How to Read Philosophy

In the old days, whenever I would buy an album, I was distrustful if I liked it too much on first listen. The first few times through, I wanted to be confused and intrigued, not tapping my foot and singing along. If listening to it came too easy, I knew it wasn't a keeper. I wanted the album to push me into new emotions, new experiences, to show me different ways of going. Think of The Smiths, The Boredoms, Liz Phair, Animal Collective, Brian Eno: each gives us a different way of going that is odd and beautiful and distinctive and certainly not easy — even Eno's ambient pieces or, rather, especially Eno's ambient pieces. Easy shmeasy: I want my music to be great.

Philosophy foils most readers — and usually right from the get go. I remember the first time I picked up Gilles Deleuze's Difference and Repetition and found a seemingly simple, straightforward sentence: "Repetition is not generality." Huh? Its simplicity, its brevity, made it all the more confounding. Why would I think repetition was generality? Why was he telling me this at all, not to mention beginning his book this way? What the fuck? I immediately put it down. Imagining myself a pretty smart guy, being so confused out of the gate was too much for me (silly me!). It took me years before I picked it back up only to have it thoroughly reorient my entire life.

Now, if Deleuze had begun as Hegel begins his Phenomenology of Spirit, post-preface, I'd have been more at peace: "It is natural to suppose that, before philosophy enters upon its subject proper — namely, the actual knowledge of what truly is — it is necessary to come first to an understanding concerning knowledge, which is looked upon as the instrument by which to take possession of the Absolute, or as the means through which to get a sight of it." That seems like a parody of the beginning of a philosophy book, no? Sure, it's difficult. But don't we assume philosophy is going to be difficult?

This is not to say that Hegel's introductory sentence puts anyone at ease. Yes, it seems like what we imagine philosophy should read like (even if it turns out there are as many philosophy writing styles as there are philosophers or, even more, as there are books of philosophy). But it's still freakin' difficult. One's instinct, in most instances, is to put it down. Why wrestle so much? Shouldn't reading be relaxing or at least engaging? Not understanding is neither, so why bother?

And then there's Nietzsche who plays such subtle, complex rhetorical games with his readers. Beyond Good and Evil greets the reader with, "Suppose truth were a woman — what then?" What do you do with a sentence like that?  Am I supposed to answer what seems to be an insane, perhaps misogynistic, query?  I hope not. Or On the Genealogy of Morals which opens with, "We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge — and with good reason." That damned we! Is he including me? Do I want to be included as a man of knowledge who doesn't, in fact, know? Or do I not want to be part of this we? Oy vey ist mir!

Yes, reading philosophy is not the easiest, most casual thing one can do. And, as the above examples show, there is no formula: each philosopher has his own style, his own set of issues, his own references and figures and odd words, his own jargon (in the best sense of that word — a specialized, outlandish dialect). You can't just buy one decoder ring and fly through Western metaphysics.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that we don't consider how to read these books. We come to them with certain assumptions about books and how to read them. We look for characters to identify with, plots to follow. And, most obviously, we assume we should begin at the beginning.

But, as you can see from the few introductory sentences above, beginning at the beginning of a philosophy book can be a trying experience. So what I learned is that the beginning usually makes more sense later on. The trick, I've discovered, is to read until you are confused and then skip that part until you find something that doesn't confuse you. I want to say look for a foothold but it's not as much a journey as it is an encounter. It's more like meeting a person than it is like following a path. Still, quite practically, scan the book looking for a moment that you understand — a sentence, a paragraph — and then work out from there. 

Another way to look at it is to consider philosophy a sculpture. Consider how you look at any  material sculpture. You walk around it, take it in from different angles. You might crouch or step back. You climb higher to change perspectives; you move in dangerously close, the museum guards making their move (I've been reprimanded, even asked to leave, at museums too many times to count). So it should be with philosophy. Move around in it. Get different vantage points. Fuck what you believe integrity demands. Jump in, poke about, touch the damn thing. You're not gonna break it, I promise.

I mean this all literally. Don't begin at the beginning. Instead, flip through the book looking for something that grabs your eye — a word, phrase, picture. Read from there until it annoys or confuses you, then flip again.

