I always warn my intro students that reading philosophy is not like reading anything else in college. In other classes, you can approach textbooks as repositories as facts and explanations, so we allow them to be practical, but boring. You can approach literature and art as fonts of heightened aesthetic awareness, which means engaging with them on our own terms. For better or worse, people seem to expect philosophy to do both, and give us satisfying, pleasing answers to Big Questions.
A lot of my students end up disappointed by what they get instead: hair-splitting so fine that you need an electron microscope to appreciate the results. The philosopher takes you into a jungle of ideas crisscrossing like thick vines. They make educated guesses about where to strike with the machete, but decline to swing it. And then the philosopher turns to you and smiles serenely, as if to say, “Here we are,” but as far as you can tell, you’re still surrounded by the same green mess. Did we even get anywhere?
In my one good tweet, I said that prose in analytic philosophy is like if you went to a concert and the musicians spent 90% of the time tuning their instruments. I stand by this, both as a joke and as a true observation, and a few weeks into the semester, I believe my intro students would agree. It’s very hard to feel like you’re getting anywhere when you read philosophy, especially when you’ve never read philosophy before.
I think philosophers shoulder some of the blame here for being difficult to read, but I also think — as someone who occasionally writes philosophy — that it’s often difficult because the ideas themselves are difficult. If you want to answer Big Questions, you have to ask them first, and asking a Big Question usually means stretching your brain into some really uncomfortable shapes. As David Lynch says, if you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow waters near the docks, but if you want to catch the big fish, you have to go deeper, because the big fish live in the deeper waters. Same deal applies to ideas. To catch a big idea, you have to go deeper.
There are good resources out there for anyone just starting out with philosophy. My first professor, Eric Margolis, gave his students Jim Pryor’s advice for reading philosophy, and in my opinion, that advice still holds up for me more than a decade later. I’ve passed it on to my students, but while Pryor has some very practical advice, like skimming to get a feel for structure and conclusion, I feel like something more basic is missing.
Sometimes, with a book or article, you just don’t get it. You’ve been on the same sentence for five minutes. You know what every word means, and you can see how all the words, in this order, fit together as a grammatical sentence. But somehow, taken together, it conjures a stupefying mental fog. For me, this is every paragraph of Hegel, and it’s very dispiriting. How do you skim from an impenetrable surface?
Now, I’d hate for everything on this site to draw on Mindfulness Wisdoms™, but I really like how Sharon Salzberg describes mindfully watching your breath. When you meditate, your concentration breaks a lot. I think I manage a few unbroken counts of ten in an entire 20 minutes. Mostly I count maybe four breaths and realize I’ve become distracted by, of all things, Patrick Swayze’s original song for Dirty Dancing, “She’s Like the Wind.”
But it’s not a big deal, and a big part of mindfulness comes from recognizing that and accepting it for what it is. I don’t teach my students mindfulness, but I do try to impart that lesson in class. When you read a paper (which the Good Professor Sheff has carelessly called “pretty easy reading as far as philosophy goes”), you will probably hit snags. That’s fine. Normal, even. Just start over. Try again.
What I don’t want students to do is to set the reading aside because they’re having trouble, and conclude that they just don’t get it and will not get it. I do my best in class to explain what’s going on in any given paper, but I can never be there for the student who says to himself or herself, “I’m not cut out for this sort of thing.” I can’t be there to encourage them and tell them that I didn’t feel like I really understood a paper on my first try until I was a junior, and even then that paper took me several hours in a library carrel to crack. (In case you’re wondering, it was Bertrand Russell’s “On Denoting.” Great Hegel joke in that one.)
I didn’t know it back then, but the secret to sitting in that carrel was that I had nothing else to do but start over whenever my attention started to wane, which was often. This was probably in 2008 or 2009, before I had a smartphone. Who knows what shenanigans I’d have gotten up to if I had Twitter or Facebook in my pocket.
The secret to reading philosophy, even to skimming it, is also the secret to reading other hard things, or to doing hard things generally: accept the obstacles that arise as obstacles, non-judgmentally look into why the trouble is troubling, and start over. And if it keeps giving you trouble, do it all again.
For what it’s worth, this has worked for me. Now, it is true that I am a giant nerd, so what helps me read philosophy will not necessarily work for everyone. But it has worked in reading and elsewhere. I would not have understood some of the essays in Creating the Kingdom of Ends without acknowledging, non-judgmentally, the times when my train of thought seemed to fly off the rails into a canyon. I would never have baked a satisfying sourdough boule without making a few with nearly raw centers; I wouldn’t have had a sourdough starter without some abortive attempts that failed to make a single bubble. I would not be comfortable in the kitchen, period, if I had never massacred a bunch of onions until I could get a consistent dice.
It used to be that, when my students expressed their frustrations with the writing style of a paper, rather than its content, I’d kind of sigh inwardly at how they were missing the point. But not anymore. Any difficulty with a reading is a difficulty, period. It’s good to acknowledge it. That’s important. That’s the first step.
1 thought on “Reading philosophy and the art of starting over”
Brilliant and comforting. Thank you.
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