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.





Emerson on Montaigne, a New Start

Last year, around this time, I was writing here about Emerson’s essay on Montaigne.  I got distracted from that and moved on to other things.  But I am going to get back to it now.  Look for more posts in the coming days.  In the meantime, you might want to look at the initial post I wrote last year.

Emerson on Montaigne 1

Here is one of the great passages in Emerson’s essay on Montaigne:

Let us have a robust manly life, let us know what we know for certain.  What we have, let it be solid, and seasonable, and our own.  A world in the hand is worth two in the bush.  Let us have to do with real men and women, and not with skipping ghosts.

This, then, is the right ground of the skeptic, this of consideration, of selfcontaining, not at all of unbelief, not at all of universal denying, not of universal doubting, doubting even that he doubts, least of all, of scoffing, and profligate jeering at all that is stable and good.  These are no more his moods, than are those of religion and philosophy.  He is the Considerer, the prudent, taking in sail, counting stock, husbanding his means, believing that man has too many enemies, than that he can afford to be his own foe; that conflict, with powers so vast and unweariable ranged on one side, and this little conceited vulnerable popinjay that a man is, bobbing up and down into every danger, on the other.  It is a position taken up for better defense, as of more safety, and one that can be maintained, and it is one of more opportunity and range; as, when we build a house, the rule is, to set it not too high nor too low, under the wind, but out of the dirt.

The philosophy we want is one of fluxions and mobility.  The Spartan and Stoic schemes are too stark and stiff for our occasion  A theory of Saint John, and of nonresistance, seems, on the other hand, too thin and aerial.  We want some coat woven of elastic steel, stout as the first, and limber as the second.  We want a ship, in these billows we inhabit.  An angular dogmatic house would be rent to chips, and splinters, in this storm of many elements.  No, it must be tight, and fit to the form of man, to live at all; as a shell must dictate the architecture of a house founded on the sea.  The soul of man must be the type of our scheme, just as the body of man is the type after which a dwellinghouse is built.  Adaptiveness is the peculiarity of human nature.  We are golden averages, volitant stabilities, compensated or periodic errours, houses founded on the sea.

The wise skeptic wishes to have a near view of the best game and the chief players…

The terms of admission to this spectacle are, that he have a certain solid and intelligible way of living of his own, some method of answering the inevitable needs of human life; proof that he has played with skill and success:  that he has evinced the temper, stoutness, and the range of qualities which, among his contemporaries and countrymen, entitle him to fellowship and trust.  For, the secrets of life are not shown except to sympathy and likeness.  Men do not confide themselves to boys, or coxcombs, or pedants, but to their peers.  Some wise limitation, as the modern phrase is; some condition between the extremes, and having itself a positive quality, some stark and sufficient man…These qualities meet in the character of Montaigne.

Emerson here complicates together a remarkable number of lines of thought.  It will take me more than one post to identify some and to follow them out.  The line of thought I want to identify and follow out now is the characterization of Montaigne’s skepticism Emerson offers.

What strikes me about what Emerson offers is its modulating from an epistemological, through a moral and finally to an existential register.  Montaigne’s life is skeptical, he lives skeptically.  But that is not to say of his life that it centers on doubt.  Like Kierkegaard’s Climacus, Emerson’s Montaigne mistrusts De Omnibus Dubitandum Est.  For a skeptic of Montaigne’s sort, any reconsideration on knowledge is not ultimately so much epistemological, an attempt to determine how much, and exactly what, we know, as  axiological, a reconsideration of the value and place of knowledge in our lives.  What we need, we might say, is shipshape knowledge, knowledge fit for our billowy life.  The point is not whether knowledge is possible, but what value knowledge can have in a properly solid and intelligible way of living.  The secrets of life do not yield themselves up to epistemological methods, not even the method of doubt, but instead to a life lived in wise limitation–where that limitation is experienced, either by the person living it or those living lives he touches, as a fullness, a kind of charm–as something to rally to.  It is not experienced as mere self-denial, as a disownment of robustness, good temper, stoutness.  Quite otherwise.  The wise limitations limn the soul of man, allowing it to be taken as the blueprint for a house always already launched on the sea, built and rebuilt afloat.  It is with the sea that we need to find sympathy and likeness.

