on this page

Or send us an email



Application form



Pathways programs

Letters to my students

How-to-do-it guide

Essay archive

Ask a philosopher

Pathways e-journal

Features page

Downloads page

Pathways portal


Pathways to Philosophy
Home



Geoffrey Klempner CV
G Klempner



International Society for Philosophers
ISFP site






Home   Study 1   Study 2   Study 3   Study 4   Study 5

pathways (guide)

4 'good' and 'bad' philosophy

From The Glass House Philosopher 22nd and 25th September 1999:

Why should a piece of philosophy be 'good'? Philosophy is not supposed to be entertaining. It's supposed to make you think. A piece of philosophy should annoy and aggravate you, it should stimulate you to react against it so that you do some philosophy of your own. If you want to read something good, read a good novel.

Yes, I know, 'good' is a slippery word. An 'attributive adjective' is how the grammarians classify it. A bad philosophical encyclopaedia can be a good door stop. Philosophical writing that fails to give satisfaction or pleasure to the discerning reader can still be good raw material for one's own thoughts. But when all is said and done, it's bad. You don't try to write something bad. You try to write something good and fail.

There's bad and bad. When a piece of philosophy is sloppily argued, or when the writer has no philosophical vision and all they're doing is churning out words, your thoughts are mired in the mud. The only solution is a hot bath. But there are other kinds of bad:

I don't care if a piece is badly, clumsily written. When someone stammers, you try all the harder to grasp their meaning.

I don't care if a philosopher attempts to defend a position which common sense and reason says is utterly indefensible. There's nothing more inspiring than a heroic defeat.

I don't care if the structure of the argument is a mess, and all the planks and girders are showing. More footholds for climbing!

Wittgenstein once remarked, 'Philosophy should be hard. The philosopher should not seek comfort or stimulus in this or that.' He wasn't saying that you shouldn't seek out raw material. You can't philosophize in a vacuum. Thoughts spun out like a spider's web with nothing to support them but other thoughts are just as fragile. But raw material can be found anywhere. In interrogating one's 'first reactions', the things one is tempted to say (for example, about the nature of consciousness and self-knowledge, Wittgenstein's favourite topic in his Philosophical Invetigations) In books on any subject. In one's day-to-day life.

That is why I advise all my students to keep a note book. Not for publishing. Just for their own private use. First, though, I have to convince them that their thoughts are worth something. From experience, I know that can be an uphill task.

The other day I asked a Professor of philosophy I knew whether he kept a philosophical note book. 'No, I never have!' He would always be working on a book or an article, something intended for others to see. I ventured the suggestion that the problem with a philosophical notebook was the danger that one would fill it with rubbish or half-baked ideas. He readily agreed.

That's how my note books started. But over time they got better. Not so much through a conscious effort to write well, but simply because one is stimulated to self-criticism. You write knowing that in a day or two you will be looking at the words you have written as if they had been written by someone else. Through practice, you learn to be merciless.

Do your best, I tell my students, but don't worry about it being good.