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.





Kosman on a Characteristic Strategy of Plato

Rather than siding with one or the other moment of a controversial distinction, Plato often reframes the terms of the controversy in order to reveal lines of priority and to reveal the modes of dialectical dependence and underlying kinship that explain why thinking people could have in the first place held each side of the controversy.

Thus appearance is not (as though on some false Parmenidean model) figured as unreal by Plato, but rather (as on a true Parmenidean model) thought to constitute–although posterior to being–the very condition of its human appropriation, the condition, we might say, of being’s appearance.  Similarly with rhetoric and other modalities, both ontological and cognitive, in which the hierarchical relation of prior and posterior provide a more accurate model for reading Plato’s thought than do Gnostic-like models in which appearance is figured as illusion or rhetoric as lie.  –“Nature’s Law and Second Nature:  Philoosphers on Nomos and Physis”

John Wild on Psychologism

A focal text for my current Plato seminar:

To anyone who has followed Plato’s critique of the phenomenon of sophistry, it is evident that psychologism is not merely a dubious hypothesis to be corrected by distinguishing between logic and psychology.  It is a basic deformation of the understanding itself, which penetrates into every branch of philosophical endeavor, distorting both the elaborate procedures of academic philosophizing, as well as those less articulate, but more primordial, modes of apprehension by which man, as such, always, to some degree, understands the word and his station in it.


William Temple on Plato’s Vision of the Ideas

To us the Ideal Theory is myth, as it was to Plato in the later period.  Prof. Burnet wrote recently of the myths–“They have their roots in something older than philosophy, and possessing a vitality which is denied to philosophical systems.”  And just before he had pointed out that Aristotle, who begins with accepted facts and ends in myth, has always been a pillar of orthodoxy, while “most heresies come from Plato” because he insists on scientific treatment of ultimate questions.  This is no doubt true; but this distinction is rooted in another.  Here, as in all departments of human activity, the ultimate fact is temperament.  Aristotle was bound to produce a philosophy which would be a basis for orthodoxy, for, colossal as was his intellect–perhaps the greatest in history, –he was by temperament a churchwarden; and Plato was bound to be the philosophic father of many heretics because he was by temperament a Titan.  There is an inspiration in the spectacle of the old philosopher tearing in shreds his proudly built philosophy and beginning it all afresh.  But among his actual works what I have called “the old Ideal Theory,” which he himself rightly discarded, is worth more to mankind than the method of division elaborated in the Sophist and the Politicus…[This] may be of great scientific value, but [it imparts] no impulse.  The Ideal Theory, as held by Plato in his middle period, may be myth; but it is the outcome and expression of something more valuable than any specific doctrine, however true–of intellectual courage that refuses to allow any sphere to be set beyond the reach of knowledge, of mystic vision in which all that is mean and sordid disappears, and the temperamental fire without which no great achievement is possible in action or art.  —Mind 1908 (Vol 17 No 68)

Plato on The What and the How (but Especially the How)

…[I]t is barely possible for knowledge to be engendered of an object naturally good, in a man naturally good; but if his nature is defective, as is that of most men, for the acquisition of knowledge and the so-called virtues, and if the qualities he has have been corrupted, then not even Lynceus could make such a man see.  In short, neither quickness of learning nor a good memory can make a man see when his nature is not akin to the object, for this knowledge never takes root in an alien nature; so that no man who is not naturally inclined and akin to justice and all other forms of excellence, even though he may be quick at learning and remembering this and that and other things, nor any man who though akin to justice, is slow at learning and forgetful, will ever attain the truth that is attainable about virtue.  Nor about vice, either, for these must be learned together, just as the truth and error about any part of being must be learned together, through long and earnest labor…Only when all of these [instruments]–names, definitions, and visual and other perception–have been rubbed against one another and tested, pupil and teacher asking and answering questions in good will and without envy–only then, when reason and knowledge are at the very extremity of human effort, can the illuminate the nature of any object.  (Seventh Letter, 334a-b)

A Quick Thought on Plato

I have been teaching lots of Plato lately:  The Theaetetus in my Intro to Phil class; the Euthydemus and the Phaedrus (so far) in Ancient; and I’m doing a reading group on the Symposium (using Shelley’s translation–edited and introduced by the inimitable David O’Conner). It’s been a long time since I have been so Plato supersaturated.  One thing that has struck me is the depth of Plato’s engagement with sophistry–and just how difficult he finds isolating the threat of sophistry to be:  I don’t think I realized before just how formidable and how central a philosophical problem sophistry itself is for Plato.  Part of what makes it so formidable and so central is the remarkable way in which, over and over, sophistry looks more like philosophy than philosophy itself does.  (Put in other terms, it is the sophists who look like the rationalists, Socrates who looks like the irrationalist.)