We believe that above the surface of the water, in the sky, there is security, a world that would not require of us skill or success; we believe that below the surface of the water, in the depths, there is security, a world that would not require of us skill or success.  But a world in the hand–on the surface of the waters–is worth two in the bush, whether we figure the bush as sky or depths.  We want to live without having to adapt, despite the fact that adapting is what we do, natural to us.  But Montaigne will have us adapt, have us exercise our skills and strive for success.  Compared to the bush-worlds, the world Montaigne tells us we are in is a world in which we must be gamesters, must be game.  But we can play the odds, so to speak, and build neither too high nor too low.  We may not have security but we can defend ourselves.  Our seafaring lives can be both stark and sufficient.

Emerson Finds Montaigne

…[S]ince the personal regard which I entertain for Montaigne my be unduly great, I will, under the shield of the prince of egotists, offer, as an apology for electing him as the representative of skepticism, a world or two to explain how my love began and grew for this admirable gossip.

A single odd volume of Cotton’s translation of the essays remained to me from my father’ library, when a boy.  It lay long neglected, until, after many years, when I was newly escaped from college, I read the book, and procured the remaining volumes.  I remember the delight and wonder in which I lived with it.  It seemed to me as if I myself had written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience.  It happened, when in Paris, in 1833, that, in the cemetery of Pere la Chaise, I came to a tomb of Auguste Collignon, who died in 1830, aged sixty-eight years, and who, said the monument, “lived to do right, and had formed himself to virtue on the Essays of Montaigne.”  Some years later, I became acquainted with an accomplished English poet, John Sterling; and, in prosecuting my correspondence, I found that, from a love of Montaigne, he had made a pilgrimage to his château, still standing…and, had copied from the walls of his library the inscriptions which Montaigne had written there.

“I remember the delight and wonder in which I lived with it.”  My life has been punctuated by books:  Plato, in high school; Plotinus and Schopenhauer and Santayana, in college; Kant and Austin, in graduate school; Wittgenstein and Frege, in my first years at Auburn; Marcel and Montaigne, in recent days.  Who knows what book will speak to him?  Or when?  But some books do speak so sincerely to our thought and experience that we cannot help but believe those books written by us–for how else could they have so undeniably been written for us?

Often when we read, the book says to us, “Your concern is not mine.  My hour has not yet come.”  But then, later, the book’s hour does come, and it reveals itself on time:  emerging from a pile of books knocked over in the corner of the study; called forth by some phrase in another book; mentioned repeatedly in conversation:  and then we read, we drink deep; the good wine was kept until now.  I simply cannot say with what delight and wonder I read Philosophical Investigations when I found I could read it, when its hour had come.  The thrill of the Preface to Foundations of Arithmetic had me running, more or less, up and down the department hallway, trying to get anyone whose office door was open to listen to me as I read passages from it aloud.  When I read Frege’s Three Principles, I had the feeling of great doors flung open suddenly–something I desperately wanted to understand was opened to me, even if it was not yet mine.  I think too of littler things:  the comic marvel of Austin’s footnotes; the incisive charm of Sellars’ occasional metaphilosophical pronouncements (“The landscape of philosophy is not only not a desert, it is not even a flatland”); and so on.  The many and varied pleasures of philosophical reading.

Emerson lived with Montaigne’s essays.  He did not just read them.  Our lives are read within our favorite books; the books are not read within our lives.  The covers of our favorite books enclose us.  Our lives are bound by our reading.

Some Underdeveloped Thoughts on Montaigne’s Style

What should be said about the way Montaigne writes?  He writes essays–as he says, if his mind could gain a firm footing, he would not make essays, he would make decisions, but his mind is always in apprenticeship and on trial.  On apprenticeship and on trial:  what Montaigne says of his mind I apply to his words.  His words are on apprenticeship and on trial.  His words are apprenticed to his subject, they are on trial by their use.  The question is:  will this word do?  Do what it needs to do, stand the test it must stand, carry the burden it must carry.  Above all, his words must portray passing, not being.  They must be capable of illumining the moment of obligation in experience, where ‘moment’ means both a brief period of time and an important point in a course of development.  But they must be able to do so in a way that does not make of the moment of obligation anything that steps free of the experience, that steps free of time.  Even the moment of obligation in experience passes.  So his words must be chosen in such a way that they do not arrest time or run from it.