And then sit with it. Let the one thing you understood sink in and then try the book again a few days or weeks or even months later. Who said a book has to read all at once? Philosophy is certainly not written to be read that way. Assume you'll read it over, say, a year and while reading other things. And that then you'll read it again years later.

To me, reading a book of philosophy is like Cézanne painting a pear. Cézanne doesn't begin with the outline and then fill in the rest. No, he dabs here then there, the pear taking shape from the inside out as if it emerging out of the ether. This is how I read a book of philosophy. I read here then there and let it take shape from the inside out at whatever pace it, and I, demand. I don't read Wikipedia first. Nor do I read some third party's intro. Sure, I might later on. But I don't want that outline. I don't want to the book preformed, to already be a pear. I want the book to emerge as if from the ether, right before my eyes.

What is that emerges? A world with its own logic, its own rules, its own knowledge, its own sensibilities. It's like walking into a bar or palace in a foreign country and your job is to figure out how everything works, more or less.

Still, what is it philosophy asks of us? Fundamentally, I believe the reading of philosophy is taken far too seriously. It should be a delight! It should be fun! Of course it will be some work. After all, it's asking you to think differently, to see the world differently — much as Cézanne, or any great painter, makes you see the world differently. An idea or phrase or concept may just strike you as beautiful or resonant or, for that matter, full of shit.

You don't have to agree or disagree. You can do that later, on your own time. While you're reading, whether you agree or not is irrelevant. This is my favorite aspect of Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now. He keeps telling the reader not to argue with him. This is easier said than done. I sure as shit kept finding myself taking point with his points — only to be greeted repeatedly with his request that I not argue.

Why not argue? Well, the better question is why argue? A book doesn't demand that you agree. It generously proffers its world view. I believe a good reader returns the favor and is generous in kind, letting the book do what it wants to do. Don't fight it or try to make it fit into pre-existing schemas — Oh, this is just that same old ordinary language crap! Or, It's just postmodern hogwash! Just let the book offer itself up. Let it frame the problem, ask the questions, proffer the solutions. Academics argue because they feel a need to defend their absurd lives. I've watched esteemed, so-called radical academics rake their peers over the coals publicly for not ascribing to this or that theory. It's embarrassing, not to mention ugly, to watch.

Philosophy, like all great literature, is not the jurisdiction of academia. So try reading a book of philosophy as if it were a comic book or pop song — only one's that's demanding but, in any case, one that is not the purview of experts. Fuck experts. Enjoy what you enjoy — its use of language (or not); its rhythm; its humor, or lack thereof (Heidegger is humorless and hence, for me, unreadable).  Try to get a sense for what the book is up to. Don't read it as an explanation or confirmation. Read it as if it were poetry, science fiction, a work of art, and a potential lover all at once.

Recently, I've been reading Henri Bergson's Time and Free Will to my son at bedtime. He's nine — my son, that is, not Bergson. He doesn't understand very much of it but he seems to enjoy it nonetheless — the rhythm of words and argument, the intermingling of familiar and unfamiliar words. In a way, this is a beautiful way to read philosophy: to let it play over you without fussing, struggling, agreeing or disagreeing. Don't demand that it be easy. Let its complexity furl and then, as with any great art, see if you dig it. 


Jim H. said...

"The world is all that is the case." Now there's a beginning!

No need to argue with Tolle; he doesn't even make internal sense on his own terms. I took a run at him here:


Mr. Ziebarth said...

How great would it be to read a novel this way: cut-up reading.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Jim H: I love the idea of a book of nothing but philosophy first lines.

And thanks for the link on your take on Tolle. I agree with you. Which is one reason I really enjoyed reading The Power of Now — I disagreed with him philosophically, he kept telling me to shit the fuck up, and when I did, I learned something. Agreeing isn't everything; there's an affect to certain ideas that can be powerful and therapeutic — at least for me. To me, Tolle is no thinker, no philosopher. But he's a great rhetor.

M@ Mr. Zierbath: I love that, as you could probably guess. It actually happens automatically as we read multiple books at the same time: our reading is itself a cut up.