Sophistry is internal to philosophy; philosophy cannot eliminate (the possibility of) sophistry without eliminating (the possibility of) itself. And so Socrates’s war with the sophists never ends, even if battles sometimes do.

I know this is a leap, but (what the hell) I will make it:  one of my chief complaints about the self-understanding of many analytic philosophers I know is their easy confidence that philosophy as they do it can eliminate (the possibililty of) sophistry through a new acquist of ever more sternly regulated techniques–a technique for clarity, a technique for rigor, a technique for explicitness.  But of course it is just this elevation of and reliance on technique that typifies sophistry.  Now, by that I do not mean that these analytic philosophers I know are sophists.  They aren’t—mostly.  But they are far closer to sophistry than they know.  What is meant to safeguard them from sophistry is what keeps them exposed to it.

The Objective Absorbed Back Into the Subjective

A…Socratic aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought is found in its instrumentalism, its consistently pragmatic character with reference to theory, expression, and practice.  In this connection is it instructive to remember the difference between Socrates and Plato.  The dialectic which in the hands of Socrates was an instrument to sweep away the cobwebs of illusion to make room for the human ideals, therefore a means of self-discipline and incidentally also a discipline of others, this dialectic was transformed by Plato, more or less clearly and consciously, into an end in itself, and the abstractions developed by this dialectic therefore naturally became the supreme realities.  In short, Socrates was an existential thinker, to use Kierkegaard’s terminology, while Plato was a speculative metaphysician.  What Kierkegaard especially admires in Socrates is that he had no objective result, but only a way, that that it is only by following the Socratic way that one can reach the Socratic result…

In this Socratic sense, Kierkegaard’s own thought was instrumental and pragmatic also.  His objective thinking is everywhere absorbed–absorbed back into the subjective, the personality…   –Swenson, “A Danish Socrates”

I’m not entirely sure the actual Plato (as opposed to the textbook Plato) is quite as far from Socrates as Swenson puts him, but I think the contrast a good one–even if the actual men contrasted do not stand in such contrast to one another.

Reflecting on La Bête

My son just finished starring in La Bête here at AU.  He was terrific; the whole cast was great.  –The play revels in language and is a sustained meditation on language.  The two central characters, Valere and Elomire, represent two radically different ways of using and inhabiting language.  Elomire is a kind of Karl Kraus–without the humor:  he is deeply concerned for “moral discourse”, for language properly used.  Valere uses langauge–in a way that is beyond, or at least careless of, usage and abusage.  At the heart of the play is this contrast and the contrast between the two men.

It is easy, I think, to see the play as championing Elomire’s side, but that would be a mistake.  Part of the reason the mistake is easy is that Valere is a reductio (if I may put it this way) on himself.  He shows himself ridiculous in all that he says.  Elomire is no reductio on himself.  Even more, Elomire is championed by a young woman in the play, Dorine.  She is a teenager who has a disturbed relationship with language.  During the play, she refuses to speak except in monosyllabic words rhyming with “do”.  But at one crucial moment, when Elomire is pleading unsuccessfully for understanding from his acting troup, she is the only one who seems to understand.  She marks her understanding with a violation of her own rule.  When Elomire asks, in effect, “Does anyone understand?”, Dorine says, “I do.” (The constative/performative ambiguity in this line is worth reflection.)  –Her willingness to take his side, his relative lack of ridiculousness compared to Valere, these can together make it seem that Elomire is in the right.  But after wondering about that for a while, I realized that the young woman is the reductio of Elomire’s view.  To see how, consider her in relation to Cratylus, the titular character in one of Plato’s dialogues.  The tradition has it that Cratylus was convinced by Heraclitus, but that Cratylus thought Heraclitus had not sufficiently radicalized his own doctrine.  So Cratylus emended “We cannot step into the same river twice” to “We cannot step into the same river once”.  Eventually, his embrace of Heraclitean principles led Cratylus away from words altogether; he spends his last years foregoing speech and simply wiggling a finger (fluxily).  While Elomire is no Heraclitean, he does so raise the stakes in speaking and writing that it can come to seem impossible properly to use language.  And I think Dorine is the victim of his view.  Her desire to speak in a properly moral discourse has robbed her of words.

Valere inhabits a language without rules.  All that matters is what he can press it into doing for him.   He rules language. (And he is largely the sort of clueless despot you would expect.)  Elomire inhabits a language with more rules than Calvin’s Geneva.  Doing anything in it requires a sensitivity and skill that seem to exceed human capacities.  It strikes me that the beast of the title is not so much Valere, although he is referred to in that way by Elomire; no, the beast is language itself, wild and tame, uncontrollable and compelling, infinitely jesting and deadly serious.

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