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pathways (guide)

3 philosophy is an art

From The Glass House Philosopher 6th August 2004:

Last week, I was talking on the phone to one of my Associate students who had got stuck reading a book on Plato. Or, rather, he'd got stuck reading one particular sentence from a book on Plato. I knew exactly how he felt because I had been there. In my first year as an undergraduate student, I tried so hard to understand. Later, I discovered that that had been one of the criticisms levelled against me by my teachers. That I tried too hard to make sense of things which didn't necessarily make any sense. If you fall into that trap, you end up always blaming yourself for your stupidity, failing to notice the occasions when the the fault is not yours, but the writer's. But I learned in time.

If you want proof that philosophy is an art, not a science, go to a philosophy seminar. You don't sit back and let the information flood in. You are puzzled, bemused, infuriated, agonized; you feel the ground slipping beneath your feet; you don't know where you are. At least, that's what happens if the paper is any good.

The most important intellectual attribute of a philosopher is not the ability to follow long chains of argument (that's something you learn, the same way you can learn to improve your memory), but the capacity for judgement: the judgement that sees that a particular line is not worth pursuing; that an argument is unsound even though it's premisses and logic are impeccable; that knows which questions are worth asking; that knows when to wield the analytical knife and when to leave well enough alone. (Pirsig is good on this last point.)

So this is how to read a philosophy book:

Concentrate your attention. Half an hour of concentrated attention is better than a day of merely going through the motions. It is a matter of will power. (Why don't the modern study guides ever tell you this? Doesn't anyone believe in will power any more?) But not only will power. Confidence comes into it too. When you hit the buffers, when you encounter a sentence you just can't make heads or tails of, give it your best shot then just carry on. Grappling with a philosophy text is a percentage game. The end result is what counts. It doesn't matter if you miss a few shots along the way. (The tennis metaphor also has this consequence: know when you are playing the big points.)

Only book worms start at the beginning and work all the way through. Thumb your way backwards and forwards until the pages drop out; fill the margins with pencilled commentary; start at the last chapter and work backwards — anything to break the spell that the writer is attempting to cast on you. Refuse to play along. There are lots of ways you can do this: you can be a detective, sifting through evidence of a crime; a miner prospecting for gold; a lab technician distilling off the good stuff and discarding the sediment...

I may have mentioned once before my theory that with the vast majority of philosophy books, you can pretty much work out what the writer is trying to say — in two hundred, four hundred or a thousand pages — from picking just one page at random and studying it closely. Form your hypothesis, then test it by picking other pages at random. Just think how many books you can get through with that method!

But whatever approach you try, don't let it become a routine. Routine is just a way of making things safe, avoiding the pain. — If you don't have an appetite for pain, why on earth did you choose philosophy?!

Philosophy is an art, but philosophers are not artists. Nietzsche is at his best and worst when he adopts the airs of 'the artiste'. As a piece of creative writing, Zarathustra is ugly, clumsy, self-indulgent, pretentious: the antithesis of art. Yet that book is still a ground-breaking work of philosophy. (Plato's dialogues, on the other hand, are probably the closest philosophy have ever got to being a work of art. Ironic that Plato shared his teacher Socrates' hatred of the art of rhetoric, wanted to ban artists from his 'Republic'.)

(And this, is this philosophy? I don't know. I'm happy to call it rhetoric in a good cause, rhetoric with a didactic purpose.)

Leaving aside artistic ability, the gift of intelligence, brute force mental processing speed, can be a mixed blessing also. There is such a thing as being too intelligent for philosophy (Bertrand Russell is a good example of a thinker hampered by over-reliance on mental brawn). Maybe there's some hope for me, after all...