and continues an effort of articulation which is the Being of every being.

Merleau-Ponty’s Ocular Body (Poem)

Another in my series (?) of poems about phenomenologists.







Merleau-Ponty’s Ocular Body

Aristotle’s illustration

In the De Anima:

Imagine that the eye were a whole organism—

Then sight would be its soul.

A good enough illustration, I suppose,

In context.

But then you read Merleau-Ponty,

You watch him strain to see, see,

To see with his entire body, his integral being,

And you do not have to imagine anything:

Sight is his soul.

Draft of MMP Talk

Here is a draft of a talk I am to give soon.  I was asked to present something that might inspire majors and non-majors, and to do something more like what I would do in a class than what I would do giving a conference paper.  This is the result so far.  It is a  formalization of the sort of thing I might do in an upper-level class.  Since I think of it as a talk and not a paper, it is not bedecked with all the scholarly niceties–footnotes or full footnotes, etc.  Most of the footnotes are really just drawers in which I have stashed useful quotations or (I hope) brief, helpful clarifications.  Comments welcome.

Keeping Your Distance: More on Merleau-Ponty (Philosophical Questions 6)

Just as we do not speak for the sake of speaking but speak to someone of something or of someone, and in this initiative of speaking an aiming at the world and at the others is involved upon which is suspended all that which we say; so also the lexical signification and even the pure significations which are deliberately reconstructed, such as those of geometry, aim at a universe of brute being and of coexistence, toward which we were already thrown when we spoke and thought, and which, for its part, by principle does not admit the procedure of objectifying or reflective approximation, since it is at a distance, by way of horizon, latent or dissimulated.  It is that universe that philosophy aims at, that is, as we say, the object of philosophy—but here never will the lacuna be filled in, the unknown transformed into the known; the “object” of philosophy will never come to fill in the philosophical question, since this obturation would take from it the depth and distance that are essential to it. The effective, present, ultimate and primary beings, the thing itself, are in principle apprehended in transparency through their perspectives, offer themselves therefore only to someone who wishes not to have them but to see them, not to hold them, as with forceps, or to immobilize them as under the objective of a microscope, but to let them be and to witness their continued being—to someone who therefore limits himself to giving them the hollow, the free space they ask for in return, the resonance they require, who follows their own movement, who is therefore not a nothingness the full being would come to stop up, but a question consonant with the porous being which it questions and from which it obtains not an answer, but a confirmation of its astonishment.  It is necessary to comprehend perception as this interrogative thought which lets the perceived world be rather than posits it, before which the things form and undo themselves in a sort of gliding, beneath the yes and the no. (The Visible and the Invisible)

In one of the essays in Signs, MMP says this about seeing:  “Seeing is that strange way of rendering ourselves present while keeping our distance…”  In his lecture, “In Praise of Philosophy”, he talks of philosophy as the Utopia of possession at a distance.  And he goes on from the long passage I have quoted above to talk of philosophy as a way of encountering what is far-off as far-off.  Has any philosopher ever made vision more definitive of philosophy than MMP?  When MMP thinks about philosophical questions and answers, he thinks in terms of seeing and of what is seen.  Distance is central:  “To possess ourselves we must begin by abandoning ourselves; to see the world we must first withdraw from it.”  But the distance must be a tethered distance:  it is a distance from something that is a way of rendering ourselves present to it, even while we remain distanced:   “A being which is in principle at a distance, in regard to which distance is a bond but with which there can be no question of coincidence.”  Given this, and given his conception of philosophy as interrogative, it is perhaps unsurprising that MMP comes to understand seeing itself as interrogative.  But if seeing is asking, how is the asking answered?  By having its astonishment confirmed.  And that means…what?  It means, I take it, that interrogative seeing reveals things as they thing and unthing, glidingly form and unform themselves, but in a way that is beneath, before, any yes or no, anything that would seem like a standard answer to a standard question.  (Interrogative seeing chips the sediment of traditon and habit and knowingness off things, the sediment that works like sand in the gears of things, keeping them frozen or relatively frozen, unable or nearly unable to glide.)  But since what I interrogatively see is of this sort, I can get it no nearer to me, and I cannot treat it as itself an answer to any traditional philosophical question.  I witness the instructive spontaneity of and in things, but that spontaneity neither confirms nor disconfirms standard philosophical questions, although it can, I take it, render those standard questions null or reveal them as sedimented and sedimenting.  Or, to put the matter differently, when we ask the standard questions, but not in the standard way, when the questions themselves become open-natured orientings upon Being, then the questions, while still not answered, create a free space; and, in that free space, there is

the disclosure of a Being that is not posited because it has no need to be, because it is silently behind all our affirmations, negations, and even behind all formulated questions, not that it is a matter of forgetting them in its silence, not that it is a matter of imprisoning it in our chatter, but because philosophy is the reconversion of silence and speech into one another…

Indeed, so understood, philosophy would seem impossible–it would be the rendering commensurate, first one way and then another, of two incommensurates; yes, it would seem impossible; except that the re-commensuration, the reconversion, happens on MMP’s pages, in a hard-won language that speaks silences and silences speech.

More anon.

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