One of the deepest peculiarities of Montaigne’s essays is that they too pass in time, in his time and in the reader’s time.  Consider the way in which most essays are organized spatially and not temporally, even where on occasion their logico-rhetorical form is temporal.  Most essays are written in such a way that the entire essay is to be understood as ultimately present to the reader’s mind all at once, in a timeless present, as it were.  The introduction to the essay is not earlier than the body, or the body earlier than the conclusion; no, the introduction is above the body, which in turn is above the conclusion.  Although it may take the reader time to work from top to bottom, all the parts of the essay are compresent, and understanding it means coming to hold all its parts together in compresence, in what Augustine might have called the present of the present, available to one contemporary summary observation.  But Montaigne’s essays pass.  The introduction become the past of the body which becomes the past of the conclusion.  Each part jettisons the earlier part, takes its place in the present.  The essay is thus not available to observation, but instead to memory, where it is still not present all at once, but rather passes in review.

Now I should say that I am not venturing into the metaphysics of composition or of reading here.  Instead I am picturing two different processes and two different understandings of composition and reading.  The crucial idea is that the parts of Montaigne’s essays replace each other, they do not exist together with the other parts.  That does not mean that the earlier parts do not bear on the later, but rather that they bear on the later parts in a different way.  Montaigne changes as he writes the essay.  Sometimes he intends to change; sometimes he just does.  And the moment of obligation in his experience changes too.  So what he writes now may not agree or harmonize with what he wrote earlier.  But since what he is presently writing supplants what he wrote earlier, he sees no reason to treat the disagreement as vitiating the essay.  The essay may contradict or be in tension with itself but it does not contradict and is not in tension with the truth.  The conclusion of his essay concludes the essay but it is not a conclusion in the logical sense.  The essay starts and ends but its beginning is not a function of its ending in any argumentative sense, although the beginning and the ending are thematically united, united by subject.

The essay I have been leaning on as I have written this is Montaigne’s “Of Repentance”.  I have been leaning particularly on its opening paragraphs.  That essay’s title provides a way of focusing what I have been struggling to say.  Montaigne’s words are always in apprenticeship and trial.  Because of this, Montaigne writes so as not to have to repent for his essays:  He does not teach, he tells. He tells us what he sees as he sees it.  What Montaigne tells now may contradict what he told earlier, or at any rate may not chime perfectly with it, but what he tells now never contradicts him–he remains always in creative fidelity to himself.  He also remains in creative fidelity to the relevant moment of obligation in experience.  But he does not worry about remaining in creative fidelity with what he has already told; that is, in an important sense, gone.  He did his best with it as he does with what he is telling, but he is no longer responsible to it.

Spending time trying to unify a Montaigne essay wastes time.  If an essay is out of agreement with itself, then it is.  There is no deeper unity.  But that does not mean that each essay is out of agreement with itself.  It may be that the later parts of the essay are such that, although they do not follow from the earlier, they follow the earlier, in the sense that they progressively enrich and deepen the creative fidelity of Montaigne’s treatment of himself and of his subject.

Now the lines of my painting do not go astray, though they change and vary.  The world is but a perennial movement.  All things in it are in constant motion–the earth, the rocks of the Caucasus, the pyramids of Egypt–both with the common motion and with their own.  Stability itself is nothing more than a languid motion.

Reading “RM” 11: “The Grace of Our First Certainties”

Now to address the final section of Merleau-Ponty’s “Reading Montaigne”.  The section winds together the earlier sections, attempting to describe the conditions and motives for Montaigne’s “return to the world”.  The initial paragraphs of the section set the tone:

It is not a question of reaching a reassuring conclusion at no matter what cost, nor of forgetting at the end what has been found on the way.  It is from doubt that certainty will come.  So we must measure the extent of it.  Let us repeat that all belief is passion and makes us beside ourselves, that we can believe only by ceasing to think, that wisdom is a resolution to be irresolute, that it condemns friendship, love, and public life.  And so here we are back to ourselves again.  And we find chaos still, with death, the emblem of all disorders, on the horizon.  Cut off from others, cut off from the world, incapable of finding within himself…and in an inner relationship to God the means of justifying the world’s comedy, Montaigne’s wise man, it would seem, no longer has any conversation except with that life he perceives welling madly within him for a little while longer, any resource except the most general derision, any motive except despising himself and all things.  In this disorder, why not give up?  Why not take the animals for a model–these neighing horses, these swans who sing as they die–why not join them in unconsciousness?  The best thing would be to go back to the puerile security, the ignorance of beasts.  Or to invent, against the feeling of death, some natural religion:  the extinction of a life is the way to a thousand other lives.

This movement is to be found in Montaigne.  But there is another one, too, which appears just as often…[T]he mind’s movement and irresolution are only half of the truth.  The other half is the marvel that our volubility has stopped, and at each moment stops again, in appearances which we may indeed show cannot withstand examination, but which at least had the air of truth, and gave us the idea of it.  Though, when it questions itself, never stops prolonging and contradicting itself, but there is a thought in act which is no little thing, and which we have to take into account.  The critique of human understanding destroys only if we cling to the idea of a complete or absolute understanding.  If on the contrary we rid ourselves of this idea, then thought in act, as the only possible thought, becomes the measure of all things and the equivalent of an absolute.  The critique of passions does not deprive them of their value if it is carried to the point of showing that we are never in possession of ourselves and that passion is ourselves.  At this moment, reasons for doubting become reasons for believing.  The only effect of our whole critique is to make our passions and our opinions more precious by making us see that they are our only recourse, and that we do not understand ourselves by dreaming of something different.  Then we find the fixed point we need (if we want to bring our versatility to a stop) not in the bitter religion of nature (that somber divinity who multiplies his works for nothing), but in the fact that there is opinion, the appearance of the good and true.  Then regaining nature, naiveté, and ignorance means regaining the grace of our first certainties in the doubt which rings them round and makes them visible.

Volubility, versatility, visibility; a truly astonishing passage.  Focus for now on the two Critiques, one of human understanding and one of human passion.  Merleau-Ponty reads Montaigne as a Critical philosopher, even as anticipating Kant’s first two Critiques, although Kant’s Critiques and Montaigne’s are deeply different.

But the idea of reading Montaigne as a Critical philosopher, for me a philosopher of limits, is deeply right.  Kant cartographizes transcendentally, finding reflection’s limits as reflection plays out.  Montaigne cartographizes existentially, finding his own limits as he plays himself out.  And what he finds is that unacted reflection plays itself out in a sickly, kill-joy chortle, chilling life itself in the pallor of thought; and that unreflected action plays itself out in pointless passions, vaunting vanities as lasting values.  Thought in act, as Merleau-Ponty says, becomes the equivalent of an absolute.  Thought in act:  the meeting point of the two Critiques, a place from which we can see what is genuinely precious and can see how we distort it, devalue it, by dreaming dreams of complete possession of ourselves in understanding or of completely dispossessing ourselves of our passions.  

The point is not, of course, that thought in act is always true–‘always true’:  both not false and not faithless.  We are all too often false and faithless.  But when we manage thought in act, we make ourselves available to the world and to others while remaining handy to ourselves.  Such availability and such handiness are not to be understood as complete self-possession or as complete apatheia.  In fact, such availability and handiness are irreconcilable with complete self-possession or complete apatheia, since thought in act is humble and vulnerable, not sequestered, aware of our opacity to ourselves and of the permanence of our passions.  We have to acknowledge that we are ringed round with doubt, like an island in an ocean, but acknowledging that allows us to start westward to Eden, to leave our nodding dreaminess.  It allows us to once again be graced by our first certainties:  graced—acknowledging that here where we are and there where we are going there are no Pelagian certainties.  Our original sin is our conviction that we can achieve the absolute.  All we can hope for is to live in an absolute relationship to it.  And, surprisingly perhaps, that requires that we live in a relative relationship to ourselves, without derision never taking ourselves fully seriously, never forgetting that we are investigators without knowledge, magistrates without jurisdiction, and, all in all, the fools of the farce.

Our Sickly, Kill-joy Mind…

Xerxes was a fool, who, wrapped in all human pleasures, went and offered a prize to anyone who would find him others.  But hardly less of a fool is the man who cuts off those that nature has found for him.  We should neither pursue nor flee them, and we should accept them.  I accept them with more gusto and better grace than most, and more willingly let myself follow a natural inclination.  We have no need to exaggerate their inanity; it makes itself felt enough and evident enough.  Much thanks to our sickly, kill-joy mind, which disgusts us with them as well as itself.  It treats both itself and all that it takes in, whether future or past, according to its insatiable, erratic and versatile nature.  Montaigne, “Of Experience”